Bede, Misdirection, and the Synod of Whitby

The Synod of Whitby in 664 witnessed one of the most famous cultural clashes of the early Middle Ages. Bede gives one long and detailed account of what happened. In the middle of the seventh century, the Northumbrian kingdoms were influenced strongly by both ‘Irish’ and ‘Roman’ practices, with their respective cultural epicentres in Iona and Canterbury. Each side (if ‘side’ is appropriate) used different Easter tables, which not only split Christian communities regarding the date of the central festival, but also led to accusations of schismatic and heretical behaviour. Few felt this more strongly than King Oswiu and his wife Eanflaed, as Oswiu had been educated in Iona, and Eanflaed in Kent. Marital disharmony followed. Then, to make matters worse, Aidan of Lindisfarne died after years of promoting consensus, and Oswiu’s son Alchfrid rejected the Ionan Easter in favour of the one that the infamous St Wilfrid had learned while in Rome and Lyon. Oswiu then called the Synod of Whitby to head-off any major divisions within his kingdom and, after a dispute led by Colman of Lindisfarne (for Iona) and Agilbert and Wilfrid (for the Roman side), Oswiu declared in favour of the authority of Rome. Colman, dejected, took his followers and left for Ireland. Rome – or at least St Peter – had won.

How far should one trust Bede’s story? It of course comes with the usual warnings: Bede was not a neutral reporter of events nor was he writing close to the time. There have been suggestions that the whole affair is not really about Easter at all, but rather about the relationship between Oswiu and Alchfrid. (Note: the original idea behind this line of argument was that Irish and Roman Easter tables didn’t often disagree, but for a long time this was an assumption because we didn’t have an Irish Easter until Daibhi O Croinin found one in the 1980s, and then it became apparent that they varied a lot). It is has even been suggested that entire story – which includes plenty of technical details – is an elaborate attempt to downplay Wilfrid’s victory.

But we need to ask this: which Easter table won?

From Bede’s description, it sounds clearly as if Agilbert and Wilfrid struck a victory for the ‘Greek’ Easter table translated by Dionysius Exiguus in 525. Maybe it was: we know that Wilfrid was taught many things while in Rome in the mid-650s, by which point the papacy seems to have had adopted the table for about a decade. But we also know that Wilfrid spent time in Merovingian Lyon, where the church seems likely still to have used the ‘Roman’ table of Victorius of Aquitaine, which had been enshrined in Gallic canon law since 541. Certainly other centres in the Frankish kingdoms were using Victorius and not Dionysius well into the eighth century. One might reasonably wonder whether Agilbert, as someone from Gaul, used Victorian tables himself, especially if he was already bishop of Paris by the time of the Synod of Whitby.

The Irish angle complicates things further. Although the reckoning used in Iona is often described as ‘Irish’, it was an old Gallic reckoning that had been replaced in southern Ireland in the late 620s by the then-papally-sponsored table of Victorius. (Not everyone would have been happy about this – St Columbanus once wrote to Gregory the Great criticising Victorius’s work). The work of Dionysius also seemed to gain popularity in the 650s, with both Victorius and Dionysius enjoying support in the 680s (ie after 664) to judge by extant treatises.

Victorius’s work also seems to have had a long life in the Pictish kingdom and Northumbria. When Ceolfrith wrote to King Nechtan of the Picts around 710 he was critical of both the use of the Ionan Easter table and the table of Victorius, suggesting that both were in use. Bede also had a dig at the ‘lovers of Victorius’ in his treatise On the Reckoning of Time, written in 725. More curiously still, as Masako Ohashi once pointed out, Stephanus of Ripon’s account of the Synod of Whitby describes the ‘Roman Easter’ in such a way that it did actively included Victorius in the winning side. The implication of the evidence seems to be that, while the Ionan reckoning was condemned in 664, Victorius’s table was still very much ‘in play’.

A brief survey of the context of Easter tables in the time of the Synod of Whitby suggests that Bede gives a misleading picture of the paschal controversy of 664. Despite his clear suggestion that his preferred Dionysiac table had won the day, the Victorian table remained popular in Ireland, in the Frankish kingdoms, and even in Northumbria, for decades to come. The story as shared with Stephanus, that Oswiu decided to support the authority of St Peter over St Columba of Iona, may still be true, because Victorius’s work was part of a Roman cultural package as far as many communities were concerned. It is just that, as so often happens, Bede’s representation of the seventh century tells us more about Bede than it does about the seventh century.