by David Yoon for the American Numismatic Society…
This essay is being written on December 31, 2021, to be published on January 4, 2022. It seems like an appropriate time to think about calendars and years and how people define them.
The presence of year dates on coins is extremely useful to the numismatist – probably more useful than dates generally were for governments who decided to put them on coins, usually for administrative control purposes. And numismatists are well aware that many different dating systems are found on coins from Antiquity, the Islamic world and Asia, ranging from years of reign to local eras to great calendar eras based on religion, with many other variations as well. There is a lot to say about this, but for now I will focus on a much smaller topic.
For modern people raised in cultures of European origin, medieval and modern Europe can be a mixture of the familiar and the unknown, and perhaps on the latter side is the existence of many different date systems on rooms. Examples include the era system of medieval Spain, the years of rule on papal coins, or the occasional use of Islamic dates on coins issued by Christian rulers.
Golden Maravedi of Alfonso VIII of Castile, dated Hispanic era 1226, equivalent to 1188 CE (SNA 2014.9.2, purchase).
Pope Paul III’s silver testone, dated AD 12 of his reign, equivalent to 1545-46 CE (YEARS 1937,146,304, bequest of Herbert Scoville).
Golden Tarì of Roger II of Sicily, dated Hijri year 535, equivalent to 1140-41 CE (YEARS 1922.96.19, gift of Edward T. Newell).
Even the Dionysian era (the Common Era or Anno Domini dates which are now widely used around the world) has variations that may surprise the reckless numismatist who seeks to correlate coins and historical events. Like other types of measurements, the measurement of time varied from locality to locality. Perhaps surprisingly, there seems to have been general agreement on the days of the Julian calendar, but different places have chosen to start the year on different days. So, although everyone in medieval Europe could agree that a particular day was January 4, it was considered to belong to different years in different places.
The Gregorian calendar adopted throughout Europe between 1582 and 1926 not only shifted the date by several days (10 days in the 1500s, 13 days in the 1900s) and adjusted the calculation of leap years; he also standardized the start of the year on January 1. This date was chosen to mimic the tenure of the consuls of ancient Rome, but before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was a distinctly unusual starting point for the year. .
The most common start of the year in medieval Europe was March 25, the feast of the Annunciation exactly 9 months before Christmas. Thus, the day in current Gregorian calculus was January 11, 1522, was known in medieval England as January 1, 1521, as 1521 continued until March 24. However, there was some disagreement as to whether Jesus’ birth should be in 1 BC. AD or in 1 AD. AD, and therefore what year began on a given March 25. For example, Gregorian April 4, 1595 was March 25, 1595 in Florence, but March 25, 1596 in neighboring Pisa. Other countries preferred to start the year on December 25 instead of March 25, such as Arezzo (near Florence and Pisa). The French monarchy began the year on Easter Sunday, meaning the year began on a different date from year to year, and the years could vary in length by several weeks.
These small differences can be very important in understanding dated historical documents: for example, when compiling the prices collected by medieval Florentine and Pisan merchants, one should be aware that the same day belonged to different years in the two cities. For the most part, these differences are less significant when it comes to the coins themselves, not least because most medieval and modern European coins are not dated in any system.
Sometimes, however, there are dates that offer the potential for considerable confusion if one is not aware of the differences in timing. The so-called firearms currency issued in the name of Jacques II during the war which followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is dated not only by year but also by month. The reckless numismatist might imagine that a coin dated February 1689 was issued seven months before a coin dated September 1689. However, England had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, and February 1689 was actually five months later. September 1689.
A shilling “silver of the arms” of James II of Ireland, dated September 1689 (YEARS 1945.23.27, purchase).
A shilling “gun money” from James II of Ireland, dated February 1689 (YEARS 0000.999.44407).