Today, we talk about clocks and timelessness. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
istorians struggle to see accurately
into the past through their
modern eyes. They look for
windows into the way people
thought -- in Plymouth Colony or
I found such a window the other
The four-voice women's ensemble, Anonymous 4, sang
a Christmas program of music from the 13th to the
15th centuries. It was a program of pure medieval
music, and it was all the work of unknown
It was perfect singing -- no trills, no vibrato --
no urgency. It had the glorious monotony of
perfection. You had to listen to it from outside
time and space. It was music with no past or
future, no climaxes or direction -- only the beauty
of Right Now.
Still, the age that gave us that music, 1300 to the
late 1400s, was interrupted by bubonic plague and
the death of half the people in Europe. It was also
the age that gave us the mechanical clock, and
therein hangs our tale: As people died, labor
became precious -- something to be hoarded and
metered. Medieval Europe was becoming time-driven.
But this music came from an age when Europe was
still timeless. Time stopped in the ornate initial
letters of hand-written medieval manuscript books.
They did what medieval music does. Letters,
interlaced with delicately inked leaves and
tendrils, formed mazes. They drew your mind to
trace the weaving forms, under and over, going
nowhere. They invited you to meditate.
Time stopped in medieval cathedrals. The mazes
built into their tiled floors invited the faithful
to enter interior space, to walk a road map of the
mind, to follow the maze in the eternal timeless
presence of God.
That ended in the clock-driven, forward-moving,
future-based world of the Renaissance: the brave
and wonderful new world that, in 1517, moved an
aging Erasmus to cry out, "Immortal God, what a
world I see dawning! Why can I not grow young
again?" It was the aggressive clock-driven world
you and I still live in.
So, as winter approached -- as the noise and
urgency of one more Christmas closed in on me again
-- I opened this brief window on an earlier world
without time. I listened to four women singing
perfectly -- without intermission, without
personality -- without haste. I listened to lines
of music weaving the maze of Christmas mystery --
over and under -- in some eternal present.
Mechanical clocks and printed books were poised to
kill that present tense -- that timelessness. They
were about to bind us to the relentless rational
face of time. The other night I found a brief
reprieve from the clutches of the clock. And I was
given a chance to learn medieval history -- by
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds