The Earliest Calendars and Martyrologies: Willibrord

MS Paris, BnF, lat. 10837, early eighth century

The image on your left is from the Calendar of St. Willibrord (d. 739), one of the earliest insular calendars that has survived. The calendar in this famous codex was brought to Echternach from Ireland by the Anglo-Saxon Willibrord, who had been living at the Anglo-Saxon foundation of Ráth Melsigi (in Ireland) for about twelve years, but went abroad on the instigation of Ecgberht, so the Venerable Bede tells us. When Willibrord founded Echternach, he very likely took the first generation of (Irish-trained but possibly English) scribes and monks with him from Ireland. Willibrord, Echternach and this codex therefore stand squarely in a cultural melting pot of insular and continental learning, which is reflected in its contents.

The calendar is believed to have been originally composed in Ráth Melsigi around 684 AD and the largely insular (and Deira-influenced) collection of saints listed reflects this background. This copy was used by Willibrord himself and in an autobiographical entry, written in 728, in the margin of the calendar for November (f. 39v) he records his journey ultra mare (690), his consecration as bishop (695), and gives his full name: Clemens Willibrordus.

In the name of the Lord, Clemens Willibrord, in the year 690 after the Incarnation of Christ, came across the sea into the land of the Franks …

The image to your left shows the basic elements you would expect to see in a calendar: a title heading indicating that this is the month of November, followed by a list of the days of the month and their entries. Other features may be less familiar. The numbering is not yet in Arabic numerals, but in the manner of Roman Republic, in nones, ides, and kalendae. Remember that phrase from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar “Beware the ides of March!”? The system works by counting down from the first day of the month towards the nones (5 November), then down towards the idus, so that 6 November is uiii idus or ‘the eigth day before the Ides’. From there it counts down towards the start of December, so that 14 November is xuiii kal. dec. or ‘the 18th day before the first day of December’. This is the list of Roman numerals just under the decorative KL for kalenda ‘first day of the month’. The list of numerals to the left of that counts from I to VII and represents the days of the week, also called the Dominical letters. Lastly, the leftmost list of letters recur in series of 29 and 30, representing the 59 days it takes for the moon to complete two lunations, and were used to indicate the position of the moon.

MS Paris, BnF, lat. 10837, Willibrord's Calendar, f. 5v, months of January and February. Source: BnF
MS Paris, BnF, lat. 10837, Willibrord’s Calendar, f. 5v, months of January and February. Source: BnF

Another section of the codex contains a copy of the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, written by the scribe Laurentius around 704×714, and Easter tables for the years AD 760-797. The Martyrologium Hieronymianum was the first ‘general’ martyrology, that is, a wide-ranging compilation of the names of martyrs and saints for the whole year. The martyrology takes its name from St. Jerome, to whom it was falsely attributed, but is believed to have originated in seventh-century Burgundy. The copy made by Laurentius is now the oldest extant copy of the text. The text is arranged in calendrical order, with brief entries for each day of the year, often giving no more than a name and a place.

The difference between calendar and martyrology is not always clearcut, but generally it is held that in a calendar only the names of the saints venerated by the community that owns the calendar are mentioned, usually without much further detail. Only a handful of saints are usually listed, and some days will have no entries at all.

In a martyrology, on the other hand, several saints and martyrs are recorded on each day, sometimes with additional information, such as the place with which they are associated and how they died, and most often there are entries for all days of the year.