Tomorrow, 25 March, is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day on which the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her that, while still remaining a virgin, she would bear a child, God’s son Jesus Christ. With gynaecological exactitude, 25 March is exactly 9 calendar months before Christmas Day, celebrated as the day of Christ’s birth.
For many historians, 25 March is also a date that does their head in.
The mystery of the virgin conception and birth has done a lot of theologians’ heads in too, of course. Imagine then the difficulty for artists who tried to convey this scene, a very popular and often stunningly beautiful image in medieval and renaissance art. In this image from the workshop of Robert Campin, for instance, a tiny adult Christ, complete with crucifix, is surfing down a sunbeam towards Mary’s womb.
Workshop of Robert Campin (South Netherlandish, active by 1406, died 1444), Annunciation Triptych, A larger image is at Wikimedia Commons
The Annunciation is usually depicted with a few common elements: Mary, submissive, receptive, often reading a book; Gabriel, usually young and androgynous, with gorgeous but aerodynamically unsound wings. Usually there are lilies somewhere, representing purity, and if outside there will be early spring flowers, right for late March. If the action takes place indoors, as here in this scene from about 1430, it gives us a peep at what furnishings and fittings might have looked like then.
But not everything is so straightforward. In this scene, for instance, the towel on the rail seems to be a Jewish prayer shawl, Mary is about to switch books from the Old to the New Testament, and the snuffed out candle represents the end of the old, pre-Christian order.
Which is where the problem with the date comes in.
According to many clerics, if the new Christian order began with the moment of Christ’s conception, then 25 March was the beginning of the New Year. And clerics (clerks) ran the medieval bureaucracies. Yet there was already a New Year, 1 January, set at the time that the Julian calendar was instituted, back in Julius Caesar’s day. The result was a dual system that must have been very confusing: Samuel Pepys, for instance, writes about New Year celebrations on 1 January, but when dating his entries, he only changes the year on 25 March.
This dual system remains a problem for people writing about the pre-modern era today. To clarify things, historians dealing with events that occur in the period between 1 January and 25 March often write the date as (e.g.) 26 January 1688/9.
But it gets worse. By the 16th century, the Julian calendar had drifted seriously out of whack with the actual seasons. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced a reformed calendar, including the rule that every 400 years there will be no leap year (last implemented in 2000) and moving the date 10 days from 5 October 1582 to 15 October 1582. Unfortunately, however, by then the Reformation had taken place. Protestant Europe refused to go along with any changes – even sensible, scientifically developed changes – that were introduced by the Papacy.
And so, for centuries, different parts of Europe operated on different calendars. Diplomatic letters between England and France, for instance, routinely include 2 parallel dates for each side of the Channel.
Different states converted to the Gregorian system at different times. Scotland changed its New Year to 1 January in 1600, while staying on the Julian calendar, but in England, it was not until 1752 that both the calendar and the date of the New Year were brought into line with most of western Europe. By then an adjustment of 11 days were needed to bring the dates into line. It was too hard, though, to demand that people pay their taxes 11 days early, so the Exchequer stayed with the old system, and right up to the present day, income tax in Britain is due on 6 April (25 March + 11 days).
Other parts of the world took even longer to fall into line: Russia only changed after the 1917 Revolution, which is why the October Revolution actually took place in November. Eastern Orthodox Churches still use the Julian calendar to calculate Christmas – but so also did many folk in the west, who continued to celebrate festivals based on the older calendar. Auld Yule was celebrated well into the 19th century in Scotland.
Of course there are many calendars, though for most purposes, the Gregorian system is now the global standard. It’s worth investigating the applet at Calendrica, which lets you explore them all. Look up 1752 to see those 11 days disappear – or, if you prefer, go to the Mayan calendar where the whole of time will end next year.
It makes our local difficulties with daylight saving seem fairly minor.
Calendrica [this is a wonderful site, but be patient, as it crashes fairly regularly]
Steve Roud, The English Year (2006)
‘Not without a Prenup’ is at http://musformation.com/pics/annunciation2.jpg