You think keeping track of time zones is bad? Imagine if crossing a border meant you had a completely different calendar. You couldn’t even agree on the date! Charlemagne came up with the solution to make life easier for everyone else and put a bit of power in his own pocket at the same time. Here’s the story as told in the book The Forge of Christendom by Tim Holland
Prior to Charlemagne, dating systems had been pegged to a prominent date such as the beginning of a recent or contemporary monarch’s rule. Charlemagne began a new system of dating pegged to the birth of Christ and had himself crowned on Christmas Day to form a dramatic link between his reign and Christ. At the beginning of the ninth century A.D., with Rome long since crumbled and Constantine‘s capital still dominant in the East, Charlemagne had built a new Western empire extending across much of modern-day Europe to eclipse it.
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With that achievement firmly in hand, he came to Rome and knelt during Christmas Mass at the shrine of St. Peter in the Vatican. Where Pope Leo suddenly and dramatically crowned him emperor: “So it was that Charlemagne came to rule as a second Constantine. … The whole coronation, Charlemagne would later declare, had come as a surprise to him, a bolt from the blue. Indeed, ‘he made it clear that he would not have entered the cathedral that day at all. Although it was the very greatest of the festivals of the Church, if he had known in advance what the Pope was planning to do.’ … “Yet still an aura of mystery lingered around the ceremony.
Had Charlemagne truly been as ignorant of Leo’s plans as he subsequently claimed to be, then it was all the more eerie a coincidence that he should have been in Rome and in St. Peter’s on the very morning that he was. Eight hundred years had passed to the day since the birth of the Son of Man: an anniversary of which Charlemagne and his advisers would have been perfectly aware. Over the preceding decades, the great program of correctio had begun to embrace even the dimensions of time itself.
Traditionally, just as popes had employed the regnal year of the emperor in Constantinople on their documents. So other churchmen had derived dates from a bewildering array of starting points: the accession of their local ruler perhaps, or an ancient persecution, or most extravagantly the creation of the world. “Such confusion, however, to scholars sponsored by the Frankish king, was intolerable. A universal Christian order such as Charlemagne was laboring to raise required a universal chronology. How fortunate it was then that the perfect solution had lain conveniently ready at hand. The years preceding Charlemagne’s accession to the Frankish throne had witnessed a momentous intellectual revolution. Monks both in Francia itself and in the British Isles, looking to calibrate the mysterious complexities of time, had found themselves arriving at a framework that was as practical as it was profound.
From whose accession date, if not that of some earthly emperor or king, were years to be numbered?
The answer once given was obvious. Christ alone was the ruler of all mankind – and His reign had begun when He had first been born into the world. It was the Incarnation – that cosmos-shaking moment when the Divine had become flesh – that served as the pivot around which all of history turned.
Where were the Christians who could possibly argue with that?
Not at the Frankish court to be sure. Clerics in Charlemagne’s service had accordingly begun to measure dates from ‘the year of our Lord’ – ‘anno Domini.’ “Here was a sense of time Christian time that far transcended the local: perfectly suited to a monarchy that extended to the outermost limits of Christendom. Charlemagne crowned upon the exact turning point of a century could hardly have done more to identify himself with it.” (from http://www.delanceyplace.com/view_archives.php?1577 accessed on Dec 22, 2010) Read the full story including the meanings of the terms BC and AD, who determined it and how we began using BC and AD here.