Time in Old Switzerland

The Julian and Gregorian Calendars in Switzerland

Following the Protestant Reformation, something as seemingly innocuous as the calendar even managed to take on sectarian tones. For centuries, Christendom had used the same calendar, which was based on the model Julius Caesar had instituted before the birth of Christ.


However, the Julian calendar was flawed. The date for Easter had been steadily falling earlier and earlier. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided to remedy the situation by subtracting ten days from the calendar. Unsurprisingly, this time-keeping model became known as the Gregorian calendar. It was readily adopted in Roman Catholic territories. However, Protestant territories were very hesitant to adopt the new calendar.


Given Switzerland’s diverse religious make-up, the Old Swiss Confederacy was no exception in splintering over which calendar to follow. Starting in 1584, it would not be until 1812 that the whole of modern-day Switzerland was finally using the Gregorian calendar!


However, the Julian calendar began on March 25th and not January 1st. This gave rise to a curious set of abbreviations you might encounter in various parish registers. You might see 7 bris/VII bris, 8 bris/VIII bris, 9 bris/IX bris, and 10 bris/X bris. These abbreviations refer, respectively, to the months of September, October, November, and December as they are the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of year as reckoned by the Julian calendar. Be careful with these abbreviations.


The matter of which calendar a particular Canton followed during the Old Swiss Confederacy will probably not greatly impact a person’s research, but it provides a measure of interesting historical context. 

To the left is a chart showing the year each Canton adopted the Gregorian calendar.

The Months of the Old German Calendar

Studying the parish registers of the German-speaking Cantons, you may find yourself encountering expressions for months that you have never seen before. No, our Swiss ancestors were not trying to play tricks on their devoted descendants as they attempted to navigate said parish registers, but they were using a month-naming system that lingered on far longer in Switzerland than in other German-speaking areas.

Taken from Middle High German, these months’ names are a vibrant and poignant reminder of how closely tied to the weather and the seasons our ancestors were in those days. They show us how differently our ancestors understood and measured time. It was only in precise matters of church and state that exact dates mattered and were used. For the day-to-day life of a farmer and his family, it was the seasons that truly counted.

As evidenced by the repeated use of certain months’ names, one cannot overstress the importance of context when studying a parish register. You may well need to check several pages of the parish register when studying a particular record to properly orient yourself. To make matters more confusing, sometimes recognizable months’ names appear in the same parish register side-by-side with their Middle High German counterparts. It all comes down to context!

Below is a chart detailing the former Middle High German names once used and their modern Gregorian calendar equivalents.