Historical Blind Dates and other Calendar Troubles

Did you hate learning dates during History class?  If so – join the enlightened majority. It now comes out that our reluctance to remember inane phrases such as “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, was not due to laziness – but was a protection mechanism. Our subconscious was at work.  Apparently, and Medical Science will surely confirm this someday soon, we come equipped with a “bull-dust detector” – and all those Historical Dates set off the alarms. Historical?  More hysterical, as you will see.  Read on MacDuff.   You were told that History is about What Happened When, right?  Or, to put that in a more grammatically correct order, it’s about  When Who Did What Where?  Think again. Let’s illustrate it this way:

(And, by the way, folks, this IS worth remembering – it could make you RICH – it’s sure to come up sometime as the question for a $1,000,000 Quizz Show prize)

Q: How long was the longest Calendar year in recorded History?

A:  366 days  B: 378 days  C: 426 days   D: 445 days

And the answer is . . .  read on, Watson. It’s buried in here, somewhere.  (And, yes, I do know what you’re thinking . . . that yours truly is a swine for not spilling the beans right now. Be that as it may . . . ; )

Here (in brief) is how it happened. By the time of Julius Caesar (the same bloke who got famous for saying “I came, I saw, I conquered” and started his Gallic Wars best seller with the statement “All Gaul is divided into three parts”  – which must be the most pathetic opening line of any book, ever) – anyway, by his time the Roman calendar was . . . well it was roaming . . . all over the bloody place. The official calendar keepers hadn’t the foggiest about niceties like leap days, and no-one had boned up on the exact length of the solar year, which is, to whit: 365.24219 days (Tropical average), give or take a few seconds. (Dammed unsporting that – one would think the Solar System would arrange things so that Planet Earth manages the round trip in whole days.) Anyway, ours is not to question why . . .

So, getting back to the Romans and their wayward calendar, Big Jules decided to sort things out. So he hired an astronomer or two, and a mathematician, and they hitched up their togas and got to calculating. Now this was long before pocket scientific calculators – even the Chinese were still counting on fingers and toes, with an abacus for the really big numbers – so all was NOT plain sailing. Nevertheless, this astronomer geezer came up with a new calendar, which Big Jules promptly named after himself.  Hence the Julian Calendar.

BIG PROBLEM was – the backroom boys realized that the Roman Republic Calendar (the old model, the one that was a-roaming in the gloaming) . . . well – it was not just slightly out of whack – it was 80 days out.

No wonder the Romans were always having those military disasters, like when Hannibal and his elephants beat them up at Cannae. Obviously, because the calendar was screwed, the generals and the military planning staff were always preparing for the wrong thing at the wrong time.  A whole lot of mysteries about Roman History resolved themselves (in my mind, anyway) on learning this little fact – a critical item which (to date) historians curiously seem to ignore.

Anyway, the boffin in the backroom, one Sosigenes of Alexandria,  tells Big Jules the happy news.  About the 80 day snafu, that is. Not long thereafter there was a lot of weeping and wailing, mainly from the guys who had messed up with the old calendar, as they were sold off into slavery, and Caesar used the opportunity to Tweet that “the situation was very serious, a matter of national importance, their whole Roman way of life was threatened” . . . besides other public spirited announcements made to calm the panicking population . . .and boost his popularity.

Having scared everyone out of their sandals, he also announced that he “had a plan”. And – if they made him Dictator – he could save the situation. So, long story short, they gave him the go ahead. Not that they had much option. He promptly added 23 days between Februarius 23 and Martius 1.  (No wonder alcoholism and/or suicide was so attractive to public-spirited Romans. Sober, you just didn’t know what the heck was going on.)

But the best was yet to come.  His coup de grace was to add TWO EXTRA MONTHS between November 30 and December 1.  Hence the saying: “tomorrow never comes”.   This whole trying episode was commemorated in a popular ballad of the time,  “Oh, its a longlong time from Maius to Decembris.”   A satirical play (the big hit of that year),

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, alludes in brief to the considerable confusion Rome was experiencing while all this re-organization was in progress. All in all, it was not surprising that Brutus and his mob decided to bump Caesar off. Sanity demanded it.

The nett effect was to make the year officially 445 days long, counting from Ianuarius 1 to the finis of Decembris.  Talk about a “Leap Year” with a difference!  More like a “Long Jump Year”.  Did everyone need a holiday after THAT!  Imagine the arguments at reunion parties, when people tried to work out what happened, when. No wonder the Romans went bonkers – lead in their wine was the least of their problems. I mean – if you got married, or born, in that crazy year – how the heck did you ever celebrate your anniversary, or birthday, with any certainty?  Most husbands have a difficult enough time remembering these little events in a “normal” year, agreed?

Well, naturally there was a lot of stiff upper lip type whinging from the patrician classes about the absolute confusion in their social lives, but life went on, even though the old calendar was shot to hell. And as the slaves still went to work, irrespective of how long the year was, so the wheels of Empire kept turning. On the plus side, the Calendar Business made record profits that year, as everyone had to buy lots of special, one-off 445 day calendars – or you didn’t have the foggiest what month you were in, never mind day of week.

And, as we now know, the world didn’t come to an end, although the big shots weren’t done with messing around with the Calendar. As you may remember, J. Caesar esquire later decided to add an extra day to “His” birth month, Julius, and swiped one from poor old Februarius. Meaning that the calendar printers had to re-adjust all their calendars – again.  Then along came Augustus, who decided that He also deserved an extra day for “His” month. And swiped another day from Februarius.  Which makes one wonder – why does every one have it in for February?  What’s February done to them, anyway?

Meantime, in an insignificant little province of the Empire, the birth of a humble carpenter was about to cause all sorts of new calendric complications. How so?

Well, the Romans were chugging along with things, after Caesar’s reforms. They had sort of worked out the leap year system, even though, in the beginning, they misread the instruction manual, and added a leap year every THREE years.  I kid you not. Obviously, after the trauma of the 445 day year, their wits were totally shot. But still, makes you wonder – why didn’t somebody check what the hell was going on?  And where the heck was Sosigines?  Result was, by the time of Augustus, they were running ahead, and so for about ten years they gave the leap years a miss, to get things back under control. Then, just when it looked like life was getting back to normal, things got seriously screwed. The barbarians arrived and gate-crashed the party.

Apart from wrecking the neighbourhood, and causing huge devaluations in property prices, the Goths, Huns, Vandals and all their mates didn’t give a damn about calendars and all that stuff – so everything got all messed up again during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. That’s why it’s called “The Dark Ages”. In the end, the Roman Catholic Church was left with the unenviable job of trying to sort the mess out.

Long story short, they got their heads around the leap year thing, but some geezer called Dionysius Exiguus promptly got a bee in his bonnet and decided that the Official Church Calendar should date events based on the supposed Incarnation of a certain Jesus Christ, founder and CEO. Well, apart from getting very confused in his calculations, Dionysius also forgot to mention a way of matching his result with any other calendar. Damned unsporting, what?

But the next decision was a real howler. The Church decided to start dating everything on a Before Christ and After Christ basis. Except – no-one realized that they needed to include a Year Zero. Suppose, with the Barbarian invasions and the other alien immigration issues, folk had lots of other things on their minds at the time. Mainly . . . about not losing their heads.

Result is, we have this weird anomaly of jumping straight from 1 B.C. to 1 C.E. (or A.D. if you prefer the Latin version, but it’s still confused.)  Which leads to the next anomaly. The further back into the past we go – the larger the B.C. number is.  Which makes calculations horribly non intuitive. The Big Bang moment is, like, circa 14 Billion B.C. – and we count down from there, to 1 B.C, and then . . . (don’t forget) skip the missing Year Zero, and then . . .  In short, it has the effect of making time stand on its head, mathematically speaking.

If you have to write programs that deal with all this sort of insanity, you need to devise whole new sets of rules for B.C. dates. It becomes so complicated, involving stuff called recursion, that computers tend to throw up their hands in horror, as their memories tank out, and they throw angry complaints about “Running Out Of Stack Space”. Which to a computer is like when your bank manager declares you totally overdrawn, and stops your account.  Ask the guys in Cyprus to explain.

But, going back to our original story, more fun was to follow. The Year Zero blooper notwithstanding, the Roman Church seemed to be managing the calendar quite nicely, (at least they didn’t need to periodically add whole whopping months to straighten things out), but they forgot to check the original calculations. One would have thought they would have learnt, by now. Just goes to prove George Santayana  was onto something when he famously coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Let’s face it – if you can’t agree WHEN it happened, memory – a notoriously impish fellow at the best of times – simply loves the ensuing Amnesia. (Which is not Milk of, by the way, though the effects can be amusingly similar.)

And so, by the 16th century it was horribly apparent that the Julian System was not quite fool-proof. In fact – it had a nasty bug. So a whole new crowd of astronomers and mathematicians were gathered, and they feverishly calculated a system update, which the Pope of the time, naturally, named after Himself. Hence the Gregorian System ver.1.0, officially released on the 5th October 1582.

Problem was, people didn’t trust it. For one thing it started off by REMOVING 10 days, to get the calendar back on track with the seasons. Illogically, but perhaps understandably, less educated people felt cheated at seeming to “lose” a week and half of their lives. Then there was the religious and political rivalry. The Protestant countries weren’t having any of this Popish plot. So they refused to upgrade, and stuck with the old Julian System. The English doggedly held out till 1752, when Wednesday, 2nd of September was followed by Thursday, 14th September. Now – if that didn’t scare you – nothing will. At the time there was rioting in the streets, as people demanded “give us back our lost days.” Some poor souls committed suicide, believing the End had arrived.  Makes the Mayan Long Count Event of  December 2013 look like a teddy bear’s tea party.

As a result, matching dates to actual events for this period of 1582 to 1752 is fraught with peculiarities, as the one crowd used the Julian System, and the other crowd used the new Gregorian version. Does this matter? Well, to historians, it does, a lot. Perhaps a couple of examples will illustrate the fun:

When invited to take over the vacant Throne of England, William III set sail from the Netherlands on the 11th November – and arrived in England on the 5th of November, six days BEFORE he set out.  How was that?  An early example of time-travel? No – the Netherlands used the Gregorian Calendar, while the British, with typical bulldog determination, were still doggedly using the Julian. (As a side thought, wouldn’t you love to be able to play the horses on this system? Works for me. Surefire betting. Remember the movie “the Sting”?  There they pulled the same trick, using time zones.)

In another example, both Shakespeare and Cervantes apparently died on the same day – 23rd April, right? No way, Jose. Cervantes was already dead 10 days before the Bard laid down his quill, breathed his last, and shrugged off this mortal coil. Again, those dratted Gregorian versus Julian systems. Incidentally, Master William, in his Laste Wille & Testament, left to his wife: item – “one second best bed.”   (Betcha, if he hadn’t already popped off, Mrs Shakespeare would have happily ‘done him in’  for that little quip. Second-best, indeed! Typical playwright – just had to have the last laugh.)

But, slowly, as more and more countries adopted the Gregorian system, things started to settle down to some form of reliability.  For a time the mad English proposed their own system, which, thankfully, never took off. And, thanks to colonialization, and later Microsoft, and Windows, the Gregorian Calendar is now pretty much used all over the world, willy nilly.

Even so – some places were very late converts. The Russians only joined in the party in 1918, when they jumped straight from January 31st to February 14th – so all Russian dates before that time are out by anything up to 14 days. No wonder their novels are full of stories about such depressed people. And the Turks finally got around to it in 1927, after they chucked out the Sultan and his harem, who were holding things back. Just goes to show – frequent sex does make time – and the world  – stand still.  A positively Einsteinian thought, relatively speaking.

But I bet you didn’t notice the “gotcha” a few paragraphs back. Before September 1582 all dates (in Europe anyway), are in the Julian System, all the way back to 46 B.C.  Which makes time calculations very complicated – all those days being added in and removed does tend to muddy the waters, so to speak. Before 46 B.C.?  No-one really knows. Here and there, like distant beacons of light, are a few dates which can be corroborated by astronomical evidence. The rest . . . is guesswork. Sometimes inspired, mostly not. Which makes ancient dating, and date calculations, very complicated, and often well-nigh impossible. Bad news for historians, antiquarians, and astronomers. And for religious zealots who like to calculate the future based on ancient dates.

To illustrate briefly, here are some of the peculiarities that arise from this Calendric Comedy of Errors:

Since the time of Christ, leap years fall on years divisible by four, except if they are centuries, in which case they have to be divisible by 400, to merit a leap day. Got that? Good.

But, if we were to project the Gregorian System Backwards into time, to work with dates Before Christ – a process called proleptic (which sounds like a painful disease, don’t you agree?) –  the Leap Years fall on years divisible by five. Why?

Blame it on that genius who forgot to allow for a year Zero.  Astronomers, who bump into these problems regularly, have their own system, Astronomical Years, for B.C. dates, and their system DOES include a year zero. Again, I kid you not. When you think of it, it’s the only sensible thing to do. But it does mean that when regular historians talk of the year 46 B.C., an astronomer chap calls it -45.

Anyway, before that famous Long Year – everything was way out of whack, anyway. So – bottom line – all those old history books, jamb packed with juicy dates you had to memorize as a kid – it was all a load of . . . guesswork.

Before we terminate this Tale of Woe, (calendrically speaking, that is), I must mention that there are umpteen different calendars still in use. As if the world isn’t confused enough already.

  •  The Muslims use a lunar calendar, whereby they get to add whole months, every now and then. And they date everything from the Hejira, which wasn’t so long ago, relatively speaking. So, in their calendar, this is the year 1434-1435, and the world is fresh and young.
  • The Mayans have a system that astronomers and mathematicians ooh and aah over, ‘cause its so accurate. Just don’t try use it to predict the End of the World.
  • The Jewish people have the Hebrew Calendar, also Lunar, which goes way back into history. They reckon this is the year 5773-5774.
  • On the other hand, according to the Assyrians, this is the year 6763.
  • And I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the Byzantine Calendar goes back even further. According to them, this is the year 7521-7522.  Which is pretty neat. Year zero is far enough back to avoid too much wrestling with negative years.  So I think we should start a Movement to Reintroduce the Byzantine Calendar.

It’ll make everything so much simpler, don’t you agree?  And Yeats would approve, absolutely.

PS: And yes, one of the tags did hint that we would offer some “dating advice.”   Here it is:   don’t.


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