anno domini -- 5/13/21

Today's selection -- from The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West by Tom Holland. Charlemagne and the establishment of 'A.D.' as the basis for calculating dates. At the beginning of the ninth century A.D., with Rome long since crumbled, Constantinople was capitol of the leading Christian empire, the Rome of the East. But the Frankish king Charlemagne had built a new Western empire to eclipse it, extending across much of modern-day Europe. With that achievement firmly in hand he came to Rome and knelt during Christmas Mass at the shrine of St. Peter in the Vatican, where unexpectedly and dramatically Pope Leo crowned him emperor. But perhaps it wasn't so unexpected:

"So it was that Charlemagne came to rule as a second Constantine. ... The whole coronation, Charlemagne would later declare, had come as a surprise to him, a bolt from the blue. Indeed 'he made it clear that he would not have entered the cathedral that day at all, although it was the very greatest of the festivals of the Church, if he had known in advance what the Pope was planning to do.' ...

"Yet still an aura of mystery lingered around the ceremony. Had Charlemagne truly been as ignorant of Leo's plans as he subsequently claimed to be, then it was all the more eerie a coincidence that he should have been in Rome, and in St. Peter's, on the very morning that he was. Eight hundred years had passed to the day since the birth of the Son of Man: an anniversary of which Charlemagne and his advisers would have been perfectly aware. Over the preceding decades, the great program of correctio had begun to embrace even the dimensions of time itself. Traditionally, just as popes had employed the regnal year of the emperor in Constantinople on their documents, so other churchmen had derived dates from a bewildering array of starting points: the accession of their local ruler, perhaps, or an ancient persecution, or, most extravagantly, the creation of the world.

"Such confusion, however, to scholars sponsored by the Frankish king, was intolerable. A universal Christian order, such as Charlemagne was laboring to raise, required a universal chronology. How fortunate it was, then, that the perfect solution had lain conveniently ready to hand. The years preceding Charlemagne's accession to the Frankish throne had witnessed a momentous intellectual revolution. Monks both in Francia itself and in the British Isles, looking to calibrate the mysterious complexities of time, had found themselves arriving at a framework that was as practical as it was profound. From whose accession date, if not that of some earthly emperor or king, were years to be numbered? The answer, once given, was obvious. Christ alone was the ruler of all mankind -- and His reign had begun when He had first been born into the world. It was the Incarnation -- that cosmos-shaking moment when the Divine had become flesh -- that served as the pivot around which all of history turned. Where were the Christians who could possibly argue with that? Not at the Frankish court, to be sure. Clerics in Charlemagne's service had accordingly begun to measure dates from 'the year of our Lord' -- 'anno Domini.'

"Here was a sense of time, Christian time, that far transcended the local: perfectly suited to a monarchy that extended to the outermost limits of Christendom. Charlemagne, crowned upon the exact turning point of a century, could hardly have done more to identify himself with it."



Tom Holland


The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West


Doubleday, a division of Random House


Copyright 2008 by Tom Holland


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