Calendars and Spelling - Be Wary

A Note on the Calendars

While searching the early years of many of the ancestries published by The Baronage Press, and indeed in many other genealogical books, readers will find dates in a form similar to 14 Jan 1445/6, a form which suggests that although the day and month are known, the year is uncertain. Sometimes, in other publications, readers may encounter a date shown as, for example, 14 Jan 1445 o/s (the abbreviation "o/s" meaning "old style").

The reason for this is that calendar years have not always started on the 1st January, and that part of the year which was known then, for example, as 1445, may be by today's recognition 1446. So as a convention, both digits are shown, or, in some books, there is a reference to o/s (old style) or n/s (new style).

How does this ambiguity affect family historians? One example is that a child found to be born in Durham (England) in January 1620 of a marriage noted elsewhere as solemnized in Dunbar (25 miles away in Scotland) in February 1620 might be regarded with suspicion, but once the difference between the English o/s date and the Scottish n/s date has been recognised the doubt can be resolved.

Of course, there ought not to be difficulties. After all, it is only necessary to note the year the style changed, and then to adjust calculations accordingly. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that, and for two reasons. The first is the ambiguity created by some writers altering dates to fit a preferred scheme and then not noting that they have done so. This can occur quite often in family records of the kind that grandparents sometimes leave to their descendants. It is a potential problem of which all family historians should be aware.

The second reason is that the change from old style to new style did not occur everywhere in Europe at once. The purpose of this essay is to explain why, and what the consequences were of the staggered change.

Since the birth of Christ the calendar year in different places has started on various dates (in January, at Christmas, at Easter), and the first appearance of an internationally standardised date (the first, that is, since the end of the Roman Empire) was not until the ninth century when in parts of southern Europe the Feast of the Annunciation, 25th March (known also as Lady Day), was adopted as the first day of the new year. The practice spread northwards and by the end of the twelfth century it had been adopted in the British Isles, where it was maintained until 1st January was adopted (in 1600 in Scotland, and in 1752 elsewhere). Other European countries made the change to January at different times: for example, Venice in 1522, Spain in 1556, France in 1579, Russia in 1725.

The problems created by the different starts to the year were aggravated by the leap year discrepancies. Before Julius Caesar the year was measured as 365 days, but during his reign it was recalculated, an extra six hours were added, it was ruled that every fourth year would be given 366 days, and the new system was named the Julian Calendar. Then in the seventeenth century it was recognised that a small over-estimate of the year's length (11 minutes and 14 seconds) had created a cumulative error of about ten days. Pope Gregory XIII corrected this by decreeing that the day after 4th October 1582 would be 15th October, and that the number of leap years would be decreased by removing all those at the end of centuries whose first two digits were not divisible by 4. Accordingly, the year 2000 will be a leap year, as was 1600, while 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not. This system is the Gregorian Calendar, and it starts its new year on 1st January.

The religious problems of the sixteenth century then intruded. European countries loyal to Rome quickly adopted the new calendar. Italy, Spain and Portugal began that October; France, the Catholic Netherlands, Switzerland, Bohemia and Catholic Germany soon afterwards, with Poland and Hungary following by 1587. Scotland under James VI, who was not yet James I of England, chose in 1599 to start the next new year on 1st January, for the sake of standardisation, but did not adopt the ten-day correction until England did so in 1752 (by which year it had become eleven days).

It is interesting to note that in explaining that the change was to conform with all other "well-governed countries", the Act implied that England, in the last years of Elizabeth I, was not.

Denmark and the Protestant parts of Germany and the Netherlands adopted the Gregorian Calendar in the 18th century. Sweden tried some compromises, introducing the Gregorian system for 1700 by decreeing it to be not a leap year, then compensating for this by allocating two leap days for 1712 and returning to the Julian Calendar, and finally accepting the Gregorian Calendar by jumping across eleven days in 1753.

In England the Chesterfield Act decreed that the day following 31st December 1751 would be 1st January 1752, and that the day following 2nd September 1752 would be 14th September. (The Gregorian adjustment of ten days had now become eleven days, as noted above, owing to England and Scotland having counted 1700 as a leap year.) These changes applied throughout all the territories governed by the British Crown and thus included the colonies of North America. In the British Isles the most important consequence of the Act was that at last England and Scotland were on the same calendar.

As recent relaxations in international tension have encouraged residents in the western world to explore their family connections with Eastern Europe, readers intending to travel there for research should note that the adoption there of the Gregorian Calendar was delayed far longer. Bulgaria conformed in 1917, Russia and Turkey in 1918, and Yugoslavia and Romania in 1919. Greece followed in 1923.

During the 170 years between Gregory's Papal Bull and the adoption of his system as the official calendar for the British Isles and the British territories overseas, two calendars were in common use in England. This was due in part to the needs of traders dealing with continental counterparts who might be easily confused (for in addition to all the possible language problems, the same day could be described in London as 21st February 1620, in Edinburgh as 21st February 1621, and in Paris as 3rd March 1621). Almanacs were published with the new year beginning on 1st January, and were in general use for trade and travel. The Legal Year remained the basis of government and used 25th March as its start. The Church acknowledged the existence of both calendars, as will be seen in parish registers which show the new year beginning on 25th March, but the pages between the end of December and late March headed with, for example, "1697/8".

All the dates in Moncreiffe's Family Records may be considered as British, the years designated for events in the countries of continental Europe having been converted to the British system unless otherwise specifically noted. The difference between Scottish years and English years for the period 1600 to 1752 may be recognised by the use of the slant between the last two digits and, of course, this applies to dates between 1st January and 24th March only.

The really critical period that might be significant for some researchers is the month of September 1752 in the British Isles and British territories overseas. It was a month of only nineteen days.

SEPTEMBER 1752 in The British Isles and British Territories Overseas:-

A Note on Spelling

As was shown above:

...... mediaeval spell-checkers had their problems.

But the lack of a standardised spelling system for the English language should not cause family genealogists too many problems, so long as they recognise that differences in the spelling of place names and surnames cannot be used safely to distinguish between places or between people.

It is not possible to examine the attitudes towards the early spelling of proper names from a 20th-century perspective. Even before the advent of computers we considered accuracy to be very important, and now it has become essential. But until the 18th century any rough attempt to follow the phonetics of a name was acceptable. Thus we find that a Law Lord in Scotland could spell the Christian name "Norman" four different ways in a single paragraph of a letter, while rather earlier in Edinburgh's city records the same person is listed as Forbess and Phorbous in the same administrative entry. Today there are many families that distinguish between branches by the spelling of their surname (Moncreiffe itself is one such example), but researchers must take care they do not project this custom back in time to periods when it did not exist.

The name of Bruce, for example, may be found in early documents as:

It can be readily seen that the argument allocating the authorship of Shakespeare's plays elsewhere on the grounds that he could not spell his own name consistently, and was accordingly uneducated, carries no weight.

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