The Gregorian Conversion

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed a modification to the Julian calendar. For the civil calendar, the only substantive change was to omit 3 leap days every 400 years (in years evenly divisible by 100 but not 400, e.g., 1700, 1800, 1900, but not 2000). Considered as a theoretical calendar (i.e., projecting it back before it was actually invented), the Gregorian calendar matches up with the Julian in the third century CE.

From a seasonal point of view, a the difference between the Gregorian and the Julian calendar wasn?'t yet really all that pressing a matter, only 10 days in 1582, only 14 days in the twentieth century. The logical question thus becomes, why did it matter? The short answer is religion, which is, in most cultures, very concerned with keeping time. For Christianity, the fundamental chronological problem was the calculation of Easter, and this difficulty drove the reform. Recal that Easter is supposed to be the first full moon after the spring equinox. But as Easter was calculated by rule, not astronomical observation, the slip of the equinox meant that the rule was badly in error. The Gregorian calendar was designed to restore the spring equinox to the March 21 date that had been traditional since the Council of Nicaea.

Most countries adopted the Gregorian calendar in a single, one-time correction. Catholic countries quickly adopted the reform when Pope Gregory proclaimed it. Many of the major countries (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland), skipped from October 4, 1582 to October 15, 1582, which we now take, for simplicity?'s sake, to be the canonical point of switch. The other Catholic countries quickly followed suit. Some, like France, by the end of 1582, others, like the Catholic parts of Switzerland (and, interestingly, the Spanish colonies in America—probably the result of delays in communication—waited until 1584. For some odd reason, the Spanish Netherlands switched over at the very end of 1582 (from December 21 to January 1), which means they skipped Christmas that year. (The October time was originally picked to omit as few feasts as possible from the church calendar, and Christmas seems a doozy of a feast to skip.)

In an age of intense religious passion, the simple fact that the Pope instituted the reform was enough to make Protestant countries reject the change. The greater part of protestant Germany did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1700, the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland and Protestant Netherlands until 1701.

The Swedish dithered. In 1700 they began what was intended to be a gradual switch to the Gregorian calendar. They planned to stop observing leap years until their calendar was in line with the Gregorian one. They did omit the leap year in 1700, but observed the leap year in 1704 and 1708 (apparently they forgot the plan). Thus they were 10 days out of step with the Gregorian calendar and 1 day out from the Julian. Then, in 1712, they changed their minds, and went back to the Julian system by adding two leap days to February. Somewhere in Sweden, there are probably some unique baptismal records of people whose birthday was on a date never to be seen again: February 30. Lithuania and Lativia, which were under Polish rule at the time of the reform (and hence changed in 1582), actually reverted to the Julian calendar, so strong were the feelings. They did not change back again until the 20th century.

Although Queen Elizabeth I initially expressed some interest in changing the calendar in 1582, the Church of England effectively tabled the idea, which was not taken up again for nearly 170 years. By that time, passions had sufficiently cooled that when the idea was introduced as an act of Parliament in 1752, it passed with hardly a murmur. The English colonies in America changed at the same time. By that time, 11 days now had to be added, which the English did by skipping from September 2 to September 14, 1752.

In some areas of Europe, there were riots when authorities tried to introduce the Gregorian calendar (in the 16th century), but the notion that there was popular discontent in England over the shift seems to rest entirely upon a William Hogarth print, which shows a mass demonstration through a window, with the protesters holding up the famous banner saying "give us back our 11 days." Contemporary newspapers and other records, however, give no such indication, although there are some surviving sermons that indicate the authorities were careful to explain the situation carefully so that there should be no misunderstanding. The entire idea probably rests on Hogarth'?s rather jaundiced view of lower-class ignorance, rather than historical reality.

In 1753, Sweden finally caved in, following Great Britain?s lead.

The last Christian countries to accept the Gregorian calendar were the Orthodox ones. Many (those under Russian domination), did not do so until the Bolsheviks decreed the change in 1918 (the October revolution actually took place in November, according to the Gregorian calendar), although there was a history of failed attempts at reform in the 19th century. The Greeks didn'?t switch over until 1923.

Easter and the Gregorian Reform

The calender modifications I've discussed so far only involve the civil calendar. Although today we think of the Gregorian reform as a correction of the solar (Julian) calendar, at least as important to those who enacted the reform was the correction to the lunar calendar used to track the Easter months. In attempts at calendar reform before the Gregorian, the lunar months were most frequently the target, probably because it was felt much easier to reform the part of the calendar only used by churchmen, rather than one deeply entrenched in civil life. A little known canon of the Council of Trent (1542) actually did reform the lunar cycle by adding 4 days and decreeing an extra lunar leap day every 300 years. The new breviaries with these cycles weren?'t published until 1568, and were superseded by the Gregorian reform 12 years later. As mentioned above, the 19-year cycle that eventually became standard had a small error, which the Gregorian reformers measured to be 1 day in 312.7 years. In the Gregorian calendar, the approximation of 8 days in 2500 years is used. One lunar leap day is added every 300 years (400 the last time in the cycle).

Many Protestant countries (but not England), eventually reformed their civil calendars, but switched to a different method of calculating Easter. The so-called "improved" calendar used astronomical tables to find the Easter full moon, and, while it generally matched the Gregorian tables, differed in a few years. Most countries had given up the improved calendar for the Gregorian easter by the end of the eighteenth century.

Orthodox churches also refused to accept the Gregorian method for Easter. They, however, continue to calculate Easter in the Julian calendar. Some orthodox churches never adopted the Gregorian calendar at all, and so also use the Julian calendar for fixed holidays like Christmas.

Dates of the Gregorian Reform

The table below lists official adoption dates, with as much precision as I've been able to discover. Simply because the government told people to convert, however, does not mean they did so. Because of religiously inspired opposition to the conversion, both calendars were often in use in regions where there was a religiously mixed population.

The political map has changed enormously since the 16th century. Areas are listed more or less under their current affiliations, but some regions, e.g. Silesia, have been divided up since the conversion, and in these instances I've been arbitrary (Silesia is listed under Poland). This table lists only dates for those countries already using the Julian calendar before adopting the Gregorian one. Countries like Japan and China are therefore not shown. I have also not given separate entries for all the countries that formed out of the Spanish colonial empire. See under Spain for them.



Country/Region Last Julian First Gregorian
Albania 1912.12 1912.12
Austria
  Tyrol
  Carynthia, Styria
1583.10.5
1583.12.14
1583.10.16
1583.12.25
Belgium
  Spanish Provinces
  Liège (diocese)
1582.12.21
1583.2.10
1583.1.1
1583.2.21
Bulgaria 1915.11.1 1915.11.14
Czech Republic (Bohemia, Moravia) 1584.1.6 1584.1.17
Denmark
  Færø Islands
1700.2.18
1700.11.16
1700.3.1
1700.11.28
Estonia 1918.2.1 1918.2.15
Finland 1753.2.17 1753.3.1
France
  Alsace
  Strasbourg
1582.12.9
1648
1682.2.5
1582.12.20
1648
1682.2.16
Germany, Catholic Regions
  Augsburg
  Baden (margravate)
  Bavaria (diocese)
  Cologne (archdiocese, incl. Aachen)
  Jülich
  Mainz
  Münster (city and archdiocese)
  Strasbourg (diocese only)
  Trier
  Würzburg (diocese)
1583.2.13
1583.11.16
1583.10.5
1583.11.3
1583.11.2
1583.11.11
1583.11.16
1583.11.16
1583.10.4
1583.11.4
1583.2.24
1583.11.27
1583.10.16
1583.11.14
1583.11.13
1583.11.22
1583.11.27
1583.11.27
1583.10.15
1583.11.15
Germany, Protestant Regions
  Hildesheim (diocese)
  Kurland
  Minden
  Neuburg (palatinate)
  Osnabrück (diocese)
  Paderborn (diocese)
  Prussia
  Westphalia
  All Others

1631.3.15
1617
1668.2.1
1615.12.13
1624
1585.6.16
1610.8.22
1584.7.1
1700.2.18

1631.3.26
1617
1668.2.12
1615.12.24
1624
1585.6.27
1610.9.2
1584.7.12
1700.3.1
Great Britain 1752.9.2 1752.9.14
Greece 1916.7.14 1916.7.28
Holy Roman Empire, Imperial Court
(see Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic)
1584.1.6 1584.1.17
Hungary
  Transylvania
1587.10.21
1590.12.14
1587.11.1
1590.12.25
Iceland 1700.11.16 1700.11.28
Italy 1582.10.4 1582.10.15
Latvia 1918.2.1 1918.2.15
Lithuania 1918.2.1 1918.2.15
The Netherlands
  Holland, North Brabant
  Gelderland, Zutphen
  Utrecht, Overijssel
  Friesland, Groningen
  Drente
1582.12.21
1700.6.30
1700.11.30
1700.12.31
1701.04.30
1583.1.1
1700.7.12
1700.12.12
1701.01.12
1701.05.12
Norway 1700.2.18 1700.3.1
Poland
  Silesia
1582.10.4
1584.1.12
1582.10.15
1584.1.23
Portugal 1582.10.4 1582.10.15
Romania 1919.03.31 1919.04.14
Russia 1918.01.31 1918.02.14
Spain
  American Colonies
1582.10.4
1584
1582.10.15
1584
Sweden 1753.2.17 1753.3.1
Switzerland

  Lucern, Uri, Schwyz, Zug, Freiburg, Solothurn

  Wallis

  Zürich, Bern, Basel, Schaffhouse, Geneva, Thurgovia

  Appenzell, Glarus, St. Gallen
1584.1.11
1655.2.28
1700.12.31
1724
1584.1.22
1655.3.11
1701.1.12
1724
United States
  British Colonies
  Alaska
1752.9.2
1867.10.5
1752.9.14
1867.10.18
Yugoslavia 1919.03.04 1919.03.18


Creating a Modern Day Equivalent Calendar

Since the Gregorian Calendar is now essentially the one we use today, there are a few very interesting sites out there dedicated to making it possible for the historians of today to get a firm and easy understanding of the dates and days of each year prior to the modern day change-over. If you are interested in creating a modern day equivalent calendar for any year in the common era, please click on the following link. Time and Date - Calendar Creation. This link is provided via the requirements found at http://www.timeanddate.com/information/linkpolicy.html.


All material on this page is the work of Karl Hagen and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.