Time and Seasons

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Time in Medieval Historicals: Ecclesiastical and Lunar Calendars

The first two books of the Accidental Heretics series take place in 1210. This creates a host of challenges for addressing time and date tracking issues. This post considers calendar issues and resources for writing historical fiction.

Calendar of Saints Days

Adoption of the Gregorian calendar didn’t begin until 1582 and wasn’t universal until the first quarter of the 20th Century. So, dates logically would follow a Julian calendar. I needed to know when Easter and other feast days occurred, and when phases of the moon occurred. I don’t care as a writer how accurate the selection might be, just that I could follow a consistent calendar for 1210, and that I could understand how people talked about and thought about the calendar of days.

For baseline understand of Church dating for feasts and seasons, I started with  John Wooley’s Ecclesiastical Calendar Conversion.  That article, and others, led to a common list of major feasts. Typically, you’ll see lists for fixed feast days such as:

Candlemas (February 2)
Lammas (August 1)
Michaelmas (September 29)

Other movable feasts or Holy Days such as Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Pentecost change based on a combination of solar and lunar calendar. For example, Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Other dates count based on the ecclesiastical year, beginning with the first day of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

As noted in Wooley’s article, the lists of saints’ feast days that you can typically find online (in English) are usually weighted towards English practices. So I had to dig further into the saints and feasts days that seemed most important in Catalan and Occitan cultures in this time period.  Further, in following mentions of saints’ feast days, I had to ensure that each particular saint had lived and been canonized before this period. (Dominic was wandering around still following the rule of the Benedictines and not yet a saint in 1210.)

So, for Accidental Heretics, I had a list of the feast days that would matter in the story, and then had to determine upon which day of the week these would fall. Several resources for finding a calendar for a selected year exist. However, here’s a key problem for basic research using the Internet:

Lots of medieval source material was first created in old Usenet days and then moved to the World Wide Web in the Nineties.
A huge portion of these resources are maintained by individuals based on their passion.  (We are very grateful to these pioneers.)
Links die.

Here are some resources (where links mostly work) for determining calendar dates:

My chief concern for moon phases in Accidental Heretics has been to ensure that dark and full moon phases appear at appropriate intervals (no light of the moon affecting night scenes more than once a lunar month!). For this, I used the set of Julian Calendars published on The Henry Foundation site, which provided me with a convenient PDF with phases of the moon and Julian day numbers for 1210.

Combining all the resources I found, days and dates didn’t always align. I can force reconciliation — because this is historical fiction, not scholarly history. But now to consider, how did people in 1210 talk about dates of the month in the Julian+Ecclesiastical system?

Reading texts from the time, you find statements like those that appear in Accidental Heretics:

… Fourth of the nones of April, the fourteenth year of the reign of Pedro II, King by the Grace of God of Aragón …

For this, you’ve heard of the ides from the Roman calendar:
— the 15th day of March, May, July, or October
— the 13th day of other months
(Thank you, Wm. Shakespeare, for ensuring we know to beware the Ides of March.)

Fewer of us learned the concept of nones: the 8th day before the ides of a month, which in the old Roman calendar would be:
— the 7th day of March, May, July, or October
— the 5th day of all the other months

From Wikipedia on Months in the Roman Calendar:

Nones implies ninth from the Latin novem, because, counting Ides as first, one day before is the second, and eight days before is the ninth

Are we sufficiently confused now?
If this is 1210 in southern Europe, what time is it?Clocks weren’t in wide use, and neither was the ringing of bells for ecclesiastic hours. Let’s talk “clock time” in a future article.

Credits: Calendar of Saints days from University of Oregon College of Arts and Sciences, photo by Petar Peev

Mardi Gras: Feast before Ashes and Scarcity

Medieval Mardi GrasMardi Gras seems even more of a medieval festival than Christmas. Few other holidays attract year-long attention to preparing for the celebration.

I’ve long held that the “party hearty before fasting” tradition has pre-refrigeration roots in agrarian community life. Meat you salted and preserved in caves and cellars has reached the end of its shelf-life. Other food packed away in straw won’t last until Easter. The animals are about to birth spring babies, so the cow hasn’t freshened and nothing can be butchered.

In that world, late-winter sparse times are inevitable, and both realists and optimists see value in coupling a hedonistic festival with subsequent spiritual fasting.

What to eat before the fasting begins:

A caçolet — perhaps without the duck or goose confit. Likely you won’t be merging the previous night’s caçolet with this night’s, perpetuating a single dish that’s been extended over decades (as legend tells it in the south of France).

Or a bolhabaissa, Marseille style. As Julia Child described it: “the Provençal soup base — garlic, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, fennel, saffron, thyme, bay, and usually a bit of dried orange peel — and, of course, the fish — lean (non-oily), firm-fleshed, soft-fleshed, gelatinous, and shellfish.”

Then my grandma and your grandma can dance in the streets.