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An interregnum (plural interregna or interregnums) is a period of discontinuity of a government, organization, or social order. Archetypally, it was the period of time between the reign of one monarch and the next (coming from Latin inter-, "between" + rēgnum, "reign" [from rex, rēgis, "king"]), and the concepts of interregnum and regency therefore overlap. An interregnum can simplistically be thought of as a "gap", although the idea of an interregnum emphasizes the relationship to what comes before and to what comes after in a sequence. This contrasts with a near synonym like gap, which may be random, encompassing neither connotation of interjacency in a sequence nor formal interrelation.

Examples of interregna are periods between monarchs, between popes, between emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, between kings in an elective monarchy, or between consul of the Roman Republic. The term can also refer to the period between the pastorates of ministers in some Protestant churches.

In Roman law, interregnum was usually accompanied by the proclamation of justitium (or state of exception, as Giorgio Agamben demonstrated in his 2005 book of this name). This is not surprising, as when a sovereign died - or when the Pope died - tumultus (upheavals) usually followed upon the news being made public. Progressively, justitium came to signify the public mourning of the sovereign, and not anymore justitium, auctoritas being (mythically) attached to the physical body of the sovereign.

The term is also applied to the period of time between the election of a new President of the United States and his or her inauguration, during which the outgoing president remains in power, but as a lame duck.

Historical periods of interregnum

Particular historical periods known as interregna include:

In some monarchies, such as the United Kingdommarker, an interregnum is usually avoided due to a rule described as "the king is dead, long live the King", i.e. the heir to the throne becomes a new monarch immediately on his predecessor's death or abdication. This famous phrase signifies the continuity of sovereignty, attached to a personal form of power named Auctoritas. This is not so in other monarchies where the new monarch's reign begins only with coronation or some other formal or traditional event. In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for instance, kings were elected, which often led to relatively long interregna. During that time it was the Polish primate who served as an interrex (ruler between kings).

Pope's interregnum (or sede vacante)

An interregnum occurs also upon the death of the Pope, though this is generally known as a sede vacante (vacant seat). The interregnum ends immediately upon election of the new Pope by the College of Cardinals.

Japanese era names

The Japanese era name or nengō system which was introduced in reign of Emperor Kōtoku was abandoned at the end of his reign; and the nengō was not updated for a quite some time, except for very brief re-occurrence near the close of Emperor Temmu's reign.

During the nearly half-century after Emperor Kōtoku, the reigning sovereigns were
  • Saimei-tennō (斉明天皇)
  • Tenji-tennō (天智天皇)
  • Kōbun-tennō (弘文天皇)
  • Temmu-tennō (天武天皇)
  • Jitō-tennō (持統天皇)
  • Mommu-tennō (文武天皇).

The first year of Emperor Mommu's rule (文武天皇元年; 686) could be arguably abbreviated as "the first year of Mommu" (文武元年; 686), but this is nowhere understood as a true nengō. The reigns of Japanese emperors and empresses are not nengō, nor were the two considered to be the same until Meiji came on the scene.

References to the emperors of Japan who ruled during this period are properly written as, for example, "the 3rd year of Emperor Mommu" (文武天皇3年), and not "the 3rd year of Mommu" (文武3年).

Nengō were abolished during the interregnum years between Hakuchi and Shuchō, and again between Shuchō and Taihō. Near the mid-point of his reign, Emperor Mommu caused the now-conventional nengō chronologic system to be reinstated, and it has continued uninterrupted through today.

  • The two interregnum periods in the pre-Tahiō years are:

The broader utility of the Japanese nengō system is demonstrated by the use of a congruent device to parse non-nengō periods, including these late 7th century interregnum years between Taika and Taihō.

As an illustration: In the initial paragraph of its web page introduction to the history of Japanese calendars, the Japanese National Diet Librarymarker explains that "Japan organized its first calendar in the 12th year of Suiko (604)." See web site of the National Diet Library, "The Japanese Calendar" -- link to historical overview plus illustrative images from library's collection.

See also



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