on 22 January 2006
Number 133 in the OUP’s VSI series is not, as you might imagine, an introduction to cosmology. Rather it examines the history of human measurement of time. This is mainly from a Western European perspective. For anyone who merely wants a Very Short Review, I felt morally compelled to buy it after I realised I was well into the second chapter while browsing through it.
The book has seven chapters, the opening one of which is the day. The day is the most easily recognised astronomically defined period, but Holford-Strevens shows that there are still problems in measuring it. For instance, when does it start? At sunrise? At sunset? At midnight? The need to come to a common measurement is the central them of chapter one, which ends with the adoption of Universal Time by a reluctant France.
Chapters two (Months and Years) and three (Prehistory and history of the modern calendar) follow. The earlier chapter is effectively an introduction to the astronomical basis of what follows, explaining where the concept of month and year come from. The later chapter may touch on prehistory, but I must have blinked and missed it. This is no loss as the firm evidence for prehistoric calendars is slight. The chapter instead draws from the Roman Republican period through the acceptance of the Gregorian calendar, in one form or another, across Europe. This section is rather brief, but it the problem is rectified by chapter four, Easter. Effectively this is a case study of how you work out the time for the major event in the liturgical calendar. Interestingly Holford-Strevens doesn’t just chronicle the development of the mechanics of calendar. He also shows how time-keeping is political. How could protestant countries adopt a Catholic reformation of the calendar?
Chapter five, weeks and seasons, deals with non-astronomically defined periods of time, though an ancient Babylonian may disagree. Essentially unlike a day, month or year, there is no compelling reason to have a seven week calendar, and many good reasons not to. This chapter shows the important of the week in the Jewish faith and how there has been a fight to ensure the week remains even in recent times. It also mentions the aftermath of the French Revolution and the attempt to decimalise time, with no lasting success.
The book is hugely dominated by the classical tradition. Only in chapter six is there much discussion of other cultures such as the Chinese or the Mesoamericans. This is the weakest chapter of the book. It’s not that what is written is wrong, but summarising the magnificently intricate calendrical systems of Mesoamerica (and which one, the Mayan? the Aztec?) in just two small pages of text is so slight that you can’t help but wonder if the space could have been better used embellishing the core text, which is rather good.
The book ends with the naming of years and, later, eras. Again the chapter is more superficial than I would have liked. There is a lot you can say about this even from a purely classical perspective. There is the real problem of lack of space, but dropping chapter six could have made more space for Holford-Strevens to do what he does well. However, it’s the nature of these books that aspects will always have to be sacrificed. It certainly not as good on the classical period as Robert Hannah’s recent book on Greek and Roman Calendars, but this isn’t a fair criticism considering the size of the book. By and large what it does, it does extremely well. There were no points where I yelled at the book for making a superficial error, as I have with some calendrical books I’ve read.
It’s a book which shows how brave the OUP is willing to be with the series. I can imagine a market for the VSI Classics, Shakespeare or Marx, but did the board of the OUP meet and tell each other that what they really needed was an accessible introduction to horology? It’s also well illustrated, which in my view is an excellent thing. It helps to be able to see what a diagonal calendar is, or what the Coligny calendar looks like.
If you’re looking for an affordable book to bring you over the ‘free delivery’ size for an order, then it’s well worth considering.
on 8 January 2008
The first interest of the book is that it collects the essential data about how time is measured by human beings. Even if the author shows the main two methods : lunar and solar calendars, and the hybrid third solution, he shows that measuring time was never a purely temporal objective. It did not try to establish some absolutely material count of time or dating, because that was impossible, because the lunar cycle or the solar cycle are not absolutely regular, just the same as the earth's cycle. The author shows that dating was always dominated, determined by some necessities in society: the crops, the various rites and rituals, hence religion and many others, including of course political and ideological contingencies. This leads us to the obvious conclusion that time is not a natural category or concept. It is human. Time is not invented by man in its flowing always changing phenomena connected to the universal, be they cyclical like days, lunar months, solar months, seasons, years, or be they accidental like a natural catastrophe for one example. But time is nothing but a human invention in the seriating it implies that enables human beings to measure their activities and their history. History only concerns human beings, not plants nor animals. And if we can write the history of a plant or even a rock, it is because we project our own vision of time into the plant and the rock. History is also a human invention within the desire of and the need for human beings to remember, understand, plan and foresee its various activities on various scales. The best example is the week. The old (Roman and Babylonian) eight day system, then the 7 day system after the seven planets of the solar system including Venus (known by some as the morning star, the "star" behind Horus for an Egyptian example) and the moon ( the satellite of the earth). But the attempts at having other weeks are funny and yet very clear. The French Revolution and its ten day decades got rid of Sunday as one rest day out of seven to replace it by one day of rest every ten days. If you add to that the banning of religious festivities, particularly the Nativity week, the Passion week and the Assumption week, you have a real regressive social policy there. On the other hand the replacing in 1929 of the seven day week by a five day week by Stalin with one day of rest every five days (instead of one every seven days), but that day of rest was rotated among workers divided in five fifths according to their resting day is progressive on the amount of rest and regressive on the level of family life and even social life. This reform was quickly modified to a set and common day of rest for everyone but this time once every six days in 1931, to be finally restored on the basis of a seven day week in 1941. We can see in such schemes anti-religious intentions but also economic intentions to make people work more (for the French Revolution) or less (for the Soviet Union's first and even second reform). This book thus shows marvelously how man-made all the time measuring units are, be they seconds, minutes, hours, days even, weeks, months, seasons and years, even if man tried to build them on the observation of the moon and the sun, but in order to satisfy man's needs, desires, ideological intentions, economic necessities, etc. Time and history are man-made scales though history is basically the result of nothing else but the dynamics and contradictions of naturally produced structures then influenced and used by man and human groups.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines
on 30 July 2012
This is a very good book, but the Kindle edition is greatly impaired by the utter illegibility of the pictures/illustrations. It is also impaired by two Kindle idiosyncracies which I hope will eventually be fixed in the Kindle software: interpolating blank screens for no apparent reason; and treating headings in whatever random way the Kindle feels like, which will for example change according to whether one navigates to the page or just turns a page to get to it. This Kindle edition has me cursing the use of DRM, which leaves me no legitimate way of extracting the images and rendering them sensibly instead of as Kindle renders them because a recent act of parliament has rendered all ways of doing that unlawful.
I can't agree with another reviewer who, judging by his review, would have felt that one of G.J Whitrow's books would have been a better fit for the title. My reading of the title and the sales-blurb told me clearly what to expect, so I did not expect a tome on natural philosophy.
Of course, the book doesn not cover all the bases - it is after all "a very short introduction" so it could hardly be expected to.
on 24 June 2007
This book is packed with details of how humans measure time. However, the amount of detail, and the way it is presented can be overwhelming.
What I wanted from this book was an understanding of how different cultures measure time today, backed up by historical information. What I got was an in-depth study of the historical basis for measuring time, but confusion over how things stand today. Take the chapter on Easter. Huge amount of detail over the history of how it was calculated, but I'm none the wiser about how it's calculated today.
I would have preferred a layout where the start of each chapter briefly described how things are today, and then went into more detail. The approach the author has taken leads to a lack of clarity, and a book that is a chore to read.