Monday, 5 October 2009

More on Helvicus and the arithmetic scale for time

On 1 September I noted that, while trumpeting the advantages of using equal space to represent equal time, Helvicus credited his predecessor, the renowned chronologer Scaliger, with inventing the idea.

But I was wrong.

Fooled by the translation in an English edition of 1687, I spent half a day in the British Library on a wild goose chase. I was looking at five works by Scaliger - the De Emendatione Temporum of 1583, 1598 and 1629 and the Thesaurus Temporum of 1606 and 1658 - without being able to find any of evidence of this arithmetic scale for time. I was hampered by having almost no Latin and no Greek, but still expected to identify this key aspect of the layout. I managed to find the Peloponnesian War at DCCCCXLVI (on p99) in Eusebius Chronicorum Liber Posterior within the Thesaurus Temporum but the corresponding part of the next page certainly did not contain the item of 100 years later as Helvicus had seemed to describe. Like most chronologies, Scaliger’s simply uses as much space as he needs to record and describe each event, not allocating equal space to equal time at all.

A part of the page in the English translation of Helvicus which appears to say that Scaliger preceded Helvicus in using equal space for equal time in laying out his chronologies. 
Helwig [Helvicus], Christopher. 1687. The Historical and Chronological Theatre.
From the collection of Prof Michael Twyman. Photo: Stephen Boyd Davis.

But it seems the problem is in the translation! Apparently in the first edition of his work, in Latin, in 1609, Helvicus definitely claims the credit for himself: ‘the main goal I aimed at in this treatment is an equal distribution of years between the creation and our time in intervals of 100 and 10 years, because that is so useful’ (Praecipuum, quod in hoc Systemate spectavi, est annorum a Mundo condito ad nostra tempora usque per aequalia Centenariorum et Decadum spacia distributio, ob eximium usum, qui inde resultat). The translator seems to have thought that Helvicus was crediting Scaliger and inserted the name himself – hence his use of brackets around Scaliger’s name indicating that the name as such was not in the original. My thanks to Prof. Anthony Grafton of Princeton University for unravelling this for me.

Incidentally Prof. Grafton has an important book coming out in this area next year. More on this later.

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