From The Clock, Christian Marclay, 2010
by Colin Dickey
It’s currently twenty-six seconds fast, but it used to be worse. Prior to the Gregorian reform, the calendar used in the West (the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar), was a whole eleven minutes fast, since the calendar’s length was 365.25 years (averaging out an extra day every Leap Year), whereas the actual time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun is actually 365.24219 days.
It’s hard to blame Julius Caesar entirely for this; the Julian Calendar, after all, was itself a reform of an imperfect lunar calendar, one that was about 355 days, and was amended erratically with intercalary periods to keep it aligned with the tropical year (these intercalary periods were often forgotten or omitted by Roman rulers, particularly during wars or other times of hardship). The Julian reform, even with its irregular months, had the benefit of keeping relative alignment with the solar year without any human intervention, and on paper, was close enough to the actual solar year that no one thought the slight rounding error would add up to much. But by the sixteenth century those eleven minutes each year had added up to over ten full days, and the calendar was slipping further and further out of alignment — the Winter solstice was halfway to November.
The Gregorian Reform was motivated initially by religious purposes: the slippage was moving Easter farther into summer, creating problems with the festival calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. The solution devised by the Church was first to remove Leap Days from three out of four centennial years (thus, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 would not by Leap Years, but 2000 would), bringing the calendar closer in line to the actual solar year. Additionally, ten days were to be dropped from the Calendar to bring Easter back in line with its date in the fourth century, when it was first established by the Council of Nicea. October 5-14, 1582, the Pope decreed, would disappear.
Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, Camillo Rusconi, 1658–1728
Despite any religious motives, above all the reform was simply better mathematics, but even though it brought the calendar more in line with the Earth’s orbit, the Vatican had limited power to enforce the Gregorian calendar on governments. Spain, Portugal, Italy and other Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar within the year, but Protestant and Eastern Orthodox nations were much slower to transition to the new calendar, particularly those who saw it as some kind of Catholic plot. England’s bishops, for example, scuttled a plan to switch to the Gregorian Calendar in the 1580s; in their defense, they stated that, “seeing all the reformed Churches in Europe for the most part do hold and affirme and preach that the Bishop of Rome is Antichrist, therefore we may not communicate with him in any thing.”
In 1700, the gulf was widened between Julian and Gregorian countries by another day, but it wasn’t until 1752 that England was finally able to pass legislation moving the country to the Gregorian Calendar. In crafting the law, the Whig politician Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was careful to strip its language of any religious motivations or reasoning; it was referred to not as the Gregorian Calendar but simply the “New Style,” and the text of the legislation spoke exclusively of international law and commerce. The current calendar, Chesterfield argued, “hath been found by experience to be attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom.”
Adopting the Gregorian Calendar, the law claimed, “will be of general convenience to merchants and other persons corresponding with other nations and countries, and tend to prevent mistakes and disputes in or concerning the dates of letters and accounts, if the like correction be received and established in his Majesty’s dominion.”
Even though the new calculation for Easter was exactly the same as the Roman Catholic Church’s, great care was taken to devise a new means of calculating so it could be seen as free of any Catholic taint.
Despite this careful secular framework, the rival Tories still saw in it an attack on English Protestantism by alien foreigners. For no matter how elegant a mathematical solution may look on paper, implementation is almost always a messy affair. As Robert Poole notes,
The English calendar as it appeared in the mid-eighteenth century was a great reef of religious, economic, social, ritual, customary and natural elements, the by-product of centuries of cultural accretion; it could not simply be reformed by a stroke of the legislator’s pen, like the pottle or the prayer book.
Confusion and anxiety swirled around this change in something so fundamental as the calendar. What has become known as the Calendar Riots — when an ill-informed mob rioted to the slogan “Give us our eleven days!” — as though they feared they had actually lost eleven days’ worth of wages, or somehow had their lives shortened by that amount.
These riots are in fact fictitious, a result of a misreading of a satirical painting, An Election Entertainment, in which rioting Tories are seen to with a placard, “Give us our eleven days!” The main subject of Hogarth’s painting was in fact Tory outrage over recent Whig legislation that gave greater freedom to Jews, and the anti-calendar frenzy was meant as one more absurdity of the Tories’ irrational vitriol. But even as hyperbolic myth, the Calendar Riots reveal a latent tension in any change to the calendar: the desire to impose a mathematical certainty over tradition can have unexpected consequences. Sympathy for foreigners and non-Protestants was easily conflated with this recent attempt to reorder the calendar (and with it, important religious holidays). One legislator, Robert Nugent, complained that after he had advocated for naturalization of non-English Protestants, he was accused of having supported not only the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 but also the Calendar Act; “it would be no wonder should he be for naturalizing the devil,” scoffed one anti-Semitic Briton, “for he was one of those that banished old Christmas.”
An Election Entertainment, from the Humours of an Election series, William Hogarth, 1755
The problem is that the Earth’s orbit is almost — but not quite — a round number, and so we continually try to fit the natural world into a mathematical order that makes sense. Even though the Gregorian Calendar solved one major problem (a year now aligned with the time of the Earth’s orbit), in the eyes of many it’s still far from perfect, and two quirks of its construction have continued to nag those inclined towards a more rational calendar. First is the inconsistent number of days in each month, and second, the fact that 365 is not divisible by seven, so that each year calendar dates fall on different days of the week.
A frenzy of activity designed to resolve these issues struck the international community in the 1920s, as various individuals and organizations set out to remedy these problems and devise, once and for all, the perfect calendar. The League of Nations established a subcommittee to remake the calendar, and then organized The First International Conference on Calendar Reform in Geneva in 1931. Proposals for better schema poured in from all over the globe, but the most likely candidate to replace the Gregorian Calendar ended up coming from a wealthy heiress from New York. Elisabeth Achelis had attended a lecture in 1929 on calendar reform by Dr. Melvyl Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame), and then spent months intensely studying the question via available literature, ultimately emerged with what she called (and copyrighted as) the World Calendar.
The World Calendar was an attempt to regularize the calendar to an even more mathematical precision. The year was divided into four equal quarters: each with exactly 91 days, each with three months of 31, 30 and 30 days, each beginning on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday. In order to maintain this regularity, Achelis added two days that lay outside of the week: “Worldsday,” an extra day following December 30, and a Leapyear Day, another additional day that followed June 30 on leap years. Because these two days were “outside” of the weeks that preceded and followed them, January 1 would always fall on a Sunday, so that one could predict with certainty the day of the week on which any date would occur.
Among the much-touted benefits were the fact that the correlation between dates and days could be easily memorized, and that the new calendar would benefit capitalism by making quarterly reports more regular — not to mention save on calendar printing (since only the title page bearing the year would have to be reprinted each year). But Achelis herself saw in her calendar greater gifts to humanity. “To help America’s onward march to better days,” she wrote in her autobiography, the regularity of The World Calendar “will keep America on the straight and onward path. And what is equally important is the significance that the Christian Sunday, like the sun in the sky after which ancients named that day, will shine undimmed upon all peoples of the world. The World Calendar for all Nations, and Sunday, the religious day, will sow seeds for more harmonious living such as the world has never known before.”
But if it was these religious reasons, rather than simply printing costs, that motivated Achelis, ultimately it would be religious objections that would scuttle the plan. While mathematic consistency may have favored an extraneous Worldsday to keep weeks regular, God had never made provisions for such nonsense, and Achelis’s “bonus days” threatened the regularity of the Sabbath itself. For it was not for mankind, many felt, to tinker with the week as established by God. Dr. Herman Hertz, chief rabbi of England was one of the primary critics of the World Calendar, arguing strenuously that the League of Nations needed to preserve the Sabbath, and particularly, needed to preserve the religious observances of minorities.
Achelis’s and other reforms failed precisely because they prioritized the stability of the year over the stability of the week, and it was the latter, with its day of rest, which finally trumped any concerns for annual consistency — not to mention any concerns for the power of the human mind to use rationality and mathematics to resolve a contradiction in nature. When it comes to the calendar, it would seem that God’s calculations always trumps our own.
Debates about the days and months are one thing, but debates about the number to the right of the comma — the actual year itself — are often even more fraught. In the last two decades, the Gregorian change has once again become a strange object of controversy, this time by a number of otherwise well-respected mathematicians and historians. These include Germans Ulrich Niemitz and Heribert Illig, who believe we’re witnessing a gross error, bordering on conspiracy, regarding the whole nature of chronology and human history. A good chunk of the Middle Ages, they argue, does not exist — the entire period of time from AD 614 to 911 is either error or fabrication, and our current date should be more properly understood to be about 1717. The ten days eliminated from the calendar by the Gregorian Reform in the sixteenth century, represents a correction of about 1300 years, and if Pope Gregory had actually been correcting for the supposed 1600 years since the birth of Christ, he would have known to eliminate thirteen days, not ten. Instead the Gregorian Reform, Niemitz and Illich suggest, consisted only of ten days because they understood themselves to be living in the thirteenth, not sixteenth, century.
Forget the obvious and well-documented fact that Gregory knew exactly what he was doing, and the calendar reform of 1582 was meant to bring the calendar back in line not with Jesus’ birth, but with the First Council of Nicea’s initial setting of Easter in AD 325. Because of the odd history of the calendar’s design and evolution, its strange (though comprehensible) quirks and features, it’s vulnerable to conspiracy theorists as well as those who see in it a chance to advance a specific ideology. More elaborate than Illig’s Phantom Time Hypothesis is Anatoly Fomenko’s New Chronology, which goes much farther in re-conceiving how we understand history. Fomenko, a Russian mathematician, invented a procedure he called the Maxima Correlation Principle, a statistical model by which he calculated the relative frequency by which a given event or historical figure was mentioned in the available historical record. From there, Fomenko began to note what he saw as certain mathematical coincidences: according to the Maxima Correlation Principle, Julius Caesar, winner of the First Triumvirate, has the same rating as Constantius Chlorus, winner of the First Tetrarchy. Jesus, in turn, has the same rating as the fourth century Basil the Great.
Based on statistical probability, Fomenko concludes that these mathematical coincidences indicate an overlapping series of events: Basil the Great and Jesus, he claims, are in fact the same figures. This series of coincidences and repetitions turns out to extend deliriously in all directions. Not only do the Second and Third Empires duplicate each other, but the Biblical Kingdom of Israel, it turns out, also maps onto the Roman Empire from the fifteen century, the Roman Empire of the ninth century reflects the thirteenth century Hapsburg dynasty, and so on and so on.
This may seem another attempt to bend the world of nature to the yoke of science and mathematics, except of course that Fomenko’s math is utterly spurious, and capable of being disproven with the simplest of research. But the New Chronology has taken hold in Russia, winning converts that include intellectual powerhouses like Gary Kasporov. (“If we are correct in ten percent of what we are saying, this will be the most important thing I have been involved in,” Kasparov told a Telegraph reporter in 2001. “We must prove that ten percent. But if we do, it’s like a house of cards. Remove one and the whole thing collapses.”)
What lies behind Fomenko’s New Chronology turns out not to be mathematics but nationalism; Fomenko’s grand conclusion claims that nearly all of the great advances of Western Civilization were the result of Russian culture, a truth covered up by the rest of Europe through deliberate falsifications of documents. By asserting that Russian history is the true history, and that everything else we know is false, Fomenko makes a direct line from Christianity and Constantinople to modern-day Russia, downplaying if not altogether erasing the historical contributions of Western Europe and the Americas. Not only do we bend the natural world to mathematics and science, then, but we also bend mathematics and science to political ends as well. No calendar is innocent, no temporal system is neutral. “Who controls the past, control the future,” runs the Party’s slogan in 1984, and “who controls the present control the past.”
Nationalist attempts to remake the date aren’t new — in perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as “superficially frivolous” and “coarsely vulgar,” not to mention “irreligious” — but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar, and a temporal arrangement of time with an entirely new set of symbolic compass points. A calendar that was no longer based on saints’ feasts and religious holidays towards one named after the progression of the seasons and the plants and vegetables of nature, where September 22 (the date of the founding of the French Republic), not January 1, was now the beginning of the year, and the year itself was no longer 1792.
French Republican Calendar of 1794, Philibert-Louis Debucourt
The Republican Calendar lasted a meager twelve years before Napoleon reinstated the Gregorian on January 1, 1805. It was, in a way, perhaps a victim of its own success, as Eviatar Zerubavel suggests. “One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the calendar reformers was exposing people to the naked truth, that their traditional calendar, whose absolute validity they had probably taken for granted, was a mere social artifact and by no means unalterable,” Zerubavel writes. However, this truth works both ways, and what the French reformers found was that “it was impossible to expose the conventionality and artificiality of the traditional calendar without exposing those of any other calendar, including the new one, at the same time.” While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organize that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other.
It’s not entirely a fluke that the Republican Calendar failed while another of the Revolutionaries’ great projects — the Metric system — was a wild success. Unlike Metric-standard conversions, or, for that matter, Gregorian-Julian conversions, there was no way to translate the days of the Republican Calendar to the Gregorian calendar, which meant that France found itself isolated from other nations. But more importantly, the Metric system did not, in itself, threaten social order, and the natural diurnal rhythms of human lived experience that have evolved over millennia. By suddenly asserting a ten-day work week, with one day of rest for nine days’ work, the Republicans completely up-ended the ergonomics of the day, and this — more so than the religious function of the old calendar — was what was irreplaceable. The Metric system of weights and measurements marks a triumph of sense over tradition — it’s just plain easier to work with multiples of tens than the odd figures of the Standard measurement system. But in the case of calendars and time, convention wins out over sense.
The French Revolutionaries may have been living at what they saw as the beginning of time, but the rest of us, for the most part, believe ourselves stubbornly to be living at the End of Days. This millenarian thinking is by no means new, and it has, over the centuries, informed some of the major historical developments and political movements in the West. Much of this can be traced as far back as Joachim of Fiore, the twelfth century Italian mystic forward a tripartite scheme of history: the first regime, that of God the Father, lasted from Adam to Christ; the second, belonging to the Son is the age we currently occupy; and a third, the regime of the Holy Ghost, will be a redeemed time in which all the promises of the Bible would be fulfilled and humanity would live no longer in history but in an immanent time. This Third Regime was identified by Joachim as starting in 1260, but this date has since been continually revised and pushed further into the future. Kept alive for centuries throughout Europe, with a constant roster of new dates and new candidates for Christ Resurrected, Joachim’s structure of time has percolated into the bedrock understandings of how Christians — and even secular Europeans — view time. As Norman Cohn writes in The Pursuit of the Millennium,
Horrified though the unworldly mystic would have been to see it happen, it is unmistakably the Joachite phantasy of the three ages that reappeared in, for instance, the theories of historical evolution expounded by the German Idealist philosophers Lessing, Schelling, Fichte, and to some extent Hegel; in Auguste Comte’s idea of history as an ascent from the theological through the metaphysical up to the scientific phase; and again in the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society and a final communism which is to be the realm of freedom in which the state will have withered away.
The Nazis were, for Cohn, no different; their concept of the “Third Reich” came most immediately from the 1923 novel by Moeller van den Bruck, but latent in the term is this same eschatological thinking that has become, simply put, the understanding of time in the Christian West. The phrase “Third Reich,” Cohn argues, “would have had but little emotional significance if the phantasy of a third and most glorious dispensation had not, over the centuries, entered into the common stock of European social mythology.”
By now, we are all of us more or less apocalyptic. Our calendar is itself based on the apocalyptic return of Jesus Christ, counting up from Anno Domini towards the End. And no sooner had we given up on Christ returning in AD 2000 before we immediately turned to another god, Quetzlcoatl, with the much ballyhooed End now moved to 2012 (a full eighth of the United States population expected the end of the world to come on December 21, 2012). As of 2013, 41% of Americans believed themselves to be living in the End Times as described by Bible, with a full third of Americans believing that the current civil war in Syria is a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Meanwhile, the Rapture Index, a weekly tabulation of End Times events that offers a handy numeric assessment of the probability of the Apocalypse, continues to hover around its all-time high.
Why this belief that we’re living at the End of the World? Why do we stubbornly cling to the notion that we’ll all be obliterated, especially considering that one would think this is something to be avoided? Perhaps this, too, has something to do with our calendars. As Frank Kermode explains, “apocalyptic thought belongs to rectilinear rather than cyclical views of the world… basically one has to think of an ordered series of events which ends, not in a great New Year, but in a final Sabbath.” Kermode suggests that because we are living in the middle of history, having neither begun it nor likely to end it, humans, in order to “make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends” and manufacture stories of the imminent End, be it by a return of the Antichrist, global warming, or an Aztec feathered snake. Apocalypse, in other words, is a means of investing meaning into our temporal experience; rather than simply spinning off numbers into infinity, the notion of the Apocalypse adds an end point to the calendar, a termination date that infuses the present with meaning.
The embodiment of Gozer in Ghostbusters, Columbia Pictures, 1984
As the Sumerian God Gozer tells Bill Murray and friends at the climax of Ghostbusters, we choose the means of our destruction. The End we imagine, Kermode writes, “will reflect [our] irreducibly intermediary preoccupations,” which is why the Apocalypse is always assumed to be happening within years or decades, rather than centuries or millennia. The plain fact being that no matter how we try to organize and structure the calendar — be we French Revolutionaries, post-Soviet mathematicians, or American evangelicals — we design it so that we are the center of history. Time and tide may wait for no man, but the calendar always revolves around the calendar-makers.
About the Author:
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is an Associate Professor in creative writing at National University, and is working on a book about haunted houses.