Those Stolen Days

(This column appeared in the June 9, 1997 Buffalo News.)

I have just finished reading 19 chapters of Thomas Pyncheon's picaresque novel, Mason & Dixon, 198 pages so far that have been in turn superficial and deep, delightful and irritating, frustrating and satisfying, exciting and boring. In this 19th chapter the astronomer Charles Mason is confronted by his exasperated father. His problem: those eleven days to be "stolen" by the pope's henchmen later in 1752.

A little background (not provided by Pyncheon) is useful here. The inaccuracy of the Julian calendar -- just over eleven minutes each year -- accumulated through the Middle Ages until the seasons were advanced by over a week. To correct this anomaly, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII established what is essentially our modern (Gregorian) calendar. But of course dissenting Protestant countries like England were slow to change. Finally the English adopted the new calendar in 1752, by then forced to omit eleven days of that year.

And that brings us to Pyncheon's account, slightly shortened here, of the confrontation of Mason Sr. and Jr.:

It seems to me that Pyncheon has captured in this passage insight into the difficulty of explaining serious science to lay people -- and in particular parents who respond to explanations with questions to which their more highly educated children are unprepared to answer.

And he reflects history here as well. At the time of the calendar change rioters swept through English cities carrying banners demanding, "Give us back our eleven days."

Mason goes on to imagine Asiatick Pygmies colonizing England during the skipped period and living in a time that is out of sync,

It is easy to assign this kind of nonsense to less enlightened times, but I had an experience in London shortly after the English decimalized their coinage that suggests otherwise. In answer to my inquiry about difficulties with coins at the time of the change-over, a Cockney greengrocer commented, "Luv, I still wonder 'ose pocket those extra pence is in."

No wonder the Euro is having its problems.

And me too. I still have 57 chapters to go.

The quotations are, of course, taken from that difficult but ultimately wonderful book by Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997) pages 191 and 196.