To start somewhere

The short annals of the Abbey of Fleury: the annals, describing important events each year, are added in the margin of chronological ‘cycles’, one of the basic instruments for keeping time across generations, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 306 (11th century)

Where does it all start? What’s the origin of this or that? Everyone loves beginnings.

The writing of history needs time, and time needs timekeeping. The reckoning of time needs a beginning, a starting point to kick off the universal timer.

The Hebrews counted the years since the creation of the world. The Ancient Greeks from the first Olympiad. The Romans reckoned time since the foundation of Rome. The Islamic calendar starts with Hegira.

In the Christian medieval west, the issue of beginnings became essential for time keeping and history writing. Chronological theories multiplied from the 6th to the 11th centuries, as scholars, scientists and theologians sought the most agreeable time framework within which astronomical observation, Scripture exegesis and philosophical reflection would coexist.

The beginning of the world, the beginning of the present era and the beginning of the year remained under debate for centuries, as writers and regions subscribed to one calendar theory at the expense of another.

In our time, the year starts on the 1st of January, but it used to start at Christmas, at the Annunciation or even at Easter, which is, of course, a moveable feast (and not in Hemingway’s sense). In the 13th century, some radical historians would even subscribe to two systems of counting the years simultaneously in the hope of convincing reluctant traditionalists to adopt new ideas. It didn’t work out.

The fascination with beginnings is as high today as it ever was – and as it will ever be. New beginnings are always heralded each new year – new lives, fresh starts, clean slates being wiped each new year with the swab of new resolutions and renewed commitments.

Make a new start, kick off a new beginning.


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