Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Dates galore

I have a site which lists some of the more interesting things to have happened on a particular day of the year - http://theylivedthisday.blogspot.com/.

Identifying dates on which things happened is difficult. Many events are quoted differently in different sources.

The first complication is that different countries ran different calendars for many years – the Julian and the Gregorian. By 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar there were eleven days difference between the two. A source which quotes something as happening in on 20th October 1700 may or may not have corrected the date to our current calendar. Different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at different times. Spain, France and parts of Italy adopted it as long ago as 1582 when the Papal Bull was first issued. Denmark, Norway and Germany waited until 1700 to adopt it. Alaska made the change in 1862 but it was not until 1918 that Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar and Greece waited until 1923.

A further complication was the fact that the civil or legal New Year was celebrated on 25th March so, for example, Pepys’ diary entry for 1st January 1660 follows his entry for 31st December 1660.... To reduce misunderstandings on the date, it was not uncommon in parish registers for a new year heading after 24 March, for example 1661, to have another heading at the end of the following December indicating "1661/62". This was to explain to the reader that the year was 1661 Old Style and 1662 New Style.

But adding "Old Style" (OS) and "New Style" (NS) to dates did not end the confusion. In some cases the terms were used to indicate whether a date had been adjusted from the Julian to the Gregorian and in others simply to show that the start of the year had been adjusted.

In the late eighteenth century some people continued to celebrate their birthdays on the date they were born whilst others adjusted it and celebrated it eleven days later.

Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries. After 1753, the British tax year continued to operate on the Julian calendar and began on 5 April, which was the “Old style” new tax year of 25th March. A 12th skipped Julian leap day in 1800 changed its start to 6 April. But just to confuse matters even further it was not changed when a 13th Julian leap day was skipped in 1900, so the tax year in the UK still begins on 6 April.

Another confusion from a couple of centuries ago was the length of time news took to travel across the world. If someone died in New Zealand the news would take many weeks to get by ship to England and then weeks more to cross the Atlantic on the clippers. The date on which the event happened would be pretty irrelevant six or ten weeks later. (an amusing example of the slowness of communication was the Battle of New Orleans of January 8th 1815. Andrew Jackson led his US troops to victory in the Battle of New Orleans between the US and Great Britain in the War of 1812 but the war had actually ended in 1814 No one in New Orleans knew!

Ah well, even if dates from years gone by are sometimes questionable, at least nowadays there is no such confusion. Modern communications are so fast that anything which happens anywhere in the world may be known about within minutes anywhere else.

At least, I thought there could be no confusion until Sir Edmund Hilary died. He died in the early morning of Friday, 11 January, in Auckland Hospital, New Zealand. Obituaries were coming in thick and fast in Britain on 10th January because we are thirteen hours behind New Zealand. So we had a situation where a man’s obituaries were being published a day before he died! In years to come anyone looking to check what date he died would find most sites showing 11th January and yet checking original sources would show it on the 10th January early evening news programmes in the US.

No comments: