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The Celtic and Roman Traditions: Conflict and Consensus in the Early Medieval Church

Caitlin Corning
Published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006

In recent years, things “Celtic” have undergone a renaissance in popularity. This rising tide of interest has floated the concept of the Celtic Church back into public view. With this resurgence comes the inevitable question: What were the issues that led to the Celtic Church’s eventual demise as it was absorbed into the Church universal? Caitlin Corning, Professor of History at George Fox University, turns her considerable analytical skills toward answering this question in Celtic and Roman Traditions: Conflict and Consensus in the Early Medieval Church.

As a counterpoint to the recent popularity of the notion of a Celtic Church, often fraught with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and anachronisms, some scholars have sought to minimize its distinctiveness or even deny its existence altogether. The late doyenne of Celtic Church studies, Kathleen Hughes was moved to write an article in 1981 titled, “The Celtic Church: Is This a Valid Concept?” while recent work by Clare Stancliffe and Alan Thacker emphasizes the points of continuity between Celtic and Roman practices. Yet the Celtic Church as a separate entity remains more than just a cultural peculiarity or a minor aberration within the Corpus Christianorum. Between the extremes of minimizing the practical differences between the Celtic and Roman traditions to the point of invisibility and magnifying the disputes to the level of open schism, Corning offers a salubrious and reasoned view focusing on perhaps the key issue at stake: the correct dating of Easter. While she touches, and effectively so, on the several other matters that divided the two fellowships: monastic tonsure styles, penance and penitentials, and the question of exile for Christ, or peregrinatio pro Christo (4-18), the Easter question is the principal thread she examines out of the whole cloth of disagreement. In so doing, she illustrates clearly the ways in which ecclesiastical differences were resolved in the developing Church of the Early Middle Ages.

For the first time reader of Bede, for example, the bitter controversy over the correct dating of Easter acts as a barrier to understanding the early medieval Church. It seems a calendrical equivalent to the pointless debates as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But Corning does a masterful job of explaining the vast significance of the controversy. It took much more than mere dates to exercise the ire of several generations of Western Christians. The task of making the foreboding Easter Controversy, with its seemingly endless variations of computation, accessible to the uninitiated is a daunting one indeed. That she succeeds is quite a noteworthy feat. She not only makes the controversy intelligible to a modern audience, but manages to convey the compelling urgency of that day to a contemporary reader unwilling to grant that status to a “settled” issue.

She points out that since the Celtic and Roman dating systems could vary by as much as a month, the net effect was to disrupt up to eighteen weeks of liturgical observance (93). The liturgical calendar was the very pulse of worship and though we have largely divested our calendar of religious significance, the sub-Roman West had not. Where we see chronology, they saw the proper image of God. In this arena, the Celtic-84, the Roman Victorian, and later the Dionysian computations jostled for acceptance. But Corning is right to ascribe even deeper theological significance to the dispute. The various dating systems placed Easter in danger of either being linked to Jewish practice, as with the Quarto decimans denounced as early as Nicaea in 325, or having Easter fall during the dark of the moon—a symbolic denial of Christ as the light of the world (11, 80). A further problem was the appearance of division within the Church, which would sound an uncertain, and ineffective, note in the ears of would-be barbarian converts.

Corning also does well to explain the mechanics of the eventual Dionysian Easter computation victory. It was not enough to have councils declare in favor of this Roman practice, but the actual implementation must be instituted in a year in which the Celtic and Roman calendars were in agreement (91). This is an important and pragmatic way to ease the change in without alienating the laity unnecessarily.

The Easter computation issue concealed a number of subtexts, and Corning, although constrained by her stated goal, touches on many of them. The issue of Episcopal control over the emerging and wealthy monastic houses, royal struggles for power, and the consolidation of papal authority all receive treatment. One might have hoped for a bit more of an acknowledgement of the Celtic practice of the setting up of “monastic banks” (pace Paul the Deacon’s account of Columbanus’ houses) wherein the laity of the region could deposit their wealth, as an irritant to the local bishop and his domus ecclesiae expenses.

The emphasis on the Easter dating differences between the Roman and Celtic traditions has the effect of dictating the terminus of Corning’s study. By 716, much of the controversy was over concerning Easter, yet the two traditions continued to compete over the issue of life pilgrimage, or peregrinatio pro Christo. One would like to see her extend her examination past the Easter controversy to Boniface’s Anglo-Saxon-induced backlash to things Irish on the eighth-century continent. But this is a quibble, and quite out of place when evaluating a work of this scope and worth.

Corning’s book contains a myriad of useful attributions, a sure sign of a master early medievalist. For example, she notes that Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid, a stridently pro-Roman and anti-Celtic piece, inserts the Merovingian Queen Brunhild as a “second Jezebel” in killing Wilfrid’s patron even though she had died decades before that incident (137). This is a common misuse of history in that age, as Jonas of Bobbio also inserted the long-dead King Sigibert into his life of Columbanus in order to validate his subject’s positive reception. These asides instruct doubly not only on the Easter issue, but the overall tenor of the Early Middle Ages.

The work is adorned with instructive tables illustrating the intricacies of Easter computation as well as chronological and genealogical charts that contextualize the issues at hand. The bibliography reflects the best of recent scholarship on the Celtic traditions and is almost worth the rather hefty price of the book by itself. The dust jacket rightly promotes the work as “aimed at upper-division undergraduates, seminary and masters students” since some previous knowledge of the historical situation enhances the book’s effectiveness. But for those who seek an understanding of this often-overlooked yet pivotal period, Caitlin Corning has done a superlative job in making understandable one of the most bewildering, and apparently divisive, theological issues of the Middle Ages.

Cite this article
Burnam W. Reynolds, “The Celtic and Roman Traditions: Conflict and Consensus in the Early Medieval Church”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:4 , 503-505

Burnam W. Reynolds

Asbury University
Burnam W. Reynolds, History, Asbury College