The Easter controversy

Anyone who does even cursory research into early medieval Ireland and Britain will come across a major – and bitter – controversy regarding how one calculates Easter. The significance is, naturally, lost on modern readers, who are far removed from this world (although some people still ask to be crucified). Most medievalists spend their careers trying to avoid any serious reading on the subject, and for good reason. It will drive you close to insanity, even if some, such as Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, are erudite enough to write about and publish on the subject.

To (perhaps grossly) simplify things, let us just say that there were a number of different ways to calculate the date of Easter. From what  I can tell, these seem to have existed from a very early period. Some Christians in the near East followed the same calendar as Jews regarding Passover, with the Easter feast being celebrated on the fourteenth day of Nisan, no matter what  day that fell on. These were called quartodecimans. The link to Passover is fundamental as the gospels say Jesus was executed then, and Jesus was held to be the new paschal lamb sacrifice. However, other Christians kept the feast on the Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected.

However, in later years and particularly after the Council of Nicaea (if I remember correctly) the Church attempted to consolidate the celebration of Easter so all Christian communities kept the observance at the same time. I’m sure that part of this was the Church at Rome trying to assert its dominance over the other churches, but in part it was an attempt to ensure that the Christian world was united. This was important, given that many popes and Christian writers argued that the Church was superior to the Roman Empire, in that it had travelled to areas the empire had not conquered. It would therefore not do if Christian communities in neighbouring areas celebrated one of the central events in Christianity at different times. Think of what those pagans would say, if Christians didn’t even know when the founder of their religion was executed.

The tables used to calculate Easter are ridiculously complicated, as they are supposed to take into account the solar and lunar calendars and lots of other things including the date of the equinox. I’m deliberately not going into detail because I don’t want your brain to melt. All right, it’s because I don’t want my brain to melt. They varied from a 19-year cycle to an 84-year cycle to a 95-year cycle to a 532-year cycle. But the problem was that all these calendars had some sort of patristic or ancient authority behind them, which certainly came into play in Ireland and Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Most of my reading has been of Bede’s various works, and he was a man who did a lot of work on the calculation of time. But his Historia ecclesiastica tells us a lot about the different attitudes toward Easter, as he makes considerable mention of communities that followed different calendars.

Bede’s main problem was that many of the Irish churches and preachers affiliated with Iona, the greatly influential monastic foundation off the coast of modern-day Scotland, followed the 84-year cycle, which was no longer held to be canon by Rome. Rome favoured the Dionysian tables and most churches had fallen into line with this, largely because they didn’t want to be seen as being out of step with the chief church.

By the Synod of Whitby, in 664, most of the Irish and English churches (but not the British) followed the canonical Easter, but some in Northumbria and Scotland/Pictland held to the 84-year cycle. This polarised attitudes on either side, with Bede going so far as to say he detested that people followed the old cycle. However, he notes pointedly that Bishop Aidan’s purity of life and industrious work in converting the kingdom outweighed this, and that this was why the dispute over Easter was tolerated during his lifetime. Even if he was out of step, it was through sincerity and out of respect for his monastic superiors, and all he was doing was honouring Christ (HE 3.25). At the synod, King Oswiu, in a Constantine-type role, decrees that since Peter gave authority to the popes, his kingdom should follow the Roman canonical calculation. It was only much later that Iona itself was converted to that cycle, which Bede presents as a fitting gift from the Anglo-Saxons to the church that brought his people Christianity (HE 5.22). He depicts it as a reward, not a forced conversion as punishment, and he also ensures that the Irish are not considered quartodeciman heretics.

But Bede is slightly calmer in his appraisal than some Irish writers of the 660s. Cummian’s paschal letter, for example, criticises the Irish and British churches for thinking that “pimples on the face of the earth” could know more than Rome. This shows that Irish writers felt as strongly about union with Rome as writers from other kingdoms and societies.

As far as Bede is concerned, this marked a sense of unity in the region, with the exception of the Britons, who in the 730s are presented as schismatics and marginalised accordingly (HE 5.23). So at the end of the Historia, the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are in full communion with Rome – and therefore with the rest of the Christian Latin world – and the Britons are wayward. The message here is that the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are following the same rituals and teachings as anywhere else, meaning they are part of the centre while being at the geographical edge.

That the Easter controversy still dredged up considerable ire decades after its resolution suggests that there was either a danger that some people would resurrect the old ways, or perhaps that this was part of a process that made those following the canonical way feel more strongly convinced that they were right. But it also stresses Bede’s message that unity was vital, and particularly that unity of faith could cross the borders of kingdoms and even the sea.

I believe that this is, in part, tied in to his apocalyptic and eschatological concerns. In his commentary on Genesis, Bede notes that the end of days would be characterised by lawlessness and corruption, while in De Temporum Ratione he mentions that the end would come suddenly. Therefore it was important that his people be united and fully converted, because if the end came and the English were out of step with the wider Christian world, this would put them in jeopardy at the Last Judgement.

I’m still working on how this determined how he wrote history, and Easter is only one line of inquiry in a much wider thesis (says he trying to ensure no smart-ass claims this counts as previously published material that can’t be included in his PhD). Thoughts, anyone?


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