Perhaps the most charming spot on the Sewanee campus is Guerry Garth, the green space between Convocation Hall, Guerry Auditorium, and Walsh-Ellett Hall–I have often taught classes here, near the large gingko in the middle, while Breslin Tower chimed away the quarter-hours. Recently I noticed something in the Garth that has to do with another sort of time-reckoning, however.
It’s in the southeast corner of the Garth, in the upper right hand of the picture above but you can see better what I’m talking about below– by the drainpipe, halfway between the windows and the ground.
It’s the cornerstone for “Walsh Memorial Hall.” What struck me as odd about it was the rendering of the date. While Roman numerals are common enough, this inscription is given in a Roman calendrical form rarely seen outside of ancient monuments.
WALSH MEMORIAL HALL
AD DEI GLORIAM
A.D. XIV. KAL. OCT.
Ad Dei gloriam, “to the glory of God,” reads easily enough, as does the year, MDCCCXC, 1890. But the third line, A.D. XIV. KAL. OCT., requires some explanation. One thing, though–the A.D. does not mean Anno Domini.
The Romans had, more or less, the same month-names that we have, but their system of specifying days was different. This may or may not have had to do with phases of the moon, but no matter, it worked like so: the first day of the month was called the Kalends, the thirteenth day of the month was the Ides (except in July, October, March, and May, when it fell on the fifteenth), and the Nones fell eight days before the Ides.
The days of the month were reckoned backwards from the nearest of these marked days. Hence, what you and I would call February 1st was the Kalendis Februariis (Kal. Feb., in standard ancient abbreviation). Februay 13th would be the Idus Februarius (Id. Feb). February 12th was pridie Idus Februarius, i.e., the day before the Ides of February (pridie Id. Feb). February 11th was ante diem iii Idus Februarias, or three days before the Ides of February (a.d. iii Id. Feb.). See, a.d. = ante diem, “day before.”
Now I know you’re saying on that last one–hey, wait a minute, February 11th is only TWO days before February 13th! But you have to recall that Romans didn’t have a concept of zero, and so they counted inclusively, meaning they counted both the first and the last number in their reckoning. Imagine if you were to crucify a man on a Friday and he rose from the dead on a Sunday: the way you and I count, it’s only two days later, but according to the Romans, he rose again on the third day.
Anyway, back to the dedication of Walsh. According to the inscription, it reads A.D. XIV. KAL. OCT., that is, fourteen days before the Kalends of October. September 30 minus 14 days, counted inclusively. That would make it September 18th. If you don’t believe me, you can check this nifty Roman Date Calculator. If you have a degree from Sewanee, in fact, you might want to check it out, as all the dates on the sheepskin are rendered in this Roman style. But the inscription on Walsh, with the dating that includes Kalends, strikes me as being unusual for a cornerstone dedication.