ASC Rewind: Writings on the Calendar by the Venerable Bede

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with new eyes.

This article was originally published on January 2001 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

Today we’re taking another look at MS Hunter 85 (T.4.2) with Easter in mind. This vellum manuscript is a compilation of several works mainly concerning the use of the Calendar, by the Venerable Bede, Abbo of Fleury, Hyginus, and others and was written in Durham by a number of scribes during the second quarter of the twelfth century.

Born in about 673, Bede was placed under the care of Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Wearmouth, at the age of seven. A few years later he was sent to the foundation of Jarrow under Abbot Ceolfrid and there he remained, learning, teaching and writing for the rest of his life. He is famous for writing the History of the English Church and People which earned him the title the ‘Father of English History’. However, as well as historical and biographical works, he also wrote scriptural commentaries and treatises on grammar and science. The major work of this manuscript is Bede’s treatise of 725, On the Reckoning of Time. Amplifying his earlier work On Times, the book was intended to provide Bede’s students with a theoretical outline to increase their understanding of computation and the calendar.

Roman Calendar decorated with ‘clove-curl’ ornaments in red, green and blue, f2v-f3r.

The first pages of our manuscript consist of a Roman Calendar decorated with ‘clove-curl’ ornaments in red, green and blue. This is followed by Bede’s 19 Year Cycles, covering the years 1-1253 A.D. Bede’s greatest scientific achievement was the creation of the western calendar, based upon the tables which had originally been conceived by the sixth century Egyptian Dionysius Exiguus. These tables were designed to be used in calculating the date of Easter according to a 19 year lunar cycle, after which cycle the same Easter dates would occur. It was this way of calculating Easter which was chosen at the synod of Whitby in 664, rejecting the rival method of the Iona Church and thereby bringing the Northumbrian Church into line with the rest of Europe.

Bede also adopted and authorised the Dionysian method and added ‘Anno Domini’ dates to it; thus, not only did he define for the future the Church’s method for the calculation of Easter, but he also played a major part in establishing ‘AD’ as the normal system for dating in Europe. The tables are accompanied here by a brief chronicle in the margin.

folio 24r: 19 year cycles, including chronicle entry for 1001

folio 35r: opening of On the reckoning of time, showing

folio 35r: opening of On the reckoning of time

The text is introduced by an initial ‘d’ in red, green, blue, yellow and purple. It contains a seated representation of the author, identified by the inscription ‘S. BEDA. P[resbiter]’ . The opening words of the preface De natura rerum et ratione temporum… appear on the scroll he holds. The codex form had replaced the scroll some centuries before Bede was writing, but here the scroll has been used to confer an authoritative sense of antiquity and to provide a larger space for the words than an open book would have done.

Starting with the smallest units of time, the text describes days, weeks and months before proceeding on to lunar movements and the seasons; solar movements and years are then treated. The different lengths of days and nights and the variation of shadow lengths cast on the earth’s surface at different times during the year are explained. Bede simply states that the reason for the unequal length of days is due to the globular shape of the earth, thus explaining the three-dimensional nature of the earth and refuting the notion that early medieval people believed that the earth was flat.

The work moves on to the larger units of time, the Six Ages of the world. It ends with  a discussion of eternity (the greatest unit of time) which man meets in the Eighth Age. The work thus finishes in sublime devotion; of course, for Bede, computation was a necessary elementary discipline leading to the  greater understanding of the scriptures.

folio 53r: diagram from On the reckoning of time

folio 36v: detail of initial ‘D’ from On the reckoning of time

Throughout the manuscript a few elaborate initials with foliate interlace and penwork designs supplement the regular appearance of secondary initials in green, red and purple. Beyond the purely decorative, and as is to be expected in a work which consists mainly of complex scientific treatises, the text is illustrated with several explanatory diagrams.

Bede’s contributions to history and science are rightly recognised to this day, and during Easter it feels appropriate to revisit one of our manuscripts outlining one of his greatest contributions.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. this is an amazing masterwork

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