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Measuring Time, Making History

Lynn Hunt

Chapter 1. Is Time Historical ?

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“Time grows dim. Time that was so long
grows short, time, all goggle-eyed,
wiggling her skirts, singing her torch song,
giving the boys a buzz and a ride,
that Nazi Mama with her beer and sauerkraut.
Time, old gal of mine, will soon dim out.”
Anne Sexton, First stanza of
“For Mr. Death Who Stands with His Door Open” (1974)

  • 1 I have found very useful Vyvyan Evans, The Structure of Time: Language, Meaning, and Temporal Cogn (...)

1Time, as Sexton’s lines so forcibly remind us, requires metaphor. It flows like a river, accelerates like an engine, flies like a winged chariot, freezes like instant ice, stands still like a heart between beats, or, in Sexton’s words, grows short, and then dims out as death opens his door. Without the metaphors, whether “that Nazi Mama” wiggling her skirts, or the more venerable arrow of time, the fourth dimension would be exceedingly difficult to grasp. Linguists have noted that it is virtually impossible to talk about time without invoking motion (wiggling skirts, engines, chariots, arrows) and spatial content (short, long). A clock face, for instance, provides both motion, the moving hand, and spatial content, the space traversed by the hand. Even more modern conceptions of time seem to require spatial representation, however nonintuitive, as in, for example, the warping of space– time around black holes. In the post-Einstein world, space–time or the spacetime continuum (the combination of the two concepts, space and time, helps make the point) is most often described as a rubber sheet and the earth, for instance, as a marble whose roll across the rubber sheet slightly puckers the fabric. Again, we have motion and spatial content.1

2Time feels like an essential and defining feature of human life, yet, when pressed to define it, we inevitably fall back upon duration, change, and ultimately, the tenses of our languages, past, present, and future. We all have a direct experience of time, or so we think, and yet it is the dimension of our lives about which there is the greatest philosophical and cosmological disagreement. Aristotle cut to the quick in his Physics (Book IV, ch. or part 10): “First, does it belong to the class of things that exist or to that of things that do not exist? Then secondly, what is its nature?” Is time real, in other words, or is it some kind of figment of the human imagination? Is time absolute, as Newton proposed, or relative, as Einstein argued?2

3I do not pretend to resolve these enduring philosophical or cosmological dilemmas. Instead, I want to explore some of the ways in which time matters or should matter to historians. Like everyone else, historians assume that time exists, yet despite its obvious importance to historical writing—what is history but the account of how things change over time?—writers of history do not often inquire into the meaning of time itself. In the following pages I will ask a series of related questions about time in history. Why is time now again on the agenda, for historians and more generally in Western culture? Do the debates about the nature of time have particular implications for historians? How did Western Christian culture develop its distinctive way of measuring time (bc/ad or bce/ce) and how does it influence our notion of history? What is the role of modernity—our most contentious temporal category—in the historical discipline? Is modernity an experience of temporality or an ideological construction? Are modernity, the discipline of history, and even the notion of history itself a western, and therefore imperialist, impositions? Should we, can we, move beyond the modern within the historical discipline?


4Although time is always with us, it becomes a subject of widespread concern only at certain moments. The most striking examples are the millennia in Western history, 1000 and 2000 ad. We still remember the world-wide worries, largely unfounded, about the supposed Y2K bug; because most computers used two digits rather than four for representing years, many feared that the coming of January 1, 2000 would lead to a global computer breakdown. Companies, governments, universities, and individuals paid out billions of dollars preparing for the changeover, which for the most part occurred without incident. The year 1000 was less precise in every way. For many years historians downplayed the once presumed apocalyptic millennialism of the year 1000 as a fantasy of romantic historians like Jules Michelet, but exactly 1000 years later, Richard Landes made a valiant effort to revive it, arguing that more recent historians have overlooked persuasive evidence of the phenomenon, especially in France. Despite the efforts of Augustine and the church hierarchy to suppress expectations of an imminent doomsday, popular apocalyptic prophets appeared repeatedly with claims to have received letters or other signs from heaven of the approaching end of time.3

5Preachers of looming apocalypse emerged so often because the dating of the millennium was so uncertain. Much depended on the assignment of an age to the world since those who believed in an imminent end to it usually calculated the end from their dating of the world’s beginning. According to some influential ecclesiastics of the early second century, a day in the eyes of God was equivalent to 1000 years. The passage in the Bible comes from 2 Peter 3:8, “one day [is] with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Therefore the Second Coming would only occur when the world was 6,000 years old (after the sixth day). Church historians of the early third century believed that the world was then 5,700 years old and therefore still three centuries away from the millennium. As 500 ad approached, however, churchmen recalculated the age of the world and moved the 6,000 year mark to 801 ad and then to 1000 ad.

6Dating systems can still arouse controversy, especially when they are lifted out of the depths of common sense understanding into the harsh light of explicit discussion. The ongoing debate in the Anglophone world over bce/ce versus bc/ad can be taken as a sign, in itself, of growing concern with or uncertainty about time. Many textbooks in the United States have adopted bce/ce [Before the Common Era/Common Era] because it is deemed less insistently Christian and less elitist (not having the Latin basis of ad, Anno Domini, or year of the Lord). Some have vehemently resisted the change. In June 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Orlando, Florida approved a resolution “On Retaining The Traditional Method Of Calendar Dating.” It stated that “This practice [the use of bce/ce] is the result of the secularization, anti-supernaturalism, religious pluralism, and political correctness pervasive in our society.” The resolution is a good reminder that the means of marking time are still far from neutral.4

  • 5 Eric Bruton, The History of Clocks and Watches (The Grange, Kent, UK: Grange Books, 2002). On the (...)

7Whereas medieval time seems thoroughly imbued with religious meanings and issues, modern time appears more linked to technology, not least the diffusion of ever more precise and individual time pieces. Yet the distinction should not be exaggerated, for time continues to have a religious dimension— witness the Southern Baptists of today—and always had a technological one as well. The measurement of time requires technology of some sort. Yet, there is no denying that time becomes more technological from the seventeenth century onward. The moment that Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock (ca 1657) might be taken as signaling this gathering momentum of technology. The drive to measure time more accurately became increasingly closely associated with mechanical science, with instrument making, and eventually with the individualization of timekeeping. Pocket watches, alarm clocks, and time cards to measure work would not be far behind.5

  • 6 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), quotes pp. 1 and 314.

8The intertwining of time and technology might be traced in any historical period, but the one that has drawn the most sustained attention of late is the finde- siècle of the twenty or thirty years preceding World War I. The very term, end of the century, draws attention to the special sense of time in that era. Should not every century have its “fin-de-siècle”? So why should this particular one be enshrined as such? Stephen Kern excavated that fin-de-siècle in his wide-ranging book, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (1983). Kern argues that “a series of sweeping changes in technology and culture created distinctive new modes of thinking about and experiencing time and space.” Neither the sense of the past nor the sense of the future changed all that much, Kern maintains, but the sense of the present was “distinctively new, thickened temporally with retentions and protentions of past and future and, most important, expanded spatially to create the vast, shared experience of simultaneity,” in part due to the introduction of World Standard Time in 1884.6

  • 7 Kern, p. 13.

9It is hard for us now to imagine the interest generated, for example, by the International Conference on Time held in Paris in 1912. The conference established a system for determining and transmitting accurate time signals. The French hosted the conference in order to make up for their previous tardiness: they did not adopt the Greenwich world standard, proposed in 1884, until 1911. In 1884 an international conference in Washington D.C. had divided the globe into twenty-four time zones and declared Greenwich, England the prime meridian (for time) because threequarters of the world’s shippers already used Greenwich as the 0 degree in longitude. Germany adopted the new standard in 1893, in part to facilitate military mobilization. Until 1911, however, Paris time was nine minutes and twenty-one seconds ahead of Greenwich time. In an effort to safeguard national primacy, the 1911 French law declared that “the legal time in France and Algeria is the mean Paris time slowed nine minutes and twenty-one seconds.”7

  • 8 See the account in Peter Louis Galison, Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empire of Time (New Yo (...)

10Kern attributed the fin-de-siècle preoccupation with time to a combination of technological innovations— the telephone, wireless telegraph, x-ray, cinema, and the bicycle, automobile and airplane—and cultural ones, in particular the “affirmation of private time” with its radical interiority of experience, from the philosophy of Henri Bergson to the novels of Marcel Proust and James Joyce. In fact, however, the movement for World Standard Time got its biggest push from the railroads, which were hardly new at the end of the nineteenth century. They had by then reached the point of density at which coordination was becoming a necessity. In 1883, the railroad companies in the United States agreed to a four zone time system divided along the 75th, 90th, and 105th meridian lines. This agreement opened the way to the imposition of a world standard.8

  • 9 Michael Rosbash, “A Biological Clock,” Daedalus (Spring, 2003): 27–36, quote p. 27.

11Another such epoch of general concern with time seems to be upon us now, perhaps as a result of a similar kind of concatenation of technological and cultural causes. From the hard sciences to popular culture, time is on the agenda. In a recent special issue of Daedalus on time (Spring, 2003), a biologist claimed that specialists in fields as diverse as neuroscience and evolutionary biology now “regard the issue of time as urgent and inescapable”—albeit very different dimensions of time, milliseconds for neuroscientists and billions of years for evolutionary biologists. Circadian rhythms are the subject of intense research because they offer a way of linking processes across insects and mammals and perhaps eventually even plants and fungi; animals, plants, and fungi all have clock genes, which may have a common evolutionary origin.9

  • 10 Paul J. Steinhardt, “The Endless Universe: A Brief Introduction,” Proceedings of the American Phil (...)

12In physics, too, time raises many interesting, and still intractable, issues. Paul Steinhardt has argued that physics has three basic cosmic paradigms with different versions of time. The first, the Steady State Model, has been discarded because of the discovery of the expansion of the universe, but two remain in play—the Created Universe of Big Bang Theory in which time begins at the big bang and proceeds from there, and the Cyclic Universe in which space and time exist forever, alternately expanding and contracting. Understanding the role of time in gravity and in quantum theory appears to be crucial to the development of a general unified theory in physics; for some, gravity is none other than the unequal flow of time from place to place. Lurking beneath these discussions is the vexed problem of time’s “arrow” or the direction of time in physics. We experience life as directional; we grow old, hot water grows cold, and the second law of thermodynamics (that entropy in systems increases over time) appears to explain this state of affairs. Yet most of the fundamental laws of physics imply reversibility, not directionality. So is time travel possible? Can we move backwards in time as well as forwards?10

13Concern with time is not limited to the sciences. It permeates popular culture, from American TV programs such as “24,” which purports to take place in real time (each episode covers an hour), to the Slow Food movement founded by an Italian to counteract Fast Food, through the constant newspaper and magazine articles about our lack of time. In social and political theory, the acceleration of time is now taken more or less for granted as an essential, if not defining, element of modern life, if not modernity itself. Hartmut Rosa has argued, for example, that “the history of modernity is an ongoing process of social acceleration,” and he has set out to develop “a new critical theory of acceleration.” Though Rosa posits acceleration as an ongoing process, it seems significant that his work has only come to widespread scholarly attention in the last few years.11

14The technological developments that might lie behind or reinforce the current preoccupation with time are probably all too obvious: the Global Positioning Satellite (or GPS) system, satellite and mobile or cellular telephones, the internet, and wireless connections of all sorts have roots that go back to the 1960s but they all became tools for ordinary people in the 1990s. Hard as it is to believe, the first web server and first web browser, the World Wide Web, appeared only in 1990 and became available to the public in 1993. The new wireless forms of communication have made the experience of simultaneity an even more widely shared one. We live at the beck and call of ring tones and vibrating alerts even more than time clocks; we live more and more in simultaneity, where work is not an eight hour day to be filled and then stamped by a clock, but a virtual permanence of being in touch. In contrast, our modes of bodily transportation have changed only quantitatively, not qualitatively, but more people have more access to more rapid forms of them than ever before. The airplane still has the same basic shape, but its speed and the number of passengers flying every day have profoundly transformed the experience of travel, not to mention time. Airplane travel too aspires for an approach to simultaneity, getting you from one place to another very quickly and providing in international airports a remarkable, if not downright disturbing, uniformity of experience.

15Still, a potential problem lurks in the discussion of time’s seeming acceleration, which is a process more than a discrete event. Kern’s simultaneity, interiority, and even his thickness of the present seem not to take shape all at once, or even at a certain given time, such as the fin-de-siècle, as much as they develop over time, in an ongoing process. True, there are technological innovations that influence our perception of time, such as the telephone or cinema in the fin-desiècle, or the internet in our own time. But is it not the constantly accelerating pace of such innovations that affects our sense of time most fundamentally, more fundamentally than any particular innovation at any one particular moment in time? I will return to this problem in my second essay.


  • 12 Examples of the recent revival of interest in time among historians include Aziz Al-Azmeh, The Tim (...)

16Historians, too, have quickened the pace on the subject of time. A few hardy souls ventured into this domain at the very end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s: Reinhart Koselleck (1979), Krzysztof Pomian (1984), and Paul Ricoeur (1983–1985), most notably. Yet their works went largely unmined until recently and can hardly compare in influence within the historical discipline to the “diffuse, endlessly multiplying studies of sociocultural time” undertaken by many of the leading figures in cultural anthropology and social theory. One measure of the current renewed interest in time among historians is the reinvigorated engagement with the works of Koselleck and Ricoeur, in particular. Within the heated discussions of philosophy of history from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, Ricoeur’s lonely phenomenological voice was drowned out by the cacophony over postmodernism (and Koselleck and Pomian were almost entirely ignored). But now their work begins to resonate more widely, as time itself attracts more attention among historians.12

  • 13 For the introductory overview see Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” (...)

17It is surprising that historians have been relatively slow to pick up the topic of time given the importance of work on collective memory that also dates back to the 1980s. Pierre Nora’s influential volumes Les Lieux de mémoire began to appear in 1984, the very moment when Ricoeur and Pomian were publishing their works. Should not an interest in memory lead inevitably to an interest in time? Certainly Ricoeur linked the two. Yet, as Nora himself recognized by the time he published the third volume (1992), the places of memory had become sacralized, despite his intentions, and therefore were read as forms of commemoration, that is, as celebrations, not studies of the workings of time. The project lent itself to this development from the beginning. Nora and his collaborators focused on the sedimentation of the past in present objects, and a certain nostalgia for times lost had been present all along. Nora’s introductory overview began on a note of impending loss: “We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left.” Aiming to hold back the “increasingly rapid slippage of the present into an historical past,” his volumes effectively shored up the present and pushed history back behind the wall of renewed monuments to memory.13

  • 14 François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2003). (...)

18In that sense Nora’s influential volumes participated, even if against the aim of Nora himself, in what François Hartog has termed “presentism,” the hostile takeover of the past by the present, which Hartog takes to be representative of our current “regime of historicity.” A similar critical note has been sounded in anthropology. Memory studies in anthropology, encouraged most notably by Nora’s volumes, so the criticism runs, suffer from a conflation between memory and the old standbys of ethnographic research, identity and even culture itself. Memory becomes just another word for culture. Studies of time in cultural anthropology have been influenced by structuralist, functionalist, phenomenological, and Marxist models, but not nearly as much by studies of collective memory.14

  • 15 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Lond (...)

19So if interest in collective memory did not stimulate historians’ concern with time, what did? In the Anglophone world, Benedict Anderson’s influential 1983 book, Imagined Communities, played a central role. In a much quoted passage, Anderson argued, following Walter Benjamin, that “what has come to take the place of the mediaeval conception of simultaneityalong- time is... an idea of ‘homogeneous, empty time,’ in which simultaneity is, as it were, transverse, crosstime, marked not by prefiguring and fulfillment, but by temporal coincidence, and measured by clock and calendar.” Anderson puts the significance of this notion in a nutshell in the footnote to this passage: “So deep-lying is this new idea that one could argue that every essential modern conception is based on a conception of ‘meanwhile.’”15

20Simultaneity—in empty, homogeneous time, measured by clock and calendar—is thus yoked to modernity. Instead of time being the fulfillment of prophecy with the end point (the Second Coming) prefigured from the beginning (the Creation), time opens out, encompasses everyone, believer or not, and has no pre-given endpoint. Time becomes a medium for secular life rather than religious realization, and its measurement becomes crucial. Most important, modernity is linked to the recognition that we all live in the same medium of time and therefore need common measurements of it. In Anderson’s argument, new print forms such as newspapers and novels helped create this sense of homogeneous, empty time, the simultaneity of modernity and of the imagined community of nationalism.

  • 16 On Kracauer I am indebted to recent lectures by Jacques Revel at UCLA. See his foreword to Siegfri (...)

21Needless to say, all current historical interest in time does not flow uniquely from Anderson’s book. The concern with time among historians draws on many sources, beginning with the exhaustion of the previously dominant analytical paradigms: Marxism, modernization theory, Annales school, postmodernism and poststructuralism, and identity politics. In response, some have turned back to the German critical theorists who had been previously overshadowed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, not just Walter Benjamin, as in the case of Anderson, but also Siegfried Kracauer and Georg Simmel. Benjamin, Kracauer and Simmel showed much more interest in the entertainments of mass culture, from wax museums and arcades to detective novels and film, than did the insiders of the Frankfurt School, or Institut für Sozialforschung, which Kracauer dubbed the Institut für Sozialfälschung (Institute for Social Falsification). While Simmel devoted more attention to space than to time, all three wrote about the new subjective experiences of time and space in modernity. A hardy few historians have ventured even further afield in their pursuit of new directions, looking at recent studies of human behavior in the fields of cognitive and evolutionary science. The results of the new interest in time, whatever its sources, are only just beginning to appear, for instance, in two doctoral dissertations in my own field of the French Revolution or the book of Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present (2004), which considers the French Revolution a critical turning point in modern experiences of time.16

  • 17 On the influence of Anderson, see Jonathan D. Culler, “Anderson and the Novel,” Diacritics, Volume (...)

22Literary scholars seized upon the subject of time before historians, and they registered the influence of Anderson sooner as a result. There are many reasons for this anticipation in literature besides the fact that Anderson gave great prominence to the novel in his argument. “All literature is about time,” remarks J. Hillis Miller, and countless studies of temporality in the works of one or another author back up his claim. Can one think about time without invoking the temporal experiments of the great literary modernists such as Virginia Woolf, Joyce, or Proust? Yet Miller goes on to argue that “explicit concern with time seems today a feature of a somewhat faded modernism,” and he even suggests that “Time may nevertheless make a backdoor entry through the now ubiquitous topic of ‘history,’” a development that Miller finds of dubious merit.17

  • 18 Reinhard Koselleck, Futures past: On the semantics of historical time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambrid (...)

23The “somewhat faded modernism” makes an important point, however inadvertently. Literary scholars took an interest in time earlier because both modernism and postmodernism had more of an impact in literature than in history. Once “modernity” and all it implies became an issue in the humanities, time was bound to come up for discussion, for “modernity” is first and foremost a set of notions about and experiences of temporality. Historians tend to assume the existence of “modernity,” indeed posit it as a fundamental dividing line in historical studies, but for the most part they describe it in their work rather than investigating its workings as a specifically temporal category. Historians do not generally examine any of their categories of time. Koselleck therefore opens his pioneering book on the subject with this sentence: “The question of what historical time might be belongs to those questions which historical science has the most difficulty answering.”18

  • 19 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” (...)

24It is hardly accidental, then, that historians of the non-West have played a key role in drawing the attention of historians to the conundrums of time. Historians of the West usually take the modern schema of time for granted because it provides the foundations of their discipline. Historians of the non-West, in contrast, have to confront the nonconformity or uneasy conformity of their cultures to the western model. Especially influential in the Anglophone world have been the insights of Dipesh Chakrabarty, an historian of India concerned with the post-colonial condition. In his influential articles and book on “provincializing Europe,” Chakrabarty dissects the habit of writing about Indian “failure” to, in his ironic phrase, “keep an appointment with its destiny.” Chakrabarty is dismantling the “master narrative” (or grand temporal schema) that is European history: in history “as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university,” he argues, “‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all history, including the ones we call Indian, Chinese, Kenyan, and so on.”19

  • 20 Sebastian Conrad, “What Time is Japan? Problems of Comparative (Intercultural) Historiography,” Hi (...)

25Europe is the standard against which all other histories are written, and that standard is a temporal one; the West is advanced, ahead in temporal terms, while the non-West is backward, behind, failing to keep up. The clear implication is that history as a discipline is therefore inherently Western as well as Westernizing. Thus, in his 1999 article, “What Time is Japan?” Sebastian Conrad asserted that “history as an academic discipline, in other words, was exported from Europe to non-European countries in the process of imperialist expansion.” That history taught non-Europeans to think of themselves as temporally behind. From the end of the nineteenth century onward, Conrad recounts, Japanese historians have written their history within what he labels a “temporalization of space,” measuring the historical progress of their country against the ubiquitous European standard of modernity.20


26In fact, however, Anderson notwithstanding, the workings of the modern Western time schema are not well understood, and some have perhaps too quickly jumped to the conclusion that history itself is a Western trademark. Much of the current understanding of the modern workings of time has come from comparisons between the West and non-West, between the modern West and its Western predecessors, and between Newtonian conceptions (still very much at the heart of Anderson’s analysis) and what might be imagined to be post-Newtonian ones. I say “imagined to be post-Newtonian” because it is not clear that we can in any meaningful way distance ourselves from Newtonian conceptions of time, at least as historians. In other words, much of what is known about modern time comes from analysis of what it is not. My aim here is to shift focus back to what it is, or at least what it has been and what it has become.

27Several separate, though interrelated, elements constitute the modern time schema. As a dimension or background grid, it is assumed to be universal, homogenous, and “deep” in the sense of stretching back very, very far in time. Its meanings are secular and natural rather than divine or supernatural. Finally, it posits a new relationship to the future, which can only be developed once time has been secularized and naturalized. In the new relationship to the future, people come to believe that study of the natural (and social) world will enable them to “make progress,” “get ahead,” “become more advanced,” “make up for lost time,” in other words, gain some kind of control over the passing of time. None of these assumptions took shape all at once, and all remain debatable. I hope to show how some attention to them will help us make more sense not just of our discipline in the most abstract sense, but even of specific historical dilemmas.

  • 21 Newton is quoted in Donald J. Wilcox, The Measure of Times Past: Pre-Newtonian Chronologies and th (...)

28Since universal, homogeneous and deep time have become features of common sense, it is difficult for us to grasp the novelty of the concept, which only took hold in stages between the end of the seventeenth and the middle of the nineteenth century. The temporal grid becomes universal only when one chronological frame of reference encompasses everyone (and indeed every species) in the world. While universality came relatively early on—toward the end of the seventeenth century—homogeneity has always been in question and therefore cannot be dated in the same way. Homogeneity may seem to be a corollary of universal time, since Isaac Newton defined “absolute time” in 1687 as flowing “equably without regard to anything external.” Yet, homogeneity of time is easier to comprehend in physics than in history. Newton himself distinguished between absolute, true, mathematical time and the “relative, apparent, and common time” of calendars, which also interested him greatly. As the peoples of the world came into greater and greater contact with each other, it became easier to imagine that everyone lived in the same dimension of time. It was and is much harder to stomach the idea that everyone’s time, that literally all experience, has the same ontological weight, as it were.21

29Our own internal memory systems make homogeneity seem unlikely, for we do not remember everything equally, and we do not assign the same importance to every event in our lives. Narration—the telling of stories—seems to necessarily imply differentiation, for they require beginnings and endings and plot lines that privilege some elements over others. Will not some times always matter more than others? World War I takes up more space in a Western Civilization textbook, for example, than the Saltpeter War between Chile and the forces of Peru and Bolivia (1879–1884). Still, past experience teaches us that historical weight is highly variable (stories change), so the Saltpeter War might well matter more than World War I to a Chilean, and might matter more to the rest of the world if Chile becomes a dominant power. We have learned that the weight of events changes over time. It is hard to conceive now that anyone would overlook slavery in telling the history of France in the eighteenth century, and yet historians of eighteenth-century mainland France largely ignored slavery until recently. It is difficult to imagine a history curriculum that focuses almost exclusively on ancient and perhaps sometimes medieval history, and yet that is just how history was taught in European and American schools or universities until the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, then, we have to accept the conclusion that historical events are much like other sensory information that comes to us; our processes of selection make some events stand out from the background more than others and the foreground and background are constantly shifting over time. What matters most at one time counts for much less at another.

30In the background, however, all events are potentially equally present, that is, homogeneous. As long as an occurrence involves actions in the natural world, it is a part of historical time and like all other moments in time. This homogeneity of time becomes important as universalism works its way, precisely because it makes possible the constant revision of histories to take account of the changing world. Our previous obliviousness does not signal the non-existence of events or their lesser ontological weight. We would not have the history of African Americans or of the environment, now, if all natural events were not equally a part of time. In short, the supposition of homogeneity of time creates the potential for recurrent revision, for going back and fishing out previously unnoticed events from the river of time and making them central to new narratives.

  • 22 For Newton’s orthodox views on the age of the earth, see Frank E. Manuel, Isaac Newton Historian ( (...)

31Deep time, too, opened the door to continual revision, in this case to including an ever further distant past. A phrase given currency in 1981 by John McPhee writing about geological time, “deep time” refers to the idea that the origins of the earth go back a very long way, certainly much further back than the 4004 b.c. influentially posited by James Ussher in 1650. Deep time only gained widespread acceptance in the nineteenth century and is still contested by some Christians today. Even Newton held fast to the dominant belief of his era that the earth had been created five or six thousand years earlier. Though time was mathematically universal and homogeneous for Newton, it was not necessarily “deep,” or, was only deep for God himself.22

32My interest is not in precisely dating the origins of the earth, the solar system, or the Milky Way (4.5 billion years old for the former, 11–13 billion for the latter, according to the U.S. Geological Survey), but rather in the consequences of this deep time for historical understanding. For the moment, I want simply to note that the deepening of geological time further undermined the dominant Christian framework, in which the creation of the world, the incarnation of Jesus, and the Second Coming could be tightly tied together in one temporal netting that could be fitted over the events of secular life as well. Deep time therefore contributed mightily to the secularization of time in the modern era.

33Paradoxically, however, universal, homogeneous and even deep time had Christian origins in what came to be—over time—the Christian calendar. The key breakthrough was the establishment of a universal system of dating that could go as indefinitely backward into the past as forward into the future. In other words, what matters is not the 4004 of Ussher’s dating of the creation of the world, but rather the bc attached to that 4004 and the possibility it opened of extending indefinitely backward into deep history (from 4004 in Ussher’s time to 13 billion years today). Dating from the supposed birth of Jesus offered an unexpected, crucial advantage; it acted as a pivot on which the mechanism of time could balance with no necessary tipping point on either end. We think of bc/ad (or bce/ce) as hopelessly mired in Christian and Western hegemony, forgetting that the dating system itself has a complicated history and that its establishment had among its unforeseen—and initially undesired— effects this ability to extend in both temporal directions indefinitely.

  • 23 Georges Declercq, Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000) (...)

34The story of the bc/ad dating system is surprisingly murky, given its significance to the modern time schema. ad came first, but it did not appear in the first years or even centuries after the death of Jesus. In 525 ad, facing the end in six years time of a 95-year Easter table attributed to Cyril of Alexandria, a monk from Scythia Minor (present-day Romania) known as Dionysius Exiguus worked out a new Easter table. His innovation was thoroughly pious. Rather than date his cycle in Diocletian time, he recommended marking the time “with years from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ,” to distinguish it from “the memory of an impious persecutor of Christians.” Therefore, instead of beginning with year 248 of Diocletian, he opened his table with 532 ad. Since Dionysius did not say how he arrived at 532, the reasons for his dating remain a subject of lively controversy. It seems likely, in any case, that Dionysius dated the Incarnation to March 25, 1 ad because March 25 had become the accepted date for the conception of Christ once December 25 had become the accepted day for Christmas—in the course of the fourth century. March 25, 1 ad had the added advantage of being a Good Friday according to the Alexandrian method of computing Easter and March 25 was also considered by many to be the first day of Creation as well.23

  • 24 I find Declercq’s description in Anno Domini easier to follow than Wilcox, Measure of Times Past, (...)

35The innovation took time to take hold. Dionysius himself had no intention of creating a new dating system for ordinary use. The English pioneered the use of the era of the incarnation for practical matters such as the dating of charters. The oldest is one from king Swaefred of Essex dated 704 ad, but it only exists in a copy from the mid- or late eighth century. The oldest original is a diploma by Aethelbald, king of Mercia, dated 736 ad. Such usage increased toward the end of the eighth century becoming common in the ninth and was even required on episcopal documents by the synod of Chelsea in 816 ad. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 ad) was the first historical writing that consistently employed the Dionysian framework. From England the practice spread to the continent, to France in the early ninth century and to Italy in the late ninth century. Usage became more general in the eleventh century. Yet use of Roman or Creation-based chronologies continued for centuries, even as doubts about them began to accumulate. The precise date of Creation, despite Ussher’s confidence, was uncertain, and how could Roman time encompass the new worlds and new histories Europeans were busily discovering?24

  • 25 For a general account, see Duncan Steel, Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calend (...)

36bc followed ad, yet its history is even harder to pin down with chronological precision. Bede used the expression “anno igitur ante incarnationem Dominicam” [before the incarnation of the Lord] two times in his 731 history of England, but this seems to have had little resonance. “Ante Nativitatem Christi” appeared in a work by a German monk in 1474. Despite these earlier appearances, a French Jesuit, Dionysius Petavius (or Denis Petau), is usually credited for giving ante Christum (the Latin predecessor to bc) currency, beginning with a work of 1627, De doctrina temporum, which appeared in new editions well into the eighteenth century. Whatever the precise influence of Petau’s work, there is no question that some form of bc could be found with increasing frequency after the mid-seventeenth century. Bossuet, for example, used dates “before Jesus-Christ” at least twice in his Discours de l’histoire universelle of 1681.25

  • 26 Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle, p. 24. James Ussher, The Annals of the world deduced (...)

37Competing dating schemes managed to co-exist for some time, however. When Bossuet wanted to date the completion of Solomon’s Temple, for example, he offered “the year 3000 since creation, 488 since the exit from Egypt, and to calibrate Biblical with profane time, 180 years after the taking of Troy, 250 since the foundation of Rome, and 1000 before Jesus-Christ.” Ussher’s Annals of the Old Testament of 1650 (English translation 1658) announced the date of Creation as falling “upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob., in the year of the Julian [Period—“Calendar” in the text was a mistranslation], 710,” and Ussher gave the Julian period dates, “the year of the world,” and the “year before Christ” dates in his running margins. The English translation of Petau’s work in 1659 also gave the Julian Period year alongside the year before Christ’s birth.26

  • 27 On Scaliger, see Anthony Grafton, Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship(...)

38The Julian Period, invented by Joseph Scaliger in 1582, combined the 28-year solar cycle, the 19-year lunar cycle, and 15-year indiction cycle (a tax cycle in 4th century Rome) in one Julian Period of 7980 years that began on 1 January 4713 bc (thus even before Creation) and ended in 3267 ad. Each year had three components based on the three cycles; if an ancient source gave a piece of astronomical data, such as the position of the moon, the Julian Period date could be computed, thus making possible the collation and comparison of many Biblical and historical sources that had previously been difficult to reconcile. The Julian Period had the advantage of having year numbers that are all positive (therefore eliminating the problem of a lack of “0” in bc/ad), and the Julian day number is still used by astronomers and information technologists.27

  • 28 Gibbon is cited in Anthony T. Grafton, “Joseph Scaliger and Historical Chronology: The Rise and Fa (...)

39Scaliger’s invention of the Julian Period reflected the mania for chronology that swept Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Scholars from Scaliger to Newton used astronomy, history, and philology to develop concordances of the various historical and Biblical chronologies. Recapturing the charm of the enterprise is not easy, but Edward Gibbon certainly felt it: “In my childish balance I presumed to weigh the systems of Scaliger and Petavius, of Marsham and Newton which I could seldom study in the original; the Dynasties of Assyria and Egypt were my top and cricket-ball: and my sleep has been disturbed by the difficulty of reconciling the Septuagint and the Hebrew computation.” As Anthony Grafton has shown, the development of new chronological sophistication by Scaliger and others ultimately sapped the very foundations of Biblical chronology. Could the Bible—and the presumed date of Creation—be correct if Egyptian dynasties could be dated to before the Flood? Ultimately fossils and the new science of geology completely undid the Biblical dating conventions, but the way was paved by the debates among devout chronologists themselves.28

  • 29 Sir Isaac Newton, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. To which is prefix’d, A Short Chroni (...)

40Although Scaliger’s Julian Period exercised influence for more than two centuries, it ultimately gave way to bc/ad dating. Newton used the Petavian system in his chronology of 1728, helping to make it the standard. Newton said on his first page, “The times are set down in years before Christ,” but he did not use an abbreviation; at the beginning he referred to “in the year before Christ” and thereafter just gave the year. The English translation of Petavius of 1659 had employed A.C. and Ant. Chri. as abbreviations. Until the end of the eighteenth century English authors often still gave the Julian Period alongside A.C. in their chronological tables, but in their narratives A.C. or “year(s) before Christ” eventually overwhelmed the increasingly scant references to the Julian Period. As Joseph Priestley proclaimed in his Lectures on History in 1788, “I cannot help observing, that this boasted [Julian] period seems to have been unnecessary for the chief purpose for which it was invented, viz. to serve as a common language for chronologers, and that now little use is made of it, notwithstanding all writers still speak of it in the same magnificent terms. The vulgar Christian aera answers the same purpose as effectually.”29

41Though not known as an historian, Priestley helped create the modern timeline in the 1760s with his large (three feet wide, two feet tall) charts of biography (1765) and of history (1769). The first registered the lives of 2,000 famous men on an equally divided scale of 3,000 years of “universal time,” while the second traced 78 principal kingdoms over the same time period. Unlike his chronographical predecessors, Priestley insisted on the uniformity or what I am calling the homogeneity of time; each hundred years occupied the exact same amount of space no matter what the density of remarkable events. Rather than address the problem of dating the beginning of the world and as a consequence leaving a large empty space at the left edge of his charts, Priestley arbitrarily began in 1200 bc with the reign of King David.

42Like Priestley, most other eighteenth-century writers of history embraced “the vulgar Christian aera” without understanding its consequences. The bc (or ac) that appeared as a by-product of early modern disputes over chronology opened the way to deep time and even the secularization of time. It also led to the disappearance of the very chronological studies that had given birth to the new dating system in the first place. The chronologists pursued a universalism defined by the ambition to combine natural and supernatural histories, reconciling Biblical and secular chronologies. Since it opened the way to infinite regress into the deep past, the establishment of bc made it possible to sever the study of time from its religious origins and pursue secular aims and explanations instead. Bossuet’s form of universal history gave way to one defined by geographical and temporal inclusiveness along a secular continuum. Historians might disagree about the meaning, for instance, of events in the fifth century bc, but they agree on the time frame that constitutes the fifth century bc.

43The power of a universal, homogeneous, and deep notion of time is incontestable. The notion undergirds Western science, Western imperialism, globalization, and the current vogue of world history, which some might consider all facets of the same phenomenon. It is not accidental, moreover, that universal, homogeneous, and deep time took hold concomitantly with the development of Western science. The Western calendar eventually prevailed world-wide and has become associated with Western values. It does not follow, however, that universal, homogeneous, or deep time is somehow Western in essence, any more than that the idea of universal, homogeneous time is somehow Christian because dating Easter provided a prime motive for calendar revision or because bc/ad refer to the life of Jesus. Having begun as a Christian exercise in dating Easter and reconciling sacred and profane histories, the bc/ad dating system ended up submerging Christian chronology in an even more universal, homogeneous and deep sense of time.


1 I have found very useful Vyvyan Evans, The Structure of Time: Language, Meaning, and Temporal Cognition (Amsterdam/ Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2003). On the rubber sheet analogy, see, for example, NASA’s description of the Gravity Probe B mission at Consulted May 24, 2006.

2 For Aristotle’s discussion see Consulted March 28, 2007.

3 See, for example, CNN coverage of the time at consulted May 19, 2006. Richard Landes, “The Fear of an Apocalyptic Year 1000: Augustinian Historiography, Medieval and Modern,” Speculum, Vol. 75, No. 1. (Jan., 2000): 97–145.

4’13-&tod’pm for the approval of Resolution 9. For content of the resolution see asp consulted May 18, 2006.

5 Eric Bruton, The History of Clocks and Watches (The Grange, Kent, UK: Grange Books, 2002). On the importance of computation of time, especially in the Middle Ages, see Arno Borst, Computus: Zeit und Zahl in der Geschichte Europas (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 1990)

6 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), quotes pp. 1 and 314.

7 Kern, p. 13.

8 See the account in Peter Louis Galison, Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps: Empire of Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), esp. pp. 98–107.

9 Michael Rosbash, “A Biological Clock,” Daedalus (Spring, 2003): 27–36, quote p. 27.

10 Paul J. Steinhardt, “The Endless Universe: A Brief Introduction,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 148 (Dec 2004), pp. 464–470. On the conundrums, see, for example, Steven F. Savitt, ed., Time’s Arrows Today: Recent Physical and Philosophical Work on the Direction of Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

11 On Slow Food, founded in 1986, see, an article first published August 21, 2001. Consulted May 22, 2006. Hartmut Rosa, “The Speed of Global Flows and the Pace of Democratic Politics,” New Political Science, Volume 27, Number 4 (December 2005): 445–459. Hartmut Rosa, Beschleunigung: Die Veränderung der Zeitstrukturen in der Moderne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2005).

12 Examples of the recent revival of interest in time among historians include Aziz Al-Azmeh, The Times of History: Universal Topics in Islamic Historiography (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2007) and the forthcoming book by Peter Burke, A Cultural History of Time, 1500–2000. Historians have written from time to time about time previously. See, for example, the special issue of History and Theory in 1966. Reinhard Koselleck, Vergangene Zukunft: zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979); Krzysztof Pomian, L’ordre du temps (Paris: Gallimard, 1984); Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit (Paris: Seuil, 1983–1985). Dudley Andrew, “Tracing Ricoeur,” Diacritics, 30.2 (Summer 2000): 43–69. On cultural anthropology and its interest in time, see Nancy D. Munn, “The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 21 (1992): 93–123, quote p. 93.

13 For the introductory overview see Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory. (Spring, 1989): 7–24, quotes p. 7. For Ricoeur’s gentle critique, see Memory, History, Forgetting, tr. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 401–411.

14 François Hartog, Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2003). David C. Berliner, “The Abuses of Memory: Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology,” Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 78, Number 1 (Winter 2005): 197–211. See also, Munn, “The Cultural Anthropology of Time” on recent interest in Maurice Halbwachs’s work on collective memory.

15 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, revised ed., 1991), p. 24.

16 On Kracauer I am indebted to recent lectures by Jacques Revel at UCLA. See his foreword to Siegfriend Kracauer, L’Histoire. Des avant-dernières choses, tr. Claude Orsoni (Paris: Stock, 2006). Elizabeth Goodstein, “Style as Substance: Georg Simmel’s Phenomenology of Culture,” Cultural Critique, Vol. 52 (Fall 2002): 209–234. Vanessa R. Schwartz, “Walter Benjamin for Historians,” The American Historical Review, December 2001 (23 Mar. 2007). For interest in models from the natural sciences, see the discussion of Daniel Smail in chapter 3. Sanja Perovic and William Nelson have both written dissertations concerned with time at the end of the eighteenth century and during the French Revolution. Both seem to have been influenced most directly by Koselleck. Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

17 On the influence of Anderson, see Jonathan D. Culler, “Anderson and the Novel,” Diacritics, Volume 29, Number 4 (Winter 1999): 20–39. J. Hillis Miller, Daedalus (Spring 2003), p. 86.

18 Reinhard Koselleck, Futures past: On the semantics of historical time, trans. Keith Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), p. xxi.

19 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories. (Winter, 1992), pp. 1–26, quote p. 1. These views are further developed in his book, Provincializing Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).

20 Sebastian Conrad, “What Time is Japan? Problems of Comparative (Intercultural) Historiography,” History and Theory, Vol. 38, No. 1. (Feb., 1999), pp. 67–83, quote p. 69.

21 Newton is quoted in Donald J. Wilcox, The Measure of Times Past: Pre-Newtonian Chronologies and the Rhetoric of Relative Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 22.

22 For Newton’s orthodox views on the age of the earth, see Frank E. Manuel, Isaac Newton Historian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), esp. pp. 37–40.

23 Georges Declercq, Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2000), quote pp. 100–101.

24 I find Declercq’s description in Anno Domini easier to follow than Wilcox, Measure of Times Past, pp. 119–152.

25 For a general account, see Duncan Steel, Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000). Of more use in this context is Masayuki Sato, “Comparative Ideas of Chronology,” History and Theory, 30 (1991), pp. 275–301, esp. pp. 293–294. For Bossuet, see Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle à Monseigneur le Dauphin pour expliquer la suite de la religion et les changemens des empires (Paris: S. Mabre-Cramoisy, 1681), p. 24.

26 Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle, p. 24. James Ussher, The Annals of the world deduced from the origin of time, and continued to the beginning of the Emperour Vespasians reign, and the totall destruction and abolition of the temple and common-wealth of the Jews: containing the historie of the Old and New Testament, with that of the Macchabees, also the most memorable affairs of Asia and Egypt, and the rise of the empire of the Roman Caesars under C. Julius, and Octavianus : collected from all history, as well sacred, as prophane, and methodically digested (London: Printed by E. Tyler, for J. Crook ... and for G. Bedell ..., 1658), p. 1. Denis Petau, The history of the world, or, An account of time. Compiled by the learned Dionisius Petavius. And continued by others, to the year of our Lord, 1659. Together with a geographicall description of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America (London: J. Streater, and are to be sold by Richard Tomlins, at the Sun and Bible in Pie-Corner, 1659), p. 8, for example.

27 On Scaliger, see Anthony Grafton, Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1983 and 1993.)

28 Gibbon is cited in Anthony T. Grafton, “Joseph Scaliger and Historical Chronology: The Rise and Fall of a Discipline,” History and Theory, 14, No. 2. (May, 1975), pp. 156–185 (quote p. 156).

29 Sir Isaac Newton, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended. To which is prefix’d, A Short Chronicle from the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great. (London: printed for J. Tonson, J. Osborn, and T. Longman; and sold by Alexander Symmer and William Monro, Edinburgh, 1728), see p. 9. On the growing dominance of “year before Christ,” see Thomas Falconer, Chronological Tables: Beginning with the Reign of Solomon, and Ending with the Death of Alexander the Great. With a prefatory discourse. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1796). On Priestley and the invention of the timeline, see Daniel Rosenberg, “Joseph Priestley and the Graphic Invention of Modern Time,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 36 (2007): 55–103, quote p. 72.

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