Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Very Common Common Era

Kepler gets the point—twice!

A quick historic note that while CE/BCE versus AD/BC debates seem to rage, they mostly miss the point entirely, or else eschew it in favor of political/religious concerns which are wholly unwarranted.

First, it’s important to know that the concept of CE/BCE is not a new one made up by evil, godless, cold-hearted, cynical, academic intellectuals trying to crush religion beneath their patent leather heels.  Johannes Kepler, way back in the early 1600s, used the dating designation of "Vulgaris Aerae", Latin for Vulgar/Common Era in several of his books.  It was likely in practice before then by other scholars as a way to designate a more universal dating system rather than the then standard “regnal” dating, which relied on naming the current local king, queen, pope, etc., and dating from his/her first year of reign forward.  While not a wholly bad way to describe history, regnal dating only works on a limited regional scale, and was very imprecise at best.  It requires knowledge of who the named regent was and when he/she started to reign in relation to other events which may be outside the scope of that particular region or current memory.  Kepler balanced his Common Era abbreviation with with "ante Vulgaris Aerae" or Before Common Era, and thus we have the CE/BCE in common use in a major work some two-hundred-plus years before the current arguments.  The designation is found throughout important Western books including The Encyclopedia Britannica (1797) up through The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) and forward.

But is that AD or CE?
But until the modern era, the Gregorian calendar was just one of competing systems*.  Islamic and eastern nations have always kept a different calendar system, and have only recently adopted the Gregorian calendar as the de facto standard.  Jewish scholars, for example, kept (and still keep) their own calendar system, and often denoted dual dates, with CE used for the Gregorian calendar designations.  In a darkly funny twist, Nazi Germany specified that dates be written with CE/BCE, before realizing that this was also the Jewish practice.

Even the Gregorian calendar was only adopted fully by all Western nations some 250 years ago with many protestant nations, like Britain, holding out against what they saw as another Papal encroachment.  It’s important to understand that the Western calendar codification wasn’t a universal system until very recently—the last 100 years or so.  This mostly required non-Western nations to formally adopt the Gregorian calendar system, which didn’t happen until the early 1900s rendering it the de facto universal calendar system, with designations being made all over the place that have nothing to do with Anno Domini or Before Christ.

To put it simply:

People of all faiths have taken to using [the Gregorian calendar] simply as a matter of convenience. There is so much interaction between people of different faiths and cultures – different civilizations, if you like – that some shared way of reckoning time is a necessity. And so the Christian Era has become the Common Era.

Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary-General
Civilization: The Magazine of the Library of Congress, June 1999

*For example: the previous semi-universal system, the Julian calendar, which was far in advance of most other system, was still flawed, but widely used.  To compensate for the difference in Gregorian versus Julian dates, a somewhat complex formula has to be applied to arrive at the "correct" date:
D = H – H/4 - 2

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