The Mermedonian Computus

By Fox, Hilary E. | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mermedonian Computus

Fox, Hilary E., Philological Quarterly

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.

[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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

The Mermedonian Computus


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.