The Mermedonian Computus

Article excerpt

IN THE OPENING of the Old English Andreas, the practices of the cannibalistic Mermedonians are described in detail: they capture strangers (elpeodas), put out their eyes, force them to drink a magic potion that robs them of their wits, and then, after a calculated delay, slaughter and consume them. (1) On these details, the poem largely agrees with the Greek and Latin texts which also inform the tradition on which Andreas draws. (2) The Old English, however, takes a slightly different approach in its description of the method by which the Mermedonians decide which prisoners will be eaten at which time:

   Haefdon hie on rune ond on rimcraefte
   awriten, waelgraedige, wera endestaef,
   hwaenne hie to mose metepearfendum
   on paere werpeode  weordan sceoldon.
      (134-37)

[They had written in their secret writing and in their calculation the day of men's death, when they had to become food for the hungry among the people.]

In the Greek Praxeis and Latin Casanatensis, the Mermedonians give each prisoner a tablet (tablan, 36.15; tabula, 37.10) which indicates the day of their arrest and a corresponding date thirty days later. Each day, the Mermedonians inspect the tablets to see who has completed the allotted thirty days and who, as it were, still has time to kill. (3) Andreas ignores the tablets--there is mention of writing (on rune; there may also possibly be a pun on the -staef element of endestaef, which can be a written letter or a stick on which runes are written), but not of its being given to the prisoners. The Old English poem refers to their elaborate process using the term rimcraeft, "calculation or the computus" a word that has important scientific and theological resonances. (4)

In his edition of the poem, Kenneth Brooks glosses rimcraeft first as "computation" but also more generally as "written figures" (5) However, elsewhere in Old English, rimcrceft does not seem to be used to indicate written communication in general, but arithmetic and the process of date-reckoning specifically. It glosses arithmetica, one of the seven liberal arts, in the Old English glossed version of Aldhelm's De u irginitate prosa. (6) More specifically, it frequently refers to the calculations related to the reckoning of time, and to the computus itself, the manual which both sets out these calculations and their products, that is, the tables for calculating the moveable feasts--and, above all, for calculating Easter. This definition of computus had been established since 562, with the production of the so-called Computus paschalis by the circle of monks gathered with Cassiodorus at Vivarium, the first time the word had been applied specifically and exclusively to the calculation of Easter Day: When Byrhtferth of Ramsey writes in the opening to his Enchiridion, "Her ongind gerimcraeft aefter Ledenwarum and aefter Grecum and Iudeiscum and Egiptiscum and Engliscum peodum and ma odra" (1.1.10) [Here begins the computus according to the Roman, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, and English people, and of many others], he is placing his work within a history both of astronomical observation and theological tradition. (8) His frequent return to the importance of correctly calculating Easter underscores the role the computus played in orthodox liturgical practice. Because the computus was crucial in determining the date on which the most important day in the Christian calendar was observed, and because its observations were so complex and problematic, it was constantly subject to examination and debate (such as the Easter Controversy, putatively resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664, and throughout the Benedictine Reform), and to recalculation and reorganization.

While Andreas does not overtly participate in these debates--although at the likely time of its composition there were still issues surrounding the adoption of the Roman terms for Easter calculation--the use of rimcraeft to indicate the Mermedonians' practice of food-oriented time-reckoning, paired with repeated references to their collective famine and starvation, suggests that the poem may be read as an Easter poem, or, more precisely, a poem dramatizing the relationship between the Easter sacraments, conversion, and the necessity for orthodox liturgical practice. …