The Measure of Reality:
Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600 (1997)
Alfred W. Crosby (1931)
Europeans were not as magnificent as they believed, but they were able to organize large collections of people and capital and to exploit physical reality for useful knowledge and for power more efficiently than any other people [starting in the late Middle Ages]. Why?Historian Alfred W. Crosby has written several books on the cultural and ecological effects of European expansion into the world. As he states in the Preface to his book The Measure of Reality however, his work in those areas left him with a nagging question: What made European imperialism so successful? A number of historians and anthropologists have considered and written on this question over the years, perhaps most famously Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel; in The Measure of Reality Crosby presents his answers to the origins of the European advantage.
Preface, (p. x)
With the book’s subtitle, Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600, Crosby tips his hand: the key feature leading to Western European success, he concludes, was the transformation in their perception of the physical world from a qualitative view to a quantitative one. He argues that Western Europeans had held a qualitative understanding of their world since classical antiquity, but that during the late Middle Ages they began to question their model of reality, and that under the pressure of this questioning it gradually gave way to a new, quantitative view. He concludes that the fundamental European advantage as they expanded into and colonized much of the world is not to be found in a particular technology, or a biological or ecological happenstance, but rather in their “new way … of perceiving time, space, and material environment” (p. 227).
Crosby divides his analysis of the causes of this critical transformation into two parts. The first half describes the qualitative nature of Western European thinking in the early Middle Ages, and then goes on to review what Crosby feels were some important conditions present in Western Europe that served as prerequisites for the transition to the new way of thinking, and some prominent developments during this time that he feels are evidence of the transition in progress. In the second set of chapters Crosby highlights the areas he feels led to “striking the match,” that is, that were the principal causes of the transition to what he refers to as the new Western European "mentalité."
The book opens with a look at the set of beliefs about the world and the perceptions of their physical reality that Western Europeans held well into the heart of the Middle Ages, what Crosby refers to as the “Venerable Model.” A key feature of this view of the world he claims, was its qualitative nature; Western European knowledge of the physical world at the end of the first millennium was, according to Crosby, more a dramatic narrative than a measured description. He recounts, for example, that many “known things” were tied to the bible and not considered as even needing to be questioned; that numbers could have qualitative meaning, with some being better or more appropriate than others, such as the number three being tied to the Holy Trinity; and that reality was perceived as heterogeneous, so that just because something behaved in a particular way where one lived, did not mean that it could not behave in a radically different way in some far-away place. What the Venerable Model gave Western Europeans, Crosby argues, was an understanding of reality and their world that provided “structures and processes that a person could live with emotionally as well as comprehend intellectually” (p. 22). This model did not, however, invite questioning or evaluation of its fundamental meaning or accuracy.
Crosby then proceeds to outline the conditions in Europe that laid the groundwork for the radical changes in Western ways of thinking that he feels occurred beginning in the 1300’s. He refers to these critical, prerequisite conditions as the “oxygen and combustibles,” but advises us not to confuse these conditions with the true causes, the “striking of the match” that eventually led to the transformation in thinking.
One such condition was the arrival into Europe of translations of the works of Greek scholars of antiquity such as Plato and Aristotle. The Europeans revered these ancient scholars as a part of their cultural heritage, but most of these classical works had been lost during the centuries of the Middle Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. Arab scholars, however, had preserved these works, and contact between Arabs and Western European Christian and Jewish scholars in the late Middle Ages re-introduced the texts into Europe, causing an upheaval in European thinking. Western scholars could not dismiss the classical works out of hand because of their importance in European cultural history, but in trying to align the new knowledge with the existing Venerable Model they were forced to develop increasing complex and often contradictory explanations. Thus, the existing Western view of the physical world was suddenly thrown open to question and examination. Once this door opened to questioning previously accepted truths, it could not so easily be shut again. Crosby also notes that the study of the large numbers of new texts available led to the development of novel ways of cataloging and organizing information, and to the tendency to quantitatively measure what was being studied to be able to make clearer statements about it.
A second condition present in Europe was the growth of a new merchant class, which Crosby states the elites of the church and state found difficult to control. As it grew in size, this new merchant class also drove changes in Western behavior and thinking. For one, to increase their profits the merchants began developing machines, thus becoming drivers of new technologies. In addition, their increasing commercial activity with far-away and previously only dimly known lands brought with it the introduction of new ideas and knowledge which often challenged Western European’s existing beliefs and understanding.
A third such condition, which in fact reinforced the first two, was the division of Europe into many kingdoms, small and large, representing a variety of political, religious and intellectual outlooks. Crosby argues that the lack of the centralization, and so standardization, present in many other parts of the world made Europe a fertile ground for new ideas. Scholars who became unwelcome for their studies in one kingdom, for example, could often find refuge and continue their work in another where the cultural and intellectual environment was more welcoming (or simply because the two kingdoms happened to be in competition). The variety of kingdoms also fostered the independence of merchants due to the fact that the elites own hold on power often depended heavily on the abilities and wealth of their merchants.
Finally, the re-introduction of money played an important role in the transformation to a quantitative way of thinking about the world. Crosby notes that although the Roman Empire had used cash, Western Europeans did not for much of the Middle Ages. As the merchant class and thus commercial activity expanded, money was re-discovered as an efficient way to give items and work a measurable worth. With the advantages of using money, however, came also challenges: the various kingdoms created different currencies, and in addition Europe found itself chronically short of money due to limited and already exploited gold and silver deposits. These challenges led a high emphasis being placed on developing new ways of tracking and valuing money --- “no people on earth [were] more obsessed with counting and counting and counting” (p.74) states Crosby.
Having established what he defines as the “oxygen and combustibles” leading to the transformation in Western Europe away from a qualitative view of the world, Crosby next looks at some specific areas that saw dramatic and influential changes. In separate chapters on Time, Space and Mathematics he shows how advances in these areas provide evidence of the new way of thinking that was developing. As with the “oxygen and combustibles” however, he cautions us that the developments in these areas represent only “necessary but insufficient causes” of the transformation in Western European perception of the world; he describes them in part to ensure we do not mistake them for the true causes, which he outlines in the second half of the book.
The chapter on Time describes how Europeans moved from having hours in the day which could vary in number and length from country to country and even season to season, to defining a standard, consistent, universally applied measurement of time, and the fascinating story of the development of the first mechanical clocks. It also reviews the gradual switch to a more accurate, standardized calendar led by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, though he notes that some orthodox and protestant Christians clung to their unreformed calendar for centuries afterwards in protest.
Moving to the changes in Western perceptions of Space, Crosby describes how the introduction of the compass from Asia and the increased commercial travel between distant ports drove the preparation of better and more accurate maps, and so more generally to a new understanding of geography and spatial relationships --- again a move away from a qualitative view to a more measurable, structured view. Ultimately this led to the questioning and finally overturning of the Venerable Model’s view of the universe as concentric spheres with Earth as the center.
Crosby concludes the first half of his book with a review of the significant developments made in the area of Mathematics. He describes how in the late Middle Ages, Europeans gradually switched from using Roman numerals to the Hindu-Arabic numbers we are familiar with today; over time came also the definition of symbolic operators such as the ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ signs. These changes simplified the work of counting and calculation for merchants trying to track their business dealings as well as the investigation and description of the physical world for scientists. They also enabled rapid developments in areas such as algebra and geometry, which would in turn impact a broad range of other human activities, including the arts.
But these advances in mathematics and new understandings of time and space, while evidence of the transition in Western Europe to a new, quantitative way of thinking about the physical world, were not its ultimate causes according to Crosby. He defines them as “necessary but insufficient causes” and, having detailed the prerequisite conditions present in Europe during the late Middle Ages (the “oxygen and combustibles”), as well as these “insufficient causes,” he turns his attention in the second half of the book to what he feels were in fact the true causes of the new Western European mentalité.
Crosby refers to these true causes as “the striking of the match.” To play off of his analogy, he asks the following question: given the “oxygen and combustibles” present in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, what lit the flames that served to destroy the old ways of thinking about the physical world, and so permitted Western European thinking about time and space and mathematics to take on the quantitative form and structure so familiar to us today? For Crosby, the triggers came out of radical advancements in three areas: Music, Painting, and Bookkeeping. In separate chapters he examines how developments in these three subjects led Western Europeans to develop a less qualitative, more quantitative world view.
He looks first at dramatic changes that took place in Western European view of music. Up until about 1000 A.D., Crosby notes that music was mostly liturgical, and performed from memory; it was also monophonic, with the musical structure dictated by the Latin text. Eventually, however, the canon of works became too large and difficult to memorize, and had to be written down, which drove the development of some way to clarify to a reader of the music such things as pitch and timing. By the 11th century, what we recognize today as the musical staff had been created, with symbols defined to indicate pitch, as well as other features of the music. (Crosby makes a wonderful digression here, explaining the source of the now universally known “do, re, mi …” sequence.) Thus music became “visualized,” a critical development; suddenly music could be subjected to mathematical analysis and understating, and complex, polyphonic music could be created visually, on paper --- centuries later this meant that Beethoven could continue to compose music even after he became deaf, because he from seeing it on the page he could hear it in his head. More generally, these new methods moved beyond the church, to street musicians and other entertainers --- spreading with them a quantitative mindset where before only a qualitative view had been present.
Crosby next turns his attention to painters, and in particular the development of perspective in painting. He notes that Medieval pictures could have multiple “nows” depicted at once, essentially telling a changing story in one painting; similarly they could depict an object from several viewpoints at once, or use exaggerated size to show relative importance. Thus a qualitative view of a scene or image was represented, as opposed to one which attempted to capture the physical reality seen by the artist. Beginning in the 1300’s according to Crosby, Western Europe began encountering examples of different styles of art from outside lands, and by the 1400’s was developing a growing obsession with the mathematics of optics and geometry. The exposure to other art opened Western European artists to the idea of new ways to represent scenes, and some began introducing more accurate perspective into their paintings, if not always consistently. As the mathematics around optics and geometry became more fully developed and formalized, artists used the new knowledge to pursue perspective in their paintings more rigorously, and sought to create as realistic a representation of reality in their paintings as possible. Thus the influences of increasing trade along with the developments in mathematics led to new ways of thinking about painting which encouraged a quantitative and realistic view of the physical world.
The third area which Crosby states played a critical role in developing the new European mentalité is that of bookkeeping --- a seemingly mundane topic, though in Crosby’s telling it is anything but. Before the 10th century, most goods were sold by peddlers: individuals who had a limited stock, which they sold over a limited area, and so who had little need to keep detailed track of their accounts. By the 10th century, peddlers were turning into merchants, trading in a variety of goods and in many different locations. As commerce increased it became critical to be able to track it accurately. Crosby states that merchants initially used a kind of narrative style for this tracking, similar to a diary. This narrative approach gradually evolved into a more quantitative, mathematical accounting, first with the switch from using Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numbers, then, in a major step that he writes was first taken in Italy, the development of double-entry bookkeeping. With these new developments, a merchant’s accounts and standing could relatively clearly and accurately be tracked and analyzed. The new techniques eventually allowed the development of companies and bureaucracies, entities that would have the ability to initiate and control businesses and lands world-wide.
Crosby concludes then that the significant and fundamental changes that occurred in the areas of music, painting and bookkeeping during the late Middle Ages opened the minds of Western Europeans to a new way of perceiving their physical world. The key element of this new view was its quantitative nature: it became acceptable and normal to subject and constrain the world to a standardized, measurable basis. With this new mentalité in place, dramatic advances in science, technology and business became possible, leading in turn to improvements in areas such as military armaments and commercial organization that would provide a nearly invincible advantage for Europeans as they colonized and exploited the physical world beyond their shores.
Reaching the end of the book, however, I thought back to the original question in the Preface: “Europeans …were able to organize large collections of people and capital and to exploit physical reality for useful knowledge and for power more efficiently than any other people…. Why?” And although Crosby makes a convincing case for the development of this new quantitative mindset in Western Europe, from defining the “oxygen and combustibles” to describing what he feels constituted the “striking of the match” and the proximate advances that resulted, I found myself differing with him on where to place the emphasis. Say we agree with the general flow of his argument: that the new mentalité gave Europe the advantages it needed to dominate much of the globe from the 15th century onward, that this new way of thinking arose in particular from dramatic changes in how Europeans thought about music, art and bookkeeping (“the striking of the match”), and finally that these changes were possible because of the specific set of conditions that existed in Europe in the late Middle Ages (“the oxygen and combustibles”). Accepting that sequence as reasonable, is it not the “oxygen and combustibles” that must be considered the most critical element, the key to the whole transformation? The counter argument would be that these conditions existed or could have existed elsewhere in the world (in China, say, or India, Africa or the Americas), but that the people in these other societies were not able or would not have been able to “strike the match”. I suppose it could be argued that non-Europeans were somehow genetically or environmentally unable to make use of similar “oxygen and combustibles,” but I struggle to see that as a reasonable conclusion.
Instead of accepting that line of argument, I am drawn back to Crosby’s description of the situation that existed in Western Europe during the late Middle Ages, and in particular the confluence of two critical conditions he points out --- two of his “oxygen and combustibles.” First, Europe was a collection of small-to-large kingdoms, and not standardized or centralized around a particular set of religious, political or intellectual ideas, which enabled scholars and others to move to a more welcoming neighboring state if necessary, and thus allowed new ideas to grow and develop with less risk of being squashed out by the existing elite. Second, into this diverse constellation of kingdoms arrived texts from the ancient Greek philosophers, works that had been lost for nearly a millennium, but that Europeans viewed as part of their heritage. Given the revered status these ancient Greek scholars held in European culture, the new knowledge gained from these texts could not be dismissed out of hand despite the fact that much of it conflicted with the existing, accepted European view of the world. Thus European scholars were forced to develop and adapt their view of reality to account for the new information, and once that path was opened --- once such questioning was accepted --- there was no turning back.
With this confluence of conditions, this set of “oxygen and combustibles” to refer back to Crosby’s analogy, could it not be argued that it was only a matter of time before “the striking of the match” took place? That the changes in music, painting and bookkeeping, and other areas, were the not surprising outcome of a society that was questioning its most fundamental beliefs? The situation that existed at that point in European history seems to me to have constituted a unique environment, which permitted the dramatic Western European expansion in knowledge and then power that followed. (And, if one considers the introduction of the ancient Greek works back into Western Europe as a critical component in Europe’s eventual rise to power, then the fact that this transfer occurred from the Arabs to the Europeans largely as a result of scholarly exchange in Moorish (Arab) occupied Spain seems rather ironic in light of today’s so-called battle of civilizations.) If another part of the world had experienced the same confluence of conditions, is it reasonable to assume they would not have developed a new mentalité, a quantitative view of the world?
All of this quibbling about true causes aside, Crosby has written an engaging narrative describing the Western European transition to a qualitative view of their physical world. Don’t let the somewhat dry and esoteric sounding title of the book dissuade you; in this review I have outlined his thesis, but in each chapter of the book he introduces us to key moments and people in the slow but steady march through this transformative time in world history. We discover surprising facts about this period, and about the origins of our current way of perceiving the world and operating in it. As just one example: I have little musical training or background, but I found his chapter on the changes that occurred in music in the late Middle Ages fascinating and thought-provoking. And my reaction to the rest of the book was similar. Beyond the fundamental question that Crosby wants to answer with his book --- wherefore the European advantage --- we come away with an often startling new understanding of how many of the things we take today as common sense actually came to be developed not so very long ago.
Other reviews / information:
This book has been on my to-read shelf for a while (since 1997 actually), and when I finally pulled it down a couple of weeks ago, I saw the name Alfred Crosby and noticed that he had written books on The Columbian Exchanged and Ecological Imperialism, and it rang a bell. Going back to look at Charles Mann’s book 1493 (find my review here), I realized this was the same Crosby who Mann writes of as having helped stimulate his interest in the subject, and so leading to his research and books, which also include 1491 (find my review here).
A critical point of interface in medieval Europe was in Moorish Spain, were Arab, Christian and Jewish scholars came together, as detailed in books such as Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher, and The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf