The question of Easter in the Early Medieval Period.
By Mary Anne Yarde
In the early part of the first century AD, Jesus was betrayed with a kiss and ended up nailed to a cross in a place called Golgotha, just outside of Jerusalem. A century later, a new religion called Christianity had found its way into many towns and cities in and around the Mediterranean. Churches began to spring up all over the place. Christianity made it to Britain either in the first or second century, perhaps in the latter part of Roman Emperor Tiberius reign. So by the time of the Roman withdrawal in AD 410, Christianity had a century and a half of insular development.
Bede tells us that Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) saw two blonde Anglo-Saxon children who were for sale in the market and he asked the slave merchant where the children came from. The reply was the Kingdom of the Angles. To which, it is reputed, Gregory famously stated:
“They are not Angles, but Angels.”
What happened to the children, we shall never know. But, to cut a long story short, their beauty compelled Gregory to send a missionary to Britain. He sent Augustine.
Augustine, with his fellow missionaries, was eager to get started. However, he did not get off to a very good start. It is said that before meeting Augustine, the British Bishops consulted a wise and holy hermit who gave them some sound advice which was this:
“They should follow him only if he bore the yoke he wished them to bear…”
In other words, follow him only if he acts like your equal rather than your superior. Unfortunately for Augustine, he did not know this, and so he did the Roman diplomatic thing and remained seated when the Celtic Bishops came to see him. For the Angles, this was very disrespectful, and it did not inspire confidence. Someone should have told Augustine that when travelling to a foreign county, take some time to learn the customs.
The Celtic (British) Church was in no way backwards when compared to the Roman one. In fact, it is believed that the Celtic Church was better scripted in the language of Latin than Gregory’s missionaries. It must have come as quite a shock to Augustine when he discovered that the south-east of Britain was far less uncivilised than he had been led to believe. Where were the pagans to convert? They were not here, they were, for the most part, already Christians. Unfortunately, these Celtic Christians had developed their own liturgical practices that were different to the doctrine the Roman Church followed.
Which leads us very neatly to the Easter question. Religion was an incredibly significant part of peoples everyday lives in the Early Medieval Period (and indeed throughout history). Special days in the Biblical calendar such as Easter were very important. It was essential that the Church got the correct dates.
Easter was calculated by using the Hebrew calendar. However, the Roman Church felt that Christians should not celebrate Easter the same time as the Jews celebrated Passover. Not only that, but it was agreed that Easter should always be observed on a Sunday. But which Sunday?
By ignoring the date for the Jewish Passover, these early medieval Christians made it very difficult for themselves. Calculating the dates of Easter became a very complicated process which involved mapping the 84-year cycle of the Metonic. But, they ran into more problem, because not every Christian Church used the Metonic cycle — the Church of Rome is one example who did not. Which meant that Easter was celebrated at different times depending on what Church you belonged to. Confused? Yes, so were they.
The clergy from both the Celtic Church and the Roman one met at Whitby in 664, and here they discussed the Easter question. This was it. They were going to get this sorted out once and for all. At The Synod of Whitby, after much debating, it was agreed to celebrate Easter when the Roman Church did. It made sense for the Celtic Church to come into line with the bigger Roman one. The Roman practice became the norm, apart from in Wales, who would go their own way until 768 when they too adopted the Roman calendar.
So there we have it, be it very briefly. The Easter question was finally answered. Or was it? Well, no, not quite. In fact, the problem wasn’t solved until very recently. In 1997, the World Council of Churches met at a summit in Aleppo, Syria. Here they decided that Easter would fall on the first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon that followed the vernal equinox as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem.
Bede — Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2012)
Gildas — On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (Serenity Publishers, LLC, 2009)
Pryor, Francis — Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons (HarperCollins Publisher, 2005)
Head back to the Dark Ages with Mary Anne Yarde’s International Bestselling and Multi Award-Winning Series.
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Mary Anne Yarde
Mary Anne Yarde is the multi award-winning author of the International Bestselling Series — The Du Lac Chronicles. Set a generation after the fall of King Arthur, The Du Lac Chronicles takes you on a journey through Dark Age Briton and Brittany, where you will meet new friends and terrifying foes. Based on legends and historical fact, The Du Lac Chronicles is a series not to be missed.
Mary Anne is the founder of The Coffee Pot Book Club. She has been a professional reader since 2016 and in this time Mary Anne has reviewed many books for the big and small publishing houses, as well as books penned by her fellow indie authors. Mary Anne is also an editorial reviewer for BooksGoSocial. Mary Anne has been a judge for a prestigious Historical Fiction Book Award for the last three years, as well as being a Top Reviewer on Netgalley.
Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury — the fabled Isle of Avalon — was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood.