Happy Medieval New Year!

The medieval calendar was based on the Roman tradition of the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar used 12 lunar months to track one solar year, with irregular days spread out to keep it as even as possible. Medieval calendars tended to use modified Latin spellings: Januarius, Martius, Maius, Julius, Augustus, October, and December had 31 days. April, Junius, September, and November had 30 days, while Februarius had 28. Februarius had an extra day in leap years, as in modern times.

Charlemagne tried to introduce a new calendar of months using the Franks’ native language. His year began with renaming January as Wintarmanoth, and next was Hornung. The months then used the significant events and farm occupations of each stage in the seasons: Lentzinmanoth, Ostermanoth, Winnemanoth, Brachmanoth, Heuvimanoth, Aranmanoth, Witumanoth, Windumemanoth, Herbistmanoth, and Heilagmanoth (Holy Month, because of Christmas). The calendar reform did not last beyond Charlemagne’s time and was never widespread. The church, centered in Rome, used the Roman calendar, so the Franks adopted it.

Traditionally, people tracked significant dates by the liturgical calendar. A baby was born just before Martinmas; a fair was held on Saint John’s Day; pilgrims would set out on Whitsun or Midsummer Day. Knowing these saints’ days in order was a daily-life skill. The best-known ones were as well-known as modern Thanksgiving, but lesser saints’ days could be memorized in a poem designed to put them in order in a catchy way.

The modern system of counting numbered days through each month developed during the Middle Ages for business and record keeping. Bede used simple numbers in his history of the English people. By the 14th century, notaries simply wrote down the numbered day of the month. However, in the books of hours, and officially, Europe followed the old Roman system of numbering days. It was a complicated method, but it had the virtue of tracking the phases of the moon, which helped in calculating lunar-determined feasts.

Romans divided their months into periods based on the phase of the moon. There were 3 key days. Calends (or kalends) was the 1st day of the month, the new moon. It was called calends because a Roman official had called out (Latin calere) the start of a new month and time to pay interest on debts. Ides meant the middle of the month, the time of the full moon, usually the 13th or 15th day. Nones was 9 days before the full moon. Only these 3 dates were distinguished, and all other days were named in relation to them. If the ides of a month was the 15th day, then the 14th day was the “pridie idus”—the day before the ides. Each day was named by working backward to the next key day.

The medieval calendar used the Roman system. The month’s first day was Calends, and the next day, depending on the month, either IV or VI before Nones, and on with a countdown to the Pridie Nonus and Nones itself. There was then a countdown to the Ides: VIII, VII, VI, V, IV, III, Pridie Idus, and Ides. The second half of the month counted down to the Calends of the next month. Holy Innocents’ Day, which we call December 28, was “ante diem IV Januariis.” On the chart in a book of hours, one column tracked these countdowns.

Although there was an understanding that the first of January began a Roman new year, most medieval societies regarded a date in spring as the beginning of the new year. In England and some other European countries, the year began on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. In France, the year began on Easter, although the date moved. Some people considered the year to begin at Christmas. Only in the 14th century, as international banking required standardization of dates, was the first of January firmly established as the start of a year. Traditional celebrations continued to be held in spring until the 18th century.

One of the most contentious issues in the early Middle Ages was how to calculate the day of Easter. In England, the Irish tradition of Saint Patrick was not the same as the Roman tradition of the later-converted Anglo-Saxons. Some English monasteries had been founded by Irish monks and continued to calculate Easter the Irish way. In 664, there was a national conference, the Synod of Whitby, on how to decide when Easter would fall. They voted to adopt the Easter tables drawn up by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 in Rome.

Dionysius (or Dennis) tackled the difficult problem of how to name years, as well as how to calculate Easter. The Roman Empire had named years for the emperor or consul, a system that ceased to work well after the fall of the empire in the West. Dionysius, a monk who lived in Rome in the sixth century, drew up a table showing the dates of Easter in many years. He identified that he was writing it 525 years after the birth of Christ, or Anno Domini—“in the year of our lord.” He used this approximation to rename the years that had been named for Emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians. There was no way to check Dionysius’s statement of when Jesus had been born, but it was based on church traditions and calendar systems. Although he did not recognize the need to name the year of Christ’s birth the Year Zero, his tables made the first use of the concept of zero in a Latin work. Calculation of Easter was based on a cycle of 19 years, and he designated the beginning of each period as nulla, the Year Zero for each cycle.

The English monk Bede studied Dionysius’s tables and extended them into the eighth century following the Synod of Whitby. He wrote several books on how to calculate time, and he also wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He dated his work 731, according to the new Anno Domini system of Dionysius. Bede’s book was more influential than he might have imagined. It was copied many times and came to the continent when Charlemagne recruited the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin to found his school and library. Through Bede’s history and Dionysius’s Easter tables, the Anno Domini dating system spread.

During the Middle Ages, scholars began to notice that the Julian calendar was not precise enough. Over the years, the new and full moons no longer matched the Calends and Ides as they were supposed to. Every year there were about 11 minutes unaccounted for. By the ninth century, astronomers were noticing the discrepancy. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon could see the problem clearly and criticized the Julian calendar. Pope Clement VI received a report suggesting that four days should be dropped in 1349, but the chaos of the plague of 1347–1348 buried this recommendation. In 1436, a Council at Basle received a report by Nicholas of Cusa that recommended that they drop out one week between Easter and Pentecost. The council felt it would be too confusing and that it would interfere with merchants’ calculations of interest on loans. The corrected Gregorian calendar was not adopted until 1582, and it was not until 1752 that days were deleted to correct the growing inaccuracy.

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4 Responses to Happy Medieval New Year!

  1. Janet Kasten Friedman says:

    (I am Yehoshua Friedman’s (goyisherebbe) wife.
    Wow! I am impressed! Did you do this research as a school paper? I never even thought to ASK about the history of the “civil” calendar… I accepted it as a given, having been taught it in first grade. I always had trouble with the Hebrew calendar, trying to “translate” dates. The Hebrew calendar works well, and has since the beginning. The Bible verse: “for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” I heard that this doesn’t refer to general IQ among Jews, or the nations thinking that our spiritual wisdom was great, but simply that we had a calendar that works, so we know when to plow, plant and reap.
    Thanks for the historical background which shows just how late in human history this vital knowledge was really missing!

  2. Ruth says:

    Janet, this series is based on the work I did four years ago, writing an encyclopedia of the “things” of medieval Europe. Most of the entries are some kind of remix of the actual text; for this one, I was really tired and just plunked in the book’s entry. So this is the “Calendar” entry; there were brief paragraphs also about the Jewish and Muslim calendars, noting them as significant minorities in Europe. The encyclopedia was not about history, but about “things,” but I included both Jews and Muslims as entries.

  3. David Bigelow says:

    A cousin, fellow genealogist, provided the link to your explanation of the calendar. But what generated my original question was during genealogical research of ancestors in England I notice that from the period of early 1300 to mid to late 1400 there were quit a number of entries where the year of an event was in question. Such as b. 12 Sep 1387/8, or d. Aug 23, 1456/57. This occurs even in what can be considered secondary source material. I find it odd that a month and day can be for certain but not a year! Any idea why?

  4. Ruth says:

    I’m not sure. Of course there was a lot of disruption in that period from repeating episodes of the plague; especially in England, record keeping suffered (I think it was better established as Roman tradition and with a surer paper supply, in Italy). It seems to me that the date, as well as the year, must be open to error as well. They just aren’t telling you so. The original source could have given the date in terms of a saint’s day, which was then worked out as 12 September, but which really should have been called 11/12/13 September.

    So my only guess would be to spread the uncertainty to the date, as well.

    A date in the 1400s is more likely to be noted according to the Roman calendar, not a saint’s day, because by then international shipping had spread accounting and with it, the universal calendar.

    But overall I am not sure of any specific reason why years in that time would be more uncertain than in any other period, apart from the plague. I’m no longer actively researching these things—am completing an entirely different book instead. But if I run across any answers, I’ll post them. If you find an answer and remember to come back and post it, that would be great.

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