Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Apocryphal Anecdote of the Calendar Correction

                    In my earlier post on the Battle of Sedgemoor, I mentioned that it occurred on July 6th 1685 (Old Style), and said I would return to this subject later. This is that return. The ‘Old Style’ calendar refers to the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE and implemented in 45 BCE. 

Julius Caesar

BCE is the abbreviation of Before Common Era, which has come to replace BC, standing for Before Christ, in the standard designation of the year, reflecting the reality that not everybody follows the Christian religion (or is even religious in any way, shape or form). Similarly, AD (Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord) has been replaced with CE (Common Era). Some argue, correctly in my view, that the designation is merely cosmetic, as the division between BCE and CE is still made at the supposed year of the birth of Christ, regardless of what you call it. But that’s an argument for another day. And before you start, it is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ either – it’s been around since at least 1708, with the Vulgar Era designation predating that by another couple of centuries. 

Roman Calendar Stone

Prior to Caesar’s reform, the Roman calendar was a pretty arbitrary affair, with months added to keep it roughly in line with the tropical (solar) year, but these were not applied systematically and were often added or omitted at the whim of the current pontifex. The Julian year was divided into 365 days with an additional day added every four years, on the leap year, to give an average year length of 365 and one-quarter days. Which would be fine if this was the same as the tropical year, but it isn’t. There is a discrepancy of just over eleven minutes per year, which doesn’t sound like much if you say it quickly but over four centuries this adds up to another three full days, which is quite a lot. 

Pope Gregory XIII

And so, in 1582, the problem was addressed and the Roman Catholic Church adopted the so-called Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII. The dates had moved by ten days since Roman times, meaning that the Spring equinox happened on March 11th rather than March 21st, which had implications in the placing of the Easter feast, which should occur on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring equinox (or the Sunday after the 21st, if that is also the day of the full moon). As the variable feast days are dated in their relation to Easter, this had implications throughout the following year. Spain, Portugal, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and most of Italy adopted the New Style, or Gregorian, calendar in October 1582, with France and the Dutch provinces following suit soon after. 

Calendarium Gregorianum

Many Protestant countries initially resisted the change, on the suspicion that it was a move to reinstate Papal authority over them, but when it was seen that the change was an astronomical necessity rather than a religious reform, they also moved to the New Style. Britain and the British Empire (which then included the eastern part of America) changed in September 1752, when Wednesday September 2nd was followed by Thursday September 14th (the change needed eleven days, to accommodate the extra day’s difference that occurred between 1582 and 1752). 

I Predict a Riot

If you look at almost any history book or one of the numerous webpages describing this event, you will also find the story that people took to the streets and rioted, in London or Bristol, demanded that the government ‘give us back our eleven days’. Some will cite that the public of the time believed in predestination and that God had allocated them a certain number of days of life, which had been taken away from them, thus shortening their designated life span. Except it didn’t happen. There were no riots. It’s a lie. It’s one of those things that everyone believes but isn’t actually true. 

Here’s what really happened. The change went through, a few bankers got upset about calculating interest rates for the short month, but everyone else saw the sense of it and got on with more important things. And then, in 1754, the son of the Earl of Macclesfield stood as the Whig candidate for a parliamentary seat in Oxfordshire. As his father had been influential in the earlier calendar reform, his Tory opponents brought this up in their canvassing for their own candidate. 

William Hogarth - An Election Entertainment - c. 1755

In the following year, William Hogarth displayed a series of four oil paintings called The Humours of the Election, which satirized the various corrupt practices of politicians of the day. Corruption was endemic in politics before the Great Reform Act, when bribery and intimidation were openly indulged, there were no secret ballots and there was a property qualification for voters, which disenfranchised many men. Women were denied the vote all together. Hogarth presented examples of these crooked practices in his paintings, which were later made into engravings that were very popular, spreading the images to a much wider audience. In one of the paintings, An Election Entertainment, the Whigs are holding a banquet in an inn, where their shady dealings are depicted in a series of little tableaux. People are bribed, women are kissed, drink is provided and votes are bought. In the front, a wounded man sits over his placard, which reads ‘Give us our eleven days’. 

William Hogarth - Detail - An Election Entertainment - c. 1755

It is satire – Hogarth is showing us the nonsense that corrupt politicians got up in their attempts to win a seat. Think of a modern cartoonist drawing a picture of the European Parliament imposing a law only allowing straight bananas to be sold in England. Or perhaps changing the name of Christmas to Winterval. 

These sorts of stories get trotted out periodically by the worst of our tabloid rags (Daily Mail, I’m looking at you), but there is no truth behind them. They are deliberately used to get a knee-jerk reaction from a conservative audience. But people will tell you, with a straight face and a stabbing finger, that they are The Truth. Except that they aren’t. And that’s what Hogarth is doing. He is making something up, to show what sorts of lies the politicians will use in an attempt to gain power at any cost and the lies their opponents will use to blacken their policies. 

William Hogarth - Detail - An Election Entertainment - c. 1755

Outside, through the window, the Tories carry an effigy of a Jew, referring to recent legislation that gave the Jews greater freedom -  read anti-Semitism then for Islamophobia now. It’s satire. Look at the composition of the picture, which parodies the Last Supper. Satire. The Whigs favouring the ‘Popish’ calendar. Satire. 

Leonardo da Vinci - The Last Supper

Another incident is reported by Lord Chesterfield, who was also influential in passing the calendar reform, who wrote to his son about the debate that took part in parliament regarding the passing of the Bill. Letter CXXXV, dated March 18th 1751 (Old Style), contains the following, 
This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is MOB, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to. Understanding they have collectively none, but they have ears and eyes, which must be flattered and seduced.” 

Lord Chesterfield - Letter CXXXV - 1751

This ‘mob’ was his fellow peers in the House of Lords, but in subsequent accounts it changed into an actual public mob, a rioting mob that demanded their eleven days back. 

William Coxee - Memoirs Vol 2 - 1829

In 1829, Archdeacon William Coxe published his two-volume Memoirs of the Administration of the Right Honourable Henry Pelham, in which (Volume 2, chapter XXVI), he notes, 
At the period when the bill took effect, the populace marked their dissatisfaction, by exclaiming, "Give us back our eleven days!" and by other tumultuary indications. This spirit was slow in subsiding; and years elapsed, before the people were fully reconciled to the new regulation.” 
Except it didn’t happen. It put the story in the public imagination but it didn’t happen and when has that ever stopped a good story taking hold. Chesterfield’s ‘mob’ of his letter became conflated with the ‘mob’ in Hogarth’s painting, and further confused with the man and his placard and from there it passed into ‘truth’, as further history books reported the supposed riots. 

But, and this is the important but, there are no contemporary reports of these riots. Nothing at all, in the newspapers, the magazines or the diaries from the time. If they had happened, somebody, somewhere, would have either reported it or made a comment about it. But they didn’t. There is no contemporary evidence at all. It’s a later invention. One of those ‘look how thick our ancestors were and the bunkum they believed in’ constructs, like Christopher Columbus thought the Earth was flat, or ‘geese grow out of barnacles’ stories. A nice story but with absolutely no basis in fact. There are many, many more, to which I will return from time to time.

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