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The Paschal Controversy in the Old English Bede

Sharon M. Rowley
p. 297-308

Résumé

Cette communication veut explorer les différences narratives qui existent entre l’Historia ecclesiastica de Bède et sa traduction anonyme en vieil-anglais (dite Old English Bede, OEB), sur tout ce qui concerne le symbolisme de la fête de Pâques et la controverse sur sa date. D’un point de vue historique, le traitement par Bède de la controverse pascale a souvent été considéré comme long et fastidieux ; et les connexions qu’il établit entre elle et l’hérésie pélagienne ont été perçues comme des erreurs. Or, curieusement, on constate que, si l’OEB retient certains des matériaux contenus à ce sujet dans l’Historia ecclesiastica, elle en omet d’autres. Tandis que Dorothy Whitelock attribue ces omissions à un manque d’intérêt du traducteur anonyme, cette communication entend montrer que sa version reflète en réalité l’évolution de la question du comput pascal entre le premier tiers du VIIIe siècle et la fin du IXe, ainsi que les transformations de la logique narrative du texte induites par la suppression dans le livre I de presque tout ce que Bède avait écrit sur l’hérésie pélagienne.

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1In The Symbolism of Evil, Paul Ricoeur concludes that symbols “give rise to thought” in that :

  • 1 P. Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan, Boston, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 355.


2the symbol, used as a means of detecting and deciphering human reality, [is] verified by its power to raise up, to illuminate, to give order to that region of human experience [...] which we were too ready to reduce to error, habit, emotion, passivity – in short, to one or another of the dimensions of finitude that have no need of the symbols of evil to open them up and discover them1.

  • 2 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, ed. and trans. (except where otherwise noted), B. Col (...)
  • 3 See C. W. Jones, ed. and intro., Bedae Opera de temporibus (ODT), Cambridge, MA, Medieval Academy o (...)

3This is not an essay about evil, but it is an essay about the function of symbolism in the narrative logic of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (HE) and the anonymous Old English translation of it (OEB)2. My interest is in the narrative differences between the two versions in relation to the symbolism of, and controversy over, Easter. Because of the narrative structure of the HE, this focus will also require a brief discussion of Bede’s account of the Pelagian heresy and the anonymous translator’s handling of that. I begin with Ricoeur because Bede’s treatment of these two issues has historically been regarded as tedious, overdone, or having to do with his feelings for the Irish3. Similarly, the connections the HE makes between the issues have been treated as errors. Such charges, I believe, lose sight of the ways that Bede uses the symbolism of these two themes to give meaning and structure to his narrative of conquest, conversion and unification. Consequently, the ways in which the anonymous translator has edited his text have been misunderstood.

  • 4 HE V. 21 ; HE II. 19.

  • 5 Ó Cróinín, “New Heresy for Old : Pelagianism in Ireland and the Papal Letter of 640”, Speculum, 60. (...)
  • 6 Ó Cróinín, p. 516.

  • 7 See J.-M. Wallace-Hadrill, “Bede and Plummer”, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Peop (...)

4Two of the letters that Bede includes in the HE explicitly connect the Pelagian heresy with the Easter Controversy : pope-elect John’s letter to the Irish and Ceolfrith’s letter to King Nechtan4. This connection has been treated as mistaken, or “mysterious,” but as Dáibhni Ó Cróinín points out, the two are conceptually related5. According to Ó Cróinín, celebrating the incorrect Easter denies “the efficacy of the Resurrection as the true instrument of man’s redemption,” so that a disregard for proper Easter practices can be read as being like a Pelagian rejection of man’s need for grace6. Consequently, both issues are useful criteria for separating the goats from the sheep, and Bede uses these themes in tandem to do so. Via Pelagianism, he justifies English hegemony by connecting English possession of the island with orthodoxy and faith, and the British loss of the island with heresy and depravity7. Via the Easter Controversy, he tracks the unification of England and the relationship between a developing, increasingly unified, England and the universal Church.

  • 8 HE I.10, p. 38-9.
  • 9 “fidem Brittaniarum feda peste conmaculauerat”, HE I. 17.54-5, translation mine.

5The Pelagian heresy asserts that humans must will to sin. After baptism, which provides full freedom of action through the absolute remission of sin, humans must freely will to do good or evil. In the HE, Bede portrays this heresy as a pestilence reflective of the moral laxity of the Britons. Building on his presentation of Britain as Eden, Bede describes Pelagius as a snake, or piteous worm8, who “defiled the faith of the Britons with a deadly contagion” which then spread across the island9. St. Germanus eradicates this pestis, by performing several symbolically telling miracles : he restores sight to the blind daughter of a tribune, and heals the withered leg of the son of a chief. That Germanus heals the sick children of the Briton leaders signals the hereditary infirmity of the nation. Once infected by the sin introduced by the snake Pelagius into the Eden of pre- Fall Britain, they fail to remain strong across even one generation. With these images of poison and contagion, Bede develops a resonance between what he represents as the Briton propensity to heresy. Like original sin, this propensity is transmitted uncontrollably to their children. It must be cleansed and struggled against actively according to the teachings of the Church. But this is where the Britons fail, allowing Bede to heighten their unworthiness with the images of infection. These images, along with the Britons’ repeated failures of will and fortitude in the Latin demonstrates how they are wiðcorenan as the OE puts it. They are not only “reprobate” in their failures, but also literally “chosen against” in favor of the English.

  • 10 HE, V. 21, p. 553.

  • 11 HE, V. 22, p. 555.

  • 12 HE, V. 23, p. 561.

6Accordingly, as Bede describes the relative peace in England in the early eighth century at the end of Book V, he emphasizes the fragmentation and isolation of the Britons in contrast with the unity of the English, Irish and Picts. The acceptance of uniform Easter practices is key to the peace he describes among these peoples. Bede tells us that the Picts accepted the Roman Easter10, and that the Irish had begun “to celebrate the chief festival after the catholic and apostolic manner”11. Religious unity coincides with political peace among these people : the Picts and English live under treaty in “the catholic peace and truth of the Church universal,” while the Irish in Britain are, at least, no longer devising plots to increase their territories12.

  • 13 “Sicut econtra Brettones, qui nolebant Anglis eam quam habebant fidei Christianae notitiam pandere, (...)
  • 14 HE, V. 23, p. 561.

7In contrast with the English and the Irish, who are now thoroughly “instructed in the rules of the Catholic faith in every respect,” Bede tells us that the Britons are “still holding onto and stumbling in their paths. They show their heads without tonsure and celebrate the festivities of Christ without the company of the Church of Christ”13. Correspondingly, “they cannot obtain what they want” with respect to either God or man, and live partly as “their own masters, yet [...] partly under the rule of the English”14. Bede brings his themes together so that the Briton failures stand out in stark contrast to the English successes. By repeatedly stressing the fragmentation, political servitude, and unorthodoxy of the Britons in the three penultimate chapters of Book V, Bede frames his account of English history with clear examples of British failures and losses because of Pelagianism and divergent Easter practices. In contrast, Irish and Pictish conversions lead to peace and prosperity, and corroborate Bede’s narrative of English salvation history.

8Nor does Bede fail to remind his readers that the troubles of the Britons began with the Pelagian heresy. In fact, he explicitly connects the failure to observe proper Easter with the Pelagian heresy in Book V. 21 by including Ceolfrith’s letter to Nechtan. The letter explains :

  • 15 HE, V. 21 p. 545.


Whoever argues [...] that the full Paschal moon can fall before the equinox disagrees with the teaching of the holy Scriptures in the celebration of the greatest mysteries, and agrees with those who trust that they can be saved without the grace of Christ preventing them and who presume to teach that they could have attained to perfect righteousness even though the true Light had never conquered the darkness of the world by dying and rising again15.

9The images of light and salvation that Bede articulates here through Nechtan summarize the main aspects of Easter symbolism : the full day of light after the equinox represents Christ’s conquering death by enlightening the world with grace and the fulfillment of the Word.

10By comparing the Pelagian heresy with the failure to observe the equinox when calculating Easter, then, Bede links the failure to read the astronomical symbolism correctly with an overt denial of man’s need for grace. In doing so, he “raise[s] up [...] illuminate[s], [...] [and] give[s] order to” the human reality he is describing in the HE. He has created resonances on several levels : as he connects Pelagianism with improper Easter practices, he links the symbolism of Eden with the symbolism of astronomy, and the exegetical nature of history and computus in the early eighth century.

  • 16 HE V. 21, p. 534-5. See also, Jones, ODT.

11According to Bede’s reckoning, Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday of the third week of Nisan, which is the first month of the new year according to the Hebrew calendar. The passing of the vernal equinox determines the beginning of the first month, and the first perfect full moon after the equinox, the fifteenth day of the moon, determines the time of the Resurrection and begins the seven-day period of the third week16. For Bede, each element of this reckoning possesses allegorical, moral, and typological meanings that focus on the dispensation of grace and represent the unity of the Church throughout the world.

  • 17 F. Wallis, ed. and trans., Bede : the Reckoning of Time, Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 1999, p. xxiii- x (...)

12Neither this symbolism nor the resonances I mentioned above are unique to Bede. They go back at least to Augustine, and come to Bede through him, Isidore of Seville and an Irish text “well known” to Bede, the De computo dialogus. According to Faith Wallis, the Dialogus “sketch[es] a sort of Christian quadrivium of canon divinus, historia, numerus, and grammatica.” She also tells us that “by numerus, the Dialogus plainly means computus,” which the text treats as crucial. In fact, the Dialogus quotes Isidore’s assertion that without numbers and calculation, everything would “lapse into ruin,” and that we would lose a key way in which humans are distinguished from beasts17.


  • 18 Bede, The Reckoning of Time, p. 154.


13Computus as a criterion to determine humanity notwithstanding, its significance to medieval Christianity is lost in the detail to most post-medieval audiences. But when Bede expounds on the proper observances of Easter, moonlight, numbers and grace are symbolically bound up with exegesis – and therefore with any form of history operating on an exegetical model. Bede’s expositions of Easter reckoning were not digressions from ecclesiastical history, but integral parts of it. As the Picts and the Irish slowly but surely convert to keeping Easter in the proper week (as the story goes when Bede tells it), they join the “complete perfection of the catholic Church,” as signified by the number seven, which stands for the seven churches of Asia, which represent “the mysteries of the universal Church throughout the world”18. There’s more at stake here than just a day or seven : Bede deploys the details of and arguments about Easter reckoning throughout the HE so as to engage the symbolic meanings of Easter in the service of exegetical history.

  • 19 The texts and manuscripts of the Old English Bede are : T : Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 10 (Ker 351 (...)
  • 20 M. Budny, Insular, Anglo-Saxon and Early Anglo-Norman Manuscript Art at Corpus Christi College, Cam (...)
  • 21 Miller, p. lvi-lix ; Whitelock, p. 244.
  • 22 See Whitelock.
  • 23 S. Rowley, “The Fall of Britain and English Identity in the OEB”, 37th International Congress on Me (...)

14The OEB abridges the HE substantially, and, in doing so, revises the narrative frame of Pelagianism and the Paschal Controversy I have been outlining. Translated anonymously sometime between 870 and 900, the OEB exists in five manuscripts and one leaf of excerpts, with dates ranging from c. 900 – the mid eleventh century19. The text was, to quote Mildred Budny’s crisp formulation, “traditionally but mistakenly regarded as Alfredian”20. This tradition has been for the most part discounted since Thomas Miller determined that the dialect of the text is primarily Mercian21. The Anonymous shortens the HE by omitting or summarizing letters, as well as by cutting Roman history and Bede’s accounts of foreign saints22. The changes relevant here are that the Anonymous cuts the Pelagian heresy out entirely23, and edits the Easter Controversy substantially. Notably, although he shortens most references to the Paschal controversy throughout and eliminates others, he maintains every one of the repeated, direct comparisons in Book V in a very precise translation.

  • 24 Miller, p. lvii.

  • 25 Miller, p. lviii. See Wallis, p. lxxviii.

  • 26 Miller, p. lviii.

  • 27 HE III. 19-20, which include Bede’s account of Furseus survive in T and B but are omitted from C, C (...)

15The editorial principles behind the Anonymous’ treatment of the HE have been discussed by Miller and Whitelock. Miller suggests that the Anonymous “shows some familiarity with Scotch [Irish] localities and circumstances, and a certain tenderness for national susceptibilities”24. Later he notes that “the tender regard for things of [Ireland] is associated with the Paschal controversy”25. Miller asserts that the translator “suppresses” the harsh language Bede directed toward the Irish, especially “the perversity of Iona” (V. 15), and the Synod of Whitby (III. 25). “This suppression,” Miller argues, “is all the more remarkable when contrasted with the fidelity which reproduces Bede’s bitter language towards the Britons (V. 23 and elsewhere)”26 . However, Miller also concedes that the translator includes harsh criticism against the Irish for wandering during harvest time in Book IV. 4. Even more problematically, Miller goes on to assert that the Anonymous deleted the account of Furseus on account of “national jealousies,” a claim which is at odds with both the linguistic evidence of the section, and his own arguments about the Anonymous’ “tender regard” for the Irish27. Just as the Anonymous cuts some of the bitter language directed against the Irish, he also cuts some of the bitter language directed towards the Britons, especially in Book I. Miller’s explicit association of the Easter controversy with the Irish glosses over the fact that the bitter but faithful language of V. 23 is also about the Easter Controversy suggests that the editorial principle might have something to do with Easter rather than nationality.

  • 28 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 232.
  • 29 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 232-3.
  • 30 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 233.


16Whitelock, in turn, suggests that the translation follows two principles : “to omit letters, documents, epitaphs, and poems,” and to focus on things English28. But she also tells us that she was tempted to compare the Anonymous’ treatment of the Easter Controversy and Pelagianism : “if he had omitted all references to [the Easter Controversy], I should have suggested that he did so because it was an old and dead controversy, and I should have compared his lack of interest in Pelagianism”29. She goes on to admit, however, that he does not, so she ought not – although she already has. She then puts forth the idea that the translator geared his references to suppress any suggestion of historical unorthodoxy among the English30. But because Bede initiates English Christianity with Augustine’s orthodox Catholicism and continually emphasizes the often intuitive propriety of English observances in contrast to the Irish and British practices, Whitelock’s suggestion seems insufficient.

  • 31 D. Whitelock, “After Bede”, in Bede and His World : The Jarrow Lectures 1958-1978, Volume I, Varior (...)
  • 32 Wallis, p. xcvii.

  • 33 R. Liuzza, “Anglo-Saxon Prognostics in Context : A Survey and Handlist of Manuscripts”, ASE 30, 200 (...)

17I would argue, rather, that the translator edits the Easter Controversy the way he does not because it was an old issue, but because the state of computus had changed during the interval between 731 and the late ninth century, and because of changes in the narrative logic of the text brought on by his complete excision of the Pelagian heresy. At first, the latter claim may seem paradoxical : because the Anonymous cuts the Pelagian heresy, he increases the amount of related narrative work that the Easter Controversy has to do in the OEB. But because he also cuts major elements like the Synod of Whitby entirely, summarizes Ceolfrith’s letter to Nechtan, and edits almost all of the details about the equinox, the idea that the Easter Controversy somehow still bears more narrative weight seems contradictory at best. It is here, however, that the historical and intellectual contexts of the OEB come into play. It is thanks to Bede himself, along with Alcuin and others, that an active tradition of computus existed in later Anglo-Saxon England31. While Bede had to worry that his audience might not know what was right, his translator did not. Orthodoxy had been established. Computus shifted from theological and astronomical debates to instructions and tables. Computistical texts were also versified to aid memory, translated into Old English, and even set to music32. After all, the date of Easter organized the calendar for the year. As Roy Liuzza explains, “spiritual life was shaped by the cycles of the calendar – feasts and fasts, psalms and prayers, repentance and celebration were all performed according to calendrical calculations, and their observance was an outward sign of the universal unity of the church”33. Accordingly, there is manuscript evidence to demonstrate that, while the controversy had been solved, computus was neither old nor dull – and the gravitational pull of Easter symbolism stronger than ever in the service of the universal Church.

  • 34 P. Baker and M. Lapidge eds., “Introduction”, Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, EETS S.S. 15, Oxford, Oxfor (...)
  • 35 Gneuss, p. 156.

  • 36 Colgrave and Mynors date this manuscript to the eighth century : HE, p. xlii.

  • 37 Gneuss, p. 113.


18It is generally accepted that the centre of computistical studies moved from England to France in the ninth century. In agreement with Peter Baker and Michael Lapidge’s assertion that “there is little evidence for the study of scientific curriculum in Anglo-Saxon England before the late 10th century,” I should like to point out that there is little, evidence of anything in England between Bede and the late 10th century34. But the little we have is instructive : according to Gneuss there are forty-five computistical manuscripts extant from Anglo-Saxon England, at least five of which date from the ninth century35. While five manuscripts may not seem impressive, compare the fact that there is only one copy of the HE surviving from ninth century England (BL Cotton Tiberius C.II)36, and that no tenth-century copies survive from England – except perhaps Winchester 1, which may be 11th century37.

  • 38 W. Stevens, “Sidereal Time in Anglo-Saxon England”, in Cycles of Time and Scientific Learning in Me (...)

19Although many of the computistical materials that survive are fragmentary, Wesley Stevens reminds us that “the texts contained in them are multiple in number, diverse in content, and often very rich in scientific interest”38. Although most of the evidence Stevens discusses is later than the period in which the Anonymous was working, BL Cotton Caligula A.xv traveled from France to England in the late ninth century, where it continued to be used and added to until the early fifteenth century. Similarly, Bodleian Digby 63 dates from 844-99, or 867. The use of these manuscripts is relevant here, because it provides evidence of the changes in computus that came with the establishment of orthodoxy during the period between Bede and the Anonymous.

  • 39 According to Liuzza, Caligula A.xv is closely related to Cotton Tiberius A.iii, p. 215.
  • 40 W. Stevens, “Introduction to Hrabani De Computo Liber”, Cycles of Time, p. 165-96.


20The first part of the Cottonian manuscript, which is Carolingian and dates to the ninth century, was at St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury until at least 1497. At some point Anglo-Saxon materials and a bit of what is now BL Egerton 3314, containing computistical materials from the 11th and 12th centuries, were added to it39. When the manuscript came into the hands of Cotton is unclear, but both parts seem to have been together at that point. The older part of the manuscript contains a combination of texts ranging from Jerome’s De viris illustribus, selections from Isidore’s Etymologiae, Cassiodorus’ De computo, and various other computistical texts. Its composition characterizes earlier computistical collections in that it transmits all of the theological discussions of the controversy along with other texts that suggest their rich interpretative associations. The second part reflects the more practical style of computus first noted in the work of Hrabanus Maurus, and imitated by Helperic, Abbo and Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Maurus and his followers eliminated a large part of the theological discussions to focus on the tables, charts, and finding the date of Easter or the age of the moon40.

  • 41 W. Stevens, “Sidereal Time,” p. 135 ; Ó Cróinín, “Sticks and Stones”, Peritia, 2, 1983, p. 257-60 ; (...)

21The origins and provenance of Digby 63 are the subject of dispute. Stevens and Ó Cróinín follow Van de Vyver in suggesting that at least the first part of the manuscript may have been copied in France (Saint-Bertin)41. If so, the manuscript crossed to Northumbria very shortly thereafter, then to Winchester.

  • 42 D. Dumville, “Motes and Beams”, p. 253 ; D. Ó Cróinín, “Sticks and Stones”, p. 258.

22David Dumville argues on the basis of the script that a more “economical” thesis is that a scribe in Northumbria copied it from an exemplar from Saint-Bertin (or thereabouts), and that the manuscript then traveled to Winchester. However, both Dumville and Ó Cróinín agree that the manuscript has Celtic, Frankish, and Germanic associations, and that neither a French nor a Northumbrian origin can be deemed impossible. As Dumville observes, “there is no difficulty positing the required contacts between Northumbria and north-western Francia in this period [...]. Books and men were crossing the water”42. We know from a colophon on fol. 71r that the book was at Winchester by c. 1000.

  • 43 Budny, p. 705.


23Whether written in France, Northumbria, or both, the texts transmitted by Digby 63, along with those in Cotton Caligula A.xv, overlap tantalizingly with the contents of Jones’ famous “Bedan computus”, Bodleian 309. While they overlap, these manuscripts are not in the same order, and are not from the same exemplar. Another manuscript relevant here is Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 291, a later copy of Bede’s DTR and other texts. Budny notes that three of the mathematical examples in this manuscript derive from an exemplar written in 83143. What I would like to emphasize here is that what little manuscript evidence we have points toward the existence of more. It affirms interchange between France and England in the ninth and tenth centuries. It implies the existence of several additional exemplars, and of more active traveling and copying than is usually acknowledged during the period.

  • 44 Plummer quoted in Jones, ODT, p. 4 ; HE, p. 136 n.


24So, although Plummer found Bede’s treatment of Easter in the HE “tedious”, and Colgrave and Mynors warn modern readers that “the controversy over the correct date of Easter occupies what seems to [...] [be] an inordinate amount of space”, the Anglo-Saxon attitude was different44. With the work of Wallis, Lapidge, Baker, Stevens, Liuzza and Gneuss, it seems at least safe to say that an Anglo-Saxon audience would have been increasingly more familiar, via Latin and Old English, with the computus during the period that the OEB was being copied. In editing out some of Bede’s details, then, the Anonymous was not rescuing his readers from tedium, he was accommodating his text to the style of the day. Arguments were out ; practicalities were in.

  • 45 HE, IV. 2, p. 332-5.

25The OEB includes one clear statement of the rules in the account of Theodore’s synod at Hertford (672), and cuts the repetition. As Bede identifies Theodore’s arch-episcopacy as the high point of learning in the Northumbrian church45, the decrees of his synod provide the ideal authoritative context for stating the proper observances of Easter :

  • 46 OEB, IV. 5 p. 278.

“Is se æresta capitul : þæt we eall gemænelice healdan flone halgan dæg Eastrena fly Drihtenlecan dæge æfter flæm feowerteogð monan flæs ærestan monfles” [The first chapter is that we all in common observe the holy day of Easter on the Lord’s day after the fourteenth moon of the first month]46.

  • 47 In O, the decrees and Libellus are marked by large rubricated capitals, fols. 83-4 and 61 ff., resp (...)

26Notably, the manuscripts of the OEB also reflect the authority of Theodore’s synod visually. All of them except T are decorated with large rubricated or decorated capitals comparable to the capitals used to decorate Gregory the Great’s Libellus Responsionum47.

  • 48 “[The Britons] did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twenti (...)
  • 49 OEB, II. 2, p. 98.

27Other letters from popes, abbots or bishops mentioning controversy are treated exactly like all the letters in the OEB. Some, such as pope-elect John’s letter, are cut entirely. Others, like Ceolfrið’s letter, are summarized. Elsewhere, when Bede mentions the controversy, the translator usually mentions it, but if Bede includes details about the date of the equinox, he cuts them. For example, “Non enim paschae diem dominicum suo tempore sed a quarta decima usque ad uicesimam lunam obseruabant, quae conputatio LXXXIIII annorum circulo continetur ; sed et alia plurima unitati ecclesiasticae contraria faciebant”48, becomes “heo[...] ne woldon riht Eastran healdan in heora tid ; ge eac monig oðer þing þære ciriclican annisse heo ungelice (and) wiðerword hæfdon”[they did not want to hold Easter in the right time ; and they also held many other things (practices) different from and contrary to ecclesiastical unity]49.

28The OEB cuts the debates that Bede transcribes for the Synod of Whitby entirely, but retains Bede’s statements about Wilfrid’s establishing Roman Easter in III. 20 (this corresponds to III, 28 of the Latin) :

  • 50 OEB, p. 246-9.

Þa cwom eac swylce Willferð in Breotone, þa he wæs to biscope gehalgod, (and) eac swylce monige gemetgunge þara rihtgelefedra, gehælde þære Romaniscan cirican, Ongolcynnes ciricum mid his lare brohte. Þonon wæs geworden, þæt seo rihtgelyfde laár wæs dæghwamlice weaxende ; ond ealle Scottas, þa ðe betweohn Ongle eardodon (ond) flære rihtgelefdan láre wiðerwearde wæron ge in gehælde rihtra Eastrena ge in monegum oðrum wisum oðþe heora treowe sealdon, þæt he riht mid healdan woldon, oðþe ham to heora eðle hwurfen.” [Then came also Wilfrid into Britain when he was consecrated bishop and with his teaching brought many orthodox rules held by the Roman church to the English churches. From that time it happened that the orthodox teaching was growing daily ; and all the Irish, those who lived among the English and were opposed to the orthodox teaching either in the holding of the right Easter or in many other ways either gave their faith that they wanted to hold with right, or went home to their country.]50

29If the Anonymous were suppressing the controversy, omitting any reference to English unorthodoxy, or cutting with tender feelings for the Irish, he would have omitted this passage, but he keeps it. In fact, the Anonymous’ regular inclusion of information about the Paschal Controversy is marked by a choice made by the translator who restored a short section in Book III, a section which constitutes one of the textual cruces of the OEB.

  • 51 See above, note 27.


30As I noted above, Book III. 16-20, differs among the OEB manuscripts51. It is on the basis of this difference that Miller postulated two branches in the transmission of the text, the Y group (T, B), and the Z group (C, O, Ca). According to Whitelock :

  • 52 Whitelock, “Chapter-Headings”, p. 263-4.


the most striking difference between these two branches is that each has a completely different translation of the part extending from the last few sentences of bk. III. 16 [...] to the end of bk III. 20. In Y, this section is given complete, except for the second part of bk. III. 17 [...] but Z omits bk. III. 19 and 20, and has the rest of this section, including the part of bk. III. 17 omitted by Y, in a completely different translation52.

31Whitelock discusses the complicated possibilities, and posits that a gathering was lost at some point. She suggests that someone supplied the missing section, stopping because he saw that the chapters on Furseus (19-20) were not among the chapter-headings. I raise this issue here because the section of Book III. 17 (OEB III. 14) is Bede’s disclaimer about Aidan’s Easter practices. While Bede praises Aidan for his Christian life and beliefs, he reminds his readers that he does not agree with Aidan’s observance of Easter. Bede asserts that Aidan observed Easter in the true spirit, but on the wrong day – but not, as some think, on any day of the week. Part of the restored section reads :

  • 53 OEB III. 14, p. 206-208.


Ne heold he no þa Eastran, swa swa sume men wenað, mid Iudeum on feowertynenihtne mónan gehwylce dæge on wucan, ac a symle on Sunnandæge fram feowertyne-nihtum monan oð twentigesnihtne, for þam geleafan þære Dryhtenlican æriste, þa æriste he gelyfde on anum þara restedaga beon gewordene. [Nor did he hold Easter, as some men think, with the Jews on the fourteenth night of the moon whatever day of the week, but always on Sunday from the fourteenth night of the moon to the twentieth night, because of belief in the divine resurrection, which he believed to have happened on one of the restdays.]53

32Although the main translator cut this commentary, someone else restored it. Notably, the person who did so heeded the reshaping of the OEB by following the changes indicated in the chapter-headings, but did not seem to think the passage about Aidan’s Easter practices should be cut. And why should it ? Aidan is in the list of chapter-headings, and the Paschal Controversy appears repeatedly throughout the text.

  • 54 N. Thompson, “Anglo-Saxon Orthodoxy”, Old English in Its Manuscript Contexts, forthcoming, p. 7.

33As Nancy Thompson argues in her forthcoming essay “Anglo-Saxon Orthodoxy”, in the Middle Ages, orthodoxy was established through debate. Once a consensus was established, however, it was treated as eternal truth, “ubique, semper, et ab omnibus”54. The debate disappears not because it is being suppressed, per se, but because right has triumphed. Scholars need to consider the differences between medieval and modern mindsets here : a present day interest in the blow-by-blow action was not what interested medieval people trying to figure Easter. Once the question was settled, it was settled. All the manuscript evidence reflects this dynamic. Later we see what Jones calls “antiquarian” copies of earlier computi, but in the interim, we see tables and notes about calculation being used to the point of being worn out, as in the eleventh- century CCCC MS 422, the famous “Red Book of Darby”, where tables and notes have been included with a missal and other practical texts, and have been so used that they are worn to the point of being virtually unreadable.

34I believe that what we see in the OEB is the “triumph of right” mindset, and that is not the same as considering something old and dead, tedious, or overdone. Although the controversy no longer needed to be presented in the form Bede presented it in the Latin, computus organized everyday monastic life in Anglo- Saxon England. Similarly, Easter remains symbolically crucial to Christian truth and unity in the OEB, as manifested by the repeated appeals to the unity of Easter practices and bitter rejection of the Britons in Chapters 21, 22 and 23 of Book V. The harsh language of these three chapters, reproduced faithfully in OEB, stands out even more in the absence of Bede’s earlier condemnations, and allows the symbolism of a unified Easter to pick up all the slack for separating the sheep from the goats.

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Notes

1 P. Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan, Boston, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 355.


2 Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, ed. and trans. (except where otherwise noted), B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1969, rpt. 1992 ; T. Miller, ed. The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, New York, 1890-1898, EETS o.s. 95, 96, 110, 111. All translations from the OEB are my own.

3 See C. W. Jones, ed. and intro., Bedae Opera de temporibus (ODT), Cambridge, MA, Medieval Academy of America, 1943, p. 26 and “The ‘Lost’ Sirmond Manuscript of Bede’s Computus”, The English Historical Review, 52, London, 1937, p. 204-219 ; R. L. Poole, Studies in Chronology and History, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1934 ; C. Plummer, ed. and intro., Venerabilis Bedæ opera historica, Clarendon Press, 1896. See also J.-F. Kenney, Sources for the Early History of Ireland 1, New York, Octagon Books, 1929, rpt. Dublin, 1979 ; and K. Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1976 ; A. T. Thacker, “Bede and the Irish”, Beda Venerabilis, ed. L. A. J. R. Howen and A. A. MacDonald, Groningen, Egbert Forsten, 1996, p. 31-59 ; D. Ó Croinin, “The Irish Provenance of Bede's Computus”, Peritia, 2 1983, p. 229-47 ; W. Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1988.

4 HE V. 21 ; HE II. 19.


5 Ó Cróinín, “New Heresy for Old : Pelagianism in Ireland and the Papal Letter of 640”, Speculum, 60.3, 1985, p. 505-16. See also J. F. Kelley, “Pelagius, Pelagianism, and the Early Christian Irish”, Medievalia, 4, 1978, p. 96-124.


6 Ó Cróinín, p. 516.


7 See J.-M. Wallace-Hadrill, “Bede and Plummer”, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People : A Historical Commentary, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988, rpt. 1993, p. xx ; R. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain, NY, Columbia UP, 1966 ; C. Kendall, “Imitation and the Venerable Bede’s HE”, in Saints, Scholars, and Heroes, ed. M. H. King and W. M. Stevens, Collegeville, MN, Hill Monastic Library, 1979, p. 145-59 ; and N. Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England, New Haven, Yale UP, 1989.

8 HE I.10, p. 38-9.

9 “fidem Brittaniarum feda peste conmaculauerat”, HE I. 17.54-5, translation mine.

10 HE, V. 21, p. 553.


11 HE, V. 22, p. 555.


12 HE, V. 23, p. 561.

13 “Sicut econtra Brettones, qui nolebant Anglis eam quam habebant fidei Christianae notitiam pandere, credentibus iam populis Anglorum et in regula fidei catholicae per omnia instructis, ipsi adhuc inueterati et claudicantes a semitis suis et capita sine corona praetendunt et sollemnia Christi sine ecclesiae Christi societate uenerantur”, HE, V. 22, p. 554, translation mine.

14 HE, V. 23, p. 561.

15 HE, V. 21 p. 545.


16 HE V. 21, p. 534-5. See also, Jones, ODT.

17 F. Wallis, ed. and trans., Bede : the Reckoning of Time, Liverpool, Liverpool UP, 1999, p. xxiii- xxiv.

18 Bede, The Reckoning of Time, p. 154.


19 The texts and manuscripts of the Old English Bede are : T : Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 10 (Ker 351, Gneuss 668), s. x in or x1 ; C : British Library , Cotton MS Otho B.xi (Ker 180, Gneuss 357 F), s. x med. ; O : Corpus Christi College, Oxford, MS 279B, part ii (Ker 354, Gneuss 673), s. xi in. ; Ca : Cambridge University Library, MS Kk.3.18 (Ker 23, Gneuss 22), s. xi2 ; B : Corpus Christi College, Cambridge MS 41 (Ker 32, Gneuss, 39), s. xi1. Zu : British Library, Cotton MS Domitian A.ix (Gneuss 330e), s. ix ex., after 883, contains three brief extracts (dates are paleographical). See N. Ker, A Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo- Saxon, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1957 ; H. Gneuss, A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Tempe, AZ, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001 ; D. Whitelock, “The Old English Bede”, Proceedings of the British Academy, 48, 1962, p. 57-90 ; rpt. D. Whitelock, From Bede to Alfred, London, Variorum, 1980, p. 227-260, and S. Rowley, “Nostalgia and the Rhetoric of Lack”, forthcoming in Old English in Its Manuscript Contexts.

20 M. Budny, Insular, Anglo-Saxon and Early Anglo-Norman Manuscript Art at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge : An Illustrated Catalogue, Kalamazoo, MI, Medieval Institute, p. 504.

21 Miller, p. lvi-lix ; Whitelock, p. 244.

22 See Whitelock.

23 S. Rowley, “The Fall of Britain and English Identity in the OEB”, 37th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, 2002. The only place the Pelagian heresy is mentioned in the OEB is in the chapter headings to Book I. Whitelock has shown the chapter headings, which survive in only two manuscripts, were translated by someone other than the main translator. They are brought into accord with the OEB after I. 23 : see D. Whitelock, “The List of Chapter-Headings in the OEB”, Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope, ed. R. B. Burlin and E. B. Irving, J.-R., Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1974, p. 263-284.

24 Miller, p. lvii.


25 Miller, p. lviii. See Wallis, p. lxxviii.


26 Miller, p. lviii.


27 HE III. 19-20, which include Bede’s account of Furseus survive in T and B but are omitted from C, Ca, and O. Book III.16-18 survives in these three manuscripts in a different translation, including a bit about Aidan which is omitted from T and B. Miller suggested the section was originally missing from all manuscripts, but this idea has been discredited. See S. Potter, On the Relation of the Old English Bede To Werferth’s Gregory and to Alfred’s Translations, Mémoires de la Société royale des sciences de Bohème, Classes des lettres, 1930, p. 30-3 ; J.- J. Campbell, “The OE Bede : Book III, Chapters 16-20”, Modern Language Notes, LXVII, 1952, p. 38-6 ; and Whitelock, “Chapter-Headings”.

28 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 232.

29 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 232-3.

30 Whitelock, “OEB”, p. 233.


31 D. Whitelock, “After Bede”, in Bede and His World : The Jarrow Lectures 1958-1978, Volume I, Variorum, 1994, p. 35-50.


32 Wallis, p. xcvii.


33 R. Liuzza, “Anglo-Saxon Prognostics in Context : A Survey and Handlist of Manuscripts”, ASE 30, 2002, p. 215.


34 P. Baker and M. Lapidge eds., “Introduction”, Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, EETS S.S. 15, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995, p. lxxxv.

35 Gneuss, p. 156.


36 Colgrave and Mynors date this manuscript to the eighth century : HE, p. xlii.


37 Gneuss, p. 113.


38 W. Stevens, “Sidereal Time in Anglo-Saxon England”, in Cycles of Time and Scientific Learning in Medieval Europe, Variorum, 1995, p. 134.


39 According to Liuzza, Caligula A.xv is closely related to Cotton Tiberius A.iii, p. 215.

40 W. Stevens, “Introduction to Hrabani De Computo Liber”, Cycles of Time, p. 165-96.


41 W. Stevens, “Sidereal Time,” p. 135 ; Ó Cróinín, “Sticks and Stones”, Peritia, 2, 1983, p. 257-60 ; A. Van de Vyver, “Huchbald de Saint-Armand, écolâtre, et l’invention du nombre d’or,” in Mélanges Auguste Pelzer, Louvain, 1947, p. 61-79 : p. 68, cited by D. Dumville, “Motes and Beams”, Peritia, 2, 1983, p. 254.

42 D. Dumville, “Motes and Beams”, p. 253 ; D. Ó Cróinín, “Sticks and Stones”, p. 258.

43 Budny, p. 705.


44 Plummer quoted in Jones, ODT, p. 4 ; HE, p. 136 n.


45 HE, IV. 2, p. 332-5.

46 OEB, IV. 5 p. 278.

47 In O, the decrees and Libellus are marked by large rubricated capitals, fols. 83-4 and 61 ff., respectively. In B, the capitals for the Libellus, p. 199 ff., are missing until the sixth response, which has a large decorated capital. Subsequent capitals in this section are large but plain. The decrees of Theodore’s synod are drawn in and decorated, p. 251-3. Ca rubricates the Libellus, and uses small capitals to begin each response and question. It also uses small capitals to mark Theodore’s decrees, fol. 59. These sections of C do not survive, but Nowell’s transcript (BL add. 43703) has large capitals, fol. 119. T’s Libellus is rubricated and has decorated initials, fol. 58r ff., while the decrees of Theodore have small capitals and unusually heavy punctuation, fol. 77r ff.

48 “[The Britons] did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth day of the lunar month ; this reckoning is based on an 84-year cycle. They did other things too, which were not in keeping with the unity of he Church”, HE, II. 2, p. 134-7.

49 OEB, II. 2, p. 98.

50 OEB, p. 246-9.

51 See above, note 27.


52 Whitelock, “Chapter-Headings”, p. 263-4.


53 OEB III. 14, p. 206-208.


54 N. Thompson, “Anglo-Saxon Orthodoxy”, Old English in Its Manuscript Contexts, forthcoming, p. 7.

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Sharon M. Rowley, « The Paschal Controversy in the Old English Bede », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005, p. 297-308.

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Sharon M. Rowley, « The Paschal Controversy in the Old English Bede », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005 [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 octobre 2012, consulté le 18 août 2017. URL : http://hleno.revues.org/359

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Sharon M. Rowley

Christofpher Newport University

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