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Volume 14, Issue 2: Historia

Northumbrian Time Reckoning

Chris Schlect

"In the year of Rome 798 the Emperor Claudius, fourth after Augustus, wishing to prove that he was a benefactor to the State, sought to make war everywhere and to gain victories on every hand. So he made an expedition to Britain…. He brought this war to an end in the fourth year of his reign, that is in the year of our Lord 46."

Writing from the hinterlands of the known world, Bede explained how the gospel transformed his remote land. He wrote early in the eighth century. Or the sixteenth century, if we reckon time as the Romans did. Bede's scheme of time-reckoning had been devised in 532 by Dionysius Exiguus. Or should we say that Dionysius developed his scheme in 1284 the year of Rome? Or in 1307 the year of the Olympiad? Or 1260 years before the French Republic? In Bede's day—whatever year it was—years were named from the founding of Rome, or the regnal year of an important Caesar. It was Bede's stature that influenced the Christian West to reckon time as Dionysius Exiguus had—in terms of Jesus Christ, Lord of time and Lord of history.
How we label time affects how we think about time. Because Jews and secularists understand this better than many of us Christians, they reportedly live in the year 2002 C.E. ("common era"), rather than in 2002 anno Domini. They know that names matter. And like all naming, naming time is a value-laden assertion about reality.
We see this in the problematic name "Renaissance." In anno domini 1860 the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt published The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Since then we have grown accustomed to gathering out of chronological space one clump of time, setting it apart from the rest, and calling it "Renaissance." So we impute a sharp contrast between "Renaissance" and the time that came before it, which was not Renaissance. (One accidental result was the invention of the "Middle Ages.") Is "Renaissance" a name that faithfully represents chronological reality? Consider: Why is there so wide a variety of proposals about when the "Renaissance" began or ended? And if "Renaissance" denotes a change from the Middle Ages, then why do so many historians now speak of a "Northumbrian Renaissance" in Bede's England of the mid-700s, a "Carolingian Renaissance" at the turn of the ninth century, and a widespread "Twelfth-century Renaissance"? Why do we find in Petrarch and Dante and Boccaccio, whose achievements are indeed remarkable, such continuity with what preceded them? Why do most historians trace the rise of the modern state back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries? Why do economic historians see a "Commercial Revolution" beginning at around 950, which led to a Genoese named Columbus and the Medici of Florence? The answer to these questions may have something to do with the fact that the idea of "Renaissance" was formulated by scholars who were enamored with the attainments of the modern world, but who did not want to give credit for these attainments to the gospel-permeated "Age of Faith," that "Dark Age" that lasted a millennium beyond the fall of Rome.
We all name time, but such naming is not worldview-neutral. Consider our timelines. As good sons of modernity, we make politics the baseline into which everything else must relate in order to make chronological sense out of it. For example, we tell the story of England in terms of Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Henry II, Richard the Lionhearted, Magna Carta, Richard III, Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I, George III, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and so on. Now imagine an alternative way of telling England's story, in terms of the Church—even Archbishops of Canterbury. In 597 Augustine effectually preached to the King of Kent, bringing orthodoxy to the island. Cuthbert (740—760) and Dunstan (960—988) were the great men of their ages, and led revivals of learning and piety. It was Robert of Jumieges (1051) who promised the English throne to William, Duke of Normandy. And as king, William appointed Lanfranc of Bec to the see of Canterbury (1070—1093); it was Lanfranc who sowed the good seeds of independence from the crown. Lanfranc's pupil and successor, Anselm (1093—1114), challenged royal meddling in the Church, explained the procession of the Holy Spirit better than any Westerner during the East-West Schism, and whose nominalism and covenant gospel are high-water marks in doctrine and philosophy. Thomas Becket (1162—74) was martyred for his courage against royal encroachments upon the Church, and Chaucer sent his pilgrims to Becket's shrine. Stephen Langton (1207—29) helped the barons with Magna Carta, and undermined Pope Innocent III's attempt to nullify it. Thomas Cranmer (1533—59) advanced the Reformation that still persists among Presbyterians and evangelical Anglicans. Cranmer was succeeded by a scholarly giant in an age of learned men, Matthew Parker (1559—76); for his preservation of manuscripts we are still thankful. And in spite of himself, William Laud (1633—60) inspired the Westminster Assembly. Would that the name Anselm were as familiar as William the Conqueror, or that we knew Becket as well as Richard III! When we tell England's story through her archbishops, we notice the political trends we are used to seeing, but we also see the more profound trends that the modern storyteller tends to obscure.
Bede thought deeply about history, and about the little things that make all the difference in it, like our names for time. For him, England's story was one of gospel advance against paganism, spanning years. The years of the Lord.

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