The Measure of Reality

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 mysteries of reality.” Crosby repeatedly examines the struggle of the sacred and the secular, showing how religious thinking ultimately undid itself, pointing out, for example, that though it was religion that necessitated conceptualizing time as linear rather than cyclical, it was this same concept, ironically, that laid the groundwork for cosmologies that left God forgotten.

This work is amply researched. The footnotes, found on virtually every page, are tantalizing and betray the author’s love for his subject. This is a deeply satisfying book leading the intellectual descendants of these Europeans to reflect richly on the origins of their habits of thought.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, January, 1997, p. 811.

Business Week. April 28, 1997, p. 12E6.

Choice. XXXIV, May, 1997, p. 1556.

Civilization. IV, February, 1997, p. 82.

Journal of Interdisciplinary History. XXVIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 261.

Library Journal. CXXII, January, 1997, p. 118.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 26, 1997, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, January 26, 1997, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 25, 1996, p. 62.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 7, 1997, p. 23.