Monday, 31 December 2012

Why Doctor Who Fails at Time Travel in Medieval and Renaissance England

Today, I was doing some research into New Year's during different time periods and checking out some of the awesome calendars people made hundreds of years ago.  Calendars tended to last longer in those days and generally came in book form.  Rather than being the ephemeral items they are today, they were works of art and skill:

 A 1496 copy of the German calendar created by Johannes Von Gmunden (c.1380-1443).  It sold recently for £73,250 ($117,347).  Astrological in nature, but the book also contains a liturgical section.  The moon looks smug though.  It bothers me.

However, I was reminded of something I learned years ago in school -- these medieval and renaissance types used a different calendar back then.  At that point, as I was discussing the nuances of the Julian vs the Gregorian calendars to the other half, he just exclaimed "That's why The Doctor can't ever get anywhere or any-when at the correct time or place!  It's not a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff -- he's just not taking calendars into account!"

I thought about this a moment and was going to disagree because, well, Time Lord.  But then I remembered that The Doctor couldn't even think to save Rory and Amy from the weeping angels by going to 1935 to pick them up.  So it makes sense to me that he could miss the whole calendars thing, which I should probably now explain, given that I've had caffeine and it's showing.

Or this.  They could have done this.  That would have been fine too.  HOW DID HE NOT SPOT THAT?  Okay, calm.  But it illustrates the point.  No common sense.  Or perhaps New York is just too full of flanginium, that rarest, yet most common of metals.  Incidentally, if you know who the artist for this is, I'd love to give them credit -- this is something that I saw floating around the Internet... :(

See, people have found different ways of measuring time.  The Romans had a few ways, the last of which being the Julian Calendar, brought in by Julius Caesar in 46BC to start in 45BC (by our calendars).  Romans of course measured from the founding of their city, Rome, (Ad Urbis Condita) so this change happened in 708AUC and 709AUC.  For perspective, by their calendar, we're now living in 2676, by the way...

The Julian calendar was all very well and good, except for the fact that it was 11 minutes longer per year than nature allows for.  Doesn't sound much until you realise that over the course of four centuries, it gained around 3 calendar days.  By the time the more accurate Gregorian calendar that we use today was introduced to the Catholic countries of Europe in 1582, the vernal equinox was taking place on the 11th March instead of the church's date of the 21st, meaning that 10 calendar days had been unintentionally inserted over time.  This was unacceptable given that the celebration of Easter was tied to the equinox and the seasons were getting out of sync.

This was further compounded by the fact that yes, under the Julian calendar, the year sensibly started on 1st January.  But of course that didn't take Roman Catholic religious observances -- the liturgical cycle -- which began on 25th March.

A Medieval Calendar:  A page from an English Book of Hours (1401-1414) held at the British Library, helpfully filed as "Royal 2 A XVIII".  This page illustrates 25th March (the Feast of Annunciation), which according to tradition is the day Mary was told "Yo.  You're pregnant."  This was therefore the start of the New Year for countries using the Julian calendar.  

So in practice, there was a secular New Year's Day and a religious one.  The year, however, only went up on the religious New Year's Day, 25th March.  Therefore, if Queen Elizabeth were to write a letter dated on the 1st January, 1567, which is correct from her perspective, we'd view it now as 1st January, 1568, which is correct from ours.  She'd also go to bed on 24th March, 1567 and wake up on 25th March, 1568 and this would be entirely normal.

To make matters even more complicated, note how I mentioned that the Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582.  So most of Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Poland, the Netherlands and all their territories) took this on board.  Britain didn't.  It was Protestant and firmly so; this new calendar thing was clearly a Catholic plot by the Pope to bring Britain back into line!  Many Protestant countries felt this way.  However, the new calendar eventually caught on, in time, because it was more accurate.

Britain, her American colony and her territories took on the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.  By this time, the calendar was in something of a bind, so some trickery was used to fudge the dates and bring them into line.  On 24th March, 1751, the next day was 25th March, 1752.  This was actually normal (religious New Year, remember).  But, it was decreed that the year ended on 31st December, 1752, and therefore the year went up, the next day, on 1st January, 1753.  The calendar was also still out by 12 days, however, so 2nd September, 1752 was followed by 14th September, 1752.  1752 was 72 days shorter.  I kid you not.  They just decided to not have those days that year.

A page from William Hunter's Virginia Almanack for September 1752.  Despite 1752 being 72 days shorter than every other year ever, I doubt he gave 20% off his Almanacks (source).

Apparently, this is all even confusing to historians, mostly because half of them update and half of them don't.  Not exactly helpful, but at least they generally state it at the start of their works.  The Gregorian calendar became the worldwide standard over time, though the last country to accept it was Greece in 1923.  The Greek Orthodox churches, however, still use the Julian calendar.

Just as a note:  This will blow my mind at 4am tomorrow night -- when I remember it and I've had a few.  Although no time travelers ever make note of any of these discrepancies, I'm really glad they don't.  It'd just be confusing.  But you'd think The Doctor could at least install some kind of upgrade for it!

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