Some people say that this is the year MIM - MIM being
the Roman numerals for 1999.
which goes half-way across the page. However, we're all agreed that next year will be MM, the year two thousand.
|So before the millennium arrives, it is only right to pay tribute to Little Denis. Because without Little Denis there would be no millennium.|
|Little Denis was a monk who lived in Scythia, the wide, open country to the north of the Black Sea, between the Carpathian mountains and the river Don. Eighty years earlier this had been part of the empire of Attila the Hun, but Little Denis was no barbarian. He was a scholarly little chap - very clever - he knew Latin, and he liked to sign himself Dionysius Exiguus. That is his official name, but since it's simply Latin for "Little Denis", that's what we'll call him.|
|The emperor Justinian had begun his reign, and it was the year 243 of the Diocletianic Era which was the way time was reckoned in those days, from the accession of the emperor Diocletian.|
|That was not good enough for Little Denis. Diocletian was notorious for his persecution of Christians: surely Christendom should be dated from some more auspicious event - why not the birth of Jesus? But when was that? Nobody knew; they hadn't thought of it. So Denis realised that he would have to work it out for himself. He found it wasn't easy. Perhaps maths was not his best subject. He was good at Latin, as we know, and very good at theology, and an absolute wizard at Canon Law, but as far as maths went it may well have been a case of "Could do Better".|
|Besides, it was very difficult to do sums in Roman numerals. Try, for instance, to subtract DCCCI from CCXLIII - especially when you know you're going to end up with a negative number (one with a minus sign)? They didn't like negative numbers, so Little Denis decided to convert it to the older system of Roman chronology, which they had used before the time of Diocletian, but that meant adding MXXXVII to his calculations. Anyway, for one reason and another, when at length he announced triumphantly that Jesus had been born in the year 753 ab urbe condita (from the foundation of the city - the city of Rome, that is) he'd actually got it wrong. By at least four years.|
|But everyone was so impressed, especially when he told them that it was now Anno Domini the year of our Lord - 527, that they forgot to check his figures.|
|A hundred and thirty-seven years later, the Synod of Whitby met, and decided, amongst other things, that Little Denis's idea about Anno Domini had been such a good one that it should be adopted universally. They assumed that Denis was so clever that he couldn't possibly have made a mistake, so once again nobody took the trouble to find out if he had. They just added 137 to his figure, and said, "From now on this year will be known as 664 AD," and that was that.|
|The rest of Christendom soon followed suit, and we have done the same to the present day.|
|They had to tidy the calendar up a bit in 1751, because until then they had been using the old Julian calendar (decreed by Julius Caesar), which gave them too many Leap Years, so by then they were seriously out of synch. They decided to adopt the "New Style" or Gregorian calendar (after Pope Gregory XIII), which we still use today, and to correct the existing error by omitting the 3rd to 13th September of the following year, 1752, going straight from the 2nd to 14th. This provoked riots in the streets amongst those who reckoned they had been cheated of eleven days' wages. "Give us back our eleven days!" they demanded.|
|At the same time they did another bit of tidying up.
Everybody knows that King Charles I was executed on 30th January 1649. Yet the warrant for his execution, which was signed the previous day (it can be seen in the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall at the moment), is dated 1648. The reason for this is that until 1751 New Year's Day was 25th March: Lady Day, the Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas Day. It worked perfectly well: the old year ran on until 24th March, and the next day was 25th March of the next year.
|The Scots, though, had sorted out the date of Hogmanay in 1599, and from 1600 their year had begun on Ist January, so in 1751 the English decided to fall into line with them - and most of the rest of Europe, for that matter. Ever since 1752 (but only since 1752) New Year's Day has been January 1st.|
Henry Pelham, Prime Minister to King George II, who brought in the Calendar Act of 1751, fixing Ist January as New Year's Day.
King Oswy of Northumbria, who summoned the Synod of Whitby, and established Anno Domini as the universal way of numbering the years;
and especially Little Denis
|Actually, it isn't all that easy to get it right - virtually impossible, in fact. The trouble lies in the lack of corroborative background. If Little Denis had decided on the Crucifixion or the Resurrection, for that matter as the beginning of the Christian era, there is enough surrounding historical material for most scholars to agree that the Crucifixion probably took place on Friday, 4th April in the year 30 AD (so the resurrection was on Sunday 6th).|
|But when it comes to the birth of Jesus . . .
St Luke says (3.23) that when Jesus began his ministry (which lasted about three years) he was about thirty years old, This, if the crucifixion took: place in 30 AD, would be in 27 or maybe 26 AD. But how approximate is "about"? Then his narrative of the birth (2.1) says: "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment (census), when Quirinius was governor of Syria. " Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD, a wide range, but there is no record of his having ordered a general census - certainly at anything like the right time. Quirinius Governor of Syria. did order a census, but this was in 6 or 7 AD, which is much too late (Jesus would only have been about 20 when be began his ministry).
|St Matthew begins the birth narrative (2.1):
"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king" and Herod died in March or April 4 BC, or in December of 5 BC. Nor is there much help from the Wise Men who "came from the East to Jerusalem, saying 'Where is he who is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star because although various astronomical events within the few possible years have been cited, none of them can be established with any certainty as the "Star of Bethlehem".
The best that can be said is that Jesus was probably born no later than 4 BC - though it could have been a year or so earlier than that. So for all practical purposes, we shall have to make do with the date Little Denis chose, even though we know it is wrong.
Incidentally, if New Year's Day had not been changed to January 1st, and if eleven days had not been deducted from 1752, the year would begin on what is now April 5th - it was obviously easier for the Treasury to simply change the date of their end-of-year accounts than to cope with one year that was three months short followed by another that was 11 days short - and the fiscal year still runs from April 5th.
Copyright the Revd P E Parker 1999
|The following was picked up from 'Elbow Grease' - the
Webmonkey@wired.com on Friday, 19 November 1999
On the 19 November 1999, would you believe that an event occured of greater significance than the Millennium? . Look at the date: 19/11/1999 - All odd numbers. Nothing remarkable you say, Wednesday the 17 November was also all odd numbers, so was Monday.... Well thats it - thats your lot. There will be no more dates with all odd numbers for much more than One Thousand Years, there will be no more all odd dates till New Year's Day 3111.
Even-numbered dates, on the other hand, will start to come fast and furious, beginning on 2/2/2000 (which will be the first one since 28/8/888). You can find plenty more date-related effluvia right here: -> http://x42.com/datelab/
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