The origins of Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, the dies cinerum, is the name used in English for the first day of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting that, in the medieval church, precedes Easter.  The Catholic and Anglican churches celebrate it by a church service of repentance, at which the people are marked with ashes, and this has become popular among even free churches.  But what is the origin of this curious custom?

In 23 places in the bible,[1] we find a custom of public penance for sin, “in sackcloth and ashes”, in various places in the Old Testament such as Esther 4:3.  Jesus also alludes to it in Mt. 11:21 and Lk. 10:13.  It then appears also in the Fathers, such as Tertullian.  But this is not tied to any date.  There is no trace of a connection to Lent, nor to the date that would later become known as Ash Wednesday, because neither existed.

Many early modern books, when talking about Ash Wednesday, refer to the canons of the council of Agde, the Concilium Agathense (AD 506), in Visigothic Spain.  The reason is a false claim in the 12th century law book, the Decretum of Gratian (below), which was repeated by Cardinal Bellarmine.  Canon 15 does indeed refer to public repentance in sackcloth, i.e. a hair-shirt (cilicium).  Here is the text as given by Mansi, VIII, p.327:[2]

XV.  Penitentes tempore, quo penitentiam petunt, inpositionem manuum et cilicium super capita a sacerdote (sicut ubique statutum est) consequantur. Si autem comas non deposuerint, aut vestimenta non mutaverint, abiciantur et nisi digne penituerint, non recipiantur. Juvenibus etiam penitentia propter aetatis fragilitatem non facile committenda est. Viaticum tamen omnibus in morte positis non est negandum.

Let penitents, at the time when they seek penitence, obtain the laying-on of hands and sackcloth on the head from the priest (just as has been decreed everywhere).  But if they have not shaved their heads or changed their clothes, let them be thrown out and unless they shall repent properly, let them not be received.  Also penitence shall not be imposed lightly on juveniles on account of the weakness of their age.  However the viaticum shall not be denied to those on the point of death.[3]

But there is no evidence that this has anything to do with the start of Lent (“in capite ieiunio”),[4] and there is no mention of ashes.  Indeed Lent did not begin on Ash Wednesday during the 6th century.  At the time of Gregory the Great (d. 604) the beginning of Lent was on the following Sunday.  Our first witness that four days had been added, allowing the Lent to commence on the Wednesday, is the Old Gelasian Sacramentary contained in MS Vatican reg. lat. 316.  (I have written about this here, with links to sources, editions and the manuscript.)

Two other sources for the use of ashes in the 7-8th century are also not what they seem.  The first is something called the Capitula Theodori.  Supposedly the work of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 690 AD), and therefore 7th century, it is in fact a collection of material of 10th century Frankish origin.[5]  It was printed from a manuscript by J. Petit in 1677, and in his version, c. 11 (here), the priest lays hands on the penitent, sprinkles holy water, then ashes, and then places sackcloth on his head.  Tellingly, the text printed by Petit is exactly the same as that given below as “chapter 64” in Gratian.

The second is book 3 of the homilies of the Venerable Bede (d.735).  Bede did compose two books of Homilies on the Gospels (= CPL 1367), each containing 25 homilies.  But the old editions of the works of Bede contain a total of 140 homilies, the remainder as an additional “third book” of Homiliae Subdititae, arranged into liturgical order.  Some of the latter have a rubric for Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum), such as book 3, 37 “in die Cinerum” (PL 94:349), 38 “in fiera quinta post Cinerum” (PL 94:350), 39, 40, and 99.[6]  The modern CCSL edition by Hurst has no material referring to ashes, and it seems that all the homilies in “book 3” are spurious.[7]

Our first real evidence for the celebration of Ash Wednesday, where ashes are involved, is in the 9th century.  At this period we have manuscripts of service books which contain this.  It is the Gregorian sacramentaries – out of the various service books of the period – which label the Wednesday in question as “In capite jejunii”, i.e. the “Start of the Fast”, and the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica states that “The phrase dies cinerum appears in the earliest extant copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary”[8].  These manuscripts are 9th century.  The Gelasian sacramentary indicated the date; but by the start of the 9th century it seems that the earlier penance in sackcloth and ashes has become attached at some point to the start of Lent.   The same liturgical material is repeated in Regino de Prum’s book on at the start of the 10th century also, and his words reappear in later pontificals, which are service books for the use of bishops.[9]  This type of ritual is found in medieval liturgical texts right down to the renaissance.

This public penance – open penance for open crimes – meant that the sinner appeared in sackcloth and ashes on the first day of Lent, and was expelled from the church until Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.  The idea behind this was that sins – such as burning down a nunnery, or overtly living in sin – which were known to everyone, could only be healed by a penance made in a similarly public manner.  Public crimes required public penance.  Private failings could be confessed privately.[10]

But even in the 9th century, descriptions of actual public penance are rare,[11] even though public penance, in sack-cloth and ashes, is found in in Anglo-Saxon liturgical manuscripts of the 10-11th centuries, such as penitentials.[12]

It is in the 10th century that we find our first evidence of the Lenten custom of a general imposition of ashes on the whole congregation as part of the Ash Wednesday service.  The origin of this seems to be a mid-10th century monastic reform in England, led by Bishop Aethelwold, who in 970, with the backing of King Edgar, issued a Regularis Concordia for all the English monks.  This for the first time included a general imposition of ashes for the monks.[13]  The modern custom, for the whole congregation, is attested in a sermon for Ash Wednesday by Aethelwold’s disciple, Aelfric of Eynsham.  The sermon was written in Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin,[14] and reads:

On Wednesday, widely across the earth, priests bless clean ashes in church, just as it is established, and afterwards place them upon men’s heads, that they may have in mind that they came from earth, and afterwards will return to dust, just as the Almighty God said to Adam after he had transgressed against God’s command, “Through labours you shall live and through sweat you shall eat your bread on earth, until you afterwards return to the same earth from which you came, because you are dust, and to dust will return.

Likewise in his Letter for the Monks of Eynsham, Aelfric writes as follows:

Quarta feria Capitis Ieiunii, nona decantata, abbas ornatus stola benedicat cineres et imponat capitibus singulorum, quia legimus in veteri et in novo testamento paenitentes semetipsos cynere aspersisse, demonstrantes humanam naturam esse reversuram in pulverem ob culpam prime preuaricationis. . . . Eant tunc ad processionem reliquas antiphonas decantando. Venientes vero ad ecclesiam quo eunt, cantent antiphonam de ipso sancto et dominicam orationem, flexis genibus, et psalmum ‘Ad te levavi oculos meos’ cum precibus et oratione. Incipiant tunc cantores letaniam revertentes ad matrem ecclesiam et induant se ministri ad missam.

On Ash Wednesday, after None has been sung, the abbot, vested in a stole, shall bless ashes and put them on the heads of each and every person, because we read in the Old and New Testaments that penitents dusted themselves with ashes, showing that human nature would return to dust, on account of guilt for [man’s] primordial transgression . . . They shall then go to the procession singing the remaining antiphons. When they reach the destination church, they shall sing the antiphon of its saint and then, kneeling, the Lord’s Prayer, and the psalm “To thee I have lifted up my eyes”, with the preces and the collect. Then the cantors shall begin the litany as they [all] make their way back to the mother church, and the ministers shall vest for mass.[15]

This is our Ash Wednesday ritual.  It would appear that it originates in England in the 10th century, and that it is the creation of Aethelwold and Aelfric.

The earlier idea of public penance and restoration by the bishop did not disappear, even in England.  As well as the service books of the 10-11th century, it is still expressed by Wulfstan of York (d.1023), in a sermon in Anglo-Saxon:

And there are some men also who rightly must in this holy time be expelled from the church community for high sins, just as was Adam from the community of angels when he forsook the great joy in which he dwelt before he sinned . . . Dear men, on Wednesday, which is caput ieiunii, bishops expel in many places out from the church for their own need those who have made themselves highly guilty in open sins. And afterwards on Thursday before Easter they re-enter the church, those who zealously during Lent atone for their sins, just as one instructs them. Then bishops read the absolution over them, and pray for them, and with that alleviate their sins through God’s great mercy. And that is a needful practice, but we do not observe it as well as we should in this land, and it is very necessary that one zealously have it in practice.[16]

It seems that both rituals were still “on the books” in this period.  Wulfstan’s last sentence perhaps explains why the modern ritual arose: the old penance rite was unpopular, and not well observed.

Princeton: Princeton University Library, Kane 13, leaf of a Gradual (same as Kane 12); initial M beginning Introit of Mass for Ash Wednesday (Italian, late 15c.).  Via here.

The material for an Ash Wednesday service of public penance continues to be recorded in other service books from Northern Europe, such as the Romano-German Pontificale (= PRG), and these continue in use until the end of the middle ages.  In the 12th century Gratian’s Decretum, in Distinctio 50 (text online here), we find that chapter 62 is a quote from Augustine, followed by:

Gratian. Haec autem penitentia quomodo inponenda sit in Agatensi Concilio legitur, in quo sic statutum est:

This is followed by chapter 63, which is merely a quotation of the canon of the Council of Agde above.  But then the start of chapter 64 begins “Item ex eodem.”, “Likewise from the same” – which is not true -, and then the description of public penance also found in the Capitula Theodori above:

In capite quadragesimae omnes penitentes, qui publicam suscipiunt aut susceperunt penitenciam, ante fores ecclesiae se representent episcopo civitatis, sacco induti, nudis pedibus, uultibus in terram demissis reos se esse ipso habitu et uultu protestantes. Ibi adesse debent decani, id est archipresbiteri parrochiarum et presbiteri penitencium, qui eorum conuersationem diligenter inspicere debent, et secundum modum culpae penitenciam per prefatos gradus iniungere. Post hec eos in ecclesiam introducat, et cum omni clero septem penitenciae psalmos in terram prostratus cum lacrimis pro eorum absolutione decantet; tunc resurgens ab oratione, iuxta quod canones iubent, manus eis inponat, aquam benedictam super eos spargat, cinerem prius mittat, deinde cilicio capita eorum operiat, et cum gemitu et crebris suspiriis denunciet eis, quod sicut Adam proiectus est de paradiso, ita et ipsi pro peccatis ab ecclesia abiciuntur; postea iubeat ministris, ut eos extra ianuam ecclesiae expellant, clerus uero prosequatur eos cum responsorio: “In sudore uultus tui uesceris pane tuo, etc.” ut, uidentes sanctam ecclesiam pro facinoribus suis tremefactam atque commotam, non paruipendant penitenciam. In sacra autem Domini cena rursus ab eorum decanis et eorum presbiteris ecclesiae liminibus represententur.

On the first day of Lent, all penitents, who either then were admitted to penance, or had been admitted before, were to present themselves to the bishop, before the doors of the church, clothed in sackcloth, barefooted, and with eyes fixed on the ground, confessing themselves guilty, both by their habit and their looks; and this was to be done in the presence of the deans or arch-presbyters of the parishes, and the penitential presbyters, whoso duty it was to examine diligently their conversation, and to enjoin them penance, according to the measure of their faults, by the degrees of penance that were appointed. After this, they introduced them into the church, where the bishop, with all the clergy, falling prostrate on the ground, sang the seven penitential psalms, with tears, for their absolution. Then the bishop, rising from prayer, gave them imposition of hands, sprinkled them with holy water, threw ashes upon their heads, and covered their heads with sackcloth, declaring, with sighs and groans, that, as Adam was cast out of Paradise, so they for their sins must be cast out of the church. Then the bishop commanded the inferior ministers to turn them out of the church doors; and all the clergy followed them, using this responsory, ‘ In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread; for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ And all this was done to the end that the penitents, observing how great a disorder the holy Church was in by reason of their crimes, should not lightly esteem of penance.[17]

We may wonder to what extent this ritual was much observed in practice, even in the time of Gratian.

The English celebration of Ash Wednesday proved popular.  It becomes increasingly common from the 11th century even in Europe, and then is introduced into canon law at the council of Beneventum in 1091, presided over by Pope Urban II.  In the canons of this council, canon 4 decrees that all Christians should receive ashes at the beginning of Lent.  Mansi, vol. 20, col. 739 (here):

Nullus omnino laicus post diem Cineris et Cilicii a quo caput jejunii dicitur, carnibus vesci audeat.  Et omnes, tam clerici, quam laici, viri quam mulieres, die illo cinerem supra capite sua accipiant.

No layman whatsoever after the day of ashes and cloth of goat’s hair, from which the beginning of Lent takes its name, shall dare to eat meat.  And everyone, whether clergy or lay, men or women, on that day shall receive ashes on their head.

Likewise in Rome in the 12th century, we find a pontifical – a service book for a bishop – that simply omits the old public penance ritual altogether.  In the (unofficial) Pontificale Romanum Saeculi XII (=PRS) almost the entire old ritual for Ash Wednesday was omitted, retaining only the general confession and distribution of ashes:[18]

Interim ponit romanus pontifex vel sacerdos cineres super capita virorum ac mulierum.

Meanwhile the Roman pontiff or priest places ashes on the heads of the men and the women.[19]

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday remains part of the Roman Catholic liturgy even today.  But in the English-speaking world it came to a sudden halt at the Reformation. The Ash Wednesday ceremony of ashes was forbidden by a royal proclamation on 6 February 1548,[20] and explicitly banned in the 1549 prayer-book. Thereafter it was unknown in England.

In the 19th century the Anglo-Catholic movement started to import many Roman Catholic practices into Anglican worship, although not without fierce opposition.  A google search suggests that the Ash Wednesday ritual was still being introduced into some cathedrals in the middle of the 20th century.  The liturgy used was borrowed from the Roman Catholics.  Ash Wednesday became popular during the second half of the 20th century.  The imposition of ashes only reappeared in the official Anglican liturgy as recently as 1986.[21]

To conclude, the date and ceremonies and even the name of Ash Wednesday are tightly connected to the Catholic liturgy for Lent.  The celebration of the day as the beginning of Lent is not attested earlier than the 8th century.  The imposition of ashes seems to be an English innovation of the 10th century, adapting an earlier ritual for public penance in sackcloth and ashes that had proven unpopular.  It disappeared in England during the 16th century.  The custom was introduced once more in the English-speaking world in the 20th century in High Church rituals, and became generally accepted only within the last 50 years.

Update (12 March 2022): Twitter user @Albertojr555 kindly drew my attention to the witness of the Gelasian sacramentary to the date of Lent, noted by Joseph Abrahamson on his blog διαθηκη here.  I have updated the post accordingly.

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  1. [1]Collected here.
  2. [2]Mansi, vol. 8, p.323 ff.  Online here.
  3. [3]Translation mine.
  4. [4]In fact Bellarmine tells us that he couldn’t find the latter words either!  He does give a nice list of patristic writers on penance: R. Bellarmino, Opera Omnia 4, p.497: De controversiis: de poenitentia, lib. I, cap. 22.  Online here.
  5. [5]Thomas Pollock Oakley, English Penitential Discipline and Anglo-Saxon Law in Their Joint Influence (2003), p.109.  Here.
  6. [6]Online here.
  7. [7]So Jean Leclercq, “Le IIIe livre des Homélies de Bède le Vénérable”, Recherches de théologie ancienne et médiévale 14 (1947), pp. 211-218.  JSTOR.  I was unable to read most of this, but the conclusion is clear, and echoed in the CPL.
  8. [8]Online here
  9. [9]edited in PL 78, co. 437.
  10. [10]Bedingfield, “Public Penance in Anglo-Saxon England”, p.235 and n.36: Aelfric: “Qui publice peccaverit publice arguatur et publica paenitentia purgabitur. Et si hoc occulte fecerit et occulte ad confessionem venerit, occulte ei penitentia imponatur.”
  11. [11]Bedingfield, p.227.
  12. [12]Bedingfield, p.229, n.20: : “The relevant texts… are the pseudo-Egbert Penitential, the Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor, the Old English translation of the Rule of Chrodegang, the sermons of Wulfstan, several entries in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 190 (one of the manuscripts traditionally referred to as ‘Wulfstan’s Commonplace Book’), and an unedited homily, Cameron B3.2.9, also found in CCCC 190.”
  13. [13]I have not been able to access this, but the statement is found in Bedingfield, p.224 and n.4.
  14. [14]Ælfric’s Lives of Saints I, ed. W. W. Skeat, EETS os 76 and 82 (London, 1881 and 1885; repr. 1966), p. 262
  15. [15]B. Bedingfield, “Public Penance in Anglo-Saxon England”, Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002), 223-255.
  16. [16]Quoted by Bedingfield from The Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. D. Bethurum (Oxford, 1957), pp. 234–5.
  17. [17]A.H. Grant, The Church Seasons: Historically and Poetically Illustrated, (1869) p.156-7, here.  For some reason he changed the tense from present to past, but I have left it alone.
  18. [18]The evolution of this liturgy is described in detail by Mary Mansfield in The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth-Century France (1995) (Google Books preview here), although the discussion seems unaware of the Aelfric material and thus supposes that this is a 12th century novelty.  On p.181 she gives the text of the PRS.
  19. [19]PRS XXVII.5. p.209
  20. [20]Christopher Haigh, The English Reformation Revised, CUP (1987), p.120.
  21. [21]Nigel Yates, Liturgical Space: Christian Worship and Church Buildings in Western Europe 1500-2000, Ashgate (2008), p.153.

7 thoughts on “The origins of Ash Wednesday

  1. Very interesting. Any ideas on the spread of the custom from England to other parts of Catholic Europe after the 10th c?
    Just for a point of information, American Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Methodists often mimic Catholic worship and impose ashes now in an attempt, I suppose, to give some recognition to the structure of the liturgical year. The Orthodox, of course, do not. But, then, I am not clear how Lent can be a 40-day period and start on Clean Monday.

  2. I found nothing to indicate how the custom spread, but it’s probably possible to find more sources than I had. In particular I found it impossible to get a proper handle on service books. There’s an article there for some liturgiologist to write. Use of databases of medieval Latin with a search for cinerum or cinerem ought to fill gaps.

    The 40 days of Lent are the actual days spent fasting. But Sundays in Lent are not fasting days. In the Eastern church Saturdays are also excluded. So it’s multiples of 5; i.e. 8 weeks, which would naturally start on a Monday? But I’m guessing here.

  3. Sorry Roger,
    But Orthodox fast on Saturdays and Sundays during lent. The only (slight) qualification is that olive oil and wine are permitted on those days (if you want).
    The 40 day count is reached because Holy Week is not included as part of the Lenten Fast and if memory serves Palm Sunday isn’t either.
    The lead up to Lent with Kathari Theftera (Clean Monday) where Orthodox can eat cheese but not meat is also not included.

  4. Re: Lenten fasting –The fasting regulations have changed, both in the East and the West, at various times and in various places. Uniformity in fasting (except when individuals are excused by pastors) has become more important in the East in the last few centuries, so historical evidence to the contrary tends not to be noticed.

    Re: Ash Wednesday — This seems to parallel the rise of one on one private Confession to a priest, the Seal of the confessional, and private imposition.of penances, all of which spread from their origins in Ireland to be found all over the world, and which came out of monastic customs.

    Communities were getting smaller across Europe as population dropped, and penitents may have felt more singled out than in a large Roman city. It also may not have seemed fair, when everybody else’s sins were deemed less public, even if everybody in a small town could know or guess everybody else’s sins….

    OTOH, there might have been more personal preaching about how everybody’s sins led to Christ’s crucifixion, so imposing a common public penitent action on everyone (who chose to show up) was fair, as well as letting the public penitents fade into the background.

    And of course, the connection to the OT, letting people feel like Israelites, makes it a favorite in a lot of ways.

    It reminds me of how a lot of high school kids started to shave their heads in solidarity with friends who had to undergo chemotherapy.

    I have always liked Ash Wednesday myself. It is a constant target for weird liturgy experts trying to do weird things to ruin it, but it seems to endure. Even the pandemic panic did not stop it, and this year it came roaring back. Without it being obligatory, almost every Catholic goes, and tons of non-Catholics come to get ashes too.

    (Which is probably why even non-liturgical denominations often have services for the imposition of ashes now.)

    The modern factor is that ashes are one of the few blessed sacramentals that are given out en masse in modern parishes, even though everybody loves sacramentals. There is a lot of downplaying of blessed candles on Candlemas, blessing of throats, blessings of harvest vegetables, blessings of cars, and so on. There is even the notorious “remove blessed holy water from the fonts for Lent and replace it with non-blessed sand that destroys the fonts, or with nothing,” when of course sacramentals are more important (as blessings and as reminders) in times of penitence.

    Also you see downplaying of anything not falling on a Sunday. You get stuff like moving Ascension Thursday to Sunday.

    But Ash Wednesday is on Wednesday still, and there is a sacramental, and we get to admit that we sin individually and that it isn’t all vague collective guilt for things in general. And that individual people can turn back to God, with His help. And there is still fasting as well as abstinence.

    So there is a lot going on. If modern people were doing more fasting and repentance all the time, it wouldn’t be such a prominent outpost/target… But it always has been popular. If it got popular in England first, that fits in with a lot of other demonstrative, warmhearted, action-oriented, medieval English devotional traditions and spiritualities.

  5. A correspondent emailed me:

    RE: the head of the fast on the Wednesday in Quinquagesima.

    Another source for the “early” beginning of Lent is the Padua Sacramentary, Padua Bibl. Cap., cod. D.47 (between 659 and 681), generally recognized as the sole exemplar of what is now called the “Type 2 Gregorian” sacramentary. See the critical edition at: https://archive.org/details/dieltesteerreich0000cath/page/n75/mode/2up, p. 12.

    The connection to the fast is not immediately obvious, but the collect on that Wednesday is the familiar “Concede nobis domine praesidea militiae” for the head of the fast in most (all?) sacramentaries of the Gregorian type. The text breaks off at “inchoare”, which is too bad, since the next word should be “ieiuniis”. Then the text on Friday has the usual, “Inchoata ieiunia”. I’d be surprised if the manuscript gives only cues and not full texts, but there is no digital copy online to compare.

    Oddly, Mohlberg dates the material (not the manuscript) to 595 and the time of Gregory (see p. XXXIX), but the date in the scholarly work that I have seen puts it about a century later, which is still an early date.

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