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Hesitant Steps: Acceptance of the Gregorian Calendar in Eighteenth-Century Geneva

  • Jennifer Powell McNutt (a1)


History demonstrates that the calendar is a tool of far more significance than simply a means to organize units of time. For Roman high priests prior to the reign of Julius Caesar, the calendar was a tool of power, symbolizing political supremacy over society through the manipulation of time at will. Under Pope Gregory XIII, the calendar was a symbol of papal responsibility to ensure the proper worship of the Catholic Church. In the case of European Protestants, the Julian calendar was a symbol of religious identity and protest against Catholic domination. Likewise, within revolutionary France, the Calendrier Républicain symbolized the rejection of the Ancien Régime and Catholicism. These few examples are an indication that throughout history in various times and places calendars have proven to represent more to humanity than mere time reckoning methods. Consequently, one may approach the study of the calendar as a means to grasp cultural and religious identity within specific regional contexts.



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1. Achelis, Elisabeth, Of Time and The Calendar (New York: Hermitage House, 1955), 46.

2. Although France accepted the Gregorian calendar in December 1582, after the French Revolution and as part of both the anticlerical zeal and the concerted effort to rid the Republic of visual associations with old France, the Gregorian calendar was replaced by the Calendrier Républicain to “reconstruct time through a republican cosmology”: Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London: Penguin, 1989), 654. Schama comments that the commission perceived “the reform as an opportunity to detach republicans from the superstitions they thought embodied in the Gregorian calendar”: ibid. Consequently, France is the only country to have officially accepted the Gregorian calendar twice in its history when on January 1, 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstituted the Gregorian system.

3. I would like to extend particular thanks to the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire do Genève, Institut d'Histoire de la Reformation (IHR), and the Archives d'Etat de Genève for their assistance during several research trips between 2004 and 2005. This research was possible due to a departmental scholarship from the University of St. Andrews and financial assistance from the IHR at the Université de Genève. Furthermore, a version of this research was presented at the British Society of Eighteenth Century Studies conference at the University of Oxford in January of 2006.

4. The majority of historiography has extensively focused on the history of the calendar up until the rejection of the Gregorian calendar by Protestants in the sixteenth century. Robert Poole's book, Time's Alteration: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England (London: UCL Press, 1998), is one of the few works that provides a regional approach to the Protestant acceptance of the Gregorian calendar.

5. Rice University's Galileo Project,

6. Pedersen, Olaf, “The Ecclesiastical Calendar and the Life of the Church,” in Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican Conference to Commemorate its 400th Anniversary, 1582–1982, ed. Coyne, G. V., Hoskin, M. S., and Pedersen, O. (Vatican City: Specola Vaticana, 1983), 21.

7. The Julian calendar also introduced the system whereby odd months were allotted thirty-one days and even months were allotted thirty days. February was the exception to the rule in that it was allotted only twenty-eight days while on leap years an extra day was intercalated.

8. Rice University, The Galileo Project. This calculation often differs minutely in scholarship depending upon the source. For example, according to the work of Pedersen, one mean tropical year is 365.2422 days. See his article, “The Ecclesiastical Calendar and the Life of the Church,” in Vatican Conference.

9. Ibid. Differing information is cited on the The Galileo Project website. In some parts, the text calculates the loss at 1 day in 130 years, and in other parts, it identifies the loss at 1 day in 128 years. Meanwhile, Poole claims that the Julian calendar error accumulated to one day in 114 years: Time's Alteration, 33. Manetsch, Scott, in his book Theodore Beza and the Quest for Peace in France 1572–1598 (Boston: Brill, 2000), footnoted the calculation at 1 in 128 years: 121. According to North, J. D., the error should be calculated at 1 day in 128.6 years in 1582: “The Western Calendar—‘Intolerabilis, Horribilis, Et Derisibilis’: Four Centuries of Discontent,” in Vatican Conference, 7879.

10. North, 76.

11. Pederson, 46–47.

12. According to A. Ziggelaar's article, “The Papal Bull of 1582 Promulgating a Reform of the Calendar,” no evidence exists to show that Protestant princes or mathematicians were included in this dispersal: Vatican Conference, 209. However, despite no official inclusion of Protestant opinion, H. M. Nobis's work indicates that Protestant astronomers assessed the quality and accuracy of the Compendium along with Catholic astronomers and sometimes at their request: “The Reaction of Astronomers to the Gregorian Calendar,” in Vatican Conference, 243–45.

13. North, 75–76; Hoskin, Michael, “The Reception of the Calendar by Other Churches,” in Vatican Conference, 255; Poole, 33; In fact, Achelis, in her 1950s study, also supported this observation in her book, Of Time and the Calendar, where she wrote, “The Easter question was actually the source of the Papal intervention”: 59.

14. Other Catholic countries were unable to conform immediately to the papal decree due to delays in calendar publication. See Ziggelaar, 220, and Nobis, 249.

15. Transcribed and translated in Zieggelaar, 202. Zieggelaar claims that the Council of Trent did not directly demand the reform of the calendar. In fact, “The decree of the Council does not say a word on calendar reform but only speaks of a reform of the Mass book and the breviary, so the calendar reform undertaken by the Pope can only be said to be implied by the decree of the Council”: 2.

16. Ibid.

17. Manetsch, 123.

18. See Rona Gordon's unpublished paper, “Confessional Tensions in Lower Austria: The Gregorian Calendar Reform” (paper presented at the Sixteenth Century Conference in Denver, 2001), 11. I also owe a special thanks to her for taking the time to discuss the topic with me.

19. Ibid., 11.

20. Nobis, 244. For further information on the theological arguments used by Maestlin in opposition to adopting the calendar, see Methuen's, Charlotte article, “Time Human or Time Divine? Theological Aspects in the Opposition to Gregorian Calendar Reform,Reformation and Renaissance Review 3:1–2 (12 2001): 3650.

21. Hoskin suggests that the Gregorian calendar most likely would have been adopted sooner in Europe if secular authorities rather than the Catholic religious body had initially introduced the change: “The Reception of the Calendar,” 255.

22. Gordon, “Confessional Tensions in Lower Austria.”

23. Ibid., 3.

24. In fact, according to Gordon, the calendar served to unite a fragmented Lutheranism throughout Germany: ibid., 11. Consider also the Orthodox opposition in the eastern provinces of Poland and Lithuania where mixed confessional communities required the printing of both calendars alongside each other from 1606 to the twentieth century. See Dobrzycki, jerzy, “The Scientific Revolution in Poland,” in The Scientific Revolution in National Context, ed. Roy, Porter and Mikulas, Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 151.

25. Gordon, 11.

26. Ibid., 7.

27. Ibid., 11.

28. The persistence of this opposition is evident in eighteenth-century English publications. See contemporary responses like Willes's, John in his work, The Julian and Gregorian Year, or, The difference betwixt the old and new-stile shewing, that the reformed churches should not alter their old-stile, but that the Romanists should return to it (London: Printed for Richard Sare, 1700).

29. Manetsch, 123.

30. Ibid., 121.

31. Theodore Beza to M. de Walsingham, October 1582, found in Geneva at the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Genève (hereafter BPU), Ms. lat. 117, fols. 174–75, as transcribed in Manetsch, 20, n 17. According to a sermon by Beza years later, he claimed that he did not resist the revision of the calendar itself, “but the reasons for the reform; the Catholics' concern for the precise dates of ceremonies, feast and fast days smacked of Jewish legalism”: ibid, 122.

32. Geneva, Archives d'Etat de Genève (hereafter AEG), Registres des Conseil 77, December 10, 1582, fol. 241, as transcribed in Fort's, Charles Le article, “L'introduction du calendrier grégorien à Genève en 1701,” in La Société d'Histoire et d'Arché;ologie de Genève (Geneva: J. Jullien, 1886), 2:348. This work is the only regional study of Geneva's acceptance of the calendar that I could find, and its nineteenth-century analysis and interpretation are limited in scope and approach.

33. Hoskin contends that the “driving force behind the opposition was always dislike and even hatred of the Papacy.” However, in his opinion, without the princely power of the papacy during that time, “no such reform could have been successfully introduced in the Europe of the sixteenth century, and perhaps for centuries thereafter. The Papacy was hated for the exercise of power, but there was no other way”: “The Reception of the Calendar,” 263.

34. Johnson, Trevor, “Patronage, Herrschaft, and Confession: the Upper-Palatine Nobility and the Counter Reformation,” in Reformation Old and New: Essays on the Socio-Economic Impact of Religious Change c. 1470–1630, ed. Kumin, Beat A. (Aldershot, U.K.: Scolar, 1997).

35. Ibid., 164.

36. Gingerich, Owen, “The Civil Reception of the Gregorian Calendar,” in Vatican Conference, 259. Poole critiques this work for its particularly Catholic slant saying, “In place of the familiar whig/protestant vision of the rise of science and decline of religion we have (putting it crudely) a Roman catholic vision of the rise of science and decline of Protestantism”: Time's Alteration, 40.

37. See in particular Porter's, work, The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), and the Scientific Revolution in National Context.

38. Alkon, P., “Changing the Calendar,” Eighteenth-Century Life 7:2 (01 1982): 118.

39. Poole, 13.

40. Gingerich, 273.

41. The persisting reputation of Geneva as the pinnacle of Reformed religion is evident in travelers' letters. See Voyageurs européens à la découverte de Genève, 1685–1792, ed. Jean-Daniel, Candaux (Geneva: Imprimeries populaires, 1966), 24, 84.

42. Indeed, Poole concludes that “the prospect of the two calendars moving a day further apart in 1700 added urgency to the discussions”: “The Reception of the Calendar,” 41.

43. “Que l'on examine s'il ne seroit pas à propos de réformer notre calendrier en suivant le nouveau stil et éviter par ce moyen l'embarras où l'on se trouvera au prochain mois de mars, que le stil nouveau devancera le vieux d'onze jours au lieu de dix, et, pour cet effet, nous en entendre avec nos alliés”: AEG, Registres des Conseils 199, April 5, 1699, fol. 127, as transcribed in Le Fort, 349.

44. Gingerich, 267.

45. See AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, January 27, 1700, fol. 35. At this time, I am not aware if discussion between private individuals regarding this matter continued between April 1699 and January 1700. However, according to the registers no official discussion took place.

46. “Il est sans contredit plus juste et plus regulier que l'ancien il seroit a souhaiter que nous suivisisions le méme exemple”: ibid.

47. “Il a été ordonné d'ecrire aujourdhuy à Mrs de Zurich et de Berne pour les prier de nous faire savoir dans quelle disposition ils sont à l'egard de l'acceptation du nouveau Calandrier:” ibid., February 13, 1700, fol. 54.

48. “Il avoit été trouvé ensemble pour le mieux de ne se précipiter pas dans lad[it]e acceptation pour le présent, mais par un prealable d'en confèrer confidemment avec les loüables Cantons Evangéliques”: ibid., February 20, 1700, fol. 62.

49. Ibid.

50. Despite Queen Elizabeth's efforts to introduce the calendar, England rejected the reform under the influence of the clergy. Again, this objection to the calendar was maintained due to its relation to the pope, or the Antichrist as he was called, despite its scientific virtues. Initially, English mathematician John Dee had favorably assessed the calendar. England also persisted in celebrating the New Year on March 25 rather than January 1 until the Act of Parliament in 1751 whereby Britain and the American colonies accepted the changes to the calendar.

51. AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, July 23, 1700, fol. 214. The reason for the decision is not expressly found in the registers until AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, December 31, 1700, fol. 413.

52. “Dans la délibération à laquelle cette lettre donna lieu, les députés des Cantons reconnurent unanimement l'avantage du changement proposé pour les relations civiles et commerciales”: Fort, Le, “Le Calendrier Grégorien à Genève,” 350.

53. AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, August 5, 1700, fol. 228.

54. “Dont étant opiné en ce Magn Conseil, il a été dit, que nous devons aussi suivre leur exemple”: ibid.

55. “travailler a regler tous les inconveniens qui peuvent résulter de l'introduction du nouveau Calendrier parmi nous”: AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, November 13, 1700, fol. 372; “Etant nécessaire de régler les dificultés qui peuvent naitre de l'acceptation du nouveau Calendrier”: AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, December 30, 1700, fol. 412.

56. AEG, Registres du Consistoire 69, January 13, 1701, fol. 189. Communion was administered quarterly, a practice which was established during the time of Calvin.

57.ETAT DES FONCTIONS Actuelles des Spectables Pasteurs, & des retranchemens approuvés par le Magnifique Petit Conseil, pour être portes au Magnifique Conseil des CC”: AEG, placard 3, no. 275, fol. 1–11.

58. “Nosdits tres honorés Seig[neur]rs ont trouvé à propos de suivre à l'avenir le nouveau Calendrier, à l'exemple de la plupart des Princes et Etats Protestans, et en particulier des Louäbles Cantons Evangeliques leurs tres chers Alliés et Confédères”: AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, December 31, 1700, fol. 413.

59. “On fait savoir à toutes personnes, que pour le bien et avantage du commerce, et autres bonnes considérations”: ibid.

60. Theodore Beza to Robert Le Maçon Seigneur de la Fontaine, 10 October 1582, Correspondance de Théodore de Bèze, XXIII (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2001). Reference is made regarding Savoy's acceptance of the Gregorian calendar by decree of Charles-Emmanuel I and how that would lead to “grandes confusion”: 185.

61. Kirk, Linda, “A Poor Church in a Rich City: The Case of Eighteenth-Century Geneva,” in L'Hostie Et Le Denier, ed. Marcel, Paucet and Olivier, Fatio (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1991), 259.

62. Kirk, Linda, “Genevan Republicanism,” in Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, ed. David, Wooton (Berkley, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 287.

63. Selles, Otto H., “A Case of Hidden Identity: Antoine Court, Bénédict Pictet, and Geneva's Aid to France's Desert Churches (1715–1724),” in The Identity of Geneva: The Christian Commonwealth, 1564–1864, ed. Roney, John B. and Martin, Klauber (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998), 93109.

64. Ibid., 94.

65. Ibid., 103.

66. Ibid.

67. The resident de France not only meddled in the religious and political affairs of the city, but he was also an outspoken advocate for establishing the theater in the city—a particularly controversial issue at the time. See my paper, “An Enlightened Utopia? Exploring the Theatre Controversy of Eighteenth-Century Geneva” (presented at the American Society of Church History conference, Seattle, Wash., 2005), 6.

68. AEG, Registre des Conseils 200, January 12, 1702, fol. 417. In the travel journal of Robert Montagu, Lord Mandeville, he observed in 1752, “they keepe the … fairest troutes all the yeare long to make presents to great persons when they come thorough Geneva.” See Michael, Brennan, ed., The Origins of the Grand Tour, 3rd ser., no. 14 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2004), 129.

69. Gingerich, 267.

70. Beza, Theodore, Sermons sur l'histoire de la passion (Geneva, 1592), 476–77, as cited in Manetsch, 122, n. 23. See also the Correspondance de Théodore de Bèze, vols. 23–25 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2001).

71. Consultation of the Procés Criminel records indicates a lack of civil opposition as well.

72. AEG, Registres de la Compagnie des Pasteurs 18, November 22, 1700, fol. 167.

73. AEG, Registres des Conseils 200, January 12, 1701, fols. 413–17; AEG, Registres de la Compagnie des Pasteurs 18, January 14, 1701, fols. 169–71.

74. Le Fort, 351.

75. “Les malheureuses divisions qui ait quelquefois troublé cette Eglise, soient ensevelies p[ou]r jamais: Et tachons meme de travailler, autant que cela depend de nous, à l'extinction de ce triste Schisme, qui a eté si funeste aux Eglises Protestants, p[ou]r les 2 derniers Siecles”: BPU, Ms. Compangie des Pasteurs 14, January 12, 1701. For a further look at Turrettini and Protestant unity, see Klauber, Martin, “The Drive Toward Protestant Union in Early Eighteenth-Century Geneva: Jean-Alphonse Turrettini on the ‘Fundamental Articles’ of Faith,Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 61:3 (09 1992).

76. Gottfried Leibniz, who was in correspondence with Turrettini at the time, held similar ecumenical aspirations and was a great supporter of the usage of science to mend these divisions at the time of the calendar shift. See McClellam, James III, Science Reorganized: Scientific Societies in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 6870.

77. AEG, Registres du Consistoire 69, January 13, 1701, fol. 189.

78. Consider Geneva's civil conflicts in 1707, 1730s, 1760s, and 1781–82.

79. See AEG, Registres de la Compangie des Pasteurs 18, April 29, 1701, fol. 232. References to the revised Psalms that were being introduced in Calvinist churches at the start of the century are found throughout the registers. As this particular example indicates, churches all over the world including London and Holland were addressing Geneva, requesting guidance on the topic of liturgical revisions approved by the Genevan church.

80. See Widmalm's, Sven article, “Instituting Science in Sweden,” in The Scientific Revolution in National Context, 245.

81. Poole, , Time's Alteration, 42 (Italics are mine).

82. Nobis, 251; Gingerich, 267.

This essay was awarded the Mead Prize and selected for publication in Church History by the Committee on Research of the American Society of Church History: Jon Robersts (chair), Daniel Bornstein, David Hempton, Maureen Tilley, and Paul C. Kemeny.

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