Julian and Gregorian Calendars
The most-used calendar in the modern world today is the Gregorian Calendar, named after Pope Gregory. It is based on a standard year of 365 days with modifications to keep it consistent with the earth’s movement around the sun. Though not perfect, the Gregorian Calendar will take 3300 years before being one day off.
The previous calendar in Europe was the Julian Calendar, instituted in 46 BC and named after Julius Caesar. The old Julian Calendar assumed the earth went around the sun in exactly 365.25 days. For this calendar to follow the earth’s movement, this rule was used - every year that was divisible by 4 was made a leap year of 366 days, otherwise it was a standard year of 365 days. In actual fact, the earth travels around the sun in 365.2422 days, about 11 minutes shorter than the old Julian Calendar. This discrepancy accumulated about 3 days short every 4 centuries. By 1582, the calendar was 10 days early.
The Catholic Church was very concerned because the celebration of Easter was figured from the spring equinox. And the spring equinox was now happening 10 days earlier than it should. As a result, on 24 February 1582 Pope Gregory XIII issued a decree (a papal bull) instituting a new calendar.
To return the spring equinox to 21 March, the new Gregorian Calendar chopped 10 days from the year. Also, a change already in progress was validated - the first day of the year was changed from the 25 March to 1 January. But most importantly, to keep consistent with the earth’s movement around the sun, a new rule was followed - every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for centurial years that are not divisible by 400. This means that the year 2000, being exactly divisible by 400, was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300, although falling in the 4-year cycle, are not leap years because they are not evenly divisible by 400.
The Pope could not mandate these changes, only make the proposal. Some countries (mostly Catholic) adopted the Gregorian Calendar soon after the Pope issued the decree. Other countries (mostly Protestant) ignored the Pope and continued with their own calendars. But gradually the advantages became apparent and most countries adopted the Gregorian Calendar (first European countries and later other countries around the world).
The British Empire changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. Because of these changes, there is some uncertainty for the dates between 1 January and 25 March in the years from 1582 until 1752 in the old British Empire. To avoid any confusion, write the date with both years' numbers. For example - 14 February 1699/1700. At the time it would have been considered 1699 according to the Julian Calendar, then in effect. But now it would be considered 1700 according to the Gregorian Calendar. Using the double-year dating and understanding its purpose can be helpful in recording historical events.
Julian to Gregorian calendar changes by country or region
Ancestor Search has published a helpful chart showing when countries and regions changed from Julian to Gregorian.
Fourmilab.ch has created a converter that converts dates from a variety of calendars, including Julian and Gregorian.
Another tool that can help with Julian and Gregorian dates, especially for Germany, is GenTools6, available as a free download from www.gentools6.de.
The following is partial list of countries and regions and when they adopted the Gregorian calendar. The chart from Ancestor Search, mentioned above, has a more complete and detailed list.
|Country|| Start numbered year
on 1 January
| Adoption of|
|Denmark and Norway|| Gradual change from
13th to 16th centuries
|Holy Roman Empire||1544||from 1583|
|Dutch Republic||1583||from 1582|
| Britain and
- Herluf Nielsen: Kronologi (2nd ed., Dansk Historisk Fællesforening, Copenhagen 1967), pp.48-50.
- Le calendrier grégorien en France
- Per decree of 16 June 1575. Hermann Grotefend, "Osteranfang" (Easter beginning), Zeitrechnung de Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Chronology of the German Middle Ages and modern times) (1891-1898)
- Blackburn Holford-Strevens (1999), p. 784.
- John J. Bond, Handy-book of rules and tables for verifying dates with the Christian era Scottish decree on pp. xvii–xviii.
- Roscoe Lamont, The reform of the Julian calendar, Popular Astronomy 28 (1920) 18–32. Decree of Peter the Great is on pp.23–24.