Counting as we know it, including zero as a number, was brought to the traders and merchants of Europe by Leonardo of Pisa (whom we now know as Fibonacci) by his book "Liber Abbaci" in 1202. This system was already used by academics for mathematics, but was not known to the majority of the population. (ref: "The man of Numbers" by Keith Devlin, ISBN 978-1-4088-2248-7) My question is how did common people here in Britain count before that, for instance the year, day of month, hour of day: how were they counted, if at all?

I was seduced by the simplicity of Cominterm's comment/answer, but what happened when they got to "ten", and "eleven" and "twenty" and "one hundred" without knowing about a zero digit?

Regarding the "put on hold" this is not a trivial question that can be answered fairly easily -- I spent a lot of time trying to find out before I posted it here, and surely it comes well within "Cultures and historical practices" as listed in "What topics can I ask about here?" I am interested in the evolution from Roman numerals to Indo/Arabic, particularly in how people described dates, especially days of the month.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is probably a better fit for history of science and math.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 19, 2016 at 19:25
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    They counted the same way they do now - "one, two, three" etc. Liber Abaci introduced a system of symbolic representations for numbers. Prior to that, the dominant means in Europe would have been Roman numerals.
    – Comintern
    Mar 19, 2016 at 19:27
  • I would have marked Comintern's comment as an answer, so as far as I am concerned it can be closed. Thanks to all. Mar 19, 2016 at 20:21
  • History of science is still history, but I'm sure we can find another reason to close this? Mar 20, 2016 at 8:58
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    @HarryWeston before the zero was introduced, europeans used roman numerals. so you'd count like this: I->II->III->IV->V->VI->VII->VIII->IX->X... so 10 would be X, 20 would be XX and so on. there are two main systems for number representation: additional and positional notation systems. the decimal, octal, hexadecimal, binary and so on are all positional notation systems, because the absolute position and the digit itself tell you, what value the number has. an additional system only considers the relative position to the other symbols.
    – Armin
    Mar 20, 2016 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


The Liber Abaci is not about counting. Almost all of it are solutions to various algebra problems. The first chapter describes the Arabic numerals. The second shows how to multiply using Arabic numerals and it gets more complicated from there. So, it is not really a book about "counting".

Throughout the middle ages and going back to Roman times the standard method of doing advanced arithmetic was the counting table:

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The woodcut above that dates to around 1500 shows a typical counting table. It functioned much like an abacus. The user would draw lines on the table and then arrange pebbles to do calculations. In Latin the word for a pebble is "calculus". This leads to our words such as "calculation" and "calculus".

After Fibonacci, some people started to do calculations using Arabic numerals and it became a competing system. In fact, believe it or not there were contests between "algorists" that used Arabic numerals and "calculators" that used the old Roman method using pebbles. This dual system continued well into the 1600s, more than 400 years after the Liber Abaci was written.


Most likely they did not know how to count, except for the very basics, such as counting on their fingers and adding up small values. In the middle ages mathematics had a heavy foundation in arithmetic, and therefore the Ph.D. in Mathematics would be roughly equivalent to a third grader's homework today. Since academics and education did not have a emphasis in the middle ages, most people would not have explored number theory (even a most "primitive" case of coming up with zero). The monks, aristocracy and other educated people would have used the clumsy Roman Numeral system. Most common people were illiterate so they did not write down numbers, and did not understand numbers or number systems.

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    All of my information comes from Dorthy Schrader's "The Arithmetic of the Medieval Universities." Its an excellent source for a history student and I would urge any one interested in the subject to read it. You could clarify your comment stating specifically what makes the answer incredible. If you have any more credible information that differs from information in the answer please share! Apr 21, 2016 at 0:25
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    I checked my assumptions with someone I trust, and I owe both an apology for challenging you and a compliment for the very professional way you responded. I think the source of my confusion is the interpretation of your phrase "except for the very basics". (I tried to reverse my downvote, but there seems to be a timeout in play).
    – MCW
    Apr 21, 2016 at 1:07
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    Thank you you clarifying on your comment. I revised my post to try to prevent any further confusion. Apr 21, 2016 at 1:10

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