Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anno Domini and the Venerable Bede

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Over twenty centuries of history have this phrase appended to them, but it has only been fifteen centuries since the system of dating was first devised, and only twelve centuries since the work of the Venerable Bede made it common usage in the Western world.

The Romans used the founding of Rome by the legendary figure Romulus, the year we now know as 753 B.C., as year one of their dating system. As the Roman Empire spread, this system of ordering time spread with it. If Rome still ruled the world, the date on this blog post would be the year 2765 ab urbe condita (and these paragraphs would probably be written in Latin). But Rome went the way of the tyrannosaurus rex, and somewhere in that muddle we know as the Middle Ages, someone decided that time needed to be re-ordered. Someone decided that the founding of a little city on the banks of the Tiber would no longer be the focal point of history.

In A.D. 525, an abbot named Dionysus Exiguus, which translates as Dionysus the Humble, began transferring dates from the Roman system into a new system centered around “the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Dionysus originated in Scythia (modern day Bulgaria or Romania), but had come to Rome to translate works of theology and compile collections of canon law.

Interestingly, Dionysus was no historian. His purpose for this new method of dating was to correctly calculate the date of Easter for the Christian calendar. Easter, unlike Christmas, is a moveable feast day and, according the First Council of Nicaea, was supposed to be celebrated on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox.  Dionysus' goal was to write out yearly tables so that churches all around the world would know which Sunday to celebrate the holy day. To do this, he re-ordered time to begin year one with the birth of Christ—or what he thought was the birth of Christ, since we now know that Jesus of Nazareth was born in 3 or 4 BC.

The Roman church adopted the tables but did not yet see how useful Dionysus' system of dating could be for other things. Historians continued to use the regnal dates of Roman emperors to measure time and still counted up the years since the founding of the city of Rome.

A portrait of St. Augustine of Kent
Two hundred years later, a Northumbrian monk known as the Venerable Bede also became preoccupied with the question of when to celebrate Easter. It had been a subject of great dispute in Britain. The adherents of the Celtic church (those who had been evangelized by Columba and the monks from Ireland) often observed the holy day at a different time than the adherents of the Roman church (those who had been evangelized by the Roman missionary Augustine of Kent).

This might seem like a minor point of religious practice to us today, but imagine what it could mean for a kingdom, when the king and his courtiers were celebrating the highest holy day of the church year while the queen and her followers were still fasting for Lent. It was a troubling mark of disunity, both religiously and politically.

A page from Bede's Ecclesiastical
History of the English People
The Synod of Whitby in 664, which occurred ten years before Bede's birth, had ruled in favor of the Roman practice (the tables and method of calculation devised by Dionysus Exiguus). By Bede's death in 735, almost the entire British church had accepted this method. But the controversy was still current enough in his lifetime for him to devote extensive portions of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People to it.

Somewhere in his historical studies on the Easter controversy, Bede developed a keen interest in Dionysus Exiguus' method of ordering time. He decided to use the new Anno Domini dating system for his Ecclesiastical History, and with this decision, he created a precedent for historians everywhere in the Western world.

It is a difficult matter to convert an entire society from one dating system to another. The numbers we have assigned to the past don't like to pack up their tents and leave. Several years ago, when I taught history to high school students, I asked them to pick the most important date in American history and make it year one. Most chose the Declaration of Independence, and with that as the focal point, they had to use their math skills to draw up a timeline of other important dates B.D.o.I and A.D.o.I (Before the Declaration of Independence and After the Declaration of Independence). It is a little mind boggling to realize that the numbers that were drilled into your head all your life (1066, 1215, 1776, 1914) don't actually mean anything except in relation to the chosen focal point of history.

Despite the difficulty, Bede did a marvelous job of moving the Anglo-Saxon society from the old system of dating to the new one. In the Ecclesiastical History he initially used both systems side by side until his readers become acclimated to the change. In the second chapter of his book, Bede wrote:
Now Britain had never been visited by the Romans and was unknown to them until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar who, in the year of Rome 693, that is, in the year 60 before our Lord, was consul with Lucius Bibulus....
In the third chapter, Bede once again cited the Roman system and then followed it up with a time marker from the new system.
In the year of Rome 798 the Emperor Claudius, fourth after Augustus, wishing to prove that he was a benefactor to the State, sought to make war everywhere and to gain victories on every hand.... He brought the war to an end in the fourth year of his reign, that is in the year of our Lord 46. 
But by the fourth chapter, Bede had fully implemented the new system of Anno Domini and expected the reader to catch on accordingly.
In the year of our Lord 156 Marcus Antoninus Verus was made emperor.... In the year of our Lord 189 Severus...became emperor.... In the year of our Lord 286 Diocletian, the thirty-third after Augustus, was elected emperor....
Bede's new use of the Anno Domini dating system spread gradually throughout Europe. By the beginning of the 800s, Alcuin had introduced it to Charlemagne's court and in 1422, Portugal became the last Roman Catholic country to adopt this system of reckoning time. In 1700, Russia discovered that adopting the Anno Domini system was a requirement for westernization. In 1949, the People's Republic of China jettisoned the old Chinese calendar in favor of the Western and international system.

To accommodate people from other religions, some recent historians have tried to alter the nomenclature of the Anno Domini system to B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era). I suspect that Dionysus Exiguus would have been amused by this effort since even if the names change, the focal point still remains the same.

And once the focal point has been established, it is no easy thing to alter. Until we have a historian as enterprising and influential as the Venerable Bede, year one will stay exactly where it is—at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (give or take a few years).

Bede's Tomb in Durham Cathedral

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.


  1. Very interesting post, Rosanne. I have visited Bede's tomb in Durham Cathedral but I didn't know this.

    1. Thanks, Tim! I would love to be able to visit Durham Cathedral sometime.

  2. Great post on Bede. He was an admirer of Hilda of Whitby. I'm glad he took time to write about her as well.

  3. This is a very interesting and informative post. I have often wondered how this was managed and if we can possibly change the entire dating system. Looks like it might take a while.


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