Or maybe you do know some of these things – but just in case:
- Easter is a moveable feast that is always on the first Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. However, the date of that full moon is determined by lunar dates established by the church in the past as opposed to what the moon is actually doing. Confused? Blame the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 which vexed over whether to use the solar or lunar calendars and came up with a messy compromise.
- In the early church, Alexandria was often turned to for advice because its astronomers – in the Greek tradition of learning – were hugely respected. But bust ups over the date of Easter did occur between Rome and Alexandria.
- Many early Christians observed Easter on the ‘fourteenth day of the moon’ irrespective of whether this was a Sunday. This practice took centuries of effort by the church to stamp out – continuing in England until the 7th century AD.
- In 1583, the Vatican introduced the new Gregorian calendar to correct discrepancies in the older Julian calendar, dating back to the Roman Empire. This changed the date of Easter. But the Eastern Orthodox church has never accepted the amendments made by the pope to the calendar and stuck with the Julian version. So Easter in the east will be 13 days later this year.
- It took until the year 1753 for Britain and its colonies (including America) to adopt the Gregorian calendar and so Easter then fell into line with the rest of western Europe.
- Was the Last Supper a traditional Jewish passover meal? Mark, Matthew and Luke seemed to think so but John gave it the thumbs down. The John position is often attributed to Christians seeking to remove the Jewish influence from the story of Jesus. But some Jewish scholars think John may have had a point – Jesus could not have been put on trial and crucified during the Passover – it breaches Jewish religious laws.
- There is a rather odd Easter story involving Mary Magdalene – popularly believed in the Eastern Orthodox church. One version has Mary Magdalene having dinner with the Roman emperor Tiberius (details of how such a dinner came to happen are a little scant). The emperor mocked the idea of a resurrection and said there was much chance of that happening as an egg (and he pointed to one conveniently located nearby) turning red. Whereupon said egg turned red! Why red? Because it represents the blood of Christ.
- Easter bunnies appear as both hares and rabbits in medieval art – a symbol of fecundity. Hares are prolific breeders and produce litters at this time of year. The medieval mind loved ascribing values and virtues (and vices) to animals. So the Easter bunny was an appropriate symbol of re-birth.
- In non-English speaking countries, Easter is known by variants of the word ‘Pasch’ dervied from the Jewish ‘Pesach’ meaning the Passover. The word Easter is often ascribed to an Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre and her feast was held during the month of April – something attested to by the Venerable Bede.
- It’s claimed that Eleanor de Montfort provided an astonishing 3,700 eggs for her medieval Easter celebrations in the year 1265.
In the Middle Ages, the crucifixion of Christ would have been portrayed in mystery plays put on in towns and villages but in our modern age, it’s the cinema that has brought us the most enduring images of Christ‘s death. Some immediately spring to my mind.
Mel Gibson‘s Passion of the Christ was possibly one of the most gory films I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I’ve no doubt many in the Middle Ages would have identified with its bloodiness but it wasn’t to my taste.
Brilliantly atmospheric is the Cecil B de Mille silent movie The King of Kings – don’t be put off by the absence of people talking.
Restorers have stumbled upon nine secret crypts under the remains of Coventry cathedral in the Midlands. In September, 2011, cracks had appeared in the remains of the medieval church and since then the walls had been supported by rather unsightly scaffolding. The building dates back to the 14th century and was originally the city’s main place of worship. But in 1940, during the Second World War, the German Luftwaffe pounded the city for an incredible and horrific ten hours on the night of November 15th.
In what was then a very industrial area, three quarters of the city’s factories were damaged or destroyed as well as thousands of homes. But the most iconic building to be victim to Hitler‘s bombs was the cathedral. It’s near destruction stunned Coventry and the remaining walls – with no roof or stained glass window – were left as a grim memorial to all those who died that night. Next door to it, a modern cathedral was built – consecrated in 1962.
I’ve walked round the remains of the old cathedral and it’s an eerie site. But now it’s even more spooky with the discovery of these crypts. The chief executive of the World Monuments Fund, Dr Jonathan Foyle, has described them as a “subterranean wonderland”. They’re believed to date back to the 1350s and contained the human remains of thousands of medieval citizens of Coventry. It’s hoped they’ll be open to the public in the near future.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is now racked by a financial crisis. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in their thousands as savers have been forced to hand up to as much as 10% of their savings to bail out the bankers. Little wonder that bankers are extremely unpopular.
But it won’t be the first time that Cypriots have raged against bankers on the island. Back in 1192, the Knights Templar were in control of Cyprus having bought it a year earlier from Richard the Lionheart. He in turn had taken it from the Byzantine empire, the eastern Christian remnant of the Roman empire that was notionally, though not always, on the crusader side against the Muslim Saracens.
King Richard was busy trying to defend the mainland crusader states and so when the Templars offered to buy it off him, he seized the chance. And of course the Templars had the money to make good on the deal. They were not only first class soldiers – but also first class bankers. It may have been a primitive form of finance that they operated, but it was advanced for the age. The Templars issued an early form of travellers’ cheque to their customers allowing them to go on crusade without having to take all their bullion around with them. Templar preceptories operated a bit like high street banks where nobles could pop in and cash a cheque to keep them going far from home.
But bankers have never been loved. And the locals soon got weary of these warrior monks – cum – bankers running their island. There weren’t many Templars present, as few as twenty according to some accounts. The islanders had spent centuries staving off Saracen attacks plus they were religiously and culturally more affiliated to Constantinople than Rome. Add to that the Templars would have been trying to recoup their investment quite aggressively by extracting whatever wealth they could from Cyprus. Templar books needed to be balanced in order to pay for crusading in outremer. Needless to say, these Latin Christian crusaders soon outstayed their welcome.
Concerned at rumblings of revolt, the Templars retreated within their garrison. There were reports that the Cypriots were planning to massacre the knights on Easter Day, 1192. So, after regaining their courage, the Templars stormed out of their castle and embarked on a wholesale massacre of anybody they met. This isn’t exactly the finest hour in the history of the Knights Templar – but it happened. The killing quelled the rebellion and an uneasy peace returned. But shortly afterwards, the Templars sold Cyprus on to Guy de Lusignan – who you will recall from the movie Kingdom of Heaven – had just lost the kingdom of Jerusalem to Saladin and his Saracen armies. So he needed somewhere to rule.
Here is Guy de Lusignan fighting Balian in the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.