A feast, heading a calendar page for April in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript
(BL Cotton Tiberius B V, f. 4v)
(BL Cotton Tiberius B V, f. 4v)
How was Easter celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England? There's a popular answer to that question, which goes like this: 'the Anglo-Saxons worshipped a goddess called Eostre, who was associated with spring and fertility, and whose symbols were eggs and hares. Around this time of year they had a festival in her honour, which the Christians came over and stole to use for their own feast, and that's why we now have Easter'. This story gets regularly dragged out around this time of year, and just as regularly and vigorously debunked. If you're interested in understanding how wobbly the evidence for this popular factoid is, and the history behind the development of the modern 'pagan Easter' myth, there are plenty of good sources: start with this article, and this, and then follow this series of posts - lots of righteous fun if you enjoy a good debunking! For the broader context, this is also very useful: 'How Pagan Were Medieval English Peasants?'
For the purposes of answering my opening question, we have to start by turning away from the popular answer almost entirely, because even the limited information we do have about Eostre tells us nothing about how the Anglo-Saxons might have celebrated her. Though there may well have been, as Bede suggests, a goddess named Eostre 'in whose honour feasts were celebrated', whose name was transferred in England to the celebration of the Christian Paschal season, we know absolutely nothing about any symbols, customs, or rituals which may have been associated with her in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede mentions 'feasts', but nothing else, and very possibly he had no idea himself what those feasts might have consisted of. The idea that Eostre was the goddess of spring or fertility or dawn or whatever it might be is all later speculation, largely originating in nineteenth-century scholarship; the suggestion that she was associated with symbols such as eggs, hares or rabbits is similarly very recent. The Anglo-Saxons may well have had some kind of spring festival which gave its name to Easter, but we know nothing about what customs or practices that might have involved. People who say otherwise are speculating, with a greater or lesser degree of plausibility. That's a shame, but it's not exactly unusual; we just don't know as much about pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon beliefs as we would like to know.
However, that doesn't mean we don't know how Easter was celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England. As I discussed when I wrote about Lammas, there's a very prevalent popular idea in these cases that the 'original' pagan festival (whatever it may have been) is somehow more 'real' or 'authentic' than all the other ways in which the festival has been celebrated in the hundreds of years which followed - even if the 'original' exists primarily in the imagination of modern enthusiasts, while the plentifully recorded later customs attest what real people actually did. Regardless of its etymology, Easter has been a Christian festival in England for over 1300 years, including the majority of the Anglo-Saxon period. Anglo-Saxon England was a predominantly Christian country for nearly 400 years, and the way people celebrated Easter in that period is no more or less 'the Anglo-Saxon Easter' than hypothetical pagan customs. (Just take a moment to think about that figure: 400 years!) If we're interested in learning about the culture of pre-Conquest England, early isn't more 'authentic' than late; pagan isn't more 'authentic' than Christian; and the culture of late, Christian Anglo-Saxon England has the advantage of being very well-recorded, which means less need to indulge in speculation.
So how did was Easter celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England? Here are a few examples.
The Trumpington Cross, from an early Anglo-Saxon Christian grave
First, a note on how the word 'Easter' was used in Old English (i.e. its usage and its connotations, as distinct from its origins). Unlike, say, Lammas, the word 'Easter' is very widely recorded in Anglo-Saxon sources. As far as I can tell, all of these instances - with the single exception of Bede, on the one occasion quoted above - use it to refer either to the Christian festival or the Jewish Passover, or both together. This reflects the belief in the close relationship between Easter and Passover which was central to the medieval church's understanding of the meaning of Easter: the belief that Christ had become the new Paschal sacrifice, the fulfilment of the prophesies and foreshadowing of the Old Testament. This link was also crucially important for the dating of Easter, and all the contingent dates dependent on it, both throughout history and in the yearly cycle of moveable feasts. (What that meant in practice was a long controversy, but the essential link between Passover and Easter was widely accepted.) As a result, there are many, many more instances in Old English of eastre meaning 'Passover' than there are of it referring to a pagan goddess. For example, here's an Anglo-Saxon translator glossing the phrase 'Iam est Christus nostrum pascha' ('Now Christ has become our Passover') as 'Nu is Crist ure eastran'.
(from the hymn 'Ad cenam Agni providi', 'At the Lamb's high feast we sing')
It's clear that as far as we can judge from recorded usage of the term (which is a large body of evidence but not, of course, comprehensive), the word did not continue to have 'pagan' connotations for speakers of Old English after the conversion to Christianity. Bede notes its etymology as a kind of antiquarian curiosity, but doesn't seem to consider it a threat; no Anglo-Saxon writer mentions the worship of Eostre as a practice contemporary to their own day (as some do, for instance, when speaking of the worship of Thor and Odin by Scandinavian pagans). Again, a comparison with Lammas is useful; there, a preacher like Ælfric treats Lammas as a name which is apparently used by his congregation, but not by himself (though not necessarily because he thought it 'pagan', as I suggested in that post). There's no such equivocation around the word 'Easter', which seems to have meant for Anglo-Saxon writers and readers pretty much what it has meant in the subsequent history of English: the chief Christian festival of the year and the equivalent of Latin Pasch, except in contexts where it refers to Passover.
The Old English translation of Luke 22, in which Jesus and his disciples discuss the preparations for Passover,
calling it 'eastre' (BL Royal 1 A XIV, f.126v)
Today most European languages call Easter by some version of Pasch, and a form of that name appears later in medieval English, though it doesn't seem to have been in general use in the Anglo-Saxon period. In Middle English names based on pasch were in widespread use, in various forms (pase, paske, etc.), and these names for Easter survived for a long time in northern dialects. This is where the name 'pace-egg' comes from for the various customs associated with eggs at Easter in the north of England; until the nineteenth century the association between eggs and Easter was predominantly a northern tradition in England (it's also found outside Britain, of course), and 'pace-egg' simply means 'Easter egg'. In the south other foods - tansy, cheesecakes - were much more strongly linked to Easter, and in their time were thought to be as inextricable from the festival as eggs are for us. It's now popularly assumed that eggs have always been a symbol of Easter, and that this is a kind of 'fertility' thing surviving from the cult of Eostre, but there's no Anglo-Saxon evidence for that; I don't know of anything suggesting that eggs had any particular associations at all in Anglo-Saxon England. Just think - if by some accident of linguistic history Paske had become the dominant term for Easter in English, we'd have been spared the yearly fuss about 'pagan Easter'...
Cnut and the cross in the New Minster Liber Vitae (BL Stowe 944)
Anyway, to return to Anglo-Saxon England and the various ways Easter was celebrated. To start with an easy one, it seems that - like other festivals of the church year - Easter was a time for royal assemblies, at which Anglo-Saxon kings gathered together their followers and advisors, issued charters, and transacted other kinds of business. (For some examples and discussion see this book.) Those gatherings might well have involved other events and celebrations too - very likely feasting, and collective attendance at Easter services. Baptisms and on one occasion a royal wedding seem to have taken place during the festivities of Easter, as well as other kinds of royal ceremony. An eleventh-century source says that on one occasion while celebrating Easter at Winchester, King Cnut took off his own crown and placed it on a figure of the crucified Christ, a gesture of kingly humility much easier to imagine than the more famous story of how he demonstrated his inability to control the waves!
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Edward the Confessor was crowned at Easter in 1043, which doubtless involved many festivities; and we know that Edward held a royal banquet on Easter Monday in 1053, because in the middle of the feast Earl Godwine was suddenly taken ill. For such occasions the Chronicle uses the word Easter (and variants thereof); it's interesting to note that a few decades later, the Peterborough Chronicle uses the word Pasch for a comparable occasion in 1122 when Henry I spent Easter at Northampton. This presumably reflects French influence; the Norman Conquest had not changed the festival or the custom, but it had started to change the name.
A feast at the bottom of a calendar for April (BL Cotton Julius A VI, f. 4v)
It seems probable that feasting was a part of the celebration of Easter more widely, but we don't know of any particular customs or foods associated with it. In 877, a lawcode of Alfred the Great established that workers should be freed from labour for the whole week before and after Easter - the longest holiday in the year - so it was not just kings who were celebrating!
We don't know how people might have spent that holiday, but participation in church services would have been a huge part of the Easter weekend itself. There's plentiful evidence available for the kinds of religious observance which Anglo-Saxon congregations could participate in during the Easter season, especially in the later part of the period. Various sources provide a remarkable glimpse into how vividly early medieval liturgy brought the Easter story to life through the use of sound, light, space, and dramatic reenactment, and how powerful an experience it must have been to witness and participate in.
One of the most valuable sources for the customs of the late Anglo-Saxon church is the text known as Regularis Concordia, a tenth-century document which lays out recommended monastic practice on a variety of topics. This tells us, at least, what some churches might have been doing at Easter, and how they might have imaginatively participated in the story of Christ's death and resurrection. Although some of these rituals were performed only by monks, it seems that lay people attended these services and witnessed many of them too; their participation in some of the rituals, such as the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday, is specifically enjoined. For more detail, I recommend you to the classic The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England by M. Bradford Bedingfield, which I'm drawing on here - sadly I can only give a few highlights!
On Palm Sunday, churchmen and lay people alike could participate in the reenactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, carrying aloft their 'palm-twigu' in procession (Ælfric gives us a nice picture of that). On Maundy Thursday, monks engaged in washing the feet of the poor and distributing money and clothes to those in need, acts of service in imitation of Christ's actions at the Last Supper. In a monastic community the abbot might wash the feet of his monks, and Regularis Concordia says that the abbot should also drink to the health of each of the brethren - which sounds like a nice custom! The image below from an 11th-century Psalter (BL Harley 603, f. 66v) shows monks washing feet and a king distributing alms to the poor, much as later monarchs were to do at the 'Royal Maundy', and the Queen still does today.
Later on Maundy Thursday this might be followed by the intensely dramatic nighttime service of Tenebrae, in which a sequence of candles are extinguished, one by one, until the church is left in darkness. Bedingfield, following the outline given in Regularis Concordia, describes it powerfully:
[It represents] the terror that covered the whole world at the time of the Passion. The ritual certainly might be terrifying. Left in a darkened church, after a ritual that is to be understood as extinguishing the light of Christ, the celebrants, kneeling, hear, from three sides, cries to the Lord from pairs of clear, young voices, and then resounding from the entire chorus, in effect, 'Christ is dead'.
That kind of utter darkness is almost unrecreatable in our world of electric light. Imagine how overpowering it must have been.
Good Friday seems to have been known in Anglo-Saxon England as 'Long Friday' (langa frigadæg), and it certainly involved some lengthy services. The Adoration of the Cross was central to the observance of the day, as it still is for many Christians today: the reading of the Gospel narrative of Christ's death, periods of prayer and prostration before the cross, the congregation taking it in turn to kiss the cross in veneration. One of the most powerful moments in the Good Friday ritual is the 'Reproaches', in which Christ is imagined speaking directly to mankind from the cross: 'My people, what have I done to you?' This text appealed to the imagination of several later medieval poets, and is referenced in a number of Anglo-Saxon sermons.
It's often been noted that the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, a meditation on Christ's death as seen from the perspective of the cross, particularly resonates with the liturgy of Good Friday. It's a poem which could be read at any time of year, but its opening vision - the cross adorned with jewels and banners, as all creation bows before it in honour - might suggest how an Anglo-Saxon poet saw the cross lifted up for veneration on Good Friday.
Þuhte me þæt ic gesawe syllicre treow
on lyft lædan, leohte bewunden,
beama beorhtost. Eall þæt beacen wæs
begoten mid golde. Gimmas stodon
fægere æt foldan sceatum, swylce þær fife wæron
uppe on þam eaxlegespanne. Beheoldon þær engel dryhtnes ealle,
fægere þurh forðgesceaft. Ne wæs ðær huru fracodes gealga,
ac hine þær beheoldon halige gastas,
men ofer moldan, ond eall þeos mære gesceaft.
Syllic wæs se sigebeam, ic synnum fah,
forwunded mid wommum. Geseah ic wuldres treow
wædum geweorðod, wynnum scinan,
gegyred mid golde; gimmas hæfdon
bewrigen weorðlice wealdendes treow.
It seemed to me that I saw a wondrous tree
lifted up into the air, wrapped in light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon was
covered with gold; gems stood
beautiful at the surface of the earth, and there were five
upon the shoulders of the cross. All those fair through eternity there beheld
the angel of the Lord. That was indeed no criminal’s gallows,
but there the holy spirits beheld him,
men throughout the world and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was that victory-beam; I, stained with sins,
wounded with wickedness. I saw the tree of glory
adorned with drapery, shining with joys,
decked with gold; gems had
worthily wrapped the Ruler's tree.
Here angels, human beings and all created things 'behold' the cross, gaze upon it ('beheoldon þær...'). That meditative, absorbing gaze of adoration, wonder, and love well describes the kind of emotional experience the Good Friday liturgy might evoke in a congregation. I wrote in greater length here about the relationship between this poem and the artistry and exquisite craft of Anglo-Saxon images of the crucifix.
Anglo-Saxon crucifix, Romsey Abbey
The Dream of the Rood is the most famous example, but there are some other wonderful Anglo-Saxon poems inspired by the themes and stories of Easter. Moving from Good Friday to Holy Saturday, we might turn to the beautiful Old English poem about Christ's descent into hell, which movingly evokes both the pain and desolation of the women who mourned him and the sudden, heart-wrenching triumph of his rising from the tomb. The Harrowing of Hell is not a familiar story to many people today, even many Christians, but it was very popular in the Middle Ages and formed perhaps the most potent story of liberation in medieval poetry and art: a story telling how the king of justice stormed the prison of evil and set its captives free.
Woldan werigu wif wope bimænan
æþelinges deað ane hwile,
reone bereotan. Ræst wæs acolad,
heard wæs hinsið; hæleð wæron modge,
þe hy æt þam beorge bliðe fundon.
Cwom seo murnende Maria on dægred,
heht hy oþre mid eorles dohtor.
Sohton sarigu tu sigebearn godes
ænne in þæt eorðærn þær hi ær wiston
þæt hine gehyddan hæleð Iudea;
wendan þæt he on þam beorge bidan sceolde,
ana in þære easterniht. Huru þæs oþer þing
wiston þa wifmenn, þa hy on weg cyrdon!
Ac þær cwom on uhtan an engla þreat,
behæfde heapa wyn hælendes burg.
Open wæs þæt eorðærn, æþelinges lic
onfeng feores gæst, folde beofode,
hlogan helwaran; hagosteald onwoc
modig from moldan, mægenþrym aras
sigefæst ond snottor.
The sorrowful women wanted for a while
to mourn with weeping the prince's death,
to grieve with lamentation. The place of rest had grown cold,
bitter was the journey of death; but brave was the man
whom they would meet rejoicing at the tomb.
Mary came, mourning, at daybreak,
summoned with her a second daughter of man.
The two of them sought, sorrowful, the victorious Son of God,
alone in the earthen tomb where they knew
the men of the Jews had enclosed him.
They thought that he would have to lie in the grave
alone on that Easter night. But something very different
would those women know, when they returned on their way.
Before dawn there came a throng of angels,
the joy of the host surrounded the Saviour's tomb.
Open was the earthen vault. The prince's body
received the breath of life, the ground shook,
hell-dwellers laughed; the young warrior awoke,
dauntless from the dust, majesty arose,
victorious and wise.
Read more in this post. Note the use of 'Easter night' (easterniht) here, which is probably intended to mean 'Passover' too.
The women and the angel at the tomb, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold
The reenactment of this scene - the women and the angel at the empty tomb - forms one of the best-known elements of the early medieval Easter liturgy, famous because it is often said to be one of the oldest examples of liturgical drama. To quote from Regularis Concordia, as translated in this excellent blogpost at For the Wynn:
When the third reading [of Nocturns] is being read, let four brothers clothe themselves, one of whom, clothed in white and as if about to do something else, should go in and secretly be at the burial place, with his hand holding a palm, and let him sit quietly. And while the third responsory is being sung, let the remaining three follow: all clothed with cloaks, carrying censers with incense in their hands, and with footsteps in the likeness of someone seeking something, let them come before the burial place. And let these things be done in imitation of the angel sitting on the tomb and of the women coming with spices, so that they might anoint the body of Jesus.
And when the one remaining has seen the three, wandering and seeking something, approach him, let him begin, with a moderate voice, to sing sweetly: ‘Whom are you seeking?’ When this has been sung to the end, let the three respond with one voice: ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. To whom he should say: ‘He is not here. He has risen, as he said before. Go, announce it, because he has risen from the dead.’ With this command, let those three turn around to the choir, saying, “Alleluia, the Lord has risen.’ When this has been said, let the one sitting turned back, as if calling them back, say this antiphon: ‘Come and see the place’.
Saying these things, let him rise and lift up the veil and show them the place devoid of the cross, but with the linens placed there which with the cross had been wrapped. When they have seen this, let them set down the censers which they were carrying in the same tomb, and let them take the linen and spread it out in front of the clergy, and, as if showing that the Lord has risen and is not wrapped in it, let them sing this antiphon, ‘The Lord has risen from the tomb’, and let them lay the linen upon the altar.
This is a dramatic replaying of the crucial moment in the Easter story, bringing it to life through the voices and bodies of the monks. Although presumably the primary audience for this liturgical play was the monastic community itself, it may also have been witnessed by lay people. That appears to be the implication of a miracle-story told by Eadmer, describing something which he saw take place as the ritual was being performed in Canterbury Cathedral in c.1066:
There was a certain man, who was almost completely paralysed from the waist down, and who used two crutches for walking. Coming to the tomb of the man of God [St Dunstan] on the Friday before Easter he prostrated himself on the ground and with firm resolve and tearful voice he asked the saint to have mercy upon him. Why do I delay telling this? On the night following, the Lord’s resurrection, when in the guise of three women a search was being conducted for the body of our Lord and Saviour in the tomb, the same lame man stretched himself so that his sinews resounded and he stood straight up on his feet, healthy and upright. Fear and awe overcame us as we witnessed this, and we gave fitting thanks to God as befitted such a great deed.
Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford, 2006), p.177.
After the intensely emotional nature of the preceding days, Easter Day itself is for celebration. This is how that joy is expressed in the Anglo-Saxon poem the Menologium, describing the month of April:
Swylce emb feower and þreo
nihtgerimes, þætte nergend sent
Aprelis monað, on þam oftust cymð
seo mære tiid mannum to frofre,
drihtnes ærist; þænne dream gerist
wel wide gehwær, swa se witega sang:
"þis is se dæg þæne drihten us
wisfæst worhte, wera cneorissum,
eallum eorðwarum eadigum to blisse."
Ne magon we þa tide be getale healdan
dagena rimes, ne drihtnes stige
on heofenas up, forþan þe hwearfað aa
wisra gewyrdum, ac sceal wintrum frod
on circule cræfte findan
So after the sum of four and three
nights, the Saviour sends
the month of April, in which most often comes
the glorious season for the comfort of men,
the rising of the Lord. Then joy is fitting
far and wide, as the prophet sang:
'This is the day which the Lord made
for us, the wise one, for the generations of men,
for all blessed earth-dwellers, with bliss.'
We cannot keep that season by tallying
the count of days, nor the Lord's ascension
into the heavens, because it always changes,
by calculations of the wise; but the venerable in winters
shall find with skill the holy days
in the cycle.
This translates into English poetry part of the liturgy of Easter Day, taken from Psalm 118: 'this is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it'. In the phrase 'all blessed earth-dwellers', the poet has chosen a triple alliteration on words beginning e- - eallum eorðwarum eadigum, which with beautiful subtlety suggests to the ear a fourth, unspoken word to complete the pattern: Easter.
Prayers and music for Easter Sunday from the Leofric Collectar
(BL Harley 2961, f. 77) - just look at those runaway notes!
This final example fits Easter within the distinctive cadences of Old English poetry, but many of the practices described above - though attested in Anglo-Saxon sources - are not, of course, uniquely Anglo-Saxon. They arise from the much wider Christian culture of which Anglo-Saxon England formed part, from which its artists and poets and liturgists took their inspiration even as they adapted its themes and stories into their own language and idiom. It's an unfortunate side-effect of the Eostre factoid that it encourages the belief in an Anglo-Saxon England cut off from the rest of European culture - that is, until the Norman Conquest dragged them out of the Dark Ages and introduced those backward Saxons to the rest of the world. This is very far from the truth. In particular, I can't help thinking how disappointed Bede - who cared so much and thought so deeply about the relationship between his 'church of the English' and the rest of the Catholic world - would be, if he knew that one sentence of his work has been used to promote an image of Anglo-Saxon England he would not recognise: culturally homogenous, stubbornly pagan, divided from the rest of Christian Europe.
Despite the spirited efforts of its debunkers, I fear the popular Eostre factoid is now probably too rooted to be shaken by arguments about its historical accuracy (or lack of it). That's fine, in a way; modern audiences are entitled to their myths too, and this has proved a pretty tenacious one. True, some of it takes an ugly form; to some people this little bit of fake news is a convenient weapon in the never-ending war on the evils of 'religion' and all associated with it. ‘Nasty Christians stole Easter, so I can be as nasty as I like to every religious observer in the world’, is about as sophisticated as this gets. But, to be more generous, it's clear how the idea of a powerful female figure associated with positive things like spring, fertility, bunnies, etc. appeals to modern sensibilities, apparently much more so than the actual evidence for powerful women in Anglo-Saxon England. They, inconveniently, tend to be Christians - never mind that by her involvement in discussions about the dating of Easter, St Hilda of Whitby did more to influence the history of the festival than any maybe-invented goddess ever did.
To be honest, I don't think I would find this use of false history to make a polemical point so annoying if it were not for the smug and self-righteous tone in which the factoid is often delivered. (Especially by journalists - here's an example I saw on Twitter yesterday!) There's an arrogance about it in more ways than one, because it is appallingly conceited to argue that a festival which long pre-dates the coming of Christianity to England owes anything at all, other than its English name, to Anglo-Saxon custom. Easter was a well-established festival long before the Anglo-Saxons gave it that name, and the modern observance of it owes nothing to Anglo-Saxon paganism, except its name, in any discernible or plausible way. English-speaking culture is not the be-all and end-all of religious history, and to argue that just because modern British and American audiences link certain words or symbols to Easter - mostly as the result of commercial advertising, not ancient tradition - these must define and explain the entire festival is Anglo-centric beyond belief.
It's not surprising that this cultural arrogance becomes, at its worst, tied to both anti-Semitic and white nationalist ideologies, going along with an insistence on denying the link between Easter and Passover - which was very clear to early Christians in England, as elsewhere - and with a belief in a homogenous 'Germanic' culture shared by Britain, Scandinavia and Germany and untouched by the rest of Europe. (This article of faith in 19th-century scholarship is the origin of much that's most dubious about the Eostre theory, and you don't need me to tell you where it can lead.) The breathless polemic about 'the real origins of Easter!!!' shades very easily into ideas of cultural and racial purity - a fantasy of an Anglo-Saxon paganism 'untainted' by influences from elsewhere. Most people who trustingly share 'pagan Easter' factoids are probably unaware of these associations, but it's important not to let history be twisted for those ends.
So there are some serious reasons to keep harping on about the shakiness of the 'pagan Easter' meme, beyond the wish that history should be accurately represented. The customs I've discussed in this post represent some aspects of the early medieval celebration of Easter, but not by any means all; there is a variety and diversity here which should not be over-simplified. It’s reductionist to talk as if any culture, whether pagan or Christian, is a single monolithic entity with universal, unchanging traditions. The story of how different cultures develop customs which are meaningful to them is far richer than that.
Anglo-Saxon ivory carving of the Crucifixion (V&A)