The Measure of Reality (Magill Book Reviews)
Many of the material and intellectual tools essential to functioning in the modern world—clocks, maps, money, arithmetic, printing, accurate pictorial representation—were not in the foreground of the average European’s mental landscape during the late Middle Ages. The mentality of Medieval Europeans was much more qualitative than quantitative, regarding, for example, days made of sunrises and sunsets rather than a succession of hours of uniform length ticking away on a machine.
Alfred W. Crosby analyzes the transition from what he calls the Venerable Model to the New Model from every vantage point, devoting whole chapters to the subjects of time, space, mathematics, music, painting, and bookkeeping. He describes the far-reaching effects of breaking things into standard units: goods and labor into units of money, music into units of pitch and duration, one’s place in this world into units of latitude and longitude, and intellectual and emotional expression into units of words and sentences on a printed page. Crosby posits that visualization was the key ingredient in this shift in mentality, perhaps unlocking an evolutionary door that allowed, for example, some polyphonic compositions—ostensibly works of music—to be fully appreciable only with the eyes.
Europeans made a largely unwitting heretical break with their religious past, finding in the New Model an antidote “for the nagging insufficiency of its traditional explanations for...
(The entire section is 387 words.)
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The Measure of Reality (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Alfred Crosby is professor of American studies, history, and geography at the University of Texas, Austin. As that interdisciplinary appointment may suggest, Crosby is an adventurous scholar who ignores conventional academic boundaries. He is also a breezy, entertaining writer. Among his previous books is Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (1986).
In the preface to The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, Crosby recounts the genesis of this new book in intriguing terms. He describes The Measure of Reality as “the third book I have written in my lifelong search for explanations for the amazing success of European imperialism.” In Ecological Imperialism and Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History (1994), Crosby focused on the “biological advantages” the Europeans enjoyed, a theme also taken up by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (reviewed in this volume). However, that line of explanation, Crosby writes, seemed insufficient to account for the scale of European dominance. The “textbook answer”— superior European science and technology—failed to satisfy because it merely reframed the question. The answer, he came to believe,
lay at first not in [Europeans’] science and technology but in their utilization of habits of thought that would in time enable...
(The entire section is 1337 words.)