Our sources for the history of early medieval Scotland provide a long list of dated events but, in most cases, only the year is given. A few events are dated more precisely, allowing us to look at them in relation to seasonal conditions (such as travel problems in winter) or to religious festivals (reflecting pre-Christian as well as Christian beliefs). If knowing the month seems useful and interesting, then so too is knowing the day of the week. We might be curious to find out, for instance, if a particular event happened on a Sunday, or on the feast-day of a saint. This is where a ‘calendar calculator’ makes things easy, especially if it’s a free online resource.
To illustrate this point, I’ve picked two related events from the 8th century. The source for both is an old Northumbrian chronicle incorporated into the Historia Regum Anglorum attributed to Symeon of Durham (c.1130). The context is a military campaign launched by Northumbrian and Pictish forces against the Clyde Britons in the summer of 756. Two precisely dated events are given in the chronicle.
1st August: With the Anglo-Pictish alliance having laid siege to their citadel at Dumbarton, the Britons ‘accepted terms’, presumably in a formal ceremony of submission.
10th August: The Northumbrian army, marching homeward from Govan on the Clyde, was ambushed and nearly massacred by unidentified foes.
Putting the first of these dates through a calendar calculator we learn that the Britons accepted terms on a Sunday. Not just any Sunday either, but the harvest festival known as Lammas (Old English: ‘loaf mass’). Were the Britons forced to render their grain harvest as a tribute-payment to the Picts and Northumbrians?
The ambush nine days later occurred on a Tuesday. August 10th is the feast-day of St Laurence, one of the most famous of the early martyrs, who was venerated all over Christendom by c.500. By coincidence, Laurence’s execution in Rome on 10th August 258 also occurred on a Tuesday. A saint who shares the same feast-day is Blane or Blaan, traditionally regarded as the founder of the monastery at Kingarth on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. An old Irish martyrology calls him ‘triumphant Blaan of the Britons’. This obscure reference seems consistent with the possibility, discussed in a previous blogpost, that Kingarth eventually passed under the control of the Clyde kings. Whether the timing of the ambush in 756 had any connection with Blane’s feast-day, or with Laurence’s, is unknown, but the attacking force may have offered its prayers to one or both saints beforehand, hoping to invoke their goodwill.
Here’s a link to the medieval calendar calculator I used in this exercise. It doesn’t mention St Blane but seems to be a good reference tool for the feast-days of Latin saints.
[This post was edited on 11 February 2011 at 1.30pm BST]