Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Refusing Translation: The Gregorian Calendar and Early Modern English Writers

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Refusing Translation: The Gregorian Calendar and Early Modern English Writers

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

When in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII announced his reformed calendar, English response was more intrigued than hostile, but opposition set in; it would be 1752 before England abandoned the Julian Calendar. For several generations the gap between the two calendars produced complaints about confusion in chronology. But makers of almanacs soon included dates from both systems; wits used the two calendars for clever conceits; and Protestants made sarcastic comments on Gregory's reform. Meditations on significant dates by the metaphysical poets John Beaumont and John Donne, moreover, acquire new meaning when read against English refusal to translate the Gregorian Calendar across the Channel.

In October 1582, thanks to Pope Gregory XIII and his bull 'Inter Gravissimas' that established the new calendar we call 'Gregorian', many Europeans went to bed on the fourth of that month and awoke on the fifteenth. They did so for scientific reasons (Julius Caesar's 'Julian' calendar had drifted off course) and liturgical (to track Easter, a moveable feast, Christians must get their astronomical ducks in a circle). The challenge is to reconcile the solar Julian count with the largely Jewish one, for Easter is related to Passover and hence to the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Since lunar and solar cycles are incommensurable, this takes much calculation and some compromise. The calendar thus offered several problems in translatio: from Jewish to Christian, from pagan to biblical, from lunar to solar, and eventually from Julian to Gregorian. For many years, though, the English refused this last translation.

Initial English reaction to Gregory's bull had been cheerful. On 21 December 1582 William Perse sends 'a Calendarium Gregorianum' to his brother as a New Year's present. On 19 November 1582 J. Lobbetius writes to Walsingham that 'The Pope has made a new calendar, in which he makes us skip this year full jump from the 4TH to the 13TH [he means 15TH] of October, and thus makes us 10 days older.' (1) A joke, but Lobbetius understands the implications, saying, 'I do not know if it is to make the solstice fall about Christmas, as it did formerly.' (In fact, thanks to retaining the Council of Nicea's date of 21 March for the vernal equinox, Gregory only came close.) Noting the Pope's fury at being told of a flaw in his new calendar, Lobbetius nevertheless advises that 'we follow the usage of this calendar as soon as it is certain and correct'. And even the dyspeptic astrologer John Harvey can calmly observe in his Discursive Probleme concerning Prophecies (1588) (2) that because Gregory's astronomers had calculated far into the future, they clearly disbelieved superstitious prophets of doom (R4r).

Not everybody thought Gregory's astronomers had the right answers. Robert Hues's several times reprinted Tractatus de globis et eorum usu (1594) cites Copernicus's calculations to show errors in the reformers' calculations (B[4.sup.V]), although he is not otherwise hostile. Nor is Robert Pont in his New Treatise of the Right Reckoning of the Yeares (Edinburgh, 1599), which doubts that 'Lilius in his new Kalendar' has the year's length quite right, though adding that Christians need not 'bee too much curious, concerning the observations of those Feastes', for the Bible does not encourage us to be 'superstitious' (H[3.sup.r]-[4.sup.r]). Some doubters offered alternatives. The preface to a 1591 almanac by 'J.D'. (John Dee? John Dade?) describes ameeting at which arguments over the Gregorian reform led to the consensus that a third system was needed; there follows a triple list of dates headed 'the common Kalendar', 'the Romane', and 'the true'. The 'true' assumes an equinox as it was in Jesus's time. Even those who doubted the new calendar's accuracy, however, nevertheless knew that the Julian was flawed. As one almanac-maker wrote in 1593, should the world last 22,646 years, and should the calendar 'remaine so long unreformed', midsummer would fall on the winter solstice; thus 'processe of yeeres' would 'breede no small alteration of tyme'. …

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