Complicating Things Considerably: The Fluxus Calendars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Just when you think you have a grip on things… some bit of information goes and throws a wrench in your whole theory. Well, it’s not all as dramatic as that, but discovering a wide ranging template and constantly changing perception of calendar time in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has added a whole new dimension into some of the history research I’ve been delving into with respect to applications of image conception and correspondence in the tarot—particularly, the Fool. And in an effort to address the prolepses [1] to which I’ve opened myself up, I wanted to present some information to salvage the theory, in part or in whole.


Some of my recent thoughts on the placement of the Fool as the primogenitor on the ladder of virtuosity have recently been muddling around a theory that he represents a mockery by northern Hapsburg Italians of their long-time nemeses and rivals the Parisienne French. A lot of this theory revolves around the Festival of Fools (known also by a host of various other names) in which the sub deaconry of the Church took over the ceremonies of the Divine Office, and in which donkeys and ribald songs were a part of the sacrilegious [ceremonies]. The Holy See eventually cracked down on these particularly un-corralled and non-reverential ceremonies, but they had taken on such a shocking reputation throughout Europe that Paris, where the festivities were performed with particularly savage sacrilege, was elevated as the epitome of shamefulness and colloquially became famous as the target of derogatory ridicule. (For more details on this particular festival and its repercussions, see my previous blog post discussing it.)


A Visual calendar -twelve months- from a manuscript of Piétro de Crescenzi, c. 1306

A Visual calendar --with labor activities corresponding to the twelve months-- from a manuscript of Piétro de Crescenzi, c. 1306


A lot of this theory relies on the fact that the Feast of Fools took place on the same date as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus—January 1st. And it is still a somewhat valid theory, since the ancient Roman calendar still initiated the civic “new year” on January 1st. However, citizens during the contemporary Middle Ages and the Renaissance (obviously not known by those monikers at the time) were in a kind of flux about time and calendar time, with popes and kings and emperors and city-states all making decrees about calendaring dates and changing the way that time was recorded based on astrological observations.


What’s more, other than the scientists and the high upper nobility, people didn’t bother much about the specifics. Time was generally noted by seasons, light-time versus dark-time hours within the circadian rhythm cycle, and festival-saint days. A person might know generally how old they were based on how many harvesting seasons had passed, but didn’t bother to keep track of the specifics, much less celebrate anyone’s birthdays.


Recent academic interest is supporting renewed investigation about how historical cultures recorded time. “The study of calendars has been neglected by historians as a merely technical curiosity; but in fact, the calendar was at the heart of ancient and medieval culture, as a structured perception of time, and as an organizing principle of social life.” [2]



So what is the wrench in my theory? It hinges on whether the Feast of the Circumcision was considered the “New Year.” Many city-states considered the beginning of the calendar year to be sometime in March—around Easter. Others used Christmas. But it wasn’t consistent, and was subject to regional whim. As Nicolaa de Bracton notes on this website, a person could be a virtual time traveler simply by moving about the European landscape:


“If we suppose a traveler sets out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and, if after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would already have begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find himself again in 1245 when he reached Provence, and on arriving in Paris before Easter (April 16) he would once more be in 1244." To add the confusion, Spanish custom dated the beginning of the anno domini (year of grace) to 38 B.C. To find this date, add 38 to the A.D. year. This was used in Spain until the middle of the fourteenth century and in Portugal until 1420. Sometime in the sixteenth century almost everyone switched to January 1 as the beginning of the new year, which had marked the beginning of the Roman civil year and had survived long after this in Spain, as well as being generally recognized as the beginning of the fiscal and civil year around Europe for centuries.” [3]

So I’m a little torn, a little distressed, that my very precious theory might be blown out of the water. But there’s reason for hope… It lies in the last sentence of the quotation above, that January 1st had long survived as the beginning of the Roman civil year. Why is this important? Because the Humanists of the Renaissance were interested in emulating and reaping the wisdom of the Greco-Roman world, Roman civic life included. There was a reason everyone eventually switched to a standardization date and that this particular date was agreed upon. It was used previously in a civic format and influenced the contemporary Renaissance perception.


February, Les trés riches heures, Le Duc de Berry


June, Les trés riches heures, Le Duc de Berry


September, Les trés riches heures, Le Duc de Berry


Three sample pages from the visual calendar from a manuscript entitled Les tres riches heures, by Le Duc de Berry, c. 1412.


Let’s face it: the day assigned as the “New Year” is a contrivance… we invent it as a human population and agree on it. Any significance we place upon it—and we most certainly do—is entirely projected through the rituals and mythologization of the mass populace. One need only note the drastic increase in memberships at exercise gyms every January because so many people inevitably make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. There’s no reason that people couldn’t decide to suddenly become more physically active at any other time of the year, but there is a socially-invented perception that we are supposed to make a “clean slate” at this particular date. It’s fascinating to observe such socially-induced manipulations when you really think about it.


Anyway, January 1st obviously retained some sense of mythologization in order to become the eventual date that became the turn of the calendar year. It is also extremely near the Christmas holiday (that was sometimes used as the “New Year” date, and in any event still conformed to the Christmas season and Epiphany). Also, for those city-states and kingdoms that used Christmas as the “new year,” there is also the philosophy that the birth of Jesus begins the new covenant, thus it, too, can be considered a brand new turning and starting point. [4]


So at this point—thank you very much—I’ll sustain my theory of the Fool representing the “beginning”-crossover-clean-slate-starting-point due to calendar association with the new year. And subsequently, the Fool as the mocked-Parisienne-ecclesiastical-buffoon-theory can remain pertinent as well while I undertake more research to support the argument.





[1]     Definition: [Rhetoric.] The anticipation of possible objections in order to answer them in advance. From < Late Latin prolēpsis < Greek prólēpsis anticipation, preconception (

[2] (last accessed 7-29-2015).

[3] (last accessed 7-29-2015).

[4]     For more on how and when the “New Year” was determined country-by-country, see the section “Beginning of the year” on the Wikipedia website page regarding the Gregorian Calendar: (last accessed 7-29-2015, information subject to crowd-editing).



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