Opinion

Confusing dates

Even experienced genealogists are sometimes confused and frustrated by issues with dating. I’m not talking about your granddaughter’s new boyfriend. I’m talking about what you can run across researching in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What does it mean when you see 12/22 April 1702 or 3/13/ February 1695/6? What are “old style” or “new style” calendars?

What were Julian or Gregorian calendars? Why were there days missing in the year? Does any of this matter?

This column and my next one will try to help you with this. I’ll keep it as simple as possible, though the issues involved were complicated. So, let’s start by looking at calendars. Decreed by the Romans in 43 B.C., the Julian calendar began the year on January 1, had twelve months, and a leap year every fourth year. This is known as the “Old Style” calendar.

In the seventh century the Christian Church amended the Julian calendar with the year starting March 25, Annunciation Day, the day Christ was conceived. However, the Julian calendar over time didn’t correlate with the sun and the natural seasons so in 1582 the Catholic Church adopted the Gregorian Calendar designed to correct these issues. The year now started January 1. Years divisible by four were Leap Years. Most important eleven days were dropped from the calendar to bring the calendar into alignment with the natural seasons. So October 4 was followed by October 15. The Gregorian calendar was called the “New Style.”

But in 1582 the avidly anti-Catholic Protestant English weren’t about to allow a Catholic Pope to dictate changes to their calendar. They solved the need to adjust the calendar issue by dropping twelve different days than the Gregorian calendar. In England and English colonies the day after September 2 became September 14. Take that, Pope!

The English weren’t the only ones resisting the Gregorian calendar. The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches kept different calendars and still do. Even Catholic countries, such as Spain, continued to use the Old Style calendar ignoring the Gregorian one which must have raised havoc with feast days.

This meant Europe had several simultaneous calendars right into the twentieth century when the last holdout, Greece, adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1923. England and that includes us by extension recognized the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. 

Genealogists researching in these periods need to know what calendar was being followed where their ancestor lived at any given time. It was possible that days, months, and years were different in England, Italy, Spain, Russia, Greece, and others all at the same time. 

Confused? So was most of Europe. There’s more backstory about these calendars which you can research if you want. In the next column I’ll go into the double dating of years – 1695/96, different ways of recording dates between the U.S. and Europe and how that affects your genealogy, and a few other facts you should know as you research. 

Oh, and good luck with your granddaughter’s new boyfriend.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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