This Week in History

Gregory XIII
Pope Gregory XIII

This entire week in history is special because of what happened in 1582, when the Catholic countries of southern Europe (plus Poland) became the first to adopt the new calendar decreed by Pope Gregory XIII and so move off of the old Julian calendar. The “Gregorian” calendar was designed to ensure that vernal equinox fell on March 21st, accomplished by making years divisible by 100 but not 400 non-leap years (e.g., 2000 had a February 29th; 2100 will not) and by advancing the calendar forward ten days to correct for the time lost over the centuries thanks to a small error in the Julian calculations.

Which meant, of course, that the year the fix went into effect, certain days would be skipped. Now, Protestant and Orthodox nations kept the old calendar — under which, by the way, today would be September 25th. Most did not make the switch until the 18th century. But in early adopting regions like Italy and Spain, the old calendar ended with October 4th and picked up with the new calendar on October 15. So October 5-14 simply did not take place in 1582 for certain countries.

Which makes me wonder… Assuming 16th century Italians celebrated birthdays (?), did they take everyone with a birthday during October 5-14 and hold a mass celebration on old October 4th or new October 15th? Or did thousands of people just not have a birthday in 1582?

It also means, of course, that we won’t have anything from Italian, Iberian, or Polish history in 1582 to pick from in this return installment of This Week in History. (Just like we didn’t have anything available in British history from September 3-13, 1752.) But we’ll muddle through.

October 10, 1967 – The Outer Space Treaty comes into effect

Aldrin and Flag on the Moon
Buzz Aldrin — NASA

The “Space Race” is always a popular topic for student research when I teach my class on the Cold War, but it’s less well known that space exploration also provided an early example of detente between the US and Soviet Union. In this treaty, those two superpowers and other signatories agreed not to station nuclear weapons in Earth orbit, on the Moon or other celestial bodies, or in “outer space.” More than that, they agreed that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” (An interesting rebuff to the “new” imperialism I just finished teaching in my Modern Europe class, though for some, this principle has also discouraged any robust exploration of space.) So when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the Stars and Stripes on the Sea of Tranquility in 1969, it was purely symbolic — that part of the Moon (or any other explored by the Apollo program) does not belong to the United States.

Of course, a few countries have not yet signed or ratified the treaty. Though somehow I’m not too worried that Angola, Cambodia, Paraguay, the Sudan, or the other non-signatories will take advantage of this situation and partition the Moon. (If you’re wondering, North Korea acceded to the treaty two years ago.)

October 11, 1929 – The first General Casimir Pulaski Day is observed

Of the many aristocratic European officers who crossed the Atlantic to aid George Washington and his Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, few were less idealistic or more effective than the Polish cavalryman Casimir Pulaski, who had been sentenced in absentia to death by beheading for his alleged (and apparently non-existent) role in a plot against the Polish monarch. (Yes, he skipped town on a regicide charge! — what a great plot starter for Elmore Leonard, turning 86 today.) Arriving in North America, he became one of Washington’s most trusted aides, and is credited with modernizing the American cavalry. He died of wounds suffered at the siege of Savannah on October 9, 1779.

In addition to this commemoration (which, along with Pulaski’s birthday of March 4, has become a kind of Polish-American holiday), Pulaski has been honored by becoming the namesake for several towns. The one in Virginia is where my parents live. (The local McDonald’s — at least, the last time I checked — has a carved image of Pulaski on a wall.) The one in Tennessee has its own, unfortunate claim on fame.

Then there’s this tribute, from Sufjian Stevens:

October 12, 1945 – Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor

We’ll stay with American military history for this moment, the first time (of three so far) that a conscientious objector was awarded the nation’s highest military decoration. An Army medic during the battle of Okinawa, Doss saved dozens of lives over a series of days; at one point he was himself wounded, but gave up his stretcher for a more seriously wounded soldier.

Desmond Doss and Harry Truman
Desmond Doss receives his Medal of Honor from Harry Truman

Doss’ refusal to bear arms stemmed from his convictions as a Seventh-day Adventist. Born in the mid-19th century, the Adventist church was formally founded during the U.S. Civil War, in 1863. That same year, the Union adopted its first conscription act, but did not create a conscientious objector (CO) category for pacifist groups like the Adventists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren. (Some of these, like the Mennonites, agreed to simply pay the $300 commutation fee; others, like the Quakers, refused.) However, self-declared objectors were viewed sympathetically by President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who frequently released pacifists from military service. Then the following year Stanton convinced legislators to let COs work in military hospitals, help care for freed slaves, or pay into a fund for sick and wounded soldiers.

But even these alternative activities could create problems for Adventists, who refused to work on Satudays, viewing it as the Sabbath. But in the years between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War, Adventists decided to permit one type of secular work on Saturdays: medical care. They created a network of hospitals and then, just five years before Pearl Harbor, a medic training program that served to prepare Adventist COs like Doss for alternative service that did not conflict with their understanding of the Sabbath. According to the founder of the medical corps training program, it permitted an Adventist to “serve God and his country conscientiously” (quoted in Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd ed., p. 188)

October 13, 1925 – Margaret Thatcher and Lenny Bruce are born

This is such a wonderful Odd Couple Shared Birthdate of the Week that I don’t even have a joke here. Kind of like a Lenny Bruce routine.

October 14, 1066 – The Battle of Hastings

William the Conqueror’s defeat of the English king Harold II, of course, marks the last time that Britain was successfully invaded.

945 years.

For some reason, that doesn’t feel as long as the 103 years it’s been since the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series-clinching game. (October 14, 1908 — 2-0 over Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers. And only 6210 fans were there to see it! 33,000 fewer than were at Wrigley to see this on October 14, 2003.)


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