Le Goff, Jacques: What Constitutes Europe

As we have seen, in the fourteenth century interest in agricultural progress encouraged the reappearance of treatises on agriculture. The Middle Ages, despite their bad name, were in truth a period of inventions generally, ranging from the applications of mills to the camshaft system, which could convert continuous movements into alternate ones. Some remarkable pages written by Marc Bloch testify to this medieval inventiveness. In the Middle Ages everything was steeped in religion; in fact, religion was so omnipresent that there was no word to distinguish it. The whole of civiliza­tion, starting with the material variety, was, as the great economist Karl Polanyi puts it, “embedded” in religion. However, as I have suggested above, once values came down from heaven to earth, the handicap that this religious throttle inflicted on progress was increasingly replaced by a springboard aimed at progress. The interplay between providence and chance was less and less propelled by means of a wheel connected to circular time, and more and more geared to the creative individual and collective efforts of the Europeans themselves. In no domain did the creativity of the Europeans make more progress than in that of time. For one thing, although the past, given the lack of any rational study (which would be applied to it only in the eighteenth century), was not the object of any true historical science, it was used for the elaboration of a store of memories that took on the dimensions of a culture. Medieval Europe used the past as a springboard from which to propel itself better and further forward. Mastery of the measurement of time also provided it with the means to progress. Although it continued to use Caesar’s Julian calendar, an innovation prompted by the Old Testament and Judaism introduced a rhythm that still regulates our lives, even today: this was the weekly rhythm, which establishes between the time for work and the time for rest a relationship that not only makes allowances with regard to the religious time of Sundays, but probably ensures the best possible use of human energy. The medieval Christian calendar furthermore introduced the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter into Europe: Christmas which, in contrast to the pagan Halloween festival of death, is a festival of birth and life, and Easter, the festival of resurrection, revival – not to mention Whitsun, the festival of the Spirit (which took the place of feudal festive customs such as “dubbing day”).

In the fifteenth century, the great Italian architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti put the following words into the mouth of one of his heroes:

Gianozzo: There are three things that a man can claim to belong to him: wealth, his body …
Leonardo: And what is the third?
Gianozzo: Ah! Something very precious. Even these hands and eyes are not so much mine.
Leonardo: Wonder of wonders! Whatever is it?
Gianozzo: Time, my dear Leonardo, time, my children.

The value of time praised in this text is no doubt of an economic nature (for time is money), but it is also a cultural and existential value. The Europe of the late fifteenth century was a Europe of precious time, time that was appropriated by the individuals and groups that were to constitute Europe in the future.

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