Calendars and dates

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.


A few links (although Google will provide many more) (a splendid site)

14 thoughts on “Calendars and dates”

  1. Over at the Virtual Stoa, we prefer the French Republican Calendar, a version of which is installed at the top of the blog, and which is far more accurate than the Gregorian Calendar, owing to its practice of budgeting for a three-day correction every four thousand years, in addition to the usual run of leap years…

  2. Nice post, Sharon. I was always envious of those not studying Islamic history and avoiding the need to double date every event and person (the Gregorian and the Hijri) and having to explain THAT, the first day of class (see, people look at the passage of moon…)
    Now, I can start with the missing eleven days and demand all of my early modern european friends provide corrections.

  3. sepoy: :)
    I didn’t even start to mention that all serious students of crime and court records need to get to know about regnal years (and the law terms, at some point); or that until the calendar reform there were in effect two different New Years every year so that you have to watch out with all documents dated between 1 January and 25 March and learn what it means when someone has written something like ’10 January 1677/8’…

    Chris, I love the use of the revolutionary calendar at the Virtual Stoa (very educational); didn’t realise – although it’s probably mentioned in that calendar website somewhere – that it included the extra corrections.

  4. I was almost having palpitations there as my PhD is very date reliant. some of my newspapers change the year in January, others in March. I use Luttrell to check dates so hoping that he’s on the same timetable as the press.

  5. If you’re at all unsure, you could cross-reference him against another source for some events to double-triple-check. (My experience of 17th-century letter writers and magistrates is that they either start the year in March or use the / method. At least it’s usually quite easy to cross-check calendar dates given by magistrates with the regnal dates for the same events in the formal court records…) I didn’t know that different newspapers used different dating!

  6. The London Gazette stuck solidly to the March beginning until, oh, I don’t know when. The new newspapers that appeared after the lapse of the licensing act in 1695 tend to start the year in January. If memory serves the little flurry of new papers during the Popish plot often also began the year in January. (I think. Don’t quote me on that) It’s also interesting that some sources (like Pepys) acknowledge the new year in January but stick to the March dating. Historians do make mistakes. There’s often confusion over whether the Licensing Act lapsed in 1694 or 1695.

  7. As far as I know, people generally did celebrate ‘New Year’ as a festival at the beginning of January… then carried on writing down the old year until March 25. And I’ve slipped up on a date before now (though never as far as publication, I don’t think).

    ADM: that might be what the Anglo-Saxon monks said, but didn’t the Celtic ones have a different opinion? If it’s that simple, how come everyone fought about it for centuries?

  8. It was (supposedly) decided at the Synod of Whidbey in 664 (644?) The A/S clergy — strongly supported by the King (I want to say Oswin of Mercia, but this is off the top of my head) who wanted that Roman alignment — won out over the Celts. The Celts were supposed to give up their reckoning of Easter and their odd form of tonsure. Now, if you’re talking about the East-West difference … that’s something else. But as far as I know, that didn’t affect England or Western Europe at all (unless it somehow got introduced by one of those Byzantine princesses who married Ottonians?).

  9. That’s it, Synod of Whitby. (I think they just about accepted Easter, but I have a feeling they didn’t give up the tonsure for a while. ‘Odd’ is perhaps a relative term when it comes to monk hairdos, but the Celtic one was a bit wacky.) And I’m sure you’re right about the E/W difference.

    Aren’t you supposed to be marking? ;)

  10. Yep! And I am, sort of. I knew Whidbey looked wrong — there’s a Whidbey Island nearby, though and I got all perplexed :-)

    Oh — I meant to ask you (in a redeeming myself for blogging kind of way) it the Carolingian conference they held at Aberystwyth (sp?) I think last year a regular thing?

  11. Your spelling of Aberystwyth is fine. Well, there’s a medieval conference coming up but I don’t think it’s Carolingian. Hang on, will check webpage. Ah, it’s 13th century and it’s at Gregynog (the University of Wales’ official Conference centre in the middle of nowhere Powys. Lovely though)
    I can’t see anything about a Carolingian conference; I suspect it was a one off. (You could always contact Bjorn Weiler to find out since it was I think his gig.)

  12. Okay, how is Easter calculated?

    I also loved the FRC months: I was born in Floreal. What I loved less was the Hebrew calendar: 7 years out of 19, they have a month Adar 2? On the other hand, it works — I’m not entirely sure why it was discarded.

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