The author says in the first lines of his preface that this is his third book, “in my lifelong search for explanations for the amazing success of European imperialism.” Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Huayna Capac were all “great conquerors,” but they were “homebodies” compared to Queen Victoria. His argument is, in part, that Europeans in the late medieval period developed the ability and the habit of (relatively) precise measurement for both physical and intangible properties, such as hours of the day, something the author describes as “pantometry” or measuring everything.
To put the change in perspective, the author first takes the reader into the medieval view of the world, which he calls “The Venerable Model.” Time and distance did not need to be precise to be meaningful. Numbers themselves were imbued with mystical meaning from their relationship to religious stories and texts. These were often as important, if not more important, than their quantities. Ten miles could be nine miles (three times the perfect number of three, the number of the Trinity, for example) if the need arose.
He then describes a gradual but profound sea change in thinking beginning about 1250, to an outlook he calls “The New Model.” This new thinking—the need to precisely measure and quantify everything— is expressed in art (the development of perspective), music (plainsong to polyphony, written music), and bookkeeping (narrative records to double-entry bookkeeping). There is more to it than that, of course. More detailed and reliable maps allowed sailors to travel (and return) safely, bringing wares and news (and alas! disease) from faraway lands.
I liked a lot about this book. I enjoyed reading about the medieval world and the changes in the Renaissance. This was a fun read. For example, after the development of polyphonic music, people who remembered plainsong complained about the newfangled stuff. It’s comforting to know that we old fogeys have been complaining about kids’ music since at least the 14th century.
However, a flag went up when Crosby implied Queen Victoria spent her days gallivanting around that empire the sun never set on. Queen Victoria never left Europe. Hmmm…
As engaging as I found this book, I did not see that Crosby ties the change in European measuring habits to imperialism. He does not support his basic thesis. Granted, the habit and ability to measure would make imperialism easier, but whence the impetus in the first place? That’s never discussed.
IMseldomHO, Crosby also gives short shrift to knowledge gained through Arab and Indian contacts. Other people in the world measured things.
If the reader goes into the book with these expectations, it can be an enjoyable read. If the reader seeks eternal and ultimate truth, the book will disappoint.
Alfred W. Crosby (1931-2018) was an American historian, writer, and professor specializing in environmental history. He was a professor of History, Geography, and American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Helsinki. One of his earlier books, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), details plant and animal exchanges between the Americans and Europe. Among his other books are Epidemic and Peace, 1918 (1976) (Republished as America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 1989, 2003), and Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy (2006).
Title: The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600
Author: Alfred W. Crosby (1931-2018)
First published: 1997