The Dark Ages, What is Time?
What is Time? The Dark Ages

What is Time? The Dark Ages

The end of the Roman Empire plunged its territories into a miserable period of ignorance and chaos, which left the accumulation of knowledge to the East and Far Eastern countries. Time was left to its own devices as the people struggled to survive; natural philosophy (the discipline we know as science) was regarded as heretical.

The End of the Empire

From c. AD 350, Rome was cursed by internal revolts and threats from beyond its territories. In ad 410 Visigoths smashed through the heart of the Empire and terminated one of the most effective, productive and ordered civilisations by the sacking of Rome. By c. AD 450 Europe was a bloody pulp of war and invasion, with Aryan barbarian hordes, the Franks, Berbers, Lombards and Ostragoths, breaking into old Roman territories, looting everything they could find and then fighting one other.

Inevitably the appetite for intellectual discovery, including the development of astronomy and its use for the calendar, was much reduced, so the tribespeople, the common folk, and most of the monasteries, sank back to their old reliance on the lunar months. Scientific matters, due to a misunderstanding about the teachings of the influential Christian philosopher, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), were regarded as borderline heretical because such matters, including Time, were felt to be the exclusive prevail of God.

The Catholic Church Inherits the Empire

History of Time in the Dark Ages, Nicean Council, These Fantastic WorldsConstantine’s Nicean Council, in cementing the authority of the Christian Church, enabled the continuation of the structures of the Roman Empire through Catholisism. The Barbarians wanted land and money, but they had respect for the spiritual authority and dignity of the Roman Bishopric to the extent that they were converted over the following two centuries to the Christian faith.

In AD 525, Pope Hilary asked mathematician and astronomer Dionysius Exiguus (AD 500–560) to calculate the next 95 years of Easter dates. This was part of the gathering conflict with the Alexandrian-backed Eastern Christian Church, which had always been able to provide the astronomical knowledge for such tasks, unimpeded by the chaos of the European Dark Ages.

Dionysius’s work was the first to use Anno Domini dates based on the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, we now know that, as Jesus must have been born while King Herod was still alive, the year of his birth is more likely to be between 6 and 4 bc (the year of Herod’s death). However, Dionysius’s work was a sign of progress during of the Dark Ages. He had made his changes using the best-available knowledge, being careful to couch the terms of his research as being in the spirit of God, as an article of faith, rather than em­phasising empirical evidence. An English monk, the Venerable Bede (AD 673–735), wrote the only surviving history of the Dark Ages, and used Dionysius’s Easter dates and conventions.

By the early 700s, events in the Middle East further strengthened the Catholic Church as Muslim armies conquered much of the Byzantine lands, allowing Rome to exert its independence from the cultural powerhouse of Constantinople. The Roman Church was able to assert its superiority because of the tradition that Christ’s disciple Peter founded the Church in Rome and became the first Bishop of Rome.

The Julian Calendar and Britain

In AD 664, at the Synod of Whitby, the two main Christian traditions in the British Isles – the Celtic and Roman Christians – agreed to adopt the Julian calendar and its dates for Easter.

In order to placate the dominant Saxons, who had invaded then settled in Britain, the Christian Church allowed the Saxon’s gods to be used for the weekdays, in a way which did not interfere with the integrity of the calendar or the Easter dates. To this day the English-speaking world retains Tiw’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day and Freya’s day (the goddess Eostre’s name had already been adopted for Easter), while much of the rest of Europe retained names derived from the planet based Latin forms (Mercury / Mercurii / Wednesday; Jupiter / Jovis / Thursday etc).


As the influence of the Catholic Church spread, so did the bickering and factional feuding between its senior bishops. Pope Leo III, for instance, was blinded and his tongue torn out by his enemies. Charlemagne (AD 742–814), the King of the Franks, rushed to his aid and for his services he was made the first Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day AD 800.

Baghdad, Time, clocksThis significantly strengthened the grip of the Roman Church because it now enjoyed temporal protection in the form of the armies of Charlemagne. This balance introduced a period stability that lasted for several centuries and ushered Europe out of the Dark Ages. Indeed, although Charlemagne was a barbarian king he possessed the zeal of a convert, and became a champion of knowledge, the arts and sciences. The 5th Caliph of Baghdad, Haroun al-Rashid (‘Aaron the Wise’), master of the Islamic world (the Abbasid Caliphate), sent a remarkable gift of a brilliantly intricate, decorated clock which would strike on the hour. Charlemagne is said to have been ashamed that he and his people could not match the splendour and learning this object represented, and he made great efforts to encourage scholarship throughout his Catholic, European world. This was the time of the Carolingian Renaissance, characterised by the exchange of ideas with the inheritors of the Alexandrian treasure houses of knowledge in the middle East, and Asia.

Numbers and Fractions

Two other areas which highlighted the extent of Western ignorance were a lack of fractions smaller than a quarter, and the absence of the numeric zero. The former was critical in solving the timing problem inherent in the Julian calendar because the actual solar rotation is slightly less than a quarter day over the 365. Because the West did not have the mathematics (or indeed the religious flexibility) to quantify this, the calendar could not be corrected with any accuracy. The numbering system we use today was developed in the Vedic period in India, 2000 BC, as a means of expressing large numbers concisely. Zero was not recognised as a number in the West, nearly 3,000 years later, towards the end of the first millennium AD.

Trade, Embarrassment and Knowledge

A number of events occurred around the time of the first millennium which had some effect on the development of the calendar.

Since the creation of the Islamic religion in AD 622 (the first year of the Muslim calendar), Muslim armies had conquered much of North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe such as Spain and Portugal. Unlike the Aryan barbarian hordes which had smashed their way through the old Roman Europe, the Islamic invaders brought the ideas and learning of their own more sophisticated culture and integrated themselves into the conquered societies. From AD 900 this, and the influx of trade from the East, now that the European countries had stopped fighting amongst themselves, led to a rekindling of the explorations which had been halted by the decline of the Roman Empire.

By 1100, Catholicism was at the height of its power, having become the dominant Christian belief system throughout the West. It also resolved its long-running disputes with the Eastern orthodox churches by excommunicating its primary bishop, the Patriarch of Constantinople, in 1054, for not recognising the supreme authority of the Pope. The Catholic and Eastern orthodox churches split irrevocably, and remain so today.

Failed Attempts at Time Change

Contact with other, more sophisticated traditions revealed the inadequacies of the Julian calendar, but the culture of the West was still constrained by the principle that scientific matters, such as the motion of the stars and the accurate measurement of time, was the immutable preserve of God.

Roger Bacon, Time shift, These Fantastic WorldsIn 1277, Roger Bacon (c. 1214–92), an English Franciscan monk, pointed out to Pope Clement IV that the calendar was disastrously wrong, so much so that the Easter and Lent dates were fundamentally inaccurate. He calculated that an extra 11 minutes in the Julian compared to the true solar calendar had resulted in a shift of one day every 125 years. An idiosyncratic but fiercely scholarly man, Bacon’s incredible scientific labours went unrecognised in his time, mainly because Clement IV died soon after receiving Bacon’s large thesis on natural philosophy and the calendar.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) rescued the Church from the embarrass­ment of its own calendar, by arguing that the existence of man and all that man can do is proof of God’s existence, so that whatever man can do must be a gift from God. This presented the opportunity for the investigation of scientific evidence.

The Plague and the Protestants

Weymouth, Black Death, Plague, These fantastic Worlds, History of TimeIn 1345, Pope Clement VI had gathered all the research neces­sary and was about to issue a Papal Bull making the required changes to the calendar. Suddenly, a wave of plagues struck, of which the Black Death was the worst, annihilating 30 million people, one third of the population of Europe. Suddenly calendar reform once again seemed less than important.

The Reformation became the next major distraction from the changing of the calendar, because Martin Luther’s protestations in 1517 against papal authority, priestly corruption and hypocrisy, resulted in half of all European Chris­tians deserting the Catholic faith for Protestantism, by the late 1500s.

Europe’s perceptions of Time had continued to stretch from the observable evidence for over two centuries, undermining the authority of the Catholic Church as the sole arbiter of truth in the Western sphere of influence. The Roman Church had to find a way to reassert itself.

The next Time post looks at the next major attempt at rectifying the accuracy of Time-telling, with the Gregorian Calendar…

Some other posts of interest.

The image in the head of this post is a painting by Sandro Botticelli of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XVIII, via Wikimedia Commons.

(see here for a good article)