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Keeping Time in the Middle Ages – Pic of the Week

The arrival of the new year this week prompts us once again to think about the calendar and its place in law and legal research.  In that connection, today’s Pic of the Week post turns back the clock to the beginning of the fourteenth century for a look at a medieval manuscript from the Law Library’s Rare Books Collection:

A medieval calendar for the month of January (Julian calendar)

A medieval calendar for the month of January (Julian calendar)

What you see here is a representation of the month of January as it was recorded in a Julian calendar found in a bound manuscript book from the beginning of the fourteenth century.  The word January can be seen at the top of the page in red letters in Latin, but that will likely be the only feature of the calendar that is familiar to a modern reader.

In the Julian calendar the month was arranged around three reference days, kalendae (the first day of the month), nonae (usually the fifth day of the month) and idus (usually the thirteenth day of the month).  The large blue initial letters KL that appear at the top left of the page represent the word kalendae, the first day of the month.   The third column from the left of the page above counts the days of the month from one reference day to the next reference day.  This is done by counting down to the next reference day rather than counting up as we do in modern calendars.  So beneath the large blue initials that stand at the top of this column you can see roman numerals descending “iiii, iii, ii, i” indicating four days before nonae, three days before nonae, two days before nonae, and so forth.

The column at the right of the calendar which contains text indicates special events and commemorations that occur throughout the month.  For example, on January 1, we find circumcisio domini, the Circumcision of Jesus; on January 6 we find epiphania domini, Epiphany, on January 13, the feast of St. Hilary.

The second column from the left represents the days of the week in letters listed in a repeating pattern from a-g.  Because this is a perpetual calendar, the letters a-g do not necessarily correspond to Monday through Sunday.  Instead, values must be applied to the letters according to how the days of the week fall for a given year.  For example, for the year 2014, the letter “e” should be assigned to Sunday.

The first column on the left contains the numerals i-xix which are used to keep track of the day on which the new moon falls.  This is useful for calculating the correct date for the celebration of Easter.

At this point, you may be asking yourself what the relevance of this calendar is to law and legal research.  The answer is this:

Magna Carta stands at the head of this collection of English Statutes of the 13th century.

Magna Carta stands at the head of this collection of English Statutes of the 13th century.

This manuscript contains English statutes of the thirteenth century, first among which is Magna Carta (depicted above).  The large illuminated initial E is the first letter of the name Edwardus, or King Edward I (1239-1307), who confirmed Magna Carta in 1297.  For more on this document see this work, in which John H. Baker describes the manuscript as Ms. no. 27 under the heading, “Statuta Vetera; Registrum Brevium; Tracts.”  For more on Magna Carta, see here, and here and here.

Magna Carta will celebrate its 800th birthday in 2015.  Look for more news and blog posts on the heritage of English Liberties and Anglo-American Constitutionalism here on In Custodia Legis as the countdown to 2015 begins.

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