Distinctiveness of the Celtic Church: Tonsures and Easter


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The idea of Celtic distinctiveness arose because there were some genuine differences between the way Christianity was practiced in Celtic areas and in the south and east of England. But what were these supposed differences, and how big were these issues at the time?

A Celtic Cross set against a background of low lying farmland.
The Celtic church may have had many apparent differences from the Roman church, but some differences were only visual. (Image: MikeDrago.cz/Shutterstock)

Monastic Tonsures and Church Allegiances

Monks marked their monastic status by cutting their hair in a special way. This was known as the tonsure, which comes from a Latin word for barbering. But the form of the tonsure was different in Ireland compared to elsewhere.

Most monks would shave a round patch on the top of their heads and cut their remaining hair short all around, so they would have a fringe all around the bald spot. In Ireland, the tonsure was quite different. Men would shave their heads from the top forward and then leave the rest of the hair long. Representations of these Irish tonsures can be seen in some of the Irish illuminated manuscripts.

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a big deal, but the monks who adhered to the Roman tonsure felt that when they were signaling their allegiance to the monastic profession, they wanted that signal to look the same everywhere.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Changing Dates of Easter

There was another issue that was more serious because it touched on the actual liturgical practice of the church: the question of when to celebrate Easter. Easter is a movable feast; it’s not tied to a specific date on the calendar like Christmas, which is always celebrated on December 25th, but rather to the relationship between the spring equinox and the phases of the moon.

The first decision about Easter was made in the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Christians changed their minds several times in the early centuries of the church about exactly how to reckon the date of Easter.

A painting showing the Council of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea met in an attempt to standardize Christian beliefs and practices in different churches. (Image: Fresco in Capella Sistina, Vatican/Public domain)

In fact, these different ways of calculating the date of Easter can even help to date the progress of conversion in Ireland. A bit of an old Easter table from Ireland reflects the method from the late 4th century, so it is known that Christianity probably got to Ireland before Saint Patrick.

Well, the church changed its mind twice more in the following two centuries, but not everybody went along with the second change.  Finally, in the 7th century, all Christian churches had adopted the second change except for the Irish and some of the British. 

Learn more about Celtic Britain after Rome.

Southern Churches versus Northern Churches in Ireland

Increasingly, the discrepancy bothered people. Easter is of course the most important feast of the Christian year, just after Lent, and they did not want part of the church celebrating the feast while the rest of the church was still fasting for Lent. It was a real fast in this period—it meant no meat, eggs, or dairy products for the whole 40 days.

The churches of the south of Ireland got together in the year 631 and decided to conform, but most of the northern Irish churches held out. The same geographic split between north and south also held in Britain, because northern England in particular was largely Christianized by Irish missionaries from Iona who used the older date of Easter. Meanwhile, in the south of England, they were using the newer date of Easter that had been introduced in Rome.

The Synod of Whitby

A photograph of the ruins of Whitby Abbey.
Whitby Abbey was built by King Oswiu. In the year 664, the king and his advisers held the Synod of Whitby at this abbey and decided to follow the Roman Easter. (Image: Nicholas Peter Gavin Davies/Shutterstock)

Things might have carried on this way in both Ireland and Britain. But what about when north and south are married to each other? In the 660s, the Northumbrian king, Oswiu, was married to a princess from a part of England where they followed the Roman Easter. This meant that sometimes it would still be Lent for the queen, so she would still be fasting, but Easter would have already arrived for the king, so he would be feasting.

So, in 664, a meeting was held called the Synod of Whitby at Whitby Abbey, at which the king got his advisers together and they decided once and for all to use the Roman Easter. This meant that England was going to orient itself much more toward the continent than toward Ireland, so Irish influence in England diminished. The synod brought most of the so-called ‘Celtic’ churches within the Roman orbit, but some aspects of church practice remained distinctive for many centuries thereafter.

Learn more about some of Ireland’s most breathtaking religious and secular art pieces.

Differences Between Churches

But it is easy to exaggerate these differences. They irritated people at the time, but probably not as much as might be thought. The Christian churches in the centuries just before the Synod of Whitby had been convulsed multiple times by serious, even fundamental, disagreements on core aspects of Christian doctrines, such as the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Holy Trinity or the Nature of Christ.

None of the issues that were supposedly debated at Whitby are anything like as serious as these other theological questions. That does not mean they were not serious distractions at the time, but the idea should be resisted that, in and of themselves, they represent some kind of distinctive ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

So, how ‘Celtic’ is ‘Celtic Christianity’? The most important thing to note is how the conversion of the Celtic-speaking areas to Christianity tended to tie them to the rest of Europe, rather than reinforcing their distinction. The Christian church was a powerful uniting force that existed in fruitful tension with local Celtic traditions. 

Common Questions about the Distinctiveness of the Celtic Church

Q. What was the difference in the tonsure between the Celtic monastics and the Roman church?

Most monks would shave a round patch on the top of their heads and cut their remaining hair short all around, so they would have a fringe all around the bald spot. In Ireland, the tonsure was quite different. Men would shave their heads from the top forward and then leave the rest of the hair long.

Q. Why did the Irish monastics calculate Easter differently from Roman methods?

The Irish monastics held on to their traditional way of calculating Easter, while the rest of the church in other parts of Europe and Britain changed to the Roman method by the 7th century.

Q. Why was the Synod of Whitby convened?

The Synod of Whitby was convened to decide once and for all on which practices, including Easter, would be followed in England. This was because an English king of the time and his wife used to follow different Easter calculations, resulting in a chaos in court.

Q. What was result of the Synod of Whitby?

The Synod of Whitby ended with the decision to follow the Roman Easter. This meant that English churches began to be aligned far more with the rest of Europe than with Ireland.

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