Numbers and Dates
in old parish registers, wills, etc.
On this page
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|Who would have thought that entering something as simple as a date could
be so complicated.? Unfortunately it is!
First there is a choice between dd/mm/yyyy (01/12/1850), or the American format mm/dd/yyyy (12/01/1850). To make it ddmmyyyy ? (01121850) or dd-mm-yyyy (01-12-1850)? Some people as a standard prefer yyyymmdd (18501201) because (apparently) it can be sorted easily into chronological order. (Which unfortunately doesn't work for us genealogists).
Unfortunately, all of the above can cause problems when dealing with recording dates from old parish registers.
This is what the whole of this page is about. Defining a standard way of recording dates which is unambiguous, and which will always work, no matter what the date is. Unfortunately, we have to allow for several little "quirks" of time.
The correct format to ender dates into a genealogical record is:
There is no ambiguity in this method. During the course of this document, we shall investigate why.
|1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 etc. right? To us, yes, but this hasn't always been
Old parish registers can show numbers in a few different ways. The old way of forming them can also be different to what we know nowadays.
Latin format numbers
i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii, ix, x (1 to 10)
Most of us are fairly used to Latin numbering. But even here a long number such as a year takes some working out.
There is another little "quirk" with Latin numbers as written. It goes like this:
Notice that the last i, or even a single i, is written as a "j"
That's even before we have the problem of deciphering the handwriting style! But even then, some clerics wrote numbers in words. One, two, three.... but in Latin of course. We need to be able to identify these. Fortunately, most of them, even if we haven't ever learned them, seem familiar. (Because much of English is based on latin anyway). There are also cases where a mixture of Latin and English is used!
MD = 1000+500 = 1500
MDCXX = 1000+600+20 = 1620
Fortunately for us, most Latin years written in parish registers are from 1538 to about 1640, although most ceased to be using Latin before 1600.
|We are used to January through December, but it wasn't always quite that
Let's start with the Latin December, because that's easy to figure out. Yes. The 10th month. That is because until 1752, the year number changed over on March 26. The first time that 1st January was used as the first day of the year was 1752.
We have to be aware of this in reading numerical months in old registers, right up to December 1751. Watch out for those 8ber type entries too. Not the 8th month as we know it (August), but October!
When recording data from registers into a database (as opposed to making a literal transcription) use the three letter abbreviation for the month, e.g. Jan Sep etc. (without full stops/periods).
|Before 1752, the year number changed over on March 26th. 1752 was the
first year that January 1st was the first day of the year.
This gives us a potential little problem when recording dates before March 26th in each year.
Just to make life a little awkward for us, there was advanced warning of this change, and some clergymen jumped the gun and began using January 1st as the year changeover some years earlier, whilst some stubborn ones carried on using the year changeover as March 26th! Fortunately you can identify these very easily in a register, as you can see where they have written the year number changes.
If March 26th was the first day of the year, and let's say a couple were married on that day, in 1750. They could quite easily have a baptism of their first child on March 24th 1750 - which was really a year later , and not two days before!
That's our problem. Some genealogists record precisely what is recorded in a parish register. Some record it as written, but didn't realise that in our modern calendar they could actually be referring to a different year. Some genealogists make an allowance and record 5 January 1750 as 5 January 1751 because 1751 is the "real" year in our modern calendar.
The big problem with either, is that we don't know if a genealogist or transcriber has written it literally or made allowance for the modern calendar!
So, the correct standard for writing these dates in our records (and when we transcribe registers) is in the form 1750/1. It is them extremely obvious that 1750 is what was written in the register, but it was really 1751 in the new calendar. 1749/50, 1630/1, etc. Easy! No confusion.
So, for all years up to and including 1751, dates between 1 January and 25 March inclusive, should be written with double dates. 23 Jan 1731/2.
|Regnal years are really hard to get to grips with. Unfortunately, some
clergymen used them in earlier registers, and certainly they are common in
old wills and other legal documents.
The system works like this. Instead of a normal calendar year, the year written down was the number of years since the year in which the Coronation took place. Worse still, year number 1 started on the day of the Coronation.
When Edward I became King - 1239 (and from then onwards), the Regnal year started on the day the reign began (i.e. before the Coronation). Often, but not always, the day the previous monarch died.
Years alone are relatively easy to calculate. The ones we are really interested in are those from 1538, when parish registers began, although of course Regnal years were commonly used before this date.
It is uncommon for Regnal years to be used much later than this. But there was still the occasional die-hard clergyman who did, and some scholars and historians still use Regnal years.
Copyright ©48 Eliz II - Rod Neep