Researching Early Modern History

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Research blog entry 3 – T.D. Jacobs

As Walter Prevenier has noted, the importance of dating to historians is “evident,” but how one does so is not (Prevenier, 1999). Conceptualizations of time vary, as do its markers. The first issue as it touches upon my research is the matter of the New Year, and the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. While it is well understood that January 1 may have been popularly recognized during the early modern period as the start of the new year, in practice, dating varied under the ‘Old Style,’ with the new year marked on different days in the liturgical year, with ‘Annunciation Style,’ ‘Easter Style,’ and ‘Nativity Style’ being the most common in my research areas. Pope Gregory XIII attempted to remedy this issue in 1582, but his papal bull was, of course, largely only recognized in Catholic countries.

Scotland adopted the change for the legal start of the year in 1600, but England, Wales, and Ireland did not follow suit until 1752. In those countries, Lady Day, or March 25, remained the start of the official new year. Some documents employ dual dating, listing both possible years, and yet others are dated according to the ‘regnal year,’ which began on the date of the ruler’s ascension. While in my experience, this was less common in seventeenth century England, I have run across documents employing this system, and it is particularly problematic with Charles Stuart, who dated his reign from the day of his father’s death. Which brings me to the second problem: days.

The Gregorian calendar was out by ten days by the sixteenth century. As a result, the Council of Trent was tasked with correcting the problem, and two changes followed. First, in 1582, the calendar would move from the October 4 to October 15. Second, corrected ‘leap years’ would be designated to keep pace. This impacts on my research because while the Southern Netherlands, Spain, and France all adopted the change almost immediately – the majority of the Northern Netherlands (exceping Holland) waited until the start of the eighteenth century. And England itself did not make the switch until 1752 (going from September 2, to September 14) (Prevenier, 1999).

To further complicate matters, as the authors of the indespensible A handbook of dates: for students of British history have noted, the widespread practice of many historians has been to simply correct for the year, but not the day and month. The result of which has been “confusion” – an understatement if ever there was (C.R. Cheney, ed., 2000). In order to correctly trace the flow of events, and avoid contributing to the disarray in the literature, I will need to be extremely precise with regard to the dating. While the majority of my source material is of English origins, the focul point of my research is upon Charles Stuart’s exile court on the continent. It is therefore my intention to identify all instances of Old Style dating that I come across, whether in source materials or in the literature, and covert it to New Style dating throughout, while noting that a conversion has been made. There are online converters to aid in this task, but these must be used with caution as they often assume that the start of the New Year is January 1.


Cheney, Christopher Robert, ed. A handbook of dates: for students of British history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. (Revised edition).

Prevenier, Walter. “Chronologie.” Hoe schrijf ik de geschiedenis van mijn gemeente? Deel 3 A, Hulpwetenschappen, edited by Jan Art, 91-128. Ghent: Stichting Mens en Kultuur, 1995.

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