Time, chronicles and Arabic numerals

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The opening text of Roger of Crowland’s chronicle in London, Arundel MS 10, where he discusses how time had been and ought to be measured.

As I keep working on my book, I thought I’d share one of the most exciting ways in which a medieval chronicler thought about time and chronology. The year is 1212 or maybe 1214, it’s not clear. The author of the chronicle I edited for my doctoral project, and whose identity has largely been accepted as that of a monk from Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire England, (and whose name may very well have been Roger, a well-read chap sensitive to the challenges of time-reckoning), sets out, in good medieval fashion, to give an account of the history of mankind, starting as far back in time as possible. His project was not unlike the totalising books of our time, trying to make sense, in one go, of everything that ever happened, from the beginning to the present day. In the Middle Ages, the easiest way to do this was by means of a universal chronicle, listing, year by year, the deeds of the past, progressing thus up to the present age.

Roger was a bit obsessed with time, which was a good thing, since this was one of the ways which has allowed me to lift him up from the anonymity he had buried himself in. Like most authors of such works, Roger didn’t write his name in the text. If a good publishing record allows a modern historian to get a book out, medieval monk historians could count on the expectation of modesty to get the message a cross. And by not giving his name, Roger was being modest.

Before he gets the ball, or better yet, the annals running, Roger pauses to think about chronology. I mean, it’s only fair, if you’re getting ready to cover over 2,000 years of Christian history, you want to make sure the year numbers are right. So he gives a remarkable exposé of the opposing theories about the age of the universe, the types of time-reckoning (when day should each year begin), and how Easter, which is a moveable feast, ought to be calculated. To be fair, Roger comes a bit late to the stage. In the West, the issue of time-reckoning had more or less been settled, but he knows that a good historian needs to consider the framework as well as the content. So he acknowledges the opinions of his predecessors and makes a decision to be as intellectually inclusive as a chronicler can be. For each year starting at the birth of Christ and ending in the 13th century when he’s actually writing the book, he lists the events according to two main systems. One of them is that which we still use today: the anno domini (AD) or, more recently, the common era (CE). The other, which had puzzled historians, but never quite caught on, was a revision of the AD system, based on a monk’s calculations that Jesus’ birth occurred 22 years later than previously thought. Roger is ambivalent about these two systems, although he gives them both each time– and for 1220 years, that’s no small business’ , he explains that the AD system is the true one, based on the Gospel, while the other one, based on later speculation, is false. And then he does something even more extraordinary. He decides to write the ‘true’ years with Latin numerals, while the ‘false’ numbers would be given in Arabic numbers, which by the 13th century had started to be used in European scientific works. Roger stands alone in the history of Western historiography for his use of a dual numeral style which correlates Latin and Arabic numerals, each corresponding to a different chronological system.

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