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Eleven Days

What's the connection between a 16th century Pope and the songwriter of “War,” Edwin Starr? Absolutely nothing, of course.

As any Baby Boomer can tell you, “Absolutely nothing,” is the lyrical response line to Starr's question about war: “What is it good for?”

Here's how the sixteenth century leader of Roman Catholicism fits in: Gregory XIII, whose birth name was Ugo Boncompagni, had been trained as a lawyer as well as an instructor of aspiring attorneys in Italy. He fathered an illegitimate child shortly before entering the priesthood, but appears to have led a life free of personal corruption thereafter, distinguishing him from many others as he rose to bishop then cardinal under Popes Paul III and IV. The latter sent Boncompagni to the Council of Trent. The Council held 25 sessions at Trento and Ugo's hometown, Bologna, in northern Italy, between 1545 and 1563. The decrees emanating from these gatherings put on display the Catholic Church's reaction to Protestant Reformation throughout much of Europe.

In 1517, Martin Luther, then a Catholic priest, made public his Ninety-Five Theses, condemning corruptions in the church such as the buying of Indulgences. Within a decade, Henry VIII of England broke from Catholicism and papal authority for somewhat more personal reasons, founding the Protestant Church of England, so that by the time the Council of Trent got underway all hell was breaking out for popes, cardinals, bishops, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in general. The Council of Trent issued decrees condemning what official Catholicism viewed as heresies in the practices of the newly formed Protestant churches. In its next to last year the Council established a commission to prepare a list of forbidden books.

As stringent as the Council of Trent decrees seem in a 21st century context, Boncompagni's participation in it opened his eyes to at least the most common sense, day to day, reforms. And so it was that when Boncompagni became Pope Gregory XIII he commissioned a change from the Julian calendar that had been in place since 45 B.C. The Julian calendar, named for Julius Caesar, had nearly gotten the spinning of our globe around the sun correct. Julius Caesar' s astronomers calculated a calendar year as lasting 365.25 days. Thus the 365 day year with a leap day added every four years. The problem was that an actual year proved to be a few minutes short of 365.25 days. What's a few minutes, the Romans of Caesar's time must have thought. The actual length of a year had been precisely calculated a century before by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, but the Julians erred on the side of round numbers, or at least round fractional days.

But an error of .0002 % can add up over 1600 years. By the time of Gregory XIII's papacy (1572-1585)  the celebration of Easter had drifted eleven days out of whack from its correlation to the spring equinox. A proposal to modify the calendar was brought to Gregory by the brother of astronomer Aloysius Lilius in 1575. The Pope, of course, appointed a commission to study the matter. Aloysius Lilius died within the year, so minute tinkerings of his calendar theory were completed under the direction of the Jesuit priest and astronomer Christopher Clavius, giving us the Gregorian calendar used today.

The principal modification from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian can be summed up thusly: Each year divisible by four is a leap year, except for years divisble by 100. The centurial years are only leap years if they can be divided by four. 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 was a leap year. Under the Gregorian calendar a non-leap day year consists of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds.

So what was Pope Gregory to do about the eleven day error that had accrued between 45 B.C. and the year when he implemented his new calendar. When you are Pope you can do pretty much whatever the sam hill you want, so in the Roman Catholic world Thursday, October 4, 1582 was followed at the stroke of midnight by Friday October 15, 1582. Leading us to a fine historical trivia question: What happened in Europe between October 5 and October 14, 1582? Cue up Edwin Starr: Absolutely nothing!

Not quite game, set and match. You didn't think you were gonna get out of class without any quiz questions on that Council of Trent stuff did you? There's that problem created by Martin Luther; a little religious divide called Protestantism (root word: protest — hard to think of Prostestants as protesters ain't it?). It took more than a century before a significant number of Protestant countries would adopt the Gregorian calendar. Prussia and most of the German states jumped from Sunday, February 18, 1700 to Monday, March 1, 1700. Great Britain and its colonies, including those in North America, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until Edwin Starr sang “Absolutely nothing… Say it again” between September 2nd and September 14th, 1752 (okay, maybe they didn't have CDs in 1752, so he went around singing it a cappella!). Russia's czar had to be overthrown by the October Revolution (Julian calendar) of 1917 before the Council of People's Commissars jumped from the last day of January, 1918 to Valentine's Day.

Of course, it is all relative, 2014 in the Gregorian calendar equals 2558 in the Buddhist calendar or 4347 in the Korean calendar. Don't get me started on various Hindu calendars. You get the point, in the Islamic world or China, Gregory's calendar is worth, well, you guessed it: Absolutely nothing!

Edwin Starr died, passed away, left this mortal coil one day after April Fool's Day (Gregorian Fools), 2003.

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