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The Lunar Year of the Coligny Calendar a.pdf


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TALANTA XXXVIII-XXXIX (2006-2007)

THE LUNAR YEAR OF THE COLIGNY CALENDAR
AS A PRECEDENT FOR THE INSULAR LUNAR YEAR
Brent Davis
In this essay, the origins of the recently-recovered Insular calendar outlawed at
the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 are reviewed, including the calendar’s documented origin in early fifth-century Gaul, its basis on a third-century source from Asia
Minor, and its survival in a nineteenth-century Irish folk-verse that illustrates the
structure of the calendar’s lunar year. It is then demonstrated that a precedent for
this distinctive lunar year can be found in the late-second-century Gaulish brass
artifact called the Coligny Calendar, if the year on the artifact is taken to begin
with March. Finally, the etymologies of the Gaulish month-names are revisited in
this context.
THE INSULAR CALENDAR

In his Historia Ecclesiastica (III.25), Bede describes the calendar disputes that
preoccupied the Insular church in the mid-seventh century. These disputes culminated in 664 in the Synod of Whitby, which declared invalid the 84-year lunisolar calendar of the Insular church, and compelled Christians there to adopt the
ecclesiastical lunisolar calendar of Rome. But none of the primary sources that
mention the conflict describe how this older Insular calendar operated (McCarthy
1993, 205), and so its exact structure remained a mystery.
This situation changed in 1985 with the discovery of the Padua latercus, a table
of Easter dates compiled from the calendar that the Synod of Whitby had rejected (McCarthy and Ó Cróinín 1987-8). As Easter is a lunisolar feast, with a date
depending upon both the sun and the moon, such a table of dates enables the
reconstruction of the lunisolar calendar that produced them; and so from the
Padua latercus, the ‘lost’ lunisolar calendar used by Insular churches before 664
was recovered.
The recovered calendar was presented and analysed by McCarthy (McCarthy
1993). The calendar’s solar year, naturally enough, is the Roman calendar –
specifically, the Julian calendar in its post-Augustan form. The lunar year, however, displays a distinctive characteristic: each lunar month is one day shorter than
the corresponding solar month – for example, lunar May has 30 days, lunar June

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