Wednesday, 29 February 2012

On Time

A medieval sundial on the porch at Barfreston church

One can't help thinking about time on a leap year day. And besides being an extra day in the year, today is also an Ember Day, as the Wednesday of the first week in Lent. I wrote about 'emberings' a while ago, and then I said, among other things:

The OED derives 'ember' in this usage from the Old English ymbren, which comes ultimately from OE. ymbryne, that is ymb 'about, round' + ryne 'course, running'. (Although our cautious lexicographer adds "It seems however not wholly impossible that the word may have been due to popular etymology working upon some Vulgar Lat. corruption of quatuor tempora". Not wholly impossible, no.)...

So the word evokes the turning course of the year, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, the involvement of God in the needs of the different seasons of the year.

I was reminded of this today not only when looking at the calendar, but when reading the wonderful epilogue to Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum, in which he reflects on the passage of time. Writing in 1135, he looks back to the year 135, and forward to 2135; the last paragraph in particular gives me a kind of breathtaking historical vertigo:

This is the year which holds the writer: the thirty fifth year of the reign of the glorious and invincible Henry [I], king of the English. The sixty-ninth year from the arrival in England, in our time, of the supreme Norman race. The 703rd year from the coming of the English into England. The 2,265th year from the coming of the Britons to settle in the same island. The 5,317th year from the beginning of the world. The year of grace 1135.

This, then, is the year from which the writer of the History wished his age to be reckoned by posterity... this computation will show what point in Time we have reached. Already one millennium has passed since the Lord's incarnation. We are leading our lives, or - to put it more accurately - we are holding back death, in what is the 135th year of the second millennium.

Let us, however, think about what has become of those who lived in the first millennium around this time, around the 135th year. In those days, of course, Antoninus ruled Rome with his brother Lucius Aurelius, and Pius the Roman was pope. Lucius, who was of British birth, ruled this island, and not long after this time, while those emperors were still in power, he was the first of the British to become a Christian, and through him the whole of Britain was converted to faith in Christ. For this he is worthy of eternal record.

But who were the other people who lived throughout the countries of the world at that time? Let our present kings and dukes, tyrants and princes, church leaders and earls, commanders and governors, magistrates and sheriffs, warlike and strong men - let them tell me: who were in command and held office at that time? And you, admirable Bishop Alexander, to whom I have dedicated our history, tell me what you know of the bishops of that time.

I ask myself: tell me, Henry, author of this History, tell me, who were the archdeacons of that time? What does it matter whether they were individually noble or ignoble, renowned or unknown, praiseworthy or disreputable, exalted or cast down, wise or foolish? If any of them undertook some labour for the sake of praise and glory, when now no record of him survives any more than of his horse or his ass, why then did the wretch torment his spirit in vain? What benefit was it to them, who came to this?

Now I speak to you who will be living in the third millennium, around the 135th year. Consider us, who at this moment seem to be renowned, because, miserable creatures, we think highly of ourselves. Reflect, I say, on what has become of us. Tell me, I pray, what gain has it been to us to have been great or famous? We had no fame at all, except in God. For if we are famed now in Him, we shall still be famed in your time, as lords of heaven and earth, worthy of praise with our Lord God, by the thousands of thousands who are in the heavens. I, who will already be dust by your time, have made mention of you in this book, so long before you are to be born, so that if - as my soul strongly desires - it shall come about that this book comes into your hands, I beg you, in the incomprehensible mercy of God, to pray for me, poor wretch. In the same way, may those who will walk with God in the fourth and fifth millennia pray and petition for you, if indeed mortal man survives so long.

If you just read that, inhabitant of the third millennium, he wrote it for you.

Quoted from Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154, trans. Diana Greenway (Oxford, 2002), pp.118-9.

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