Old Lady-Day

At length it was the eve of Old Lady-Day, and the agricultural world was in a fever of mobility such as only occurs at that particular date of the year. It is a day of fulfilment; agreements for outdoor service during the ensuing year, entered into at Candlemas, are to be now carried out. The labourers—or “work-folk”, as they used to call themselves immemorially till the other word was introduced from without—who wish to remain no longer in old places are removing to the new farms.

Thomas Hardy Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891)

Yesterday (as this post goes live) was Old Lady-Day, once a significant day in the English agricultural calendar, as Thomas Hardy describes above. And today (April 6th), a new tax year begins in the UK. These dates are not unrelated to each other, and are also linked to the Christian Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the Biblical event depicted in the Leonardo painting at the head of this post—the arrival of the Angel Gabriel to inform the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a miraculous child. As the King James Version of the Bible tells the story:

And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

Luke 1:28-31

This event was called “The Annunciation To Mary”, or”The Annunciation” for short, annunciation being the act of announcing something. When it came to nailing these events to the Christian calendar, it made sense for the Feast of the Annunciation to fall exactly nine months before the Feast of the Nativity, which celebrates the birth of Jesus. Since that festival, Christmas Day, falls on December 25th in the Western Christian tradition, the Feast of the Annunciation occurs on March 25th. In Britain, that day is commonly called “Lady Day”, a reference to “Our Lady”, the Virgin Mary.

As well as being a religious feast-day, Lady Day was a significant secular date, too. As one of the four English quarter days*, it was a time when payments fell due and contracts were honoured. Farm labourers were usually indentured to work for a year at a time, and if they wanted to change jobs they all did so on Lady Day.

In fact, Lady Day was such an important date in the calendar, it marked the start of the New Year in English-speaking parts of the world for almost 600 years. While it may seem very strange to us now, under what was called “The Custom of the English Church” the year number would increment on March 25th each year, rather than on January 1st.

Scotland switched to using January 1st for New Year’s Day in 1600, but England didn’t make the change until it adopted the Gregorian calendar reform in 1752. I’ve written before about how eleven days were dropped from September that year, to bring the calendar back into alignment with the seasons.

Gregorian Calendar 1752 (Great Britain)

So 1752 was famously a short year in the English-speaking world. But it’s probably less well-known that 1751 was an even shorter year in England, since it began on March 25th, but ended on December 31st.

The missing eleven days in 1752 created a problem for all the legal stuff relating to contracts and debts that fell due on Lady Day. All the famous protests about “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days” were not from ignorant people who thought their lives had been shortened, but from people who were being paid daily wages, but were settling their debts monthly or quarterly or yearly.

One solution to this problem was to shift the dates of contracts and payments to compensate—so instead of changing jobs on Lady Day 1753, farm labourers worked until eleven days later, April 5th, and continued to renew their contracts on that day in subsequent years. April 5th therefore became known as “Old Lady-Day”, an expression that was still in use in 1891, when Hardy wrote about it in the quotation at the head of this post.

Similarly, the date of the new tax year moved from March 25th to April 5th—so the workers were given back their eleven days, at least by the tax authorities, if not by their landlords and other creditors.

But wait. I told you that the tax year in the UK begins on April 6th, not on Old Lady-Day. Why has it shifted by another day? Because under the old Julian calendar, the year 1800 was due to be a leap year, but under the new Gregorian calendar, it was not. So workers were being done out of a day’s wages in 1800 because of the calendar reform, and the tax authorities duly shifted the date of the new tax year by a day, to compensate. By 1900, which also dropped a leap day, these calendrical niceties seem to have been forgotten, and no shift in the tax year occurred, so the date has remained the same ever since.

So there you are. People in Britain used to start a new tax year at the start of a new calendar year, back when Lady Day was also New Year’s Day. Now, thanks to a centuries-old calendar reform and a surprising impulse of fairness from the tax authorities of the time, we calculate our taxes from what seems (to the uninitiated) like a random date in April.

* The other quarter days were Midsummer Day (June 24th), Michaelmas (September 29th) and Christmas (December 25th).
Oddly enough, the same date was also used in Florence, which earned that system of year reckoning its alternative name, Calculus Florentinus.

4 thoughts on “Old Lady-Day”

  1. This is a wonderfully synchronicitous post; thank you! When I saw the title I wondered whether it was anything to do with celebrating the fact that I am now an Old Lady – or a Young Crone as I prefer to call myself.

    And no, it is much more interesting and inclusive than such navel-gazing. And combines some of my favorite themes; time-lining; the assimilation of the Old Ways (to many of which I subscribe) into the Christian Calendar; recognising my resistance to completing my annual tax return, which I have recently been relieved of by virtue of my great age and my minimal income … yet I still need to inform The Fiscal of my pending change of address, and you have usefully reminded me of the start of this returning New Year, which I appreciate.

    One last thing – why was it originally assumed that Mary had had a nine month pregnancy? perhaps adding the exra 11 days helped to balance that inaccuracy, too. Or is it the other way round? (Ouch, my head hurts now, as I am not a natural mathematician.)

    I’m speaking here of the discrepancy between lunar months and calendar months; and also of this from https://yourduedate.com

    “Your due date is calculated by adding 280 days (40 weeks) to the first day of your last menstrual period (assuming a 28 day cycle).

    Note that your menstrual period and ovulation are counted as the first two weeks of pregnancy. If you deliver on your due date, your baby is actually only 38 weeks old, not 40.”

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.

    The title “Old Lady-Day” is my cue to eventually write a post about the uses and abuses of the hyphen. “Old Lady-Day” is a Lady Day that is old, whereas “Old-Lady Day” would be a day for old ladies. But “Old Lady Day” would just leave the reader floundering.

    On the topic of the duration of a pregnancy, the dating of Lady Day occurred well over a thousand years before the invention of Naegele’s Rule (which should in any case be called Naegele’s Rule Of Thumb). That was invented by the obstetrician Franz Naegele in 1812, and was based on the pregnancies of a relatively small number of women. He stated that the due date could be expected nine months and seven days after the last menstrual period. In calendar months, that works out to 40 weeks or a little over. But we know that the real duration of gestation is very variable, and Naegele’s figure is at best a modal value applicable to nineteenth-century European women.

    I suspect that fourth-century Christian bishops had very little idea of the timing of conception relative to the menstrual cycle, and simply chose a nice round number that fitted the data. Certainly the idea of a nine-month pregnancy was the standard wisdom when I was growing up—I didn’t encounter Naegele’s figure until I was in medical schoool.

  3. Read more about Old Lady-Day in the book Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year by Eleanor Parker.

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