New beginnings

I last posted on January 1, which is, in some respects, a singularly unfortunate time for new beginnings; especially in the throes of the Bureaucratic Plague. Between the assorted shutdowns, slowdowns, and putdowns, and beastly weather right from the North Pole, and the Narcissist-in-Chief duking it out with his successor, who has every appearance of being a slightly warm corpse, and Big Tech trying their hardest to unperson all the crimethinkers, and what not, I found it advisable to spend the last two months hibernating under a rock and then try again.

So here we are in March, which was the first month of the year in the early centuries of the Roman calendar. It was on the 15th of that month (Idibus Martiis) that the new consuls took office each year, and with it command of the year’s legions; and that day was the official beginning of the campaigning season. (This, by the way, is why Julius Caesar was assassinated on that day. Even after the New Year changed, the Ides of March remained a major festival, and it was considered most proper for the Senate to discuss military affairs on that day. Caesar meant to do both before he left Rome to finish the conquest of the Mediterranean world. Oops.)

The Ides of March continued to be New Year’s Day until the second century B.C., when it was moved to the Kalends of January. There it remained until the Council of Tours (A.D. 567) officially moved it to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. This was also the traditional date of Christ’s crucifixion, fitting the old Jewish tradition that prophets lived an exact number of years from their conception to their death. As it happens, there is some evidence supporting the notion that Jesus was born in December; so the tradition may actually have been true in his case.

Dionysius Exiguus (a.k.a. Little Dennis), a Scythian-Roman monk, had gone to enormous pains to work out the exact number of years since the birth of Christ (in which he was probably off by a shade) and his crucifixion (which he probably got right). This was an intellectual and historiographic feat of the first order – a fact that we too easily forget.

For even after Rome conquered the ancient world, there were still all kinds of different calendars in use – Greek, Roman, Jewish, Egyptian, Celtic – and years were counted by all manner of unwieldy methods. Romans named their years after the consuls in office. The Greeks counted time by the number of Olympic Games that had been played. Most of the Near East used the Seleucid Era, dating from Seleucus I’s conquest of Babylon in 312/311 B.C. In the late Roman Empire, the practice arose of counting off years in 15-year indictions, dating from either A.D. 297/298 or 312/313. At first the indiction began on Augustus’s birthday, September 23, but later this was moved to September 1.

But legal documents, in monarchical regimes, were just as likely to be dated ‘in the tenth year of King So-and-so’, and it could take some sleuthing to find out that King So-and-so came to the throne in the umpteenth year of King Such-and-such of the neighbouring country, who is mentioned in the (unreliable) chronicles of This-That-and-the-Other as having a floruit about the Eleventieth Olympiad, and was visited by a deputation from Rome on behalf of the consuls Tweedledeeus and Tweedledummus, which pins him down pretty accurately to a particular year. Nearly all the historical records of those days were tangled up in this kind of chronological kudzu, and Little Dennis must be counted as an unsung genius for making head or tail of it all.

Well, then: the Council of Tours told New Year’s to stay put on March 25, and counted the year in which it was held as Anno Domini 567, following Dennis’s newfangled reckoning. The Byzantines stuck to indictions, and kept their New Year on September 1, a convenient time to reckon up the previous year’s crops and assess the taxes. (There was also a ‘Papal indiction’ used in parts of the West, which I beg you never to mention in my hearing again.) But over the course of the Middle Ages, Christendom settled down on March 25. Those Christians liable to disagree were eventually swallowed up by the Arab caliphate, which used its own lunar calendar that had nothing to do with the seasons; and that, at least in this one respect, probably served them right.

By the sixteenth century A.D., it became clear that the Julian calendar was slipping its cogs. With a leap year in every four, the average length of the year was about 11 minutes too long, so the fixed feasts and holidays of the Church were gradually being celebrated later and later in the year. Many people know that Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar in 1582, dropping ten days to bring it in step with the seasons, and cutting out three leap days every 400 years to keep it there. The discrepancy between the calendar year and the solar year had been known for centuries, but nobody could do much about it until the astronomical tables for the position of the Sun were properly revised. The old tables, based on the calculations of Claudius Ptolemy, were imperfect to begin with, and contained many errors made by tired copyists over the centuries. Newer data, like the Alfonsine Tables compiled in thirteenth-century Spain, were not necessarily more reliable, and by Gregory’s time the best astronomers in Europe were pulling their hair out trying to reconcile t’other from which.

One result was an explosion of new astronomical research, financed largely by the Church, to create a new set of tables that would accurately record the apparent motions of the Sun once and for all. Erasmus Reinhold compiled the Prutenic (or Prussian) Tables; Tycho Brahe, the famous Dane, collected the masses of data that would eventually be published as the Rudolphine Tables. There were enough tables going around to open a fair-sized restaurant, and now that they represented fresh data (reproduced accurately by printing press, not sloppily by yawning scribes), they all agreed with one another. Work on a comprehensive calendar reform could begin.

And when it was done, ten days were left out of October, 1582, and three leap years out of every four centuries; and by the bye, New Year’s Day was put back to January 1.

The Protestant countries, of course, ignored this damned Popish innovation, and continued to worry along with the old Julian calendar awhile longer. England, in particular, did not change to the new calendar until 1752; or rather, the English went through a great show of doing their own astronomical calculations and ordering their own reform, totally independent of those damned mackerel-snapping Papists, which just so happened to produce exactly the same result!

The stories of silly Englishmen rioting because they had been robbed of eleven days, alas, are pure fiction. The Calendar (New Style) Act, which ordered the change, was very clear and specific about keeping the quarter days right where they were, so that nobody would pay taxes or rent for the missing days. The old New Year’s Day, March 25, fell on April 5 by the new calendar; and to this day, April 5 marks the end of the British tax year.

So we have a plentiful assortment of New Year’s Days to choose from. January 1 has gone by, March 15 and 25 are soon upon us, April 6 is not that far off, and September 1 and 23 are out there for the real procrastinators among us. March 1 was also used, sometimes, for civil purposes by people who felt that it was silly to split a month between two different years; and since I have considerable sympathy with this view (being a first-of-January man all my life), I am starting my own blogging year today.

Happy Kalends of March!


  1. Welcome back all the same!

  2. Good to see you back in the saddle, so to speak!

    Is a new Impendix impending, by any chance?

  3. Harvey Handley says

    So I was looking at Gimli’s critique of Saruman’s rhetoric (“help means ruin, and saving means slaying”), and wondered if anyone on line had ever considered a possible relation to the Ingsoc slogan from “1984.” So I turned to Google and got one hit, a LiveJournal post from 2012 about a chapter of a forthcoming book called “Writing Down the Dragon.” I read the chapter through, pausing at intervals to say “Yes!”, “Exactly!”, and “You tell ’em!”, then went immediately to Amazon and ordered the book. I am afraid it may be the book I was planning to write myself, but that’s life. Anyway there is an error in the chapter, possibly fixed in the book as published: Gimli is credited with Gloin’s speech to the Council of Elrond. (He was present bud did not speak.) Posting this here because the LiveJournal post looks pretty inactive.

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