A History of the Timeline

An impressive new illustrated history of timelines has just appeared in the United States. Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline is the work of Daniel Rosenberg, an associate professor in Oregon, with help from Anthony Grafton. I have not bought a copy yet, but can see the first 34 pages as a sample on Google Books here. Thanks to Nat Taylor for pointing out this publication. The formal launch date seems to have been May 1, but there are bibliographic references suggesting it was in circulation earlier.

Rosenberg's book deals with a topic closely related to the stemma: the long history of vertical, horizontal (and curled-up) timelines to represent history.

One gem of a story I noticed at first glance on the Google preview was the account on page 27 of the Milanese publisher Boninus Mombritius boasting that no scribe could have copied such an intricate and extensive work as accurately as he did with his printed version of Eusebius. Mombritius declared he had kept all the tables in order and put all the kings in their places.

This alludes to the muddle which hampered the diffusion of both the stemma and timeline in the medieval period, and erased almost all documentary evidence of their Late Antique models. It is challenging for any reader to grasp and to remember complex technical drawings which require careful measurement and layout. It is difficult for even a scribe with artistic skills to copy one correctly. And with fewer skills, time pressure and inadequate remuneration, it is practically impossible. Thus, the serious corruption done to the Great Stemma early in its diffusion led to it ultimately being discarded and begun all over again by medieval writers such as Peter of Poitiers.

I cannot see the index and I have not read the book yet, but on the pages I did read, Rosenberg seems to jump his history from Eusebius (who arranged his chronography in vertical columns, with the synchronous entries all carefully aligned with one another) straight to Peter of Poitiers with no mention of the Great Stemma.

The Great Stemma's arcade, which marks out the patriarchs from Adam to Abraham in a series of arches, each containing a span of years between each begetting, is incontestably the oldest left-to-right timeline extant in the West. The manuscripts date from 945 and later. If Rosenberg's valuable book were not to mention them, it would be incomplete.

It can also be argued that the Great Stemma contains a more sophisticated timeline than this simple arcade of patriarchs. I am exploring this on the latest page of the Piggin.Net website. The Great Stemma was undoubtedly created before the 8th century, perhaps in Visigothic Spain, perhaps in North Africa. It could even be that the Great Stemma pre-dates Eusebius, but those are matters that are still the subject of ongoing research.

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