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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 355-357

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Book Review

Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year

Calendar: Humanity's Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year. By DAVID EWING DUNCAN. New York: Avon, 1998. Pp. 266. $23.00 (cloth); $13.50 (paper).

Journalists and academics both tell stories which are not always strictly true; the main stylistic difference between the two is that journalists have to write in a manner comprehensible and entertaining to a relatively large audience. When one of them writes history, then the result is virtually guaranteed to be a good read. The subject of the modern world calendar has recently been made the concern of heavyweight academic monographs, by Robert Poole and Stephen McCluskey. It is David Duncan's achievement to tell its whole known story, going into all its considerable technicalities, in a way which can be enjoyed by virtually anybody.

The story is, after all, superb. The present calendar is one of the greatest triumphs of Western civilization, basically unchanged for over two millennia and with one significant improvement more than four [End Page 355] centuries ago. It is all the more noteworthy in that it rests upon foundations which are hardly "western" at all. The Babylonians gave it the number of hours in the day, the Hebrews the days in the week, the Sumerians the basic number of months in the year, and the Indians the numeric symbols by which dates are written. A monk from the present-day Ukraine devised the division of eras in B.C. and A.D., and all that Europeans really did was try to get the whole thing to work; but as the planet wobbles as it rotates, this was quite hard enough. Duncan not only reveals each part of the tale, but seizes every opportunity to color it in. The personalities concerned are described, physically and spiritually, in rich detail, and located in their own landscapes. Readers are not simply taken to the action of the Council of Nicaea, but shown the physical setting of the town. They can walk with Bede along the beaches of Northumbria as well as ponder his scientific problems with him in his monk's cell.

So where do I, as a journalist turned professor, find that the crossover gives me problems with the book? In two respects. The first is simply that, whereas Duncan has read very widely in his subject, he is himself expert in none of it, and his text is peppered with factual mistakes. It may be that an English reviewer finds it particularly shocking to be told that thirteenth-century Oxford was a cathedral city lying east of London, with a university "chartered" in 1167, but any expert in late antiquity may blench to learn of the battle of "Mulvian" Bridge (thrice), that Romulus Augustulus was assassinated, and that Justinian succeeded in 486; and all parts of the book are as accident prone.

A more profound unease is aroused by the major subtext, which is that all the advances in the reckoning of the calendar have been made by the individual Great Men, most working against the folly, ignorance, or self-interest of their contemporaries. This works right back to the imagined beginning of time computation, with a single "unknown man dressed in reindeer skin," a "Cro-Magnon version of Roger Bacon." The natural enemies of these lone geniuses are always established clergy, from the shaven-headed and painted Egyptian priests, to the corrupt Roman pontifices, to (above all) the Catholic Church. In many ways it is an anticlerical tract, celebrating the triumph of scientific certainty over religious obscurantism. Nineteenth-century America is alive and well in David Duncan.

Most intellectual historians currently take a different view of history, seeking to integrate individual thinkers within their societies and to comprehend the whole of their thought instead of saluting selected characteristics which contributed towards modernity. British academics are sometimes bemused by the stridency of some of the deconstructionist, [End Page 356] feminist, and...