Counting the Days 500 Years Ago

Detail of manuscript calendar in Incunabula 322
Detail of manuscript calendar in Incunabula 223

As we begin the year 2016, one incunable in the Rare Book Collection offers particular resonance for “timely” meditations: Nicolas Jenson’s 1475 printing of St. Augustine’s De civitate Dei, annotated exactly five hundred years ago in 1516, with a manuscript calendar for that year and lunar calculations.

The volume is one from the personal collection of alumnus Dr. Frederic M. Hanes (A.B. 1903), who led his siblings to establish the Hanes Foundation for the Study of the Origin and Development of the Book in 1929. The RBC traces its beginning to that foundation, which enabled the purchase of nearly 400 incunabula. Following Dr. Hanes’s death in 1946, the Jenson imprint and other high spots that he collected came to UNC.

The book is Jenson’s only edition of St. Augustine’s magnum opus, which sought to vindicate Christianity in the sack of Rome and delineated the existence of two realms: “the City of God” and “the City of Man.” The French-born printer Jenson, famous today for his roman type, chose instead to set the text of this Christian classic, so important in the Middle Ages, with a gothic font, perhaps because of its religious content. The book is noteworthy for stating the printer’s name on the first page of text, the earliest such instance in type, anticipating the invention of the title page.

The Hanes RBC copy is also one of a small number from the edition that features a setting of type for the colophon statement where names are elided: “Nicolao ie[n]son gallico: Petro moze[n]icho principe.” – “by Nicolas Jenson, Frenchman: for Prince Peter Mocenigo.”

Specific only to the RBC copy are its manuscript annotations and addendum. On the verso of leaf 16 are records of two purchases of the volume: first in 1516 by Nicolaus Fabbrinus, and then in 1691 by one F. M. Arrighi. Two handwritten leaves at the end, most likely Fabbrinus’s work, discuss in Latin and Italian the epact—or the number to be added to the first day of the year to obtain the moon’s age, 15 in 1515, 26 in 1516, and 7 in 1517—and provide a calendar for the year 1516 and a wheel for determining Pascha, or Easter, a movable feast that could fall in March or April.

Wheel for calculating Pascha or Easter, Incunabula 322
Wheel for calculating Pascha or Easter, Incunabula 322

The wheel is divided according to the 19-year lunar cycle, with 19 numbered chords. ”Hic est aureus numerus,” written inside the wheel’s center, indicates that each of these is a “golden number”—as the ordinal number of a specific year in the cycle was termed beginning in the Middle Ages. The golden number is used in conjunction with the Dominical letter (top center) to find the date of Pascha. The Dominical letter designates the Sundays of a year in a cycle where days of the week are lettered A-G, and January 1 is always A.

This manuscript exposition operates under the Julian calendar in use before the Gregorian calendar reform of 1582, a topic of last year’s New Year blog post. Keeping track of the sun, the planets, the moon, the stars, and time has been a central activity for all societies, whether the ancient Maya, the Christian West, Revolutionary France, or our global technological present. Look up tonight; it will be a full moon in Chapel Hill.

Enlightened Timekeeping

Almanach des bergers pour la Seconde Année Républicaine… (Paris: 1793) / QB807 .A46 1793

The vibrant covers of the Almanach des bergers stand out among the Rare Book Collection’s acquisitions of the year so far. This almanac dates from the second year of the French Revolutionary Calendar (1793–1794), which would mark time for the French Republic through the end of 1805.

Almanacs like the Almanach des bergers were marketed to the lower and middle classes, especially farmers who relied on the books’ predictions of meteorological events for planting and harvesting crops. When the National Convention created a completely new calendric system during the French Revolution, almanacs replicated and explained the new calendar. These almanacs were then printed in a large number and made widely accessible.

The Revolutionary Calendar was devised methodically, with a focus on the marking of time as it relates to the movement of the earth around the sun. This kind of organized structuring of the natural world was typical of the Age of Enlightenment (ca. 1650-1780). Months were renamed corresponding to the harvest cycle and were reformatted to contain three weeks of ten days each (décades). Five feast days occurred at the end of the year, and a leap day was observed once every four years. The Revolutionary calendar omitted the excessive feast days of the Gregorian calendar (see our earlier post) and strictly regulated the French citizen’s work week.

Page 35 of the Almanach des bergers showing the phases of the moon during Pluviôse, the fifth month of the revolutionary year, which started around January 20 and ended around February 20

Besides delineating the past—the ère vulgaire—from the present, the new calendar also incorporated contemporary values into the measurement of time. The calendar was based on the natural world, dividing time into even segments of ten, and it created a more rigorous work schedule. The author of the Almanach des bergers, thought to be  one Taillardat, draws many parallels to the ancient Greek calendar, and suggests that perhaps the ancient Greek calendar was the inspiration for beginning the revolutionary calendar year in autumn. The new calendric system was regarded as politically neutral, as it was based on reason and the natural world, even though it was established by a very political group and acted as a tool to control the citizen’s schedule. The wide distribution of almanacs could even be compared to the distribution of political propaganda.

The Revolutionary Calendar was short lived. It fell out of favor during the reign of Napoleon, when concerns of inconvenience to international commerce prevailed. The Gregorian calendar, still in use today, was reinstated on January 1, 1806. The Almanach des bergers is an artifact of a brief but important period in the history of French culture, a sign of the French Revolution’s impact on the daily lives of French citizens.

Travel Through Time: The Gregorian Calendar

BX2014 A2 1598
BX2014 A2 1598

With the start of a new year and a new calendar, it is timely to reflect on how calendars have evolved and changed throughout the centuries. One volume in the Rare Book Collection has particular value for this endeavor, the Martyrologium Romanum ad novam kalendarii rationem et ecclesiasticae historiae veritatem restitutum.

The RBC edition of the Martyrologium Romanum was published in 1598, just fifteen years after Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar.  Before 1582, most of the western world used the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE.  The Julian calendar had 365 days divided into 12 months with a leap day added to February every 4 years, making each year exactly 365.25 days long.

Under the Julian system, the equinoxes and solstices advanced by 11 minutes annually with respect to the calendar.  While this seems like a small increment, this meant that by the 16th century, the spring equinox was falling on March 11th rather than March 21st.  This was a particular problem for the Catholic Church because the date of Easter each year depended in part on the full moon after the equinox, so the shift in the calendar caused Easter to be celebrated earlier and earlier in the year.  To solve this problem Gregory XIII instituted a small reform.  His Gregorian calendar moved ahead 10 days and would omit three leap years every four centuries.  The Gregorian calendar is still in use today, and while it remains out of sync with the astronomical calendar by twenty-six seconds, it will take thirty-five centuries before the calendar is off by an entire day.

The Martyrologium Romanum was published by the Typographia Apostolica Vaticana, the official printing press of the Vatican.  The 1589 edition is the third and was updated to include the feast days of Nereus and Achilleus (two early Roman martyrs) in the calendar. This combination of a calendar and theological history was not intended for a single year, but was intended for reuse each year.  To that end, rather than assign the day of the week to each date, every entry has what is known as a Dominical Letter. January 1 starts with A, and the sequence runs through G and then repeats. It would be announced each year on which letter all Sundays fell.

Epact table
Epact table

Because lunar dates were also valuable, particularly in determining the date of Easter as well as some other moveable feasts, each entry also lists the ages or phases of the moon in a table, depending on the epact (or age of the moon on January 1) of the year, which can be determined using charts at the beginning of the volume.  If we’ve done the calculations correctly, the age of the moon for 2015 will be listed under the character “k” for each entry in this volume and all Sundays fall under dates with the Dominical Letter “D.”

Mark Your Long Count Calendars!

13 Bak’tun cake of Maya chocolate by Jeremy Pinkham

December 21, 2012, is fast approaching. What better way to recognize the shortest day of the year—and the end of the current great cycle in the Maya Long Count Calendar—than to tune in at high noon (yes, 12 p.m.) to Frank Stasio’s radio program “The State of Things” on WUNC 91.5 FM?

Frank will be speaking with Associate Professor Emilio del Valle Escalante and Curator of Rare Books Claudia Funke about all things Maya, including the current Wilson Library exhibition, Ancient and Living Maya in the 19th and 20th Centuries: Archaeological Discovery, Literary Voice and Political Struggle. We guarantee that you’ll live to see December 22!