30e Festival franco-anglais de poésie

Sculpture sur prose / Prose Sculpture

  Sculpture sur prose de Patrick Williamson  


Document d'origine


Name, without a number


Not aware, Exiguus, that Incarnation was the beginning.

Doubt cast because of the numbering. The first-known.

Bede referred to before Incarnation, reckoning of time and astronomical matters.

Mystery after conception on, and birth on, followed by circumcision by Steel.


Astronomical, numbering the years before, in no doubt: "the year 0 is that many call 1 before

birth and we call 0 the sum of before and after, the interval between"



One rule independent of language, explicitly


(false premise as well as primitive)

Common Era fails.


(d'après l'article de George A Wilkins
 The year with a name but without a number »
paru en 2000 dans
Astronomy and Geophysics,
journal de la
Royal Astronomical Society,
Londres, vol. 41 n°
 6, p. 8.



© Tous droits réservés

The year with a name but without a number

George A Wilkins

When I submitted my note on "The year without a number" (A&G 41 2.8) I was not aware that many historians took the view that it was generally accepted at the time of Dionysius Exiguus and for many centuries later that the year of the Incarnation was the year that we now call 1 BC. For example, in the article on the calendar in the (New Encyclopaedia) Britannica (15th ed. 15 432) we find: "Dionysius took 'the year now designated 1 BC as the beginning of the previous cycle. In the 6th century it was the general belief that this was the year of Christ's birth'." A similar statement is made by Philip (1921, p51) and can be found in other books on the calendar, such as those mentioned by Saemundsson (A&G 41 5.9), and in a recent article by Veronis (2000). Doubt has, however, been cast on whether Dionysius deliberately chose to start his new table of the dates of Easter with 532 because he knew of the existence of the 532-year cycle; Somerville (A&G 41 4.9) quotes Wallis (1999, p156), who claims that he did not know about this cycle, but this seems unlikely.

The numbering system introduced by Dionysius was popularized by Bede, who used it in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), although the first known use of the Latin phrase Anno Domini is in 1219 in a Latin text according to Wilson (1937, p156) while its first known use in an English text is in 1579 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As I have already pointed out, Bede referred to the year now known as 61 BC as being 60 years before the year of the Incarnation, thus implying that he believed that this was the year before AD 1. About six years earlier Bede had written his book on The Reckoning of Time, in which he discusses the basis of the Easter tables and various astronomical matters. Somerville quotes a sentence from the translation by Wallis (p126) and claims that it shows that Bede considered that AD 1 was the year of the Incarnation. The sentence as translated appears to me to be illogical unless it is interpreted differently and implies that "the mystery" began in AD 1 after the conception on 25 March and the birth on 25 December in the previous year, followed by circumcision on 1 January, as suggested by Steel (2000, p210).

Jacques Cassini (1740, p5), who was the first to use the astronomical system of numbering the years before AD 1 was in no doubt as he stated that: "the year 0 is that in which one supposes that Jesus Christ was born, which many chronologists call 1 before the birth of JC and which we call 0 in order that the sum of the years before and after JC gives the interval between these years and so that the numbers that are divisible by 4 are the bissextile (leap) years both before and after Jesus-Christ". Thus, contrary to the views of Chambers (A&G 41 5.9), the astronomical system is more appropriate than the BC system since it allows us to use the ordinary rules of arithmetic for finding the interval between two years that are before and after the birth of Christ. Moreover it allows us to use the same rule for determining leap years in the Julian proleptic calendar (but not in the actual calendar) before and after AD 1.

It seems to me that there are good reasons for using the astronomical system rather than the BC/AD system for the enumeration of the years. First, it uses the ordinary rules and notation of arithmetic, it requires only one rule for leap years and it is independent of any particular language. Secondly, it does not explicitly show its derivation from any particular religion. Moreover it is generally accepted that Christ was born several years before AD 1, so that the BC/AD system is based on a false premise as well as on primitive mathematics. The alternative use of BCE/CE, where CE stands for Common Era, rather than Christian Era, fails on the first criterion. The astronomical system could be renamed the international system and it could be used by all scientists and others with an appreciation of numbers without the need for any formal agreement. Perhaps A&G could set an example! Unfortunately, the change to the World Calendar, which was blocked at the United Nations in 1954, could not be introduced so easily.