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Count & Rule!
by Nathan Greenfield

Professor Alfred Crosby is much too humble when he writes in his introduction that this book is about the preconditions for the "amazing success of European imperialism." For, alongside his argument that Europeans' advantage lay "not in their science and technology, but in their utilization of habits of thought that would in time enable them" to use science and technology to conquer most of the globe, runs another (albeit less clearly stated) argument about what this European world-view has produced. The mentalité that led to better cannons, real maps, polyphonic music, and double-entry bookkeeping also led to our tradition of liberty. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, is emblematic: after devising the chapter and verse system that made the Vulgate Bible accessible to common readers, he sided with the barons at Runnymede and helped devise the constitutional balance of Magna Carta.
Before pantometry, that is, before late mediaeval Europeans began measuring their world, what Crosby calls the Venerable Model held sway. Rooted in Plato's view that the soul would became "confused and dizzy" when drawn toward the "realm of the variable", the Venerable Model had little to do with organized measurement. Plato's claim that ideal state should have 5,040 citizens had nothing to do with practical politics and everything to do with his belief that 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = something mystically important.
The world does look strange when viewed through the Venerable Model's optics, though Crosby cautions against the sin of presentism, by writing that it "provided structures and processes that a person could live with emotionally" and by eulogizing it as a "universe that can love and suffer." When numbers counted, as when Eusebius figured out when Creation occurred, they were large but not incomprehensible; 5,198 years before the Incarnation is much more imaginable than what echoes of the Big Bang suggest. Likewise distance. Roger Bacon figured out that walking to the moon would take a bit under fifteen years. Years too were something less than fixed. St. Thomas Aquinas, who was the lesser of no-one in rigour of thought, variously recorded his birth year as 1224, 1225, 1226, and 1227.
The Venerable Model was nothing if not ingenious. It accounted for the changes in daylight during the year and the constant of twenty-four hours through a "system of unequal, accordion-pleated hours that puffed up and deflated" as needed. Noon, which started out as the canonical hour "none", rung out at 15:00, migrated to its present place because during fasts-and there were plenty-monks couldn't eat until after-none. Both the maps and the literature of the period were "impressionistic", but their meaning was also straightforward. The maps weren't drawn to scale and bunched geographic points together in less than useful ways. In one, the Don River, the Black Sea, the Aegean, Jerusalem, and the Nile all end up in the "North". But they were meaningful. The Ebstorf map of the thirteenth century depicts the Crucified Christ, with His head in the Far East and a wounded foot off the shore of Portugal. This map "was for sinners, not navigators" trying to find their way home. When the villagers heard the hero of the Song of Roland say, "I will strike a thousand blows and follow them with seven hundred more," they didn't hold him to the Marquis of Queensberry's rules; "they were as poetic about numbers as they were about words."
Crosby's claim that our world-view, the quantitative world-view, where measure is everything, began to emerge shortly after the Black Death, would have been dismissed two generations ago. Today, however, the sobriquet "Dark Ages" has been relegated if not to the dustbin of history, at least to cartoons. Last year brought Colin Platt's King Death: The Black Death & Its Aftermath in Late-Medieval England, which told of an extremely vibrant post-plague society in which wages rose and democratic legal forms and concepts took shape. Less than fifty years after the plague, Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Hereford, wrote, "From the beginning nature created all men free and of free condition." John Ralston Saul recently observed that the century following the Black Death saw the rise of both portraiture and juries. Adjusted for differences in the speed of communication, today's mantra that "knowledge is doubling every fourteen months" is truer of the times Crosby focuses on than it has been of the last 420 days. Take the clock. In 1270 there weren't any. By 1320, they were so widespread that Dante borrowed their spinning gears "as a metaphor for souls in bliss."
Crosby adds to Lewis Mumford's claim that clocks were more important in altering the relationship between citizens and their cities, and between individuals and the cosmos, than were all the texts of the Renaissance. The first relationship was altered because citizens of every city that could afford to agreed to tax themselves "severely in order to have at least one clock." The second because it taught men and women that "invisible, inaudible, seamless time was composed of quanta."
Crosby rehabilitates the Schoolmen of the period, noting that they produced "search engines", such as alphabetized handbooks and "analytical tables of contents" that gave researchers unprecedented access to information. These were more than an aid to finding a given item in a book, they allowed "the following of [complex] lines of argument," across and between texts, exactly what today's technohipsters claim is the World Wide Web's contribution to systems organization.
This extraordinary century saw two other innovations in letters that led to a re-visioning of the world. The first was word separation and punctuation, which helped democratize reading by making it easier. The second was the triumph of silent reading, which, as Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading shows, has recently become a hot topic. Crosby agrees with Manguel and, for that matter, with Walter Ong S.J., that silent reading opened up an entirely new "psychological interior". But what interests Crosby is that it also taught people to visualize the world in new, quantifiable ways.
Crosby explains how this new world-view worked by examining how music, painting, and, of all things, bookkeeping developed in the century that followed the Black Death. As evidenced by Pope John XXII's Bull Docta sanctorum patrum (1322), which characterizes polyphonic music in only slightly less derogatory phrases than today's Christian Right uses for Marilyn Manson, the difference between Gregorian chants and polyphonic music was more than a late mediaeval generation gap. One was "discreet, seemly, simple, masculine, and of good morals," wrote St. Thomas. "Devotion, the true end of worship, is little thought of" when listening, the Pope declared, to what was "intoxicating to the ear, not soothing it."
Gregorian chants were more than just the sung version of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The words that echoed through the Middle Ages were monophonic. Time and tone accorded with the Latin words that all had committed to memory. Phrases stretched back, so to speak, centuries.
Polyphonic music arose in the streets and was, according to Crosby, linked to a different mentalité, the one which measured both money and time in new ways. Polyphonic music-in which notes are divided into half and quarter tones, and tempo into units of differing duration-could not have existed, Crosby writes, had there not been a clock "ticking in the composer's mind, the same clock that was ticking in the performers' and listeners'." As did the town clock's hours, minutes, and seconds, the score (which assumed its modern form before 1377, Crosby shows) condensed time and tone, allowing musicians to use their eyes instead of their ears to comprehend at once the entirety of music, of notes and grace notes, sharps and flats. Operators of Lotus Spreadsheets will be surprised to discover not only that Crosby argues that the sine qua non of European imperialism was double-entry bookkeeping but that it's seven hundred years old. Francesco di Marco Datini, a fourteenth-century merchant of Prato, was able to keep track of an order of wool placed in November 1394 that, before being sold as cloth three-and-a-half years later, passed through at least three cities and three different industrial processes. The blizzard of currencies he and others had to deal in-ducats, florins, livres, pounds-and the fluctuation in their value led to the development of money of account, "an idealized scale consisting of what after a while was arbitrarily fixed ratios of values of prestigious coins. The system was so abstract [i.e., accurate] that it continued to function even after some of the coins fell out of circulation." All of this and more, including records of debts and loans, bills of exchange and even "payment [that] might precede delivery or even production" was made possible by bookkeeping.
Bookkeepers, who, unlike Charles Dickens, Crosby imagines as "millions" of "yeasty and industrious inclination [who] wrote entries in their books," re-formed the European mind. In the Middle Ages numerical precision was rare; Gregory of Tours mistakenly added on 271 years in his work on the Creation and no-one noticed. By the 1400s, bookkeeping made precision commonplace; the practice of reconciling accounts at regular intervals still lay in the future, but reconciled they had to be. And when they were reconciled, indeed, when entries were made, the world men lived in was transformed into one where profit, loss, expansion, contraction, movement, time, interest, debt, and value itself became not only measurable but recordable and reconcilable in the marketplace (instead of Heaven).
What Crosby calls the New Model made the West more successful in imperialism than the Ottomans or the Chinese. It gave Europeans the intellectual tools to make better cannons. More important still, it gave Europeans the ability to organize large collections of people over immense distances. The New Model's ability to do this is evidenced as much by the papal decree of 1493 which divided the New World-hundreds of millions of yet unseen hectares-between Spain and Portugal as it is by the thousand of reports sent back to England by functionaries in the joint-stock companies that once ruled South Asia and most of Northern North America. If the purpose of The Measure of Reality is to show that the New Model made European imperialism both possible and successful, what could it have to say about democratic liberty beside the odd anecdote about an archbishop? The reason why the Venerable Model of Europe collapsed, while the equivalent world-views in the great Muslim, Indian, and Chinese civilizations did not, has nothing to do with European acumen or racial claptrap. Indeed, at the start of the period Crosby examines all these civilizations were ahead of Europe.
Crosby's book shows it has everything to do with the fact that the "West lacked firmness of political and religious and, speaking in the broadest generality, cultural authority." The constant compromises that were fashioned between the Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian branches of our heritage led, however haltingly, to an openness of mind not found in lands which revered rulers as gods. To the dismay of ambassadors from the Levant, the "warren of jurisdictions" that was Europe (the baronies, kingdoms, bishoprics) amounted to something like a physical constitution of checks and balances. "No authority, not even the vicar of Christ on earth, had effective political, religious or intellectual sway" over anything but a small area.
True, there were famous examples of witch and book burnings, not to mention pogroms. But again and again one group of Europeans opened their castles and cities to those another group of Europeans wanted burned; just ask William of Ockham, who was taken in by the Holy Roman Emperor after having been excommunicated by Pope John XXII.
Some people will object to Crosby's leitmotif by invoking Max Horkheimer's and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of the Enlightenment, by arguing that Western logocentrism is the destroyer of natural liberty. Crosby is ready against this line of attack, pointing out that, as the West "fizzed and buck[ed], as it burned witches and Anabaptists," the New Model spread and gave men like Montaigne a "new way to examine reality and an armature toward which to organize perception of that reality." It allowed Montaigne to say, contra Torquemada, "it is to place a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them." Unintended no doubt, but the result of pantometry is that the measure of man is that all men and women are equal.

Nathan Greenfield teaches English literature at Algonquin College in Ottawa.


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