Wednesday 1 February 2012

Great Leap Forward by Calendar Girl Mary Hoffman

I'll be in Denver when you read this, coping with jetlag. It just isn't natural for a human being to go back in time six hours through speeding across the Atlantic for nearly ten. I am abnormally chrono-sensitive (don't look it up; I just invented it). I wear my watch day and night, taking it off just for baths, showers and swims (though I have a waterproof "swimming watch" I substitute for it straightaway). I made a friend, who does not wear a watch, laugh recently by saying, "time is round!" as an explanation of why I didn't want to consult my mobile phone or computer. You might remember from my Janus post that I see the year in the same circular fashion.

A fascination with time is pretty often linked, as in my case, with a predilection for all things calendrical. I'm not the only History Girl who feels this way. See H.M. Castor's post on this subject. I even have a character in my  Stravaganza sequence of novels featuring alternative history in 16th century Italy, who is a Calendarist. (That is the Elizabethan alchemist Doctor Dethridge, for whom I have drawn heavily on the historical John Dee).

I am also fascinated, though I don't claim to understand it, by the Precession of the Equinoxes, thought to be at the heart of the mysteries of the Mithraic religion.

Anything that needs  diagram like that makes me feel a bear of a very small brain. But that doesn't stop me loving it.

I digress, but that's what the calendar makes me do. There's the Solar calendar, which gives us the whole year and the hours of daylight we experience, the Lunar calendar, which (roughly) gives us the months with a 28-day cycle (and no, I don't think this has anything to do with menstruation, though you'd be amazed how often this is mentioned without challenge). Did you know there was a thirteenth month, Mercedonius, invented by Numa, the second king of Rome (715-672 BC)? It was an intercalated month of 22-23 days between February and March. Julius Caesar put a stop to it

It was his adviser Sosigenes who suggested abandoning the intercalary month in favour of an intercalary day once every four years. He knew that that the Julian calendar would eventually run into difficulty because the year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars were mentioned by H.M.Castor. For those of us who write about the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, that change in the beginning of the year is a real pain! To recap, in 1582, under Pope Gregory Xlll, the Julian calendar was "reformed." This was done by Papal Bull, according to a proposal by one Aluise Baldassar Lilio (1510-76).

The sharp-eyed among you will note that Lilio died under the old calendar, which must have been annoying for him. But it took England another 200 years to adopt the Gregorian reform, putting it out of kilter with most of Europe. "Give us back our eleven days!" cried the English in September 1752 when Wednesday 2nd was followed by Thursday 14th.

I was reminded of this when the people of  Samoa skipped 30th December 2011 to bring them more in line with Australia and New Zealand.

I have a specially soft spot for Leap Years and February 29th, because I proposed to my husband on that date. To make it more equal than the usual Leap Year tradition, he proposed to me too. And we were married ten months later (and still are).

Having that extra day is known as an "intercalation." In the 1604 edition of the Book of Common Prayer was written: On every fourth year, the Sunday Letter leapeth." Hence, Leap Year. Nothing to do with Leaping the Broomstick or anything like that.

The tradition of a woman being the one to propose on Leap Day goes back a long way. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (an essential part of my library), "A Scottish law of 1288 says that 'during the rain of hir maist blissit Megeste, for ilke yeare knowne as lepe yeare, ilk mayden ladye ...shal hae liberte to bespeke ye man she like, albeit he refuses to taik hir to be his lawful wyfe, he shall be mulcted in ye sum of ane pundis.' " An alternative fine was a silk gown.

(I hope you didn't find that difficult to read; it's pretty much the way Dr Dethridge speaks and spells).

At Christmas 2010, we were given a total of nine calendars. Thanks to the recession and cost-cutting by the local garage and Indian take-away - both places we frequent regularly - the number was reduced for the Christmas just gone by. In fact, we are down to three.

I have the greatest difficulty in throwing calendars away - those Polar Bear cubs are so cute; perhaps I should cut them out and keep them? I still have fond memories of Jackie Morris's ginger cats, a lovely one I had of the phases of the moon, and I have cut out Mr February from the gondolier calendar Michelle Lovric sent me last year.

OK, maybe that last isn't really part of my calendrical obsession. But now I'm wondering, shall we make a History Girls' calendar for 2013? Would you like one? Emphatically not like Julie Walters and co. in Calendar Girls!


michelle lovric said...

Hope you're shrugging off the jetlag with your inimitable aplomb, Mary. Meanwhile, Mr February salutes you from the jade green waters of the Grand Canal with that shapely, dextrous hand of his. I continue to maintain he walked straight out of a Carpaccio painting and into that calendar.

H.M. Castor said...

I love this post, as you might imagine! (And thanks for the mentions, Mary!) I feel like a bear of very little brain indeed when I gaze at the diagram and try to stretch my mind around the intercalations, but it fascinates me nevertheless. And yes, though I hadn't thought of it before, I do agree about checking the time on phone or computer does not feel right... perhaps time is round to me too, though the year is not... That discussion about the 'shape' of the year in the comments section of your January post, Mary, sparked off a very interesting discussion here - I ended up asking my parents and my nephew, amongst others, what shape they felt the year to be. Circles and slides abounded. The most unusual, it seemed, was my husband's view: he sees the year stretching directly ahead of him in a straight line, as if (but this is my image) he is standing plumb in the middle of a straight train track, looking in the direction of travel. Or on the front of the train... as Churchill liked to travel as a young man in South Africa, it occurs to me, gun in hand... But that's another story!

adele said...

What an educational post, Mary! I feel as though I've had a proper class in something interesting. Marvellous stuff. I too am fascinated by time but this fascination has never led me to search for such diagrams. Thanks for that mind-boggler, which I slid past quickly and for the suggestion of a History Girls' Calendar. That's one to ponder. At the moment, I can't see a huge market for it but you never know....

Theresa Breslin said...

Such a challenging post Mary! As a very special gift I was given a hand constructed orrery. I study the movements of the planets and see how tiny Earth is. I am no wiser but it is beautiful object and I admire the workmanship and it's very soothing to wind the handle.

Linda said...

Oh, yes, a calendar! It could feature some of those lovely book covers. And, just to make it more exciting, why not have the pages arranged by colour - golds for summer, blues for winter, etc? I've just sorted some of my bookshelves like that, and the results are intriguing. 'Prisoner of the Inquisition' jostles 'The Sleeping Army', 'The Law of Angels' and 'Sherlock Holmes: Fire Storm'. Imagine the conversations they could have in the night!

Katherine Roberts said...

I am glad there is an extra day in February this month... it gives me more of a chance of meeting my March deadline!