The Past Is A Gift: How The Medieval Calendar Still Shapes Our Lives

 
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Last week I had a conference call with four people in three different time zones. An app set up the call, calculated the correct time for each participant, added the appointment to each of our calendars, and then periodically sent us texts and emails so that we would not forget.

Six hundred years ago, the scheduling computer of the age was a large device made up of several intersecting wooden disks etched with marks supplying information on the hours, days and months of the year. Hanging in monasteries throughout Europe, these precision instruments were attended to daily by the monks of the cloister, providing necessary information on when to gather for prayer and what days to celebrate important feasts.

Gazing at the San Zeno Astrolabe in "Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time," a current exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, I imagined the wonder of a medieval monk beholding the phone in my hand, not so much for its ability to connect people at a distance, but for its calendar, the app most of us take for granted.

 
 The San Zeno Astrolabe

The San Zeno Astrolabe

 

As an introduction to the exhibit, Roger Wieck, its curator, remarked to me that, "Human beings only sense time in its passing. We know the sun rises and sets. We can feel annual cycles in terms of the seasons. And if you are clever enough, you can see that there is also a sky system that repeats itself annually. But timekeeping is a human concept."

That very human concept is what gave us calendars, some of the most remarkable documents of human invention—in the form of Babylonian cuneiform tablets, Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into stone, Muslim scrolls marking the lunar year, and Mayan stelae that recorded the 24 hour rotation of the earth, the lunar cycle and the solar year. But of all the historical ways of organizing our lives, it is the medieval calendar that still strongly influences the way we relate to time today.

"Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time" poses three questions: How did people tell time in the Middle Ages, how did they conceive of their past, and how did they imagine their future?

The rhythms of the medieval monastic world turned on elaborately calligraphed perpetual calendars inscribing the months of the year, days of the month, the celestial zodiac, and the hierarchical importance of the many religious feasts that marked the life of the church. While every region (almost every town, in fact) had its feasts and celebrated saints, the robustness and universality of the medieval calendar made it possible for people across Europe to plan future events, arrange shipments of goods and coordinate business.

 
 

For the wealthy layman, the calendar was as much a platform for showing status as a tool for ordering his daily life. A case on the north wall of the exhibit displays three Books of Hours, devotional volumes intended to instruct and accompany their owners in the proper time and text of daily prayer. The smallest of the three, the "Da Costa Hours," illuminated by 16th century Flemish painter Simon Bening, depicts the most exquisitely detailed scenes of pastoral labors on pages of vellum less than five inches wide and six inches high.

The centerpiece of the show, a ten-foot section of a 60-foot long scroll, dominates the gallery. It is a dramatic piece of art that exemplifies the medieval concept of historical time. "Historical time in the Middle Ages is more telescoped because it often looks both forward and back, and it's more multilayered than we think of time today," said Wieck. The "Chronique Anonyme Universelle" illustrates the genealogy of King Louis XI, who reigned over France towards the end of the 15th century. What makes it unusual, to our modern eyes, is the evident pride that it takes in tracing Louis' kingly line all the way back to biblical Adam. The section shown, however, tells the story of the fall of Troy, which the medieval world considered the beginning of civil history. According to tradition, the defeated but surviving Trojan heroes sailed across the Mediterranean and they, or their descendants, founded the major kingdoms of Europe. As Wieck commented, "Louis XI could trace his finger in one line all the way down the scroll and say 'I am a descendant of Priam the Younger.'"

 
 

The third part of the exhibit, entitled "Time after Time," is the most visually arresting. Displaying illuminations from the Office of the Dead, these pages emphasize the importance of eschatological time. The creative inventiveness of images showing heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo highlight the medieval faithful's vivid concern with their fate and that of their departed loved ones. Painted in stunning detail are depictions of the gates of hell as a series of nested mouths, bristling with teeth, and the beast of the apocalypse as a horned and fire-breathing monster.

A late, but thrilling, addition to the exhibit is a richly illuminated page from an otherwise lost Book of Hours by the Master of Catherine of Cleves. The first piece by this important medieval artist to be discovered in almost 40 years, it frames the text of the first penitential psalm with gold, foliage and birds, as well as images of King David, Saint Bernard and the Virgin Mary.

"This is an extraordinary addition to the collections of our Department of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts and testimony to the connoisseurship and eagle eye of department head Roger Wieck," said Morgan Director Colin B. Bailey. It goes on display April 17.

To those of us living in the 21st century, some aspects of timekeeping in the Middle Ages, while ingenious, feel exotic and distant. When was the last time we put food in the oven and recited a Miserere or Pater Noster to time how long it should cook?

Others are familiar, often in surprising ways. Wandering through this exhibit one comes across explanations for "red letter days" (dates in the calendar inscribed in red to signify their religious importance) and the "dog days" of July (named for the summer prominence of the constellation Canis Major, not a panting pet.)

As Roger Wieck points out in the book that accompanies this show, the New York City Department of Transportation suspends alternate side of the street parking on many of the feast days that come down to us from the Medieval calendar. New Yorkers who are not practicing Catholics may not know why they get a day of rest from moving their cars, but their lives are still shaped by manuscripts and observances hundreds of years old.

It was while examining a modest and easily missed piece in the exhibit that I felt the most direct connection to the past. An unadorned girdle calendar, created in mid-15th century France, was designed, not as a noble's trophy or for a monastery's library, but simply to be worn on the user's belt. Most of the manuscripts in this remarkable show are stunning in their artistry and virtuosic decoration. This piece, however, draws one in because it was apparently used and valued, and it shaped its owner's life.

Looking at my iPhone with its worn screen and dinged case, he would have shown me the similarly well used calendar on his belt. Though separated by half a millennium, we would have smiled at our shared desire to keep time and it's passage always at the ready.

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Published here on Forbes.com
April 16, 2018