I was surfing websites for an upcoming linkfest on the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688/9, when I noticed recurring discrepancies in dates. The main example: William of Orange’s landing in Britain seemed to have occurred on either 5 or 15 November. Eh? Surely that’s a straightforward enough piece of information to check? Fortunately – although I should really have remembered this anyway – one website gave a little more information than most about its datings: it had converted the dates to the Gregorian (New Style) calendar, introduced under the papacy of Gregory XIII in 1582, and which was not in fact in use in Britain (or its colonies) in 1688.
So it’s not quite so simple after all.
The Gregorian calendar – still widely in use today – was invented to deal with a serious problem with the old Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar). That was quite simple: a year was taken to be 365.25 days long, so in order to adjust, a leap year of 366
years days! days! was held every four years – in the years (AD) that were divisible by 4 – and the rest were just 365 days.
Trouble is, a year (that is, a solar year or ‘tropical’ year, the length of time it takes for the earth to go once around the sun) isn’t actually 365.25 days. It’s changing slightly over time, but it’s more like 365.2422 days . That meant that over the course of several hundred years, the Julian calendar became increasingly inaccurate (in the sense of being out of step with the timing of the seasons of the year).
In the Gregorian calendar, the year is approximated at 365.2425 days – not a precise match, but it means that it will be several thousand years before any major adjustment is required. It achieves it by one main device: century years are only leap years if they are divisible by 400, rather than 4. So, the years 1600AD and 2000AD were leap years, but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not. (I remember once reading a crime novel that turned on the fact that there was no Leap Year’s Day in 1900 – but I can’t remember the author or the title. Anyone?) There are also different rules for calculating Easter, but let’s not go into that here.
Why then did it take until 1752 for this sensible new calendar to be introduced into Britain? In large part, because it was a Catholic invention and therefore automatically suspect. But it was not simply a matter of religious politics. Putting the calendar ‘right’ involved a momentous change: ‘losing’ several days from the existing calendar – by the 1750s, 11 days. (During the seventeenth century the difference was 10 days.) In fact, it took over three centuries for the new calendar to be adopted throughout Christian countries. Britain was far from being the last to take it up. If Protestant states were resistant to a Catholic imposition, in the countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church it took even longer. Russia did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1918, after the ‘October’ revolution, which was as a result subsequently celebrated in November. (But then, it apparently took Russia until 1700 to adopt the Julian calendar.) In Greece it did not happen until the 1920s. (By that time, the discrepancy had risen to 13 days.)
In Britain, the change caused a fair amount of trouble when it finally was adopted in 1752, by an Act of Parliament of 1751. The decision was made that 2 September 1752 should be followed directly by 14 September; the period was chosen for the absence of major calendar festivals. The common characterisation of ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ rioters as ignorants who believed that they had literally ‘lost’ eleven days of their lives is, however, crude and patronising – and a myth. There was apparently some suspicion that authorities would use this opportunity to cheat taxpayers; workers may have feared that they would be cheated by their employers. The new calendar was still seen as ‘popish’ and foreign, disrupting British traditions and calendar customs. According to one of the few detailed studies of the subject:
The English calendar as it appeared in the mid-eighteenth century was a great reef of religious, economic, social, ritual, customary and natural elements, the by-product of centuries of cultural accretion; it could not simply be reformed by a stroke of the legislator’s pen, like the pottle or the prayer book.
However, it seems doubtful even that there were any riots or cries of ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ except in later imaginations (the earliest depiction is a 1755 Hogarth print, and that was a satire on an election riot, described as “an inspired invention”. I’ve seen the original paintings in London and they are indeed very, very funny.). The ‘Calendar Riots’ were a myth that say more about snobbish attitudes towards the ‘common people’ in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than the actual understandings of those people.
It did not help that in some respects the calendar change was fudged (some things never change in British politics…). The “basic principle was that all events fixed to a particular date stayed on that date, while the calendar itself was pulled forward eleven days” (so, for example, Guy Fawkes Night was still celebrated on 5 November). But in fact the calendar was only “half reformed”. When it came to property rights and financial matters, “a second and contrary principle operated”: “All financial transactions would run their full natural term, regardless of the eleven missing days, and expire eleven nominal days later”. That included rents, fairs, taxes, contracts. Here was the bit that affected wage workers, or at least those hired annually: “(for example) a labourer hired at Michaelmas 1751 (29 September) would receive his final instalment of wages a full 365 days later (9 October 1752)”. (And this, if you ever wondered, is also why the British tax year begins on 6 April.)
Most of all, perhaps, the calendar reform had an impact on the farming calendar, with considerable knock-on effects in economic and social activity. “Eleven days were quite a long time in the agricultural year, and their removal marked a significant dislocation between the human and natural calendars.” Certain local festivals such as wakes, which were closely connected to the harvest season but also to specific saints’ days, may have been particularly awkward to resolve. And most resistance to the new calendar came not in the form of rioting, it would seem, but in a stubborn rejection of New Style dating for major holidays like Christmas. That resistance was indeed ‘traditionalist’ – but it was not simply ignorant, superstitious or irrational. Or at least, it was no more irrational than the impulses that compromised the official implementation of the calendar reform wherever property and money were at stake.
In keeping up the Old Style wakes, Christmas, May Day and so on, people were applying the same logic that the authors of the Act had applied to fairs [and other financial dealings]: namely, that they should maintain their place in the natural year and their relationship with the seasons rather than hop forwards with the New Style. The persistence of the Old Style calendar was inherent in the calendar reform itself, not a result of opposition to it.
Anyway, to go back to my starting point. I’m not altogether comfortable with the idea of re-dating pre-reform events to match the modern calendar (certainly not without an acknowledgement that that is being done); apart from anything else, there’s the potential confusion for inexperienced students (not to mention forgetful ones like me) if they start reading primary sources about those events. Well, it does highlight that ‘anniversaries’ are not always simple matters. (What about ‘This day in history’ exercises?) And that calendars (not unlike maps, of course) can be highly charged political and ideological matters.