Christmas, brimstone and calendar

When one is writing about historical issues related to Christmas, it is quite natural to include something about the nature of the star of Bethlehem, chronology of  the life of Jesus or the development of the very feast of Nativity and ancient and modern controversies related to it. While I do believe all these issues are fascinating, it is sometimes good to find some other Christmas-related topic. One of them can be found in a sixteenth-century Polish text.

The polemical writings related to the introduction of Gregorian calendar took different rhetorical forms: some of them were written as satirical dialogues, some of them pretended learned treatises (although their authors were far from being learned), finally some of them hidden the polemical content under the costume of good old sermon. One of such works is a calendrical bestseller, Two sermons on the calendar reform (O poprawie kalendarza kazanie dwoje, 1587) by Stanislaw Grodzicki SJ, which was published three times within the period of two years and is actually one of the most sophisticated and elaborate texts that were produced during this interconfessional exchange. Grodzicki was a well-trained preacher and althought it is not quite sure whether his written ‘sermons’ reflect exactly the sermons he delivered in person (probably not), it is quite striking that he mastered a substantial number of rhetorical devices and knew very well how to tie them together in order to create a convincing rhetorical structure.

Today I will spare you the details of Grodzicki’s argumentation and will keep them for some other occasion but I thought that one exemplum introduced by the Polish Jesuit is worth mentioning on the first day of Christmas (although I must warn you it is quite horrifying!)

The other example is more recent and of such nature that I can hardly imagine something more relevant. It is related to events which took place a couple weeks ago at the Prague Castle during the Emperor’s stay. On the Day of Nativity a certain important man who was well-experienced in the fireworks craft took his servants or companions and launched his maroons and fireworks by the very walls of the cathedral church in order to celebrate the wedding of his Master, Lord Rosenberg, the highest senator of the Bohemian Crown. And since it was impossible to perform this show without any noise, the Catholics reprimanded him not to do this on such a solemn day and occasion in order not to incur Lord’s anger. But he did not care about these admonitions, made laugh of them and said that he did not care about the corrected calendar and he wanted to celebrate the feast according to the old one. By the mysterious act of mighty God few hours later the gunpowder caught fire, made a great noise and thunder, and burnt severely both the master and his servants. The neighbours have gathered immediately and saw figures looking more like devils than men, half-alive, taken straight from the fire, confessing their sins, talking about God’s miracle and asking for a confessor. The latter, when he finally arrived, had listened to the confessions of all three men who renounced their heresy and recognized one Roman Catholic Church. The priest absolved them from heresy and other sins and, following the Catholic tradition, gave them the sacrament of our Lord’s body. After two hours from accepting the Holy Sacrament two comrades rendered up their souls to God and so did their master few hours later at dawn. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ by means of, so to say, one sermon of brimstone fire converted three souls and at the same time confirmed his decision announced through the hands of his Vicar and showed his grace to Catholics by saving the Prague cathedral and castle from the danger of fire.

Detail of p. 25 of the 3rd edition of S. Grodzicki's Two Sermons on Calendar Reform

Detail of p. 25 of the 3rd edition of S. Grodzicki’s Two Sermons on Calendar Reform
(Vilnius 1589)

Grodzicki’s Sermons will become a part of the critical edition of polemical writings I have been working on for the past ten or fifteen months. The book will appear in Polish at some point but before I send the final manuscript to the publisher, I need to explain few stories as the one above. If you happen to know any late sixteenth-century texts that could serve the Polish priest as a source for his explosive exemplum, do let me know! (While the main protagonists like Rudolf II or William of Rosenberg are quite easy to identify, the main source of the anectode remains unknown – at least for me.) Also, if you know any other calendar reform-related miracula (both those confirming the rightness of Gregorian calendar, like the one above, or those showing its unquestionable fallaciousness), please let me know – it would be fascinating to know how many stories like these were spread throughout Europe in order to prevent people from falling into one of two main calendrical heresies.

Meanwhile, I wish you a happy festive season (regardless of calendar system you may use). Stay tuned for more news about the project – these should arrive in early January.

In the year 252525…, or: How to bore your opponent to death

All the readers of “Chronologia Universalis” probably heard at some point the 1969 hit by the Zager and Evans duo. In it, the musicians propose a pessimistic, if not apocalyptic, insight into the relatively distant future, asking questions about such important issues as the survival of humankind by the year 9525 and so on and so forth. At the moment of its premiere, the song somehow reflected all the Cold War-related uncertainties and concerns, just as did other kinds of popcultural texts preoccupied with apocalyptic visions and predictions. To say that I like the song would be an overstatement, yet I must confess I could not get it out of my head while I was working on one of the texts that belongs to the long line of polemical writings related to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And although I intend to include it in the critical edition of these sources, there are moments when I wonder whether this decision won’t turn as suicidal.


What I would like to propose you today is to make a thought experiment. Instead of two pop-rock musicians singing about what may happen in the distant future imagine a Catholic priest of Armenian origin, sitting in his studio and writing. The whole scene is settled in the city of Lviv somewhere in 1660’s. Jakub Gawath (1598-1679), the priest in question, is in his sixties and is already know as the author of a number of religious texts. Some of them will have to wait for their publication by the 1690’s, but at the moment when we meet Gawath he is working on something really special – the ultimate argument for the acknowledgement of the Gregorian calendar.

The harbinger of this argument was Gawath’s 1661 brochure entitled Pokazanie jawnej omyłki starego kalendarza w święceniu Wielkiejnocy (The Demonstration of the Blatant Error of the Old Calendar with regard to the Celebration of Easter). In it, Gawath developed a brief and rather loose line of argumentation about the reasons why the Gregorian calendar should be acknowledged by the Uniates and Orthodox Christians. Once again, following into the footsteps of his predecessors, Gawath made use of the standard arguments such as references to the early Christian synods, citations from the Church Fathers, scriptural arguments, etc. although he put them in a somewhat different form than the one employed by Joannes Broscius, Kasjan Sakowicz or even Jan Dubowicz. From the structure of The Demonstration it can be easily of observed that Gawath had some real difficulties in organizing this text around one idea and he could not resist the temptation to use all arguments that he had at hand. What the readers got in result is a loose combination of images and arguments of all possible kinds, a real mishmash which is still comprehensible, yet a bit annoying.

Jakub Gawath, The Demonstration of the Blatant Error of the Old Calendar..., Lviv 1661, title page

Jakub Gawath, The Demonstration of the Blatant Error of the Old Calendar…, Lviv 1661, title page; Cracow, Princes Czartoryski Library, shelfmark 63682 I

The function of The Demonstration, however, was to prepare the ground for the ultimate battle. In 1665 Gawath brought out the big guns although he masked them wisely with a verbal camouflage. If you see two titles, The Demonstration of Blatant Errors… and the other, i.e. A Supplement to Two Treatises on Calendar (Supplement dwóm traktacikom o kalandarzu), you quite naturally expect that the supplement will be simply a supplement, nothing more, nothing less and will be shorter than the basic text. But this is not the case of Gawath as his supplement is several times longer than his previous works on calendar and goes well beyond the standard polemical argumentation as it also includes several featuers of a computistical manual.

Gawath’s Supplement is a text difficult to read for a number of reasons. Although by the moment of its publication the Polish ortography has been adopted for print quite well and seemed to be pretty stable, the Supplement brings a set of quite puzzling attempts to write down words in a completely new, sometimes amusing, way. The same goes for punctuation. In the Old Polish prints it was based not on the logical division of the text, be it a sentence or paragraph, but on the intonation. In case of Gawath’s treatise (oh pardon, supplement to treatises) punctuation marks were used without any visible rules, some long sentences merge into one mega-sentence or sentence-like structure because either the author or the typesetter did not know where to put a full stop. Sometimes, just like in the case of the Oxford comma, the enumerations become rather confusing as it is difficult to determine wheter a series of words should be treated as a list of, let’s say, four items or a list of three items determining the fourth one – both options make sense and this is a real challenge for an editor. The general impression is that the text was prepared for print by a typesetter who got drunk or by an absolute newcomer to the profession. (Needless to say that there is no Erratum at the end of the brochure…)

Jakub Gawath, Supplement to the Two Treatises on Calendar..., Lviv 1665; Cracow, Princes Czartoryski Library, shelfmark 63681 I

Jakub Gawath, Supplement to the Two Treatises on Calendar…, Lviv 1665; Cracow, Princes Czartoryski Library, shelfmark 63681 I

However, once you get accustomed to the peculiarities of Gawath’s logic, punctuation and ortography, you can try to figure out what he had in mind and why he decided to publish his Supplement. It turns out that the basic idea was to make his readers aware of the long-distance consequences of the fact that the Orthodox Christians decided to keep the Julian calendar and treated the recognition of the new system of time reckoning  as an act of treason against the tradition established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. A similar attempt has been already reported by Joannes Broscius in his Apology of the Roman Catholic Calendar, where the Cracow scholar suggested that if the calendrical divide lasts long enough, the Orthodox Christians and Uniates will celebrate their Easter in the summer. Broscius however, although he had all qualification to do this, did not decide to involve calculations or tables that would prove his readers that he was right. Such a paradox, if put in a witty way, could do its job as a link in the long line of argumentation. You can show the implications of this fact in few sentences and ask rhetorically your readers if they really want to sentence the next generations to the everlasting, totally errant celebration of the Easter. This could also gain you some respect among the learned who could share your love for puns and paradoxes and appreciate the knowledge of astronomy. Finally, it could also serve as a quite evocative argument to those who are less educated as the image of Easter celebrated in the summer, during the harvest, could be really appealing even to the imagination of less educated public.

Unlike Broscius, Gawath decided to do the opposite as he made a risky attempt to tell something what should be presented in a tabular form. At the moment of the introduction of the reform in 1582 the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars amounted to 10 days. To keep the spring equinox in its place, i.e. on the 21st of March, just as it was decided in Nicaea in the 4th century, the Gregorian calendar brought a new system of leap years, which eventually lead to the growth of difference between the two calendars. This could be easily shown in a neat and elegant table, as there is nothing difficult in showing the growing difference between these two systems in few colums.

Gawath took the road less taken and presented the tabular data in a narrative form. This decision resulted in a kind of an obscure litany to the old and new calendar, in which he enumerated the crucial moments in the future when the divergence between the two systems will be growing and provided some computistical calculations of the golden number and epacts, giving the exact dates of Easter that could be of use for the generations of Christians who would come hundreds or even thousands of years after his own generation. Needless to say that this makes his text really annoying: one, two or three paragraphs of this kind are fine and they give you the general idea, but the fourth, fifth … and the fifteenth make you a bit impatient and you start peeking at the next pages, just to make sure this sequence will finally conclude at some point. This is as if Gawath decided to bore his Orthodox oponents to death, or at least exhaust them to a point when they would be ready to admit that the Gregorian calendar is a much better and more precise tool for time reckoning than the old Julian calendar.

Gawath's Supplement, p. 4-5, an example of his calendrical litany - evey paragraph begins with a reference to another year which is important for his argument

Gawath’s Supplement, p. 4-5, an example of his calendrical litany – evey paragraph is dedicated to a single year which plays significant role in his entire argument on the desynchronization of two calendars

The radicality of Gawath, however, consists not only in his attempt to rhetoricize something which is completely at odds with rhetoric, but in the fact that at some points he seems to suggest that he assumes quite an optimistic view that in the year 48900 A.D. we as a humankin will still be here on Earth, arguing about the dating of Easter and the legacy of the synod of 325 A.D.. Up to a point, this attitude seems to clash with the apocalyptic and millenarist tendencies of Gawath’s times, when the Second Coming and the Last Judgement seemed to be right behind the corner. If you assume that the date of the Easter in 48900 A.D. is really an issue, the perspective of salvation becomes nearly unavailable, especially for those who are particularly impatient. The long-term scenario outlined by this Armenian Catholic priest had obviously nothing to do with the doctrine of salvation and interpretation of the Scripture but it is an interesting paradox, however, how these two attitudes towards time coexisted – the impatient awaiting of the Second Coming and the quiet, yet still quite apocalyptic, calculations of the disorder of time in the 488th century C.E.

Maybe, then, if one is looking for some antecedences of apocalyptical images of the future in early modern texts, he or she should turn not only towards the literary works that offered imaginary narratives to the Moon and other celestial bodies or utopian visions of the future that would come within the period of two or three hundred years, but also to the texts that were created for completely different reasons and purposes.

If the coexistence of two systems of time reckoning in early modern Christianity caused so many difficulties, imagine the social consequences of the further desynchronization of calendars in the future. Thus, the Zager and Evans-style question, “In the year 252525, will the Easter be on time?” seems to promise quite an intriguing starting point for an apocalyptic novel.

P.S. Those of you who are awaiting the Part 2 of the series dedicated to the manuscript of Jan Latosz’s Przestroga are kindly asked to have patience. The next post will appear here within the next few days.

A Warning, part 1, or: Read the catalogues!

Jan Latos (or Latosz, known also under Latinized name as Joannes Latosinus, 1539-1608) is perhaps one of the most controversial and mysterious figures in the debate around calendar reform that took place in early modern Poland-Lithuania at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. He openly questioned the astronomical foundations of the reform introduced by the pope Gregory XIII and propagated by Christoph Clavius and thus he got into real trouble. He was first banned to speak freely in 1580’s and for several years he focused on regular astrological practice. At some point in the 1590’s he decided to reexamine the reformed calendar and ignored the ban. In turn he got expelled from the Academy of Cracow and was ridiculed by the Jesuit preachers in their brochures and public sermons, becoming also immediately a synonym of a backwardness and obscurantism. In the modern secondary literature Latosz is usually presented as an example of a scholar who did not have observation techniques and mathematical tools precise and sharp enough to verify the calculations proposed by more advanced astronomers and architects of the calendar reform yet at the same time was stubborn enough to maintain he was right. This attitude lead him to a paradoxical situation in which he found an ally and patron in the person of the Orthodox duke Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski who was fervent defender of the Orthodox tradition and probably treated Latosz as an useful asset to his own political agenda. Latosz got lost somewhere in the middle of the road between the two calendars: he did not stick to the Julian calendar by all means as he was aware of its errant mechanism yet at the same time he could not accept the reform of 1582. Thanks to Ostrogski’s support he found shelter in the town of Ostróg and become a professor at the local academy but he was also accused of converting secretly to the Orthodox faith or at least being in the Orthodox Churche’s favour.

In my quest for primary sources that constitute the basis of my research I cultivate the belief that even if we do not know what is the exact current location of some manuscripts or unique prints, in case of large number of them it is still reasonable to assume that they will be revealed some day and we will have to rewrite all these footnotes that tell stories about “unknown locations” and “lack of extant copies” of works that could be of great significance to our research if only they had survived the fire, war, flood, robbery and other calamities. In case of Latosz, as only few copies of his works survived until nowadays and his major work on calendar reform, which was supposed to be presented at the papal court in Rome, went missing probably already in the 16th century and most likely never even arrived to the Vatican. While some of his works are still available in a considerable number of copies (this is the case of his Latin Prognosticon of 1594 dedicated to Rudolf II), few of them are known in unique and damaged copies (this is the case of his two astrological prognostications preserved in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków), and some of them are considered to be irretrievably lost.

This list of irretrievably lost sources might be a bit shorter if we all read carefully the catalogues published by the librarians. By the last September I assumed imprudently that I knew the catalogue of the manuscripts of the National Library in Warsaw pretty well, my list of manuscripts manuscripts I should examine in the next two years of my project is complete and I had the idead what should be done with those I had seen so far. Oh how wrong I was! And how haughty! At some point in early October I took the seventh volume of the catalogue in order to browse the index in search for some name or term I do not even remember right now when to my inexpressible surprise I noticed a familiar name. This was the name of Jan Latosz and it lead me to the “discovery” that the National Library is in the possession of a seventeenth-century copy of the text of Latosz’s Przestroga (A Warning or A Caution), a short astrological and chronological treatise that was originally published in Polish in Kraków in 1595. I immediately ordered the microfilm and checked once again whether the three copies known before 1945 and now considered to be lost have still this status. It turned out that none of these three copies, nor any copy unknown to the pre-war bibliographers was revealed and apparently the manuscript from the National Library is the only witness to this text.

I put aside the list of manuscripts I was goint to examine in the fall semester and delved into the 24 folio pages of the alleged copy of Latosz’s work. With every page my interest grew bigger and bigger and so did my certainty that this document is a credible source for the reconstruction of Latosz’s astrological and chronological views. And I do not even know when I started transcribing its fragments in hope that I will make use of some excerpts, then decided to transcribe the entire text (as you know, part of me is a scribe). As for now I have prepared an article in which I gave the Warsaw manuscript an introduction to the scholarly audience. It was accepted by Terminus, a Kraków-based journal on classical reception and Old Polish studies and should appear soon. I have completed the transcription of the entire manuscript yet it still requires some revisions from the point of view of historical ortography and punctuation. In the nearest future, hopefully this winter, I am going to prepare a critical edition that will be preceded by an introductory essay in which I am going to discuss the ideas presented by Latosz in his treatise and consider some hypotheses on the late, mid-seventeenth-century reception of a text that by any possible rule should have been forgotten by then.

In the second part of the Warning Story (I guess this time it will be a diptych), I will write something more about the contents of the manuscript and a number of questions it raises. As for now, I would like to leave the readers with two things.

The first one is a moral: even if you are sure that everybody is right about the existence or non-existence of a certain source and you trust their authority, go and check it yourself. And read the catalogues from cover to cover. Always. (This may seem as stating the obvious but when one thinks that the whole army of historians, including the author of an entry in the Polish Biographical Dictionary who certainly did a meticulous survey, overlooks the existence of a certain manuscript, perhaps it is worth reminding.)

The other thing is a picture of the opening page of the manuscript. Since the Warning by Latosz is an astrological work which contains [spoiler alert!] some apocalyptic predictions, I thought that the ominously looking photograph of the microfilm of the manuscript will do the job as conclusion:

Jan Latosz, Przestroga, title page of the 17th-century manuscript copy of a printed work (Warsaw, National Library, MS 6631 III)

Jan Latosz, Przestroga…, title page of the 17th-century manuscript copy of a 1595 print (Warsaw, National Library, MS 6631 III)

My life as a scribe

I promised this post to Kees-Jan Schilt almost three months ago, in early April. I retweeted @KeesJanSchilt’s announcement of a new post at his blog and confessed at some point that he inspired me to write a reply.

Shortly after this exchange, we met in person at the glorious Scientiae 2014 conference in Vienna and although I kept thinking about the issues raised by Kees-Jan and their relation to my own scholarly workshop, three months had to pass before I found some time to write down my confessions.

C.J.’s lovely post about his work as a transcriber and researcher at the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, as well as the whole context of a great collection of hardly legible manuscripts he is coping with, made me to reconsider what I am actually doing as a researcher. It lead me to a simple observation that the backbone of my scholarly workshop is made by scribal practices. So here is my confession: I am a scribe.

Maybe my scholarly strategy has some other deeper, anthropological background or my mind is formed in such a way that I simply have to do this, but this is a fact: in order to made use of a primary source which has not been published in the form of a critical edition, I have to make an extensive transcription which is usually longer than the fragments I need to cite. Maybe some scholars do not need this, but I do. This is not a matter of my supposed frugality which would make me to transcribe these sources in order to avoid ordering some scans (which can be costly, by the way). I assure you, this is not the case. This is also not the issue of my general reading strategy, because there are books I can read without taking meticulous notes on them or without leaving even a single annotation on their margins. There is something in the manuscripts I am dealing with and with the early modern prints I am reading since October that forces me to digest them in this particular way: by making longer excerpts or copying them entirely.

Over the past few months, since the beginning of my project I kept doing this with some occasional breaks. Frankly, it started long before my current project and this was my basic method of gathering materials for my doctorate. Back then, I used to spend long hours at the reading room(s) copying notes left by Socinian students in their copies of Ramist textbooks or trying to decipher faded out scribblings left by Ioannes Broscius in his Ramist prints and notebooks. Since October, I changed only the object of my study and the chronology-and-calendar related manuscripts and early modern some of them quite rare, prints from a number of Polish libraries replaced the Ramist textbooks as well as the pro- and anti-Ramist marginalia.

Recently, when I looked back at the past few months and what I have actually done, I started to worry that I did very little, especially if you take into consideration the fact thatI am a research fellow with no teaching obligations. I turned two conference papers into two, quite longish, articles and gave two conference papers (one at Vienna and the other at York). I am currently working on a third paper I am going to give at the Computus Conference at Galway this July. I also gave three papers at three different work-in-progress seminars held at my Faculty and two of them will be eventually turned into articles. Three book reviews for scholarly journals and two other reviews addressed to general public conclude this list. These doubts are, I believe, quite common to all academics who live under the shadow of reports on their progress and have to remember that their research projects, especially those funded by external funding agencies, are expected to bring the promised output. And when the daemon of doubt started to throttle me, I suddenly remembered that perhaps I did not write much, but I spent endless hours at the desk, either in my room or at the library or archive, copying words of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholars. And the thousands of words I copied thus far constitute now a large corpus of both Latin and Polish source material.

At this point the gathered material is quite raw and still requires a thorough proofreading (no matter how slowly and carefully you transcribe, you will always make some typos or misread an abbreviation) and some decisions regarding the orthography and punctuation are still to be made. Although transcribing the documents is a painstaking activity, it gives me also a great satisfaction when, for instance, I manage to decipher some difficult part of a manuscript or when I suddenly hear echoes of other texts I overlooked earlier. This is also a great philological exercise which allows you to get to the level of historical text which is quite often neglected in the classrooms, even at the coursed dedicated to medieval and Renaissance literature. Eight years ago when I took an obligatory course in historical grammar, some problems seemed to me rather abstract. Now, when I decided to transcribe a considerable number of old Polish texts, some of them originated on the cultural and language borderlands, where Polish, Ruthenian and other languages influenced one other, the phonetic qualities and issues of the orthography of the old Polish become much closer than ever before. And so are these texts.

I believe that the work of a historian should be considered, at least partially, as storytelling. This point was made by a number of scholars, including William Cronon, who tackled the idea of historiography as strorytelling in his wonderful presidential address given at the 2013 AHA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Yet besides the narrative skills, le métier d’historien is based also on editorship and and one of the goals of historians activity is to provide the sources with commentary and make them available to other readers. Editorship is for me as equally important as structuring one’s own argument, creating an interpretation of the past events or, to put it simply, writing an erudite narrative about them.

These documents, transcriptions of a number of manuscripts and polemical publications are awaiting for the second phase or stage of my work which will be twofold. Now, when up to a certain point I internalized these texts through transcription, I should provide them with critical apparatus that will explain both the peculiarities of their language and the arguments and references employed in the calendrical and chronological debates. Some of them will hopefully find their place in the appendices for the articles that still need to be written, some of them – and that’s the largest part of my scribal output – will provide a basis for a large editorial project which will document a large part of my both to date and future research.

Thanks to these long hours spent on transcribing some obscure Latin manuscripts from various Central European milieus and angry Jesuit and Uniate brochures regarding the calendar reform, I see layers of this discussion which could be easily dismissed after a one-time reading and I hope I will be able to render the qualities of these texts and the hidden currents of these debates in the editions and narratives to come.