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.:
"So what the D--l is yerr dear Friend Dr. Bradley up t', he and his Protectors? Stealing eleven Days? Can that be done?"
"No, Pa,-- by Act of Parliament, September second next shall be call'd, as ever, September second,-- but the day after will be known as September fourteenth,' and then all will go on consecutive, as before." "But,-- 'twill really be September third." "The third by the Old Style, aye. But ev'ryone will be using the New."
"Then what of the days between? Macclesfield takes them away, and declares they never were?"
"We can call Days whatever we like. Give them names,-- Georgeday, Charlesday,-- or Numbers, so long as ev'ryone's clear what they're to be call'd."
"Aye Son, but,-- what's become of the Eleven Days? and do you even know? you're telling me they're just...gone?" Would he not give this up?
"Cheer ye, Pa, for there's a bright side,-- we'll arrive instantly at the fourteenth, gaining eleven days that we didn't have to live through, nor be mark'd by, nor age at all in the course of,-- we'll be eleven days younger than we would've been."
"Are you daft? Won't it make my next Birthday be here that much sooner? That's eleven Days older, idiot,-- older."
"No," said Mason, "Or...wait a moment,--"
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,
eleven days to the Tick behind us.... They sleep in our beds, live in our Rooms, eat from our Dishes what we have left in our Larders, finish our Bottles, play with our Cards and upon our Instruments, squat upon our Necessaries,-- the more curious of them ever pursuing us,... a vast Hive of Ghosts not quite vanish'd into Futurity....*
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.