What Day is It?

“Sweet Calliope!” Zell said, as he dragged the end of the bench back farther from our table at the Hog Snout and slid onto it.  “What is that smell?”

Regretfully, I stopped chewing long enough to answer him.  “Quail.”

“Quail!”  He pushed up the sleeves of his robe and reached into the basket on the table.  “How came we by quail?”

“Michael,” I said.

The young monk looked embarrassed at the excitement caused by his contribution to our dinner, as Fabri joined us.  “By the muses, is that quail?  Who hunts at this table?”

We all laughed, for, of course, no one was allowed to hunt except the nobility.  To be caught hunting, even on common grounds, carried severe penalties.  A peasant could lose a hand for such an offense.

“They are left from the Abbot’s table,” Michael said.  “Count von Bühlingen gave them to him, but he had a surplus, and I happened to be passing the door as the dinner was breaking up.  The Abbot just waved his hand and ordered the cook’s girl to gather the remains for me.”

He dropped his voice.  “I slipped her some, too, for she had to pluck them all.”

“Little quail.  How tiny its breast,” Zell said.  “One life for hardly more than a bite.”

“But you’ll still eat it,” I said.

“She wants me to help her learn how old she is,” Michael said.  “She thinks me a great scholar because I know my age exactly.”

Fabri was the only one to have eaten quail before, for he lived with Ulrich Zasius.  “Who?”

“The scullery maid.  She wants to know how old she is.”

“How old is she?” I said, trying to count just how many quail would be my fair share.

“I couldn’t tell.  She knows only that she was born on Quasimodo in the year the moles ate the beets.”

I laughed, and, I think, so did the others.  But Michael looked pained.

“That’s how the poor tell time,” Fabri said, his tone gentle.  “She can’t read.  No one in her family can read.  They don’t have a calendar.  Perhaps they don’t know any big events happening in the world, like a battle or a coronation.  Each village is a little isolated island of time.  They know what year the moles ate the beets.”

“But not exactly,” Michael said.  “For she asked her mother, and she even asked the village priest.  But he moved to that village after the year in which the moles ate the beets.  So he didn’t know.”

Zell motioned to the Hog Snout proprietor for another pitcher of ale.  “Aren’t there baptismal records?”

“The church was struck by lightning and burned.”

“What year was that?” Fabri said.

Michael sighed.  “No one knows.”

I laughed again.  Again, the young monk looked pained.  “It’s a simple thing to want to know your age,” he said, rather crossly.

“Time is the purview of the educated and the urban,” I said.  “In a rural village, they know only the seasons and the church feasts.  They don’t have any way to know the date.”

“Neither do we,” Fabri said, putting some quail onto Michael’s bread, and I saw then that the young monk had not been eating.  Fabri went on.  “Zasius had a letter from a friend in Rome.  The Council has finally convened, and one of the items to be discussed is a reform of the calendar.”

“What do you mean?” Michael said.

“The calendar is off from the movement of the heavens and the length of days.  The council has asked various learned men to submit their proposals for correcting it.  Apparently there’s a medical doctor named Copernicus, who might be able to heal the calendar.”

“What do you mean?” Michael said again.

“The equinoxes are off by ten days,” Fabri said.  “So the longest day is not really the longest day.  By our reckoning now, the shortest day is December 11 and the longest June 11.  The error grows a little greater each year.”

Michael at last began to eat.  “How can that be fixed?”

“Perhaps a gap in time.  Some days–ten, I guess–will be skipped.”

“What?” Michael said.  “Shall the heavens stand still?  Shall they stick like gears in a great machine and then break loose, with a massive shudder, and jump forward?”

“The heavens are moving just fine,” I said.  “It’s our reckoning that’s in error.”

Fabri nodded.  “But this Copernicus says that it is premature to discuss correcting the calendar until the length of the tropical year can be ascertained.”

“So,” Zell said, leaning back as if his appetite were finally appeased, “does this mean that a movable feast day, Easter, may have been wrong?”

“Yes,” Fabri said.  “But that is not to be noised abroad to the people.”

“Then Quasimodo,” Michael said, “the day of her birth, the Sunday after Easter, was not really Quasimodo.  Whatever year it was.”  He sighed.

“But does it matter?” I said.  “If we don’t even know when Christ was resurrected, perhaps it is a small thing if a maid does not know the year of her birth.”

But he looked even more cross and said only, “Some scholars we are!”

Detail, Pieter Aertsen, A Cook, 16th century

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Published in: on August 26, 2011 at 6:40 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love your story, and how your work in such interesting bits of information. The year to moles ate the beets! Clever.

  2. I loved how you brought the year of the maid’s birth into perspective with the fact that we don’t know the year of Christ’s resurrection.


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