Monday, November 14, 2016

A Brief History of the Western Calendar

Time is an abstract notion. It takes a trained and smart mined to measure it and arrange it into a readable calendar. For over one thousand years, we have been working on the calendar as we know it today.


Albert Einstein once said "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once". For the genius physicist this possibility could actually became feasible but for ancient people things happened at different moments. They noticed the sun going down, the star rising, the sun going up again, the birth of a child, the death of an elderly, the plants growing and cropping, the trees changing from green to yellow and so on.
People did not invent the time, they just ordered it, gave it a name and tried to arrange their lives around it. So, they made calendars, time machines and kept records of their most important events, so that now, we would remember them. And we do, as much as we can.

The Babylonians and their calendar

The first ones to divide a year into 12 months were the Babylonians. They observed the rising of the stars, that happens before down. Day after day, during a year, they noticed that the sun passes the same stars at the same time. They divided the sky into 12 constellations and a period in which the sun passed a constellation became a month. The month then was divided into thirty days.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

This nice arrangement would have worked well if not for the moon. The moon was a very important deity, well venerated in many societies. The moon did not have the same cycle like the sun. We know now that the solar cycle is a 30.4 days while the moon cycle is about 29.53 days. So, there is a shift of an average of a day for each successive month. The two celestial calendars needed to be corrected. There were many attempts to align the two cycles. Again, about 499 B.C. the Babylonians came up with a plan. On a period of 19 years, the third, fifth, eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth year had an extra month.

Another idea we inherited from Babylonians was the division of a month in a seven-day period, each of the periods ending with an "evil day", to please the goods. The days were named after the seven planets that, opposed to the stars, appeared to change position.
The division of a day in 24 hours seems to come from Egypt, but later, the Babylonians, started to divide an hour in periods of 30s and 60s which came to us as seconds and minutes. The Babylonians were very good astronomers and their knowledge spread around the Orient and Occident, reaching China and Indian, Greece and Rome.

The Romans and their calendar

At the time Julius Caesar change the Roman calendar, in 45 B.C., the time in ancient Rome was somewhat out of control. The time before his reform were also called "the years of confusion".
Christopher Plummer as Julius Caesar
At first, Rome had a 10-month calendar that began in March. Numa, the second king of Rome, introduced 2 more months. In time the Romans produced a 24-year cycle with about 355 days/year and leap years of 277 or 278 days, coming to an average of 365.4 days per year in a cycle. Pretty good. But why would they change it? The reason was political. Numa also appointed the Pontiffs Maximus (the great priest) to take care of the calendar and correct it, adding the intercalary months when needed. The pontiffs were also involved in politics. A magistrate position in Rome lasted 1 year so the pontiffs could make it shorter or longer, according with their interests, by adding or omitting the intercalary months.
By the time Caesar became dictator in Rome (46 B.C.), the calendar was drifting so far away that the crossing of the Rubicon did not take place in January 10, 49 B.C. but earlier in mid-autumn. He started by lengthening the year of 46 B.C. introducing the month that had been missing during the " years of confusion". With the help of astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria (little is known about him) Caesar regulated the calendar: a year had 365 days, divided into 12 months, with a leap day added every 4 years to the month of February. Every year begun in January, the month that magistrates took office in Rome. This is the calendar we are using today.

Later reforms of the calendar

Pope Gregory XIII

The main reform later introduced to the Julian Calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, that decreed that October the 5th 1582 should be October 15th. This 10 days drift was meant to align the calendar year with the tropical year (a period in which the Earth completes an orbit around Sun).

The reform also slightly corrects the leap years and the time we celebrate Easter.

    The name of the days
•             Sunday - sun's day (Latin Domenica - the day of the Lord)
•             Monday - moon's day (Italian - lunedi - they of the Moon)
•             Tuesday - the day of the Nordic warrior god Tyr (Italian - martedi - Mars' day)
•             Wednesday - the day of the god Odin (Italian - mercoledi - Mercury's day)
•             Thursday - the day of the god Thor (Italian - jovedy - Jupiter's day)
•             Friday - the day of the wife of Odin, goddess Frigg (Italian - venerdi - Venus' day)
•             Saturday - Saturn's day (Italian Sabato - from Jewish Shabbat, the seventh day)

Also from Romans we inherited the name of the months:
1.            January - from Ianus, the god of gates, beginnings and endings
2.            February - from the roman festival of Februa (purification) which took place on February 15th
3.            March - from Mars, the god of war
4.            April - from the Latin term "aperire" that means "to open"
5.            May - from Maia, the Greek goddess of fertility
6.            June - from goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter
7.            July - from the month when Julius Caesar was born
8.            August - in the honor of emperor Augustus
9.            September - from "septem", that means "seven" because originally it was the seventh month of the year
10.          October - originally the eighth month of the year
11.          November - originally the ninth month of the year
12.          December - originally the tenth month of the year

Year 0 for
•             Christians - year 0 the birth of Jesus (year 4 BC)
•             Romans - 753 BC, foundation of Rome
•             Greeks - 776 BC, the first Olympiads
•             Egyptians - 2773 BC, the introduction of the calendar
•             Chinese - 2637 BC, not sure but this is the year for the first Chinese calendar
•             Jewish - 3761 BC, the date of Creation Muslims - 622 AD, Hegira

Note: I previously published this article in a website called Hubpages. As the website changed its format, I decided to take it down and put it on my own blog. In the future, there would be other articles coming here. Stay tuned. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

On making tools: what would mankind be without tools?

Just look around you and try to discover something that is not - or has not been produced without - a tool. There is the tree, a cloud, the bird...But everything else is or requires a tool: the house you live, the car you drive, the food you eat, the work you do, and so on....

So, I was just wondering, what would mankind be without tools?
When did the first tool entered our lives?

Yes, in the stone age, we know that, but stone age is such a big period of time...Stone age covers a little less than 3 million years! It’s beginning has been dated back 2.9 million years ago and it ended about 5.000 years ago.

In this time, the humans have created tools that now, we regard them as “primitive”. They would be like the first computers that took up a whole room, comparing it with a tablet. Or like the first chubby mobile phones...But we know that without these beginnings, we wouldn't have now the tablets or the smartphones, right?

So, someone, 3 million years ago, started the trend and we follow it till today.
I was trying to imagine how did he/her did it. How a person, if I can say so, or a hominid, more likely a Homo Habilis, have come up with the idea of creating a tool? 

The first tools were made out of stones. You think is easy to pick up a stone and smash a coconut and drink its milk. Then do it again, and again, and there you go, you have a tool. But aren't monkeys doing the same thing and even more and yet they did not passed the picking stage? So, it must be more. Must be that primordial thought that ran through those stone agers mind.  “What if?” -  they must have said and then experiment it for as long as they need it. They were not in any hurry. In a little less than 3 million years they transformed a river stone into a deadly weapon.

Here is a list of tool producing techniques from the paleolithic period, in its chronological order:
1. Oldowan technique - from river stones;  stones have one sharp edge or one sharp point.

2. Acheulean technique - a sharp edge obtained by chipping a stone to make concave surfaces, known as biface or hand axe.

3. The lithic reduction process discovered by Neanderthals, or Levallois technique - all edges sharp, also smaller stone tools

4. Aurignacian technique - produced sharp, long stone tools intended to be blades (for killing?)

5. Microlithic technique - produced small sharp core stones that were used to be attached to a spear, or later as arrow points.

From this point, humans discovered metals and the rest is history. So, are we smarter than an Australopithecus? Maybe. But for sure we have more knowledge that we inherited from our stone agers ancestors.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Use and abuse; the status of a woman in a noble house

Like now, the middle age society was governed by men. But like now, those men, being brave, smart, powerful, were also insecure. Their problem was adultery. They judged everybody in accordance with their own behavior. So, if they were infidel to their wives, they assumed the wives did the same.

This is a painting by Vasily Polenov, that I found in Wikipedia.
 It represents a father bringing his daughter to his lord.
Look at the posture of the lord...
It looks like he is counting his sheep!

If the household of common people was a little more relaxed, being a matter of economy involved (as being able to work and feed the family), the nobles’ households were very strict regarding the women physical freedom. Maybe those restrictions were coming via church, were the men were in power over “weaker souls” that could be easier seduced by other men (that could have been husbands too) and fall into sin. Women were closely watched for any sign of “deviant” behavior. If caught, or even suspected, they risk their lives. Here is what
we read in A History of Private Life:

“The first duty of the head of household was to watch over, punish, and if necessary kill his wife, sister and daughters as well as the widows and orphans of his brothers, cousins and vassals.Since females were dangerous, patriarchal power over them was reinforced. They were kept under lock and key in the most isolated part of the house: the chamber des dames (the room of the ladies, my translation from french) was not a place for seduction or amusement but a kind of prison, in which women were incarcerated because men fear them” (A History of Private Life; II, Revelation of the Medieval World; George Duby; 1988, Harvard College; p.77).

But why were women so feared. Well, for once they were the link to a alliance. Most of the time, men did not marry a woman because they loved her or they got along very well. It was because who their daddy was. The marriages were negotiated. The more powerful the dad, the more desired the daughter.
Then men had to keep that alliance alive. Even in an event of death of the wife, if the death occurred because an infidelity, then the man risked to be disgraced by his father in law, not speaking about the shame that came with it.
Then the women were sometimes feared for what secrets they may have discovered, what
magical tricks they may have learned or for the seduction they may have pursued upon men.

And maybe some fears were legitimate, because the society devalued women which, in return, were abused men.

But unlike the medieval times, today women have a better life (or do they?).

Friday, August 3, 2012

The life of men and women in the Neolithic village of Abu Hureyra

Abu Hureyra is a place now buried under the Lake Assad, in Syria. Before the waters invaded the place, there was a mound and, as usually where there is a mound there is digging, a team of archeologists came to unearth the remains of a Neolithic village. 

After digging, washing, brushing, cleaning, classifying and annalizing they came to some conclusion about how did people lived in Neolithic, especially in the period when they settled to live in one place, cultivating plants and raising livestock versus migrating from place to place, fallowing the animal herds and crop seasons. 

According with the book "The early human world" by Peter Robertshaw and Jill Rubalcaba, that follows the discoveries at Abu Hureyra, the life of Neolithic people was very hard: hours and hours and long physical work, repetitive (and boring according with modern standards) daily jobs, and enduring, alienating illnesses. 

The conclusions revealed by archeologists after digging and analizing the site looks like a heart breaking, hard to believe picture of a small society trying to survive by farming and raisins sheep and goats. 

The archeologists have uncovered seeds of wheat and barley, and remains of sheep, goats, pigs and cattle. 

The Neolithic villagers used to carry their crop from the field to their houses on their heads, so the neck bones grew larger. Also, from heavy lifting, their upper arms got stronger, causing the bones to bulge. 
They used to grind the grains between two rocks for hours, with  their toes curled under their feet until their big toe bones would wear off. They often used their teeth as a tool. The archaeologists think they hold cane so they can have free hands for other tasks and/or chewed plants to make strings. So much they used their teeth that they carved deep grooves, that must have hurt a lot since they were down to the roots. 

One particular deformity of the bone speaks about their health. The eye sockets were pitted and this particular condition was attributed to the parasites, eroding the bone. 

The book mentioned above is full of surprises about the life of Neolithic men and women. The picture is often very different then what we may think after learning from our textbooks. The style is vivid and entertaining. To be honest, I find it fascinating.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How did early Franks wear their hair

Clovis, second king of France (481-511)
The hair is one part of the human body that got the most attention during centuries of history.
Even today grooming our hair is a daily routine, taking anyway from one minute to over an hour, depending on how much emphasis one put on it.

From ancient egyptians, who used wigs and fake beards, to 18th century nobilities who created skyscrapers powdered wigs, the decoration of the head was taken beyond anyone’s imagination.

In this post I will tell you about the hairstyle of early franks.

Let’s start with a short description that Sidoine Apollinaire (a gallo-roman writer, who lived between 430 and 486 A.D.) made about franks, referring to men.

“They tied up their flexen or light-brown hair above their foreheads, into a kind of tuft, and then made it fall behind the head like a horse’s tail. The face was clean shaved, with the exception of two long mustaches” (Medieval Life, Paul Lacroix, Arcturus Publishing Ltd, 2011, p. 514). So, they used to make, what we now call it, a ponytail in top of their head and then pair it with moustaches. However, they did not cut their hair and the longer the hair the wealthier the person. Accordingly, the length of the hair was a indicator of one’s social status.

The kings and other nobles of the Franks wore their hair parted in the middle and falling over the shoulders sometimes sprinkled with gold-dust. The hair was plaited with bands that were sewn with precious metals and stones.

Franks loved and treasured their hair so much as to swear on it or cut it to present it as a symbol of trust, politeness and appreciation.

On the other side, touching someone’s hair with a razor was an insult and cutting it was a punishment.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A glimps into fashion in history READ THIS:

The Complete History of Costume and Fashion from Ancient Egypt to Present Days
By Bronwyn Cosgrave
Table of Content:
The Ancient Egypt: The first fashion style
Crete: Minoan splendor
Ancient Greece: Classical Elegance
Ancient Rome: Roman Extravagance
The Byzantine Period: Lavish Imperialism
The Middle Ages: Medieval Europe
The Renaissance: Early Renaissance Syle
Baroque Period: The Age of French Dominance
Eighteenth Century: The Rococo
Nineteenth Century: The Birth of the Dandy
Twentieth Century: The Age of Diversity
256 p
First published in Great Britain in 2000, by Hamlyn, a division of Octopus Publishing Group Limited
My Notes:
  • There are beautiful pictures of historical sources, sometimes 2 per page, sometimes one picture covers the whole page.
  • Not to many details about costumes or ornaments, just basic information and description, enough for a non professional reader.
  • As a plus, the book offers a short overview of the historical period covered in every chapter as well as an overview of the status of women. 
  • It is very funny to stroll through fashion from ancient egyptians, with their simple wrap up loin clothes, through the middle ages with it's funny poulains (the long pointy shoes), through the barroc with the sophisticated wigs and finally, arriving at our days with the emancipation of the woman body, almost a 360 degree turn, to the simplicity of the first fashion styles.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How did a girl got married in the middle ages

Marriage was probably the worst thing that could happen to a women in the past, till at least two centuries ago. During the late Middle Ages and Renaissance or even in the modern centuries, marriage was often a reason for cry and grief. Until early in the 20th centuries in some countries there was a great sobbing coming from the bride on the day of her wedding.

Why was marriage so bad?
  • ninety percent of the time was no love involved (the percent represents my personal estimate);
  • because your husband basically owned you and he had the right to apply coercions if he felt was right, in other words he could bit up his wife at will;
  • because you couldn't get a divorce;
  • because a woman had no right what so ever unless she was rich and there was money involved, money wanted also by a male.
Girl inspectin a Hope Chest. 1929, author Poul Friis Nybo.
U.S. public domain
from Wiki Commons

So, how did the couples got married?
First, the marriages were based on interests and wealth. If you owned some land, cattle or any goods that would rise you above the peasants class you could expect a husband with a similar status or wealth. But if you were Cinderella with a golden heart and a super-model overall appearance but you were too poor, your parents may sell you to an old, rich and mean bachelor for a few bucks. That’s bad, to begin with!

Second, somebody else was choosing your husband, usually your parents, and not because they didn’t love you but because the traditions that were fallowed by everybody. They would choose whatever was best for you and for them from among the suitors. Sometimes some midwives were involved in finding a bride and a groom and also negotiating a contract. Those middle persons (or shall I call them marriage agents?) would come to the bride’s house to propose a groom and then they would say what was expected from the bride to bring into the marriage. She’ll bring what is called a dowry often composed out of household items and personal pieces of clothing. Wealthy families would even give land, money, cattle and other goods, including real estate, especially if they had little or no pretenders.

Third, once married, you stayed married. No way around. If you couldn’t take it any more, the only option was to run away hoping that the mean husband won’t find you and bring you back, in which case you not only endured increase beating from your significant other but the public opprobrium as well.
When you got married you had to move to your husband’s house. Usually he was still living with his parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and other relatives. There was a whole new world, waiting for you to start cooking, cleaning, working the farm, taking care of the kids and perform other tasks that were assigned to you by your mother in law.

Maybe the worse thing was that the boy you really liked was still in the village and married to someone else whom he didn’t care about either.

So, was there a wedding?
When their kids got married, most wealthy families put up a public announcement and a small party that was not to celebrate the event but more for showing off the social status. Also, much thought was put into the gifts that were given to the newly weds by their god parents of their local lord protector. But a marriage into a poor family often went quiet, the event being reported only to the church which kept a record, and to close relatives. In some cases not even the church knew. It wasn’t until the Reformation that the church started to ask for a formal ceremony in front of a minister.

Then, after the wedding, what?
Simple! you took your dowry chest and moved away from home. From now on you were on your own. If you made it through the marriage, as most couples did, then you’ll do the same for your children as your parents have done it for you. And the cycle started over again. And it didn’t stopped until the 20th century!