The initial countdown

Screenshot 2020-03-09 at 8.02.23.png
A medieval calendar page for March, 9th century (Vatican, BAV, Vat.lat.645)

Imagine the excitement of a countdown, mixed with impatience but also dread. 3,2,1-lift-off, 3,2,1-Happy New Year, ready or not. Often less ready than not.

Counting backwards is fun. It’s a way to welcome the unknown, giving the illusion of being prepared, on the marks.

The modern European calendar started with a countdown. The Romans counted the days of the month backwards. It worked like this: the 1st of each month was the Kalends of the month, a fixed point in time. The day after was the beginning of a series of countdowns: the first countdown towards the Nones, which fell on 5th or 7th day of the month, depending on the month. Then another countdown ensued, culminating on the Ides of the month, falling on the 13th or the 15th of the month, depending on the month. So 4th, 3rd, 2nd before the Nones, then the Nones, then the 8th, 7th, 6th, etc before the Ides, then the Ides.

The final countdown was that from the Ides to the Kalends of the next month: the 17th Kalends of April (16 March), counting backwards to the Kalends of April (1 April), firing another countdown.

As maths got more complex, social maths became less complicated – we dropped the Roman calendar countdown as well as the pre-decimal currency, which required every coin-handler to be a shrewd mathematician.

Countdowns stayed with us in other ways. Personally, I think countdowns are remarkably human: to go back is to go against nature, which always moves inescapably on. Countdowns are an act of defiance, a way of saying: let time pass, but let it pass according to my will.

 

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