February 27, 2009

Almost over. I can never make up my mind whether it is nasty, brutish and short, or perfectly formed (it is certainly the month which has the shortest distance between pay-days, so it must be the month with the highest average daily pay, if you’re paid monthly. This overwhelming sense of being extra-flush must be the reason I always wind up having a larger credit bill than usual at the end of it).

Nobody really knows why it’s as short as it is, other than that the Romans started messing about with the calendar about two millennia ago. Or rather, there are very conflicting opinions. It must have been a mess worth sorting out, mind you, since their years were shorter (which makes all this ‘years B.C.’ business a bit hard to reckon) – shorter by about twenty days, so that, every so often, they popped in an extra month to get the seasons straight. It’s a safe bet that they didn’t do big business in calendars and desk diaries.

People are always messing with calendars. The church messed with it to a desperate degree, which is why Easter is all over the shop. The Book of Common Prayer has any number of handy ways of calculating when Easter will fall, including one just called ‘Another Table’, which is filled with infinitesimal figures, and these fabulous instructions:

To make use of the preceding Table, find the Sunday letter for the Year in the Uppermost Line, and the Golden Number, or Prime, in the Column of Golden Numbers, and against the Prime, in the same Line under the Sunday Letter, you have the Day of the Month on which Easter falleth that Year. But Note, that the Name of the Month is set on the Left Hand, or just within the Figure, and followeth not, as in other Tables, by Descent, but Collateral.

Suddenly, reading this, I realise that the supposedly modern curse of instruction manuals (e.g. on how to programme your video or DVD recorder) is not modern at all. Perhaps this is why the tower in Pisa leans, and the spire in Chesterfield is crooked (‘No, no, no – in the instructions, it says to put stone A234 in after stone D529’).

Easter is the curse of schools, which never have equal terms. But then education boffins from time immemorial, or at least since I started teaching (same thing) have been messing about with school calendars. Two terms, three terms, four terms, five terms, six terms – I’ve seen proposals for them all. The same with start and finish times. The same programme I mentioned about body-clocks had a very earnest head-teacher, who, having discovered that teenagers are at their most alert in the middle of the day, was readying himself to block the major lessons between 11 and 3. He had that gleam in his eye which I imagine must have infested the clerks who constructed the tables in the prayer-books.

Not to mention the tables of kindred and affinity, in which the forbidden relationships are set out so painstakingly, i.e. a woman may not marry her daughter’s daughter’s husband, or a man marry his wife’s father’s mother. (People often assume that cousins are off limits, but I’ve met plenty of people who married their cousins, and family history statistics suggest that many more of you are married to your cousins than you might expect.)

All the same, I know what would have happened if I’d been involved in the compilation of the Book of Common Prayer. I’d have been given the job of coming up with a ready reckoner for moveable feasts, and I’d probably have bodged it up just as badly. Something odd happened in 1973 and 1992, by the look of it, in the Moveable Feasts department. The chart is headed Year, Golden Number, Epact (sic), Sunday Letter, and then by a series of specific Sundays. There is an urgent asterisk next to the number 25 in the Epact column (no, really, no idea) for the two years in question, one which leads to a footnote: ‘But for all calculations 26 should be used.’

I am glad I elected not to be a church mathematician.