Wednesday 18 March 2015

The Days of Creation

God creating the world (BL Royal 1 E VII, f. 1v, 11th century, Canterbury)
On þissum monðe gesceop God ælmihtig ealle gesceafta, gesewenlice & ungesewenlice. He cwæð, ‘gewurðe leoht’, & hyt gewearð. Se dæg wæs on .xv. kalendis Aprilis.

In this month almighty God created the whole of creation, visible and invisible. He said, 'Let there be light', and it was done. That day was on 18 March.
According to some medieval calculations, today, 18 March, was the date of the first day of creation - the beginning of the world. It's sometimes even marked as such on medieval calendars (for example, this twelfth-century English calendar). It might seem like an arbitrary date, but it's very far from that; for the complex theological and scientific arguments which lay behind this dating, and its long and varied history, I refer you to this book. Like many such medieval calculations, the significance of the date is less to do with a belief that it was literally true than with a sense of what would be the most fitting and appropriate date for the first day of creation, the date most in harmony with the medieval Christian understanding of time. So why 18 March? To summarise very briefly: it was worked out backwards from the most important such calculation in the early church's calendar, the dating of Easter. From a combination of factors, including the information given about Christ's death in the Gospels, the date of the equinox, the beginning of spring and, most importantly, the essential link between the death of Christ and the Jewish Passover, the historical date of Good Friday was worked out to be 25 March. (The day on which it should be commemorated by the church was a separate, and even more complex issue...) Since 25 March was therefore the date of - as they saw it - the most significant event in history, the central turning-point around which all time and space revolved, it was seen to be fitting to link to this date key events in salvation history connected to, or prefiguring, the death and resurrection of Christ: the Annunciation, the sacrifice of Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea. It was thought fitting too for 25 March to be the eighth day of creation - and that means, if you count backwards, that 18 March is the first.

The exactness of this date might raise a smile, and it's a way of thinking about time which is foreign to a modern secular mindset; the day derives its meaning not only from a historical event but also from its place in the interlocking cycles of lunar, solar, seasonal and even zodiacal calendars, which were all understood to be imbued with purpose by the divine Creator who was their source. The complexity of the calculations (much more intricate than I can attempt to describe here) is so impenetrable that you can understand why today people prefer to believe that the date of Easter was just 'stolen' from some equinox-loving pagans - a much more immediately accessible explanation, if unfortunately wrong! But there is something beautiful about the desire to identify these dates with precision and care. It's of a piece with the way the creation of the world is often depicted in medieval art, as in the image above from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript: God is shown with scientific instruments, tools and scales which are images of balance and precision. When the first divine act of creation was imagined as careful, scientific workmanship, it would have seemed only right to be as exact as possible in understanding the world's origins.

Creation (BL Cotton Tiberius C VI, f. 7v; 11th century, Winchester)

There were of course various alternative ways of interpreting all this data, and the 18-25 March theory I described above was far from universal. It was, however, popular in early medieval England, mostly due to the influence of Bede. The quotation at the top of this post comes from an Old English text known as Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, which was written at Ramsey Abbey, in what's now Cambridgeshire, in 1011. Byrhtferth, a monk of Ramsey, was a learned historian and scientist, and his Enchiridion is a guide to the scientific thinking of his day, written in English for the benefit of those less skilled in Latin than Byrhtferth himself. Since on this blog I often post about medieval historical narratives, I thought it might be interesting - on this anniversary of the first day of the world - to look at the story in Old English of the very first days of history, as described by Byrhtferth and an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Book of Genesis.

The translation, and all the illustrations below, come from an amazing manuscript of the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton MS. Claudius B IV), an English translation of the first six books of the Old Testament. It survives in several manuscripts but this one, the most complete, was produced in the eleventh century at St Augustine's, Canterbury, and is richly illustrated with hundreds of detailed and spirited pictures. You can zoom in and explore the full manuscript to your heart's content on the British Library's site here; the illustrations I've used of the days of creation are from ff. 2v-4v. Quotations are from Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, ed. Peter S. Baker and Michael Lapidge (Oxford, 1995).

The first day, we've already heard about: on 18 March he cwæð, ‘gewurðe leoht’, & hyt gewearð. For Byrhtferth this date might have had a little extra personal resonance: he tells us elsewhere in his work that his own monastery of Ramsey was founded (that is, the first stone was laid) on 18 March 965, so Byrhtferth's own 'world', the abbey where he spent most of his life and where he acquired all the learning he displays in this treatise, was created on this date too. And at the time he was writing his Enchiridion, 18 March also happened to be the feast of England's newest and most controversial saint, the murdered teenage king Edward the Martyr, who was killed in murky circumstances on this day in 978. The second of these dates is coincidence, though Byrhtferth was certainly aware of it, but the first may well have seemed meaningful; in the computistical view of the world, there really are no coincidences.

The first illustration in this manuscript of the Old English Hexateuch is a full-page depiction of the fall of the angels, and the first day of creation illustrated is actually the second day (shown above). Just before this image in the manuscript, the text reads:
God cwæð ða eft: Gewurðe nu fæstnys tomiddes ðam wæterum, 7 totwæme ða wæteru fram ðam wæterum. 7 God geworhte ða fæstnysse, 7 totwæmde ða wæteru ða wæron under ðære fæstnysse fram ðam ðe wæron bufan ðære fæstnysse. Hit wæs ða swa gedon. 7 God het ða fæstnysse heofenan. 7 wæs ða geworden æfen 7 mergen: oðer dæg.
God said then: Let there be now a firmament between the waters, to separate the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and separated the waters which were under the firmament from those which were above the firmament. So it was then done. And God called the firmament 'sky'. And then evening and morning were past: the second day.
The Old English word for 'firmament' here is fæstnys, i.e. 'fastness', a fixed thing, and the name God gives to it is heofen, 'heaven', in the sense of 'sky'. So we have various words for this thing which is created, but despite all those names it's a difficult concept to talk about. Byrhtferth, borrowing from Ælfric's De Temporibus Anni, says:
On þam oðrum dæge he geworhte firmamentum, þæt ys þeos heofon. Heo ys gesewenlic and lichamlic, ac swa þeah we ne magon hig næfre geseon for þære fyrlenan heahnysse. Seo heofon beligð on hyre bosme ealne middaneard, and heo æfre tyrnð onbutan us; heo ys swyftre þonne ænig mylenhwiol, eall swa deop under þisre eorðan swa heo ys bufan. Eall heo ys synewealt and ansund and mid steorrum amet. Soðlice þa oðre heofenan þe bufan hyre synt and beneoðan synt ungesewenlice and mannum unasmeagendlice. Synd swa þeah ma heofena, swa swa se witega cwyð: ‘celi celorum’.

On the second day he made the firmament, that is, the heaven. It is visible and corporeal, but nonetheless we are never able to see it, because of its great height. The heaven encompasses the whole earth in its bosom, and it is always turning about us; it is swifter than any mill-wheel, just as deep below this earth as it is above. It is entirely spherical and whole, and adorned with stars. Truly, the other heavens which are above and beneath it are invisible and inscrutable to men; but there are more heavens, as the prophet says: 'heavens of heavens'.
The firmament is visible (gesewenlic) and yet we can't see it (we ne magon hig næfre geseon) because it extends so far beyond mortal vision, in every direction around the globe of the earth. This passage is a wonderful combination of science and mystery (and poetry: 'swifter than any mill-wheel', 'adorned with stars...')

Of the third day, Byrhtferth only says:
On þam þriddan dæge, þæt ys on .xiii. kalendas Aprilis, he gesceop ealle trywcynna and ealle grennyssa.

On the third day (that is, on 20 March), he created all kinds of trees and all green things.
The Old English Hexateuch is more expansive:
He cwæð, Sprytte seo eorðe growende gærs 7 sæd wyrcende, 7 æppelbære treow wæstm wyrcende æfter his cynne, ðæs sæd sy on him syluum ofer eorðan. Hit wæs ða swa gedon. 7 seo eorðe forð teah growende wyrta 7 sæd berende be hyre cynne, 7 treow wæstm wyrcende 7 gehwilc sæd hæbbende æfter his hiwe. God geseah ða ðæt hit god wæs. 7 wæs geworden æfen 7 mergen, se ðridda dæg.

He said, Let the earth sprout green plants, growing and yielding seed, and apple-bearing trees yielding fruit after their kind, whose seed is in itself upon the earth. So it was done. And the earth brought forth growing plants, bearing seed according to their kind, and trees bearing fruit, each having seed according to its kind. God saw that it was good. And evening and morning were passed: the third day.

The fourth day is particularly important, because it's the day when time itself was created, with the creation of the sun and moon (shown above!). Byrhtferth says:
On þam feorðan dæge, þæt ys on .xii. kalendas Aprilis, he gesceop sunnan and monan and steorran and ealle tungla, and on ærnemergen þæs dæges uparas seo beorhte sunne riht on eastende þære heofon, and þæne monan þæs ylcan æfenes he gesette on þære ylcan stowe, and he wæs full swa swa he byð þonne he byð fiftyne nihta eald. Þæne forman dæg þisre worulde man mæg findan, swa ic herbufan cwæð, þurh þæs lengtenlican emnihtes dæg, forþon se emnihtes dæg ys se feorða dæg þissere worulde. Þry dagas wæron ær þam dæge butan sunnan and monan and eallum steorrum.

On the fourth day (that is, on 21 March), he created the sun and moon and stars and all planets, and at dawn of that day the bright sun rose right at the eastern edge of heaven, and on the same evening he placed the moon in the same place, and it was as full as it is when it is fifteen days old. The first day of the world can be calculated, as I said above, by the day of the spring equinox, because the day of the equinox is the fourth day of this world. There were three days before that day without sun or moon or any stars.
The idea that the sun rose at the dawn of the fourth day and was followed in the evening by the moon at its fullest ties in with the important question of the dating of Easter, of course. The significance of this is explained more fully by Bede, who says that the moon
was full at sunset, for the Creator, Who is justice itself, would never make something in an imperfect state. It appeared, together with the glittering stars, in the mid-point of the east, and stood in the fourth degree of Libra where the autumn equinox is fixed, and by its rising, it sanctified the beginning of Easter. For the only Paschal rule to observe is that the spring equinox be completed, with a full Moon following. But if the full Moon precedes the equinox by a single day, it is considered to be the Moon of the last month, and not of the first. For it is fitting that just as the Sun at that point in time first assumed power over the day, and then the Moon and stars power over the night, so now, to connote the joy of our redemption, day should first equal night in length, and then the full Moon should suffuse [the night] with light. This is for the sake of a certain symbolism, because the created Sun which lights up all the stars signifies the true and eternal light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, while the Moon and stars, which shine, not with their own light (as they say), but with an adventitious light borrowed from the Sun, suggest the body of the Church as a whole, and each individual saint. These, capable of being illumined but not of illuminating, know how to accept the gift of heavenly grace but not how to give it.
Bede, The Reckoning of Time, trans. Faith Wallis (Liverpool, 2004), p. 25.

Scripture and science are in harmony here; every aspect of the natural world is filled with meaning, and reveals God's creative purpose. This is a view of the world which sees nothing - no date, no rule, no custom - as meaningless or random, for those who have the will to understand.

As we've seen before, Byrhtferth's contemporary Ælfric thought 21 March should be the beginning of the new year, such was its importance as the day 'when all times were appointed'. 21 March is also the feast of St Benedict, a supremely important saint to Benedictine monks like Ælfric and Byrhtferth, and the saint to whom Ramsey Abbey was dedicated. One Old English poem notes of this dating:

Swylce Benedictus
embe nigon niht þæs nergend sohte,
heard and higestrang, þæne heriað wel
in gewritum wise, wealdendes þeow,
rincas regolfæste. Swylce eac rimcræftige
on þa ylcan tiid emniht healdað,
forðan wealdend god worhte æt frymðe
on þy sylfan dæge sunnan and monan.

And Benedict
after nine nights sought the Saviour,
strong and stout-minded, he whom
rulefast men well praise in wise writings,
the Master's servant. And, too, the number-skilled
keep the equinox at that same time,
because the Lord God created in the beginning
the sun and moon on that same day.

For the fifth day, this illustration from the OE Hexateuch shows the creation of winged creatures - and a 'great whale' in the water! Byrhtferth says:
On þam fiftan dæge, þæt ys on .xi. kalendas, he gescop eall wyrmcynn and creopende and fleogende and swymmende and slincgende and þa myclan hwælas and þa lytlan sprottas and eall fisckynn on myslicum and mænigfealdum hiwum.

On the fifth day (that is, on 22 March), he created all kinds of serpents, and creeping, flying, swimming and slinking creatures, and the great whales and the little sprats and all kinds of fish in various and manifold shapes.
What a wonderfully evocative list: creopende and fleogende and swymmende and slincgende...

And, finally, the creation of Adam and the animals.
On þam syxtan dæge, þæt ys on .x. kalendas Aprilis, he gescop eall deorcynn and ealle nytenu þe on feower fotum gað and þæne man Adam, and Euan, and þa he gebletsode.

On the sixth day (that is, on 23 March), he made all species of animals and all beasts that go on four feet, and the man Adam, and Eve, and he blessed them.
The creation of Adam is sometimes marked on March 23 in medieval calendars (in this thirteenth-century calendar, for example).

On þam seofoðan dæge he geendode his weorc, þæt ys .ix. kalendas Aprilis, and seo wucu wæs agan, and he gebletsode þæne dæg. Se eahtoða dæg com þa æfter þam seofoðan and gewearð to þam þæs dæges þe wæs .viii. kalendas Aprilis. Se dæg wæs amearcod on Godes foresceawunge. On þam dæge wæron englas gesceapene; on þam dæge wæs se heahengel Gabriel asend to Sancta Maria; on þam dæge he aras of deaðe; on þam dæge Godes gast com to mancynne. He ys halig Sunnadæg; þonne ealle dagas ateoriað, þonne þurhwunað he aa on his symbelnysse. He ys engla bliss and ealra haligra ece frofor.

On the seventh day he ended his work (that is, on 24 March), and the week was finished, and he blessed that day. The eighth day then came after the seventh, and it fell on the day which was 25 March. That day was marked out in God's providence. On that day the angels were created; on that day the archangel Gabriel was sent to St Mary; on that day he arose from death; on that day God's spirit came to mankind. It is holy Sunday; when all days fail, it will endure forever in its festiveness. It is the joy of angels and eternal benefit to all the saints.


Clerk of Oxford said...

I'm sure libraries know better now ;)

Byrhtferth said...

Looks crazy now, but stamps like this would have prevented 19th century collectors from cutting the pages out to use as decorative art.

The Rev. Dr. Jennie Clarkson Olbrych said...

Lovely post and nice work... Thank you!