Dark Ages lit by Irish monks' computing skills


THE SO-CALLED Dark Ages were anything but dark, according to a historical scholar at NUI Galway.

The years from AD 500-1,000 were the "Golden Age" for Irish medieval scholarship. It was a time when wandering Irish monks made their definitive mark on the European study of mathematics, astronomy and the sciences, states Prof Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, the director of NUI Galway's Foundations of Irish Culture Project.

This scholarship was driven largely by the computational skills of the Irish, who became European leaders in "Computus", the accurate prediction of the date for Easter in any given year, explains Ó Cróinín.

"The Irish went at it with such gusto, they were better at it than anyone else bar the Spaniards," he says.

The second international conference on the science of Computus takes place in Galway next week, and Ó Cróinín is conference convenor. Computus was a truly international science during the Dark Ages and its study has in turn spread around the world. As with the first conference in 2006, this year's event has attracted speakers from across Europe, North America and the Far East.

The focus of the 2008 event is the scientific knowledge that Irish scholars nurtured and developed during the Dark Ages, with our skills in Computus taking centre stage, he says. We were latecomers to this science, given our comparatively late entry into Christianity. Alignment with the church demanded high levels of scholarship in three things, the Bible, Latin grammar and Computus. "Once Ireland had become part of the western Christian church, it was expected you would know your Bible," says Ó Cróinín.

Irish enthusiasm for the subject helped propel us to the position as experts in the field, knowledge that was taken abroad by the saints and scholars who travelled across Europe during the Dark Ages.

"From the time of Columbanus, around AD 615, Irish scholars led Europe in the field of computistical studies," he says. Even before then, Columbanus was a leader in Computus. He saw fit to write a strident letter to Pope Gregory the Great in AD 600, pointing out that Rome's calculations for Easter were wrong, causing all of Europe to celebrate Easter on the wrong day.

This was no small calculation to achieve at the time, Ó Cróinín points out. And being able to predict the date of Easter with confidence was hugely important to the Church. Lent would begin 40 days ahead of Easter, so it made a difference, and the Irish monks became supremely skilled at it.

For the record, Easter takes place on the Sunday following the first full moon that occurs after the spring Equinox. This sets its range from March 22nd through April 25th.

See  www.foundationsirishculture.ie/conference2008.