medieval easter monks

Medieval monks clash over Easter

Easter should be a time for Christians when they celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in the Medieval period – it was just as likely a time for bitter quarrels about the timing of Easter. Calculating the right date depended on the movements of the moon and the sun. The faithful needed to know the right date for Easter in order to conduct the fast over Lent. But the monks often let them down.

In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, monks in Britain, Ireland and Europe were at total loggerheads over the timing of Easter. They attacked each other’s calculations as completely wrong. The bible wasn’t very helpful in resolving anything because it simply pointed out that the crucifixion happened during the Jewish passover. What would have helped more was an exact time and date.

The Jewish calendar was lunar whereas the Christian church calendar was solar. It’s no accident that key Christian events were timed to coincide with the solstices, which had previously been linked to pagan festivities. So, the winter solstice became Christmas and the summer solstice celebrated the birth of John the Baptist. But what to do about Easter?

Some early Christians just followed their Jewish neighbours and working on the assumption that the crucifixion happened at the Passover, celebrated Easter at the same time regardless of the day. Others aimed for the full moon in the first spring month. The church disliked this localised approach to choosing a date for Easter. It was time to impose one Easter Day on all Christians.

Monks, maths and Easter

At the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, it was decided that Easter would always fall on a Sunday and that day would be determined well in advance with a series of complex calculations expressed in a table. Prepare for lots of confusion and arguments! Because monks in different abbeys fell out with each other in some style over these calculations and the rows led to excommunications and the ostracising of rebellious monastic communities.

Easter it was decided should be on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Vernal equinox. But that full moon was not the actual astronomical phenomenon. No – it was a mathematically arrived at ecclesiastical full moon. So, medieval monks got out their quills and exercised both their mathematical and astronomical skills. Especially monks in Ireland and the north of England – who frequently clashed.

Celtic monks v Roman monks – battling over Easter

The Irish monks were particularly intransigent. Their tables for calculating Easter were based on an 84-year lunar cycle compared to the rest of Europe which worked out the date of Easter each year on a 19-year cycle. An exasperated Pope Honorius the First wrote to Irish monks in the year 629 AD telling them “not to think that their small number, at the furthest ends of the earth, were wiser than all the ancient and modern churches of Christ thoughout the world”.

In other words, stop thinking you’re smarter than everybody else and fall into line!

DISCOVER: The last hours of the life of Jesus Christ

Nobles followed either the monks loyal to the Pope or the rebel Celts. In the seventh century this led to a situation where the pro-Celtic King of Northumbria, Oswy, was celebrating Easter while his pro-Roman queen was still on Palm Sunday. This was so absurd that the Venerable Bede, a leading monastic chronicler of the time, spat blood at the Celtic monks accusing them of heresy against the church.

Well, it was all resolved after a fashion. Though the eastern Orthodox church still calculates Easter differently to the Roman Catholic church. Nevertheless, this weekend, we will all be celebrating Easter in our own way. A far cry from the medieval battles over dating Easter.

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