History and timelines

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The chronicle in genealogical form is one of the genres which emerged directly out of the medieval conception of historical time. All known history fits on one or several timelines running together towards an end point. Here, the history of the Old Testament around the time of King David illustrated as a genealogical tree in a 13th-century roll (British Library, Cotton Roll XIV 12)

One thing which distinguishes medieval from ancient history-writing is the timeline. From Herodotus to the historians of the Roman Empire, time was a stream flowing in a circle. It’s not that ancient historians didn’t understand the passage of time – they had a very good idea of what time does to matter and human consciousness –, but that the long line stretching both deep into the past and far into the future was a rather foreign notion to them. Ancient Greek and Roman narratives are saturated with a thirst for roundedness, for cyclicity. Change was real for them, but historical change, especially long-term change, fell outside the scope of history. As Cicero had put it, history was the magistra vitae, the teacher of life, and its lessons were delivered by way of examples (exempla) drawn from the lives of men and women who had lived in the recent or distant past, but whom historical reflexion treated as inhabiting the same historical plane. Instead of seeing them as dots on a chronological line, ancient historiography imagined them inhabiting the same circle of useful inspiration.

Medieval historians, on the other hand, were more sensitive to questions of chronology. Modern scholars agree, though our mainstream culture is slow to acknowledge it, that one of the chief achievements of the medieval period is what the French historian Bernard Guenée has referred to as ‘the medieval conquest of time’. I’ve had the opportunity to riff on this topic several times before, but what I wish to say now is that the conquest of time couldn’t have been possible without the discovery of the timeline.

The understanding of historical time as a series of events stretching in both directions from the present moment emerges in Europe as a by-product of Christianity. Under the double influence of the illo tempore of the historically-rich Old Testament and the eschaton of the apocalyptically-charged New Testament forged a new understanding of history and of time, in which the circle of the classical world was straightened into the line of the Christian era, running from the creation of the world in Genesis to the last days of the book of Revelation. The result was a temporal self-awareness, in which the late-antique and medieval Christian understood herself as a point on that line. A ‘topography’ of the timeline followed in medieval intellectual circles, with the emergence of the ‘five ages of Man’ formula, millennialisms of all kind and an anxiety about time which the man and woman of the ancient world would have found incomprehensible.

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