The Year 1000

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An excerpt from "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World" by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

Jump to: 1 (Daily Life) | 2 (The Calendar) | 3 (The Saints) | 4 (Saints' Relics)

The calendar page on which the wheeled plough was sketched represented an equally developed and practical technology — the measuring of time. Today we take calendars for granted. Garages hand them out for nothing at Christmas. But the challenge of how to formulate a working system of dates had consumed the energies of the brightest minds for centuries, with every culture and religion devising its own system of reckoning, and in Christendom confusion centred particularly on the timing of the Church's most important festival — Easter.

The early Christians debated it furiously. Christ was crucified as the Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, so Easter's timing depended on the Jewish lunar calendar based on the 29H-day cycle from new moon to new moon. But planning a full year's sequence of church festivals meant that the lunar timetable had to be fitted into the 365G-day rotation of the seasons, based on the annual cycle of the sun — and whichever way you try to squeeze it, 29H into 365G does not go.

"Such was the confusion in those days," related the Venerable Bede, the great chronicler of the times, describing the calendar arguments in mid-seventh-century England, "that Easter was sometimes kept twice in one year, so that when the King had ended Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday."7

The king was Oswy of Northumbria, the northernmost of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Oswy followed the calendar of the Irish-influenced monks of Lindisfarne, who first converted Northumbria, while his bride, Eanfled of Kent, stayed true to the Roman calculations with which she had been brought up in Canterbury. A learned synod was convened at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast to resolve this and several other conflicts of church practice, and it provoked deep ill-humour.

"Easter is observed by men of different nations and languages at one and the same time in Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, and throughout the world," argued Canterbury's representative. "The only people who stupidly contend against the whole world are those Irishmen and their partners in obstinacy, the Picts and Britons, who inhabit only a portion of these, the two uppermost islands of the ocean."8

"It is strange that you call us stupid," retorted the Irish delegation, citing the Apostle John as their authority. They set out their own system of juggling the moon and sun cycles with all the disdainful superiority of the senior faith, since the Irish had been Christians long before the English. St. Patrick had established his church in Ireland a century and a half before Pope Gregory's envoy Augustine arrived in Canterbury to found the English church, and it had been missionaries from Ireland, not Kent, who had Christianised Scotland and the north of England.

But when the seaside convention concluded its arguments, it was Canterbury that won the day — a victory, in terms of church politics, for the centralising authority of the Pope in Rome, and a decision, in terms of the calendar, that opened the way for Bede, the monk from Tyneside who was both historical chronicler and master mathematician, to work out a system of dating that would settle the argument once and for all.

On the eve of the year 2000, the English have staked a proprietorial interest in the turning of the second millennium, thanks to Greenwich with its mean time and the zero line of longitude. Thanks to the Venerable Bede, they could claim a similar interest in the first. Not that we should look for Domes or any special millennarial monuments in 1000 a.d. It was an anniversary which, by definition, could only mean something to people who dated their history from the birth of Jesus, and even inside Christendom there were varying interpretations of that. But if any country worked to dates we would recognise today, it was England, and that was because of the Venerable Bede, who popularised the use of the Anno Domini system through his famous work De Temporum Ratione, "On the Reckoning of Time."

Composed in 725 a.d., De Temporum Ratione was based on the Easter calculations of the sixth-century Scythian scholar Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little). In the course of compiling Easter tables for Pope John I, Dionysius had remarked, almost incidentally, how inappropriate it was for the Church to rely upon the pagan calendar of the Romans,9 particularly since its years dated back to the great persecutor of the Christians, the Emperor Diocletian. Would it not make more sense, Dionysius had suggested, to date the Christian era from the birth of our Saviour Himself, which could be designated as the year 1?

The scholar made two major errors at this point. The concept of zero had not yet entered Western mathematical thinking, which operated in Roman numerals, so Dionysius's Christian era missed out the twelve months of year 0 needed to get to the start of year 1. Still more seriously, the year that Dionysius selected for Christ's birth actually fell four years after the death of the notorious King Herod, who had been so memorably enraged by the birth in Bethlehem of a rival king of the Jews. The Gospel description of Christ's birth as occurring in the reign of Herod means that Jesus was probably born in 4 b.c., or even earlier (which also means that the second millennium of his birth should actually have been celebrated in 1996 or 1997, and not in the year 2000).

Bede detected this error in Dionysius's proposed year 1 a.d., but evidently felt that the few years of inaccuracy mattered less than the dazzling concept of dating history according to the "Years of Grace," the era of Christ's reign on earth. When Bede composed his great Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731, he used the Anno Domini dating system, and when, at the end of the next century, the scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle started their work of recording England's history year by year, it was Bede's system that they followed.

Confusion remained as to what day was the true beginning of the Christian year. Bede took it for granted that the year should begin with the birth of Christ himself, on December 25. But following that logic back through nine months of pregnancy, one arrived at March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day, the festival celebrated by the church in commemoration of Mary's visitation from the Angel Gabriel, and the news that she was bearing the Christ child. For a Christian this represented the earliest manifestation of the Divine Presence on earth, and Lady Day was accordingly celebrated for centuries as the true beginning of the year. As late as the 1660s, Samuel Pepys reflected this enduring confusion in his Diaries, starting his reckoning of the years on Lady Day (March 25), but also noting the Roman consular date of January 1 as "New Year's Day."

All this complicated grappling with the imponderables of sun, moon, stars, and the fallible accretions of human history is graphically displayed on the pages of the Julius Work Calendar, which takes the twelve Roman months with which we today are familiar, and overlays them with a filigree of Christian elaboration. The mysterious-looking columns of letters and numerals that run down the left-hand side of every page are part of the mechanism for calculating Easter and other festivals. The so-called Golden numbers indicate the occurrence of the new moon, while the Dominical letters show where Sundays will fall in any given year — since this calendar does not relate to one particular set of twelve months. It is a perpetual calendar, and its complicated codings are like the innards of a computer, baffling to the layman, but the route to knowledge for those who understand the code.

One inch in from the left of the page runs a solid column of Roman numerals setting out the day of the month according to the Romans' own daunting system of counting things backwards from KL, the Kalends, or first day of the month, down through the Nones to the Ides, the turning point of the month, which fell on the thirteenth or fifteenth. But it is the writing to the right of the date that really matters, for here was listed the main purpose of the calendar, the names of the saints and religious festivals to be observed.

Good and evil were living companions to people in the year 1000. When someone was said to have the Devil in him, people took it quite literally. Jack Frost was not "weather" to people who had to survive without central heating through a damp medieval winter. He was mischief personified — a kinsman of the Devil, nipping noses and fingers, making the ground too hard to work. He was one of a legion of little people, elves and trolls and fairies, who inhabited the fears and imaginings of early medieval folk.

But the Church had its own army of spirits, the saints who had lived their lives — and often lost their lives — for the sake of Jesus' teaching, and the principal purpose of the Julius Work Calendar was to provide a daily diary of encounters with those holy folk whose lives were an example and promise of how things could get better. This was the spiritual function of the calendar, and at a more basic level it provided a guide through a wonderfully varied collection of human characters whose lives, adventures, and personalities provided entertainment, as close as any medieval document could get to gossip.

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Copyright © 1998 by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium: An Englishman's World" at