Dec 22, 2021

Merry Christmas 2021

 Yin Liu

London, British Library MS Harley 2332, fol. 20v.

It's time to restart what used to be an annual tradition on this blog: the Christmas post. This year, let's look at a page from an illustrated almanac. This was a small book -- I haven't included the ruler in the cropped image, but the book would easily fit in one hand -- that included a detailed calendar, showing feast days of the Church, the Zodiac months, etc. The purpose was timekeeping (computus) and prognostication: the calendar would help you not only to figure out what day it was, but also what agricultural activities you should be engaged in, and possibly when it would be best to undergo medical procedures like bleeding. 

Near the end of the almanac is this page, which presents a table of pictures signifying important events in history -- well, at least events that the maker of this book thought should be important. The numbers are Hindu-Arabic numerals, although their medieval shapes might seem odd to modern readers. According to the helpful British Library catalogue entry on this manuscript, the pictures represent the following events (reading from top to bottom, left to right):

  • 6,804: The creation of the world, here pictured with a traditional medieval T-O map, visualising the earth as round, with east at the top, and the known world divided into the continents of Asia (the big one at the top), Europe (bottom left), and Africa (bottom right). The number 6,804 above the picture is the number of years since Creation.
  • 932: Adam, holding a spade; the number is his age at death.
  • 705: Eve, holding a distaff; the number is her age at death. (I don't know where these numbers for the ages of Adam and Eve at death come from.) The idea that 'Adam dalf and Eve span' (Adam laboured by digging in the ground and Eve laboured by spinning) was proverbial in late medieval England.
  • 4,604: The number of years that Hell-mouth has been open. I don't know where this number comes from either. 
  • 4.308: The number of years since the Flood; the picture is of Noah's ark, depicted as a medieval sailing vessel.
  • 1,412: The number of years since the Nativity of Christ. This is our Christmas picture; you can see a couple of farm animals looking over the cradle of the infant Jesus. Incidentally, this number also gives us the date of the manuscript: AD 1412.
  • 804: The number of years since Augustine of Canterbury; the picture shows Augustine holding what looks like a fuzzy stick but is presumably a crozier. The maker of this almanac gets the math a little bit wrong here; Augustine arrived in England in 597, so this number should be 815.
  • 233: The number of years since the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (which took place in 1170, so the math is wrong again), represented by three swords impaling a mitre. Ouch.
  • 84: The number of years since the assassination of Edward II (in 1327). The image appears to suggest that Edward had his throat cut with a sword, which may also be an 'ouch' moment but considerably less so than the more lurid (but unsubstantiated) rumours about his death in some of the later chronicles.
  • 63: The number of years since the 1349 outbreak of the Great Mortality (the Black Death) in England; the rather poignant image is of a body in a funeral shroud.
  • 13: The number of years since Henry IV came to the throne in 1399.
  • 10: The number of years since the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

So what are we to make of this strange little table? For one thing, that little cartoonish image showing the Nativity scene represents the event by which the timekeeping system now used around the world divides all of human history into before and after the birth of Christ: BC and AD in the traditional style, BCE and CE if you prefer. But in our manuscript, that event is levelled to merely one of the other memorable events by which the calendar marks time: natural disasters, the deaths of kings, pandemics. This should not surprise us; late medieval England used at least two different systems to calculate the year in dates (the calendar year and the regnal year), and other more obscure timekeeping schemes also existed. 

The other observation that probably leaps out at us is that the compiler of the table places just as much importance on English history as on 'universal' history. The Battle of Shrewsbury is as significant, in this scheme, as the creation of the world. Again, this is not surprising; medieval English annals and chronicles from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle onwards started, traditionally, with biblical history and then got much more detailed in their accounts of English, and even local, history. We can regard this (positively) as a way to give the historian or reader a place in the grand scheme of things, to show how we fit into the narrative of human history crafted by God; or we can regard it (negatively) as evidence of the self-centredness of people in general and medieval historians in particular.

Or, perhaps, we can see both views as co-existing in tension or paradox. Just as a medieval almanac like this one invites its users to connect the affairs of earth to the motions of the heavens, medieval views of time made the universal personal. The crystal spheres of heaven turn, the mighty sun is in the house of Capricorn, and it's time to turn the family pig into bacon. At the end of another Covid year, we can scrutinise graphs and maps of global data, or grieve over our own losses and the disruptions in our own lives; to neglect either the global or the personal is to lose a true perspective. Perhaps one reason the Incarnation took such a powerful hold of the medieval imagination, as of Christian thought in other eras, is that it tells a story of a cosmic God becoming local

At the turn of our own calendar year, it's customary for many people to ponder the significant events of the past twelve months. For time becomes history for us when we mark it not by mere numbers but by significant events. As for which events are important enough to make it onto our charts . . . well, that's up to us to choose. Merry Christmas from 15th-century England.

Credits and further reading

Thank you to Tristan Taylor for giving me the tip-off about this manuscript.

Here's the British Library catalogue entry that will also give you access to the whole digitised manuscript: BL MS Harley 2332.

I've recently finished Seb Falk's fine book The Light Ages, about astronomy and timekeeping in medieval England: highly recommended. 

A series of blog posts from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, takes you through the Labours of the Months.

For the nuts and bolts of medieval dating (that is, knowing what year it is, not who to ask out for dinner), the go-to book is C. R. Cheney and Michael Jones, A Handbook of Dates.

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