The Western Calendar – ‘Intolerabilis, Horribilis, et Derisbilis’ – Four Centuries of Discontent
By J.D. North
Proceedings of the the Vatican Conference to Commemorate its 400th Anniversary, 1582-1982, edited by G.V. Coyne, M.A. Hoskin and O. Pedersen (Vatican, 1983)
Introduction: When it comes to calendars, we are most of us realists. Although a calendar is essentially a means of referring a particular event to a day or a year unambiguously, so that other events may be correlated with it, the calendar is a system of names that have taken on a life of their own. It is a system of associations – of religious sentiment with season, for example, and of season with Name. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”, said Shakespeare at some date after the Gregorian reform, but well over a century before his own country adopted it. He would have been ill served by his fellow countrymen had the seasons been allowed to slip through the calendar to a point where May became a winter month. There you have an obvious problem that most can see; but the Church’s calendar is less obvious, for it is not only bound to the seasons; it is bound to three sorts of natural phenomena, or at least idealized natural phenomena, namely those marking the limits of year, month, and day.
We, with our cut and dried view of time-keeping, we who gather together to celebrate events four hundred tropical years after they have occurred, are all to easily incline to overlook the real reason for all the fuss in the Middle Ages about calendar reform. It was not primarily a matter of losing ten or eleven days of one’s life (which seems to be the only consequence the average student of history is aware of), or of getting the agricultural cycles back to where they had once been in the calendar. (Had early Jewish history been known, where Passover was made to coincide with the earing of the corn, medieval astronomers would perhaps have been consumed with less scientific self-righteousness.)
It cannot be said too often that the problem was more than that of getting the right value for the length of the tropical year, and inventing a rule to give a high level of approximation to it. The real key to the movement for reform was the desire to celebrate Easter at the “correct” time. This was of concern, as Bacon said, to the computist and the wise, as well as to the astronomer; but of course it was of central importance to every Christian, for whom the death and resurrection of Christ ere the most important events in human history.