Erik Von Norden joins The Freelance History Writer with a delightful summary of how the world arrived at the current yearly calendar. Erik is a practicing attorney living in the north woods of Vermont, USA. You can follow him on his blog: The Theory of Irony
Consider that our whole concept of time is off by several years due to a small math mistake by a sixth-century monk named Dionysus Exiguus (Dennis the Really, Really Short). By way of explanation, it seems about 525 this monk suggested to the Pope to begin using Christ’s birth as the standard point to start counting history – 1 AD or Anno Domini or Year of Our Lord – whatever you like. So, he set to figuring out exactly when that was. Dionysus looked up the traditional date given for Rome’s founding, 753 BC, and then he subtracted down all the years until reaching Jesus Christ’s birth. Problem is, the Gospels put the nativity during King Herod’s reign, but archeologists and theologians now know Herod died in 4 BC. In fact, modern scholars agree Christ came into this world sometime between 4 and 7 BC, thus Jesus was born in the era “Before Christ.”
For the first few centuries, the Roman-Christian world had used all sorts of calendars. Many people standardized time by the conquest of Spain in 38 BC, while some employed the crucifixion of about 33 AD. A smattering of folks began with the accession of Diocletian in 284 and others, the date of Constantine’s coronation in 312 – called “The Indication.” Most of them had very limited needs and marked only the span of their own king’s reign with so-called “regnal years,” though it would be tough to say how inane this could be. Say for argument’s sake a royal proclamation announcing a military alliance got issued “in the eighth year of the reign of King Theodore the Third.” In another realm just across the river, the identical decree might be dated “in the seventh year of Queen Theodora the Fourth.” At the outset, coordinating troop movements between the two allies would be hampered. But assume further King Theodore’s coronation happened to be on Easter, a “movable” feast, and now each of his regnal years could be shorter or longer than 365 days. Add to this that different sovereigns came to power on different movable feast days and you are only beginning to get an idea. And, it got worse. Rather than just regnal years, some went so far as to mark off time in dynasties, for example “the 96th year of the House of Theodore.” Others erred due to lunar and solar year variations, to the extent they even understood such things, and each of the world’s religions offered its own calendar. Or, what have you.
Dionysus Exiguus began to grasp these problems, but not entirely. His year started on Easter, which in the West landed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Or, a date floating all around March and April. Unless you came from the East, where it was different. This monk unbelievably came to think so little of his own idea that he reverted to dating letters by Constantine’s Indication and the notion almost died. Nonetheless, Dionysus’ system did catch on glacially. Borrowing from it, an author named Venerable Bede used the concept of BC and AD when writing his monumental “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in 731. Other scholars did too, however due to their increasing study of Roman law and interest in almanacs they settled back on the ancient New Year’s Day of January 1st. The Catholic Church initially saw this as a return to Paganism and opposed the idea – a surprising position, one might add, given that the early Church had co-opted several Pagan holidays. But by the 1500’s, the trend towards using January 1st had reached a tipping point. Pope Gregory XIII (reign, 1572 – 1585) acquiesced to the inevitable and in 1582 he endorsed the calendar upon which the modern world could peacefully agree.
But, not without a fight first. For centuries more the Protestants of Northern Europe refused to recognize the new “Gregorian” calendar, which they saw as a papal dictate, even if it made complete common sense. The same thing happened in Orthodox Eastern Europe and likewise in the far more populous non-Christian world. This led to some comical results. For example, many biographers listed Benjamin Franklin’s birth date according to old Julian calendar and some used the new Gregorian date, while others gave both. Even better, Sir Isaac Newton – arguably the greatest scientist of them all – based his chronology on the voyage of Jason’s Argonauts, a myth that never really happened. Such farce somersaulted all the way into the mid-1700’s, by which time the months had long lost synch with the seasons they were supposed to be counting. Then came a fun twist. In 1751, Philip Dormer Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694 – 1773) – I love that name – came up with a wonderful face saving device the Protestant, English-speaking world could swallow. He started referring to the Gregorian Reform as the “New Style,” so by act of Parliament the English New Year’s Day was backed up from March 25th to January 1st. And to bring seasons and months back into alignment, the day immediately after September 1, 1752 was moved forward to September 14, 1752. Wiping out, on paper, two weeks of history.
The rest of humanity refused to be outdone for pure silliness. The Russian Empire, a big part of the Orthodox world, for centuries declined to accept even this. The Russians couldn’t digest the thought of a Protestant compromise to a Catholic idea, so they kept to the old Pagan Julian calendar. That was, until 1919 when the Communists took over, imposed atheism and adopted the Gregorian version. For the record, it took a godless government to impose a Christian calendar on a Christian people. The Japanese likewise refused to follow the British lead until their own program of Westernization in 1873 and the Chinese did not do so until their Communist revolution in 1949. Again, atheist government and Christian calendar. By that time political correctness had seeped into the West and many Christian academics, as well as those in non-Christian countries, eventually got around to dropping AD altogether in lieu of the more culturally sensitive “CE” (or Common Era). Strangely, this turned out to be more accurate because our old friend Dennis the Really, Really Short had erred slightly, in the first place.