The messy history of our modern western calendar


For something that is supposed to put our lives in order, the modern Western calendar has a messy history. The disorder, in part, comes from the difficulty of coordinating the orbits of the celestial bodies with the cycles of day and night, and the passage of the seasons.

The year measured by Earth’s orbit around the sun is approximately 365.2422 unruly days. The moon is also not a fan of integers. In the space of a year, there are approximately 12,3683 lunar months. Companies have traditionally tried to ensure that the same seasons coincide with the same months.

The ancient calendars of Mesopotamia, for example, coordinated months and seasons by occasionally adding additional months, a process called intercalation. In some lunar systems, however, the months can wander through the seasons – this is the case with the Islamic Hijri calendar.

The solar calendar of ancient Rome gave birth to our modern western calendar. The Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar’s reforms of 46/45 BCE, approached the solar year at 365.25 days and inserted an additional day every four years. This left a rather boring 11 and a few minutes without counting. More information on those minutes later.

The Julian calendar also left us with a legacy of months in strange positions. Our eleventh month, November, derives from Latin for the number nine, the result of moving the beginning of the year from March to January.

New months and names have been juggled and readjusted to match the mechanics of power. August, for example, is named after Emperor Augustus. As the great Australian historian Christopher Clark said: “as gravity bends light, so power bends time.”

Christian Timekeeping As the Roman Empire moved through the world we now know as the Middle Ages, the power that most succeeded in controlling time was that of the church. But just as in the present, the church was a multiplicity of intersecting powers with local and regional differences, and with a variety of identities and internal struggles. The start of the year, for example, could vary considerably from one medieval society to another.

Sometimes it was March 25, the day to commemorate the apparition of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Other times it was December 25, the day designated as Jesus’ birthday (the perfect 9 month gestation period). Sometimes it was confusedly the moving date of Easter, making years of varying length.

It was during this period that the problematic 11 and a few minutes took their revenge. The seasons began to change, bit by bit, and this had important implications for Christian timekeeping.

The date of Easter Sunday (another point of contention) was timed to follow the northern spring equinox, a natural symbol of light conquering darkness. But as this equinox began to recede in time, a distinction began to emerge between a “legal” Easter – that decreed by the calendar – and a “natural” equinox, that is, the equinox that could be. observed.

As the gap widened, scientists and theologians (often the same) argued over proposals for calendar reform. Do we have to omit a certain number of days of the year, just once, to realign the legal and observable time? If yes how much ? And who should be in charge of the change? The issue became particularly intense in the 15th century with a number of calendar reform proposals failing the test of pragmatics or political support from leaders across Europe. One of these propositions was discovered recently hidden in a book printed at the Cambridge University Library.

It was written in 1488 by a theologian at the University of Louvain named Peter de Rivo and suggested that 10 days be removed from the calendar. Peter believed that a celebration known as the Jubilee, where crowds of pilgrims came from all over Europe to Rome, would be the perfect time to bring the reformation to the world. The proposal was not the first nor the last to sink like a stone.

But eventually those 10 days were gone, when Pope Gregory reformed the calendar in 1582. This new calendar, the Gregorian calendar, went from October 4, 1582 to October 15, 1582. It also made a better approximation of natural length. of the year by manipulating leap years over a 400-year cycle.

The reform of 1582 landed in a world torn by religious divisions, some old, others new. Protestant England did not adopt the changes until the 18th century. Many Orthodox Christian communities continued to follow the Julian calendar – subsequent revisions to this calendar proving controversial and causing further schisms.

Unreasonable Nature It’s easy to feel lost in time. The calendar helps give us a map of the changing revolutions of the seasons, the shape of our lives, and the great arcs of history. But as we are placed in the matrix of calendar time, so do we: Could we be doing better than the Gregorian calendar? This question was asked with particular vehemence in the 18th century by so-called enlightened thinkers and reached its climax during the French Revolution. In 1793, the revolutionary government regularized the month to 30 standard days (each with three ten-day weeks), leaving a mess of five to six unallocated days per year and granting workers only three days off per month. The start of the year was postponed to the autumnal equinox because an equality of light and dark was a symbol of the ideals of the new republic.

The calendar was a victory of reason if reason aligns with simplicity, clarity, and the number of our fingers. But, as we have seen, in astronomical terms, nature is stubbornly unreasonable. The system was short lived.

Part of the problem with calendar reform is that calendars have to do with our lived experiences of time, our habits, our rhythms, our memories. Making radical changes takes a special fervor (or megalomania).

But the history of calendars can also make us wonder if we could change our order of time in a smoother way. This may not mean changing the schedule globally or nationally. But what about us here in our different parts of Australia? What if we finally recognize that we don’t live with a four-season year, embracing the much more interesting and attentive seasonal calendars developed by Indigenous cultures?

(This story was not edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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