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Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Birthdays of Shakespeare and Nabokov

We would be remiss here at Blogging the Renaissance if we didn't acknowledge that today is Shakespeare's birthday. Or at least, it's three days before the date of Shakespeare's christening, which took place on April 26, 1564, and we assume Shakespeare was probably born three days prior to his christening. Or, more specifically, today is three days before the date of Shakespeare's christening in the Julian calendar (the only calendar in use in Europe when he was born). But we now use the Gregorian calendar, so the April 23rd of 1564 (Julian, or Old Style) would, starting in 1583, have been May 3rd according to the Gregorian, or New Style, calendar. This means that when Shakespeare was celebrating his 20th birthday on April 23, 1584 (Old Style), it was May 3rd, 1584 (New Style), on much of the continent. That ten-day difference would remain in effect for the rest of his life, and it's the New Style calendar that we now use.

Why did this change come about? The reason is that the Julian calendar included 365 1/4 days each year, but this was a slight over-estimate. From 45BC, when Julius Caesar instituted this new calendar, until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII introduced a reformed calendar, "this annual error had caused, cumulatively, a discrepancy of ten days" (C. R. Cheney, ed., A Handbook of Dates, new ed., rev. by Michael Jones [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000], 17). As a result, when much of Catholic Europe switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, ten days were subtracted from the year: October 4th was immediately followed by October 15th that year. England, however, stuck with the Julian calendar until 1752 (Greece was the last holdout, finally switching over in 1923 [civil] and 1924 [church]). If that ten-day difference weren't confusing enough, an additional day was added to the difference separating the two calendars on January 1, 1700, and then again on January 1, 1800, and on January 1, 1900 (if any countries had still used the Julian calendar, though, an additional day would not have been added in 2000, which was designated a leap year by Pope Gregory way back in 1582).

What does all this mean: today, April 23, 2006 (New Style), would be April 10, 2006 (Old Style); conversely, April 23, 2006 (Old Style) would be May 6, 2006 (New Style). But since we don't adjust anniversaries for these leap years, we would probably mark May 3rd as Shakespeare's birthday. And, of course, for dates before 1582, we understandably don't adjust for the ten-day leap that would eventually take place following the adoption of Pope Gregory XIII's calendar. So today is Shakespeare's birthday, but it's also not.

While England switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, Russia did not adopt it until 1918, which brings us to today's second birthday boy, Vladimir Nabokov. He was born on April 10, 1899 (Old Style), which was April 22, 1899 (New Style), in most of the rest of the world (other Old Style calendar holdouts included, besides Russia and Greece, the Balkan states of Albania, Estonia, Livonia, Bulgaria, and Rumania). Now here's where things get even more tricky. In 1900, the difference between Old Style and New Style dates changed from 12 days to 13 days, so when Nabokov celebrated his first birthday, on April 10, 1900 (Old Style), it was April 23, 1900 (New Style), in the rest of the non-Balkan West. Explaining the dating system he uses in Speak Memory, Nabokov writes:
All dates are given in the New Style: we lagged twelve days behind the rest of the civilized world in the nineteenth century, and thirteen in the beginning of the twentieth. By the Old Style I was born on April 10, at daybreak, in the last year of the last century, and that was (if I could have been whisked across the border at once) April 22 in, say, Germany; but since all my birthdays were celebrated, with diminishing pomp, in the twentieth century, everybody, including myself, upon being shifted by revolution and expatriation from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian, used to add thirteen, instead of twelve days to the 10th of April. The error is serious. What is to be done? I find "April 23" under "birth date" in my most recent passport, which is also the birth date of Shakespeare, my nephew Vladimir Sikorski, Shirley Temple and Hazel Brown (who, moreover, shares my passport). This, then, is the problem. Calculatory ineptitude prevents me from trying to solve it.

It's true; despite his brilliance, Nabokov was not particularly good at math.

So we're left with a dating paradox worthy of the works of Shakespeare and Nabokov. The birthdays of both authors are celebrated on April 23rd. Both authors, however, were born under the Julian calendar, and under that calendar, Shakespeare was (probably) born on April 23rd and Nabokov on April 10th. If we were going to go for strict calendrical accuracy, then, either we would recognize both of their Julian birthdays or both of their Gregorian birthdays. Here's what we would be left with.

Shakespeare: April 23rd
Nabokov: April 10th

Shakespeare: May 3rd
Nabokov: April 22nd (even though he celebrated it on April 23rd)

Or, the two-sentence version: the Julian birthdays of Shakespeare and Nabokov were thirteen days apart (April 10th and April 23rd), but we celebrate them on the same day, today, the Gregorian April 23rd. If we were to covert their Julian birthdates to Gregorian dates, however, we would say that neither author was born today and instead claim they were born on May 3rd and April 22nd, respectively.

 Scribble some marginalia

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