The Day the Church Altered Time


By Matthew E. Bunson

On the night of October 4, 1582, the citizens of Spain and its colonies, Portugal, Poland, and most of Italy went to bed and woke up 10 days later.

The peculiar event was not some medieval miracle but was, in fact, an effort by the Church to bring about a badly needed change to time. Having decreed months before that a reform of the calendar was essential for the good of Western civilization, Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572–1585) implemented a new calendar on the night of October 4. The next day, part of the massive fix of the Julian calendar, was not counted as October 5 but October 15, 1582. The calendar reform proved one of the most important and impressive accomplishments for the progress of Europe in the whole of the Renaissance.

For critics of the Church, the 16th century is a seeming treasury of embarrassments for Catholics—from the so-called “bad popes,” to the Inquisition, to the Protestant Reformation. But the crown jewel for criticism, of course, is Galileo and his supposed persecution by an obscurantist, tyrannical, and unenlightened papacy. Lost in much of the rhetoric surrounding Galileo, however, was the immense accomplishment of Pope Gregory XIII in bringing desperately needed changes to the calendar.

The problem has always been the fact that a year cannot contain neatly organized days or months. Put simply, the interval between successive vernal equinoxes (every 365.2424 days) is approximately 11 minutes less than 365 1/4 days. At the same time, the synodic period of the moon (i.e., the time between each full moon or new moon) is around 29 1/2 days, so that 12 months add up to only about 354 days. A calendar that incorporates both the movements of the sun and moon thus becomes quite a challenge, and people of many civilizations have certainly given it their best shot.

Ancients’ Days

The most influential, not to mention widely adopted, effort to solve the dilemma was the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. to replace the longstanding Roman calendar that had grown hopelessly inaccurate by the use of the lunar year and the intercalary month. His idea, with a little help from Sosigenes, an Alexandrine astronomer, was to create a solar calendar with months of fixed lengths. Rather than try to introduce a gentle change, Caesar instituted what became called the “year of confusion” by adding 90 days to the year to realign the months of the Roman calendar with the seasons. The first Julian year commenced with January 1, 46 B.C. and the 708th year from the foundation of the city.

The result was that the average length of the Julian calendar year was 365.25 days. To account as best it could for the subtle but important deviations in the passage of time, every fourth year included an intercalary day to maintain synchrony between the calendar year and the tropical year. Caesar organized the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh months (i.e., January, March, May, July, September, and November) to have 31 days, and the other months 30, excepting February, which in common years should have only 29 days, but every fourth year 30 days. To keep himself even with his illustrious predecessor, Emperor Augustus added an extra day to August to have as many days as July—which had been named after the first Caesar. So, a day was taken from February and given to August; to prevent three months straight of 31 days, September and November were reduced to 30 days, and October and December were assigned 31. The additional day every fourth year was added to February, the shortest month. In modern calendars, of course, the intercalary day is still added to February, but as the 29th.

Time Shifts

The Julian calendar remained in use throughout the entire history of the Roman Empire. The Church naturally adopted it in the development of the liturgical calendar. Easter was placed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox. Obviously, then, the calculation of the equinox assumed considerable and understandable importance. If the equinox was wrong, then Easter was celebrated on the wrong day and the placement of most of the other observances—such as the starts of Lent and Pentecost—would also be in error.

As the Julian calendar was far from perfect, errors did indeed begin to creep into the keeping of time. Because of the inherent imprecision of the calendar, the calculated year was too long by 11 minutes and 14 seconds. The problem only grew worse with each passing year as the equinox slipped backwards one full day on the calendar every 130 years. For example, at the time of its introduction, the Julian calendar placed the equinox on March 25. By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325, the equinox had fallen back to March 21. By 1500, the equinox had shifted by 10 days.

The 10 days were of increasing importance also to navigation and agriculture, causing severe problems for sailors, merchants, and farmers whose livelihood depended upon precise measurements of time and the seasons. At the same time, throughout the Middle Ages, the use of the Julian calendar brought with it many local variations and peculiarities that are the constant source of frustration to historians. For example, many medieval ecclesiastical records, financial transactions, and the counting of dates from the feast days of saints did not adhere to the standard Julian calendar but reflected local adjustments. Not surprisingly, confusion was the result.

The Church Saves Time

The Church was aware of the inaccuracy, and by the end of the 15th century there was widespread agreement among Church leaders that not celebrating Easter on the right day—the most important and most solemn event on the calendar—was a scandal.

Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484) made the first effort to reform the calendar, hiring the astronomer Johann Müller who, unfortunately, was murdered soon after. As the work of other astronomers could not gain universal acceptance owing to problems of competing national interests and varying opinions, the Church remained the best chance of promulgating a definitive solution to a growing crisis.

Pope St. Pius V introduced a new breviary in 1568 and missal in 1570 in keeping with the mandate of the Council of Trent, and both of the new texts included adjustments to the lunar tables and the leap-year system. The problem of Easter, however remained, as did the basic difficulties with the Julian calendar.

In 1563, the Council of Trent had approved a plan in principle to restore the date of the vernal equinox to that of 325 and to install the needed changes to the calendar to make the calculation of Easter more accurate. Italian astronomer and doctor Luigi Lilius proposed a solution in his ambitious work Compendium novae rationis restituendi kalendarium (Compendium of the New Plan for the Restoration of the Calendar). He suggested a slow, 10-day correction to amend the temporal drift since Nicaea and a more careful application of the leap day. Lilius died in 1576, but his brother presented his theories to the one person who could something about them—the pope.

Cardinal Ugo Buoncompagni had been elected Pope Gregory XIII on May 13, 1572 as successor to Pope Pius, and he was determined to fix things once and for all. Happily receiving the manuscript, the pope appointed a commission to investigate solutions. He placed at its head a Jesuit mathematician and astronomer named Christoph Clavius. The basic ideas of Lilius were adopted, but Clavius preferred that any correction should take place in one sweeping move rather than a gradual implementation. The commission’s recommendations were then presented to the pope and were promulgated by the pontiff in the papal bull Inter Gravissimus, signed on February 24, 1582.

Like Julius Caesar before him, the pope agreed that small adjustments were no longer viable. Instead, he decreed that Clavius’ approach should be followed: 10 days would be removed from the calendar. So October 4 was followed by October 15. With one act, the vernal equinox of 1583 and those that followed would occur around March 20, a date much closer to that of the Council of Nicaea. To overcome the challenge of losing one day every 130 years, the new calendar omitted three leap years every 400 years, so that century years were leap years only when divisible by 400. Using this method, 1600 and 2000 were leap years but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not.

Technically, the pope could not decree that nations and kingdoms adopt the new calendar, but its value was noted immediately in repairing centuries of inaccuracy on the part of the Julian calendar. The new calendar was first inaugurated in Spain, Portugal, Spanish colonies in the New World, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and most of Italy. The Holy Roman Empire followed, and then the rest of the Catholic world. France deployed the new calendar in December 1582.

Stuck in the Past

Had the reform occurred a century before, of course, it would have been much easier to implement across all of what was then a united Christendom. As it was, in a post-Reformation Europe, the new computations were greeted with suspicion in the lands that were no longer Catholic. Protestant Germany adopted the calendar slowly. Prussia accepted it in 1610, while the rest of the Protestant states decreed it only in 1700.

The English, especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), rejected any thought of adopting a calendar created under the name of a pope and remained long suspicious that this was some Catholic plot. Consequently, even as anti-Catholic bigots in the English Isles lampooned the popes as enemies of progress, they were 10 days behind everyone else in Western Europe for over 150 years. And after the leap year of 1700, they were 11 days behind. The English compounded the dating dilemma further by celebrating New Year not on January 1 but according to the older custom of March 25 to April 1. As the American colonies adhered to the English system, they shared in the temporal displacement. Americans now celebrate the birth of George Washington on February 22, 1732, according to the Gregorian calendar. However, according to the English reckoning, he was born on February 11, 1731-32.

The people who continued celebrating New Year’s Day between March 25 and April 1 were lampooned as “Fools” giving us the origins of April Fool’s Day on April 1.

Acknowledging at last that the continued use of the Julian calendar and celebrating New Year on March 25 were “attended with divers inconveniences,” the British Parliament passed the Calendar (New Style) Act in 1750. The New Year would begin on January 1 rather than March 25 and time would be counted according to the Gregorian calendar. The act went into effect on September 2, 1752, and the next day was decreed as September 14, 1752.

Russia and the Eastern Orthodox Churches rejected the new calendar and continued to use the Julian calendar in their calculations for Easter. The Gregorian calendar was accepted as the civic calendar in Russia only after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Eastern Orthodox continue to use a revised Julian calendar, with the exception of the Finnish Orthodox Church, which adopted the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is the most widely used calendar in the world today and has fulfilled well the.aspirations of Pope Gregory XIII. And so, the same Church that was supposedly the obstacle to progress and science gave to the world a reliable means of counting the days that has withstood the test of time itself.

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  1. sorry just a doubt, pardon me if i have hurt the sentiments in anyway …In last before paragraph it is mentioned that….” The act went into effect on September 2, 1752, and the next day was decreed as September 14, 1782 “… .. they skipped 30 years????

  2. First of all, thanks for this very good informative article.
    I just have an important remark about its title which I believe is misleading. The Church didn’t alter the time but resynched to it. You may find this unimportant but some protestant sects, like the 7th day adventists, fool people to believe that Catholic faith is evil and changed God’s time. Such a title backs their claims, though the rest of the article is very clear that the Church was driving progress through science and reason.
    You may change the title to something less flashy but more truthful (the day the church skipped 10 days). I know it’s not easy but truth must prevail, especially when it comes to avoid making people fall into sects.
    Thanks very much.

  3. You should have left out the bit about Galileo “supposed persecution.” It does nothing to add to your real message and, in fact, subtracts from your credibility as an author. There’s sufficient historical evidence to support assertions that Galileo was persecuted by the Church. But again, it’s a non sequitur in your article about the time shifts in our historical calendars.

    • You would do well to read history instead of rhetoric. Galileo was actually censured by the church for poor science, he put forth a theory as true that still possessed significant problems. He turned out to have been correct, but he was nevertheless an irresponsible blowhard and a lousy scientist. The church even gave him the opportunity to provide supporting evidence for his claims (because the church wants to know the truth) but he couldn’t provide it (because the relevant experiments had not been performed yet, and were thus unknown to science) so he was censured. Galileo was no martyr for science, he was an arrogant, irresponsible jerk.

  4. Rolex(ロレックス)中国の歴史は実際にはすでに百年を超えるが、一番印象的なのは1967年から、隷属ハンス・ヴェルス多夫基金(fondationハンス!Wilsdorf)のRolex(ロレックス)会社は香港で支社を設立して。その後、それは2002年に承認され、中国で作成された家はその完全ホールディングスの支社は他の中国と同行協力)となり、実現の時計ブランド初の試み。チュードル時計コピーRolex(ロレックス)に入るたびにひとつの市場には、アフターサービスシステムを構築する。中国でも例外ではない。今、北京、上海、広州の合計の3つのアフターサービスセンターを設立しました。加えて260以上の販売時(を含む十数軒の専売店)、Rolex(ロレックス)中国の従業員の数は300人を超え。

  5. 新宇亨得利ホールディングス(香港株番号3389)が先月から香港募资6.02億香港ドル、合台灣ドル以上20億元をくわえる新株、既存株主をはじめ、SWATCHグループは、LVMH、テマセク、シェラトンホテルなどはすべて投資株主の一つで、調査によると、これも新宇台灣で拓時先にとSWATCHグループ協力要因。

  6. これは北京の札を2008オリンピック記念で創作の1項のエナメル陀のはずみ車の腕時計、限定30匹。パネライ時計コピーエナメル文字板の上半分は直径0 . 04ミリ黄金素子制のオリンピックスタジアム――鳥の巢、鳥の巢の上に2匹のリュウキュウツバメを振るうように立て、ささやく、鳥の巢の下部の両側の各何枝芽が初の春柳の風に揺れて。柳に陀はずみ車の中華霊燕羽ばたく、腕時計を添えた多くの情趣。全体の時計はデザインの調和、生き生きして、エナメル文字盤のような一枚の水おしろいスケッチを含んで、鳥の巢の春暁のロマンチックな感情。

  7. 2012年に戻って、ボールの腕時計は、彼らがビーエムダブリュー車とのコラボレーションで腕時計を製造するという興味深い発表と私はそれはかなりクールだと思った。腕時計のコレクションのためにボールがデビューして、後で行った実際のここで。 ルイヴィトンスーパーコピー 2015年の間、ボールを静かにリリースされた1つの新しい部分をボールにtimetrekkerコレクション青と黒いダイヤルバージョンの両方を含むビーエムダブリュー腕時計と家族のために、鋼の金属ブレスレットやゴムひものどちらかを見て。

  8. パネライ スーパーコピー 腕時計の直径44 mmということです、そして、私の意見で、素晴らしい―見える白ゴム・ストラップの上に来そうです。回転ベゼルであり、多くの人々のためのダイビング腕時計のないダイブウォッチしません、しかし、このものはまだ水抵抗の300 mとそれはあなたがそれをダイビング–リンデそのダイブコンピュータを提供したいときのためにそのそでの上で何か他のものを持ち、「リーフ」をリアルタイムでダイバーの追跡することができます。センサを用いて、3軸コンパス、mpuプラットフォーム、警報システム、それは深刻なダイバーのためのユーティリティの多くを提供することは、ブランドのダイビング腕時計の場合には、迅速かつ容易に急にできるように設計された。あなたがそれのために余分の注意を払います。

  9. さらに中国を理解した贅沢表プレート、今年はきっと面白いや劇的な一年。スーパーコピー時計最近発表の席であることがLuxury Index™チャイナ:Watches(世界高級品インデックス、中国:腕時計)を評価の市場の週波数、各ブランドの明暗や、お客様の気持ちも理解を提供するチャンス。

  10. 多分、それlum-tecプッシャーのブライトリングのような洗練された技術を使用します。を見るために、ここを読む方法を使用して作成するブライトリング磁石の接触の密売人にそのアベンジャーシーウルフクロノグラフ腕時計。私は、この概念は、内部のリングを回転させるはずのクラウンの設計に変換することができるかどうかわかっていません、しかし、それは彼らのために良いスタートであるかもしれません。もう一つのアプローチは、ヘビーデューティのガスケットのシステムの1つの地獄を使うことです。この時計の開発として、我々は必然的にlum-tecの賢い解決のより良い考えを得ます。

  11. St Pius V after the Council of Trent didn’t introduce a new missal post Council of Trent he merely codified the Roman Missal in use in Rome for only regions using a rite less than 300 years old.