Clocks, Calendars, and Quantification

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Clocks, Calendars, and Quantification


Measurement of the Day. Time plays a central role in the social organization of all cultures despite the fact that various cultures conceive of time differently. During the Renaissance and Reformation, cultural perceptions of time changed dramatically for urbanites but remained remarkably constant for the bulk of the population that lived out-side of cities and large towns. The traditional peasant view of time was based on cyclical rhythms of nature such as spring, summer, fall, and winter, or dawn, noon, and sunset. Precise measurement of the hours in a day was neither available nor useful for the rural and peasant populations. Urbanites, on the other hand, came to understand and then live under a mechanical notion of time during the Renaissance and Reformation. Large urban clocks disciplined the passage of time and served as a constant reminder that it was also the passage of opportunities to acquire wealth. An urban preoccupation with precise measurement of the day’s hours is evidence of a materialization of this social construction of time that eventually led to new moral issues such as punctuality and tardiness.

Henry de Vick. The English word clock is derived from the French word cloche and the German glocke, all words for bell. The bell regulated urban life long before Henry de Vick designed the first mechanical clock with an hour hand in 1360. De Vick’s clock was built for King Charles V of France and was situated in his royal palace in Paris. Dante mentioned clocks in his writings, which suggests that large mechanical clocks were widespread in Italy by the early fourteenth century. Mechanical clocks were first located on cathedrals and later on city halls. Huge urban clocks appeared in Germany in the 1330s, England by the 1370s, and France by the 1380s. These clocks measured time in equal hours regardless of the season, whereas rural measurements of time fluctuated with longer mornings in June and shorter mornings in December. Urban clocks were also complicated machines that required regular maintenance by skilled mechanics. The town clock was a complicated machine that constantly reminded citizens of uniform time. Clocks brought a new regularity to urban life, and by the end of the sixteenth century, people began to carry pocket

watches. These developments in timekeeping were both a product of and a contributor to a new mind-set that viewed the world in visual and quantitative terms.

Gregorian Calendar. Urban clocks spread quickly once Europeans learned how to build them, but Europeans were slow to develop an accurate calendar despite the fact that they knew how to repair the ten-day discrepancy between solar reality and the Julian calendar. (The Julian calendar was introduced in Rome in 46 B.C.E., establishing the twelve-month year of 365 days, with each fourth year having 366 days and the months each having 31 or 30 days except for February, which has 28 days in regular years or 29 days in leap years.) Roger Bacon, a Franciscan friar in England during the thirteenth century, was the first to challenge the Church on the measurement of time. Bacon appealed to Pope Clement IV to correct an error in the calendar of roughly one day every 125 years. Clement died in 1268, and the next Pope, Gregory X, chose to ignore Bacon. Three centuries later, Pope Gregory XIII corrected the calendar by simply removing ten days and instituting leap years and a leap-century rule (the leap-century rule cancels leap years in three out of four new century years). The modern Gregorian calendar went into effect at the end of Thursday, 4 October 1582, and the beginning of Friday, 15 October 1582, when the calendar skipped ten days.

Adherence to the System. Had the Pope changed the calendar in Bacon’s day, most of Europe would have probably accepted the change because thirteenth-century Europe was predominantly Roman Catholic. However, in 1582 Europe was a jigsaw puzzle of religious groups, most of whom were at odds with the papacy. Italy, Spain, and Portugal embraced the October 1582 changes, but France, Belgium, and Catholic states in the Netherlands waited until the end of the year. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire lacked the power to proclaim such a drastic change, so Catholic German states made the changes at their own discretion over the next two years. Protestants in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century. The Eastern Orthodox Church still retains the Julian calendar for calculating Easter (with the exception of the Orthodox Church of Fin-land, which is fully Gregorian).

Need for Reform. Calls for calendar reform increased between Bacon’s time and that of Pope Gregory XIII for several reasons. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 forced intellectuals, including many mathematicians and astronomers, to flee to the West. Economic prosperity increased markets and created a growing number of literate urbanites with a quantitative mind-set. The printing press made calendars available for a large market that previously would not have been exposed to them. Advances in astronomy led to precise calculations of the flaws in the Julian calendar, and the efforts of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to thwart the Protestant Reformation often included decrees involving the reissuing of mass books and breviaries that were related to the calendar. The 1582 Papal Bull that proclaimed the new calendar opened with claims of authority derived from Trent, rather than science, and thereby made it more difficult for Protestants to accept the change.

New Mind-Set. European quantification of time, both with clocks and calendar reform, was part of a broad movement toward quantitative habits of thought that began a century before the Renaissance. Literacy, maintaining account books with double-entry bookkeeping, advances in the way cartographers mapped known bodies of water and newly contacted lands, astronomers’ observations and constructions of mathematical models of motion, perspective in Renaissance art, and the mass production of books are examples of how Europeans evolved new visual and quantitative ways of perceiving time, space, and the physical environment. This new mind-set involved the ability to reduce things to something one can visualize and then measure. This visual and quantitative way of modeling thought offered a new way to examine, reason about, and even manipulate reality. The ability to bring mathematical theory and practical measurement together created habits of thought that enabled Europeans to advance swiftly in science and technology.


Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Alfred Crosby, The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

David Ewing Duncan, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (New York: Avon, 1998).