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Chris -- 2015-05-30
Today is Pentecost in the most of the Western Church. Quite a holiday in Europe (not necessarily because modern Europeans are more pious – European countries tend to employ it as a three-day weekend).
In the UK, this season of the Christian year is Whitsun, and the days on and after Pentecost are called Whitsuntide. “Whitsun” seems to be a word reanalysis. Pentecost Sunday was once “Whit-sunday,” referring perhaps to the change to whit/white vestments on the day. Over the years the word was reparsed as “whitsun-day,” and “whitsun” escaped the compound and became the name of the feast and a prefix to attach to related terms – e.g., whitsuntide, whitsun fair, whitsun Monday.
Looking into this interesting eggecorne, I see that the tangled web can be pushed farther back, as I suspect you’re aware, Kem. Wycliffe, whose body was dug out of his grave just so it could be burned and his ashes tossed about , had this understanding of Whitsun Day, published in the later 14th c. ():
it semyþ first þat þe wit of goddis lawe shulde be tauȝt in þat tunge þat is more knowun, for þis wit is goddis word. whanne crist seiþ in þe gospel þat boþe heuene & erþe shulen passe but his wordis shulen not passe, he vndirstondith bi his woordis his wit. & þus goddis wit is hooly writ, þat may on no maner be fals. Also þe hooly gost ȝaf to apostlis wit at wit-sunday for to knowe al maner langagis to teche þe puple goddis lawe þerby; & so god wolde þat þe puple were tauȝt goddis lawe in dyuerse tungis; but what [page 10] man on goddis half shulde reuerse goddis ordenaunse & his wille? & for þis cause seynt ierom trauelide & translatide þe bible fro dyuerse tungis into lateyn þat it myȝte be aftir translatid to oþere tungis.
Wot, translate the jewel of the clergy into the vulgar tunge? Burn him!
This story apparently makes reference to the miracle described in the second book of Acts, wherein a mighty wind descends from heaven and cloven tongues of fire sit on the disciples, allowing them to talk in Tongues. Aha, so that’s what the Pentecostals are on about.
Meaning of Whitsunday.
I long ago suggested in your pages that Whitsun Day, or, as it was anciently written, Witson Day, meant Wisdom Day, or the day of the outpouring of Divine wisdom; and I requested the attention of your learned correspondents to this subject. I cannot refrain from thanking C. H. for his fourth quotation from Richard Rolle (Vol. iv., p. 50.) in confirmation of this view.
Here’s the full quote referred to, from the Northern Homily Cycle, from the 14th c.:
“This day witsonday is cald,
For wisdom & wit seuene fald
Was youen to þe apostles as þis day
For wise in alle þingis wer thay,
To spek wt outen mannes lore
Al maner langage eueri whore.
þei spak latyn, frensch & grew,
Saresenay, deuenisch & ebrew,
Gascoyne, Pikard, Englisch & Walsch
And oþer speche spak þei als.”
Whitsun Day is the seventh Sunday after Easter – that must be the “seven-fold” reference. According to the temper of this 14th c. commentary, instead of speaking in tongues to a linguistically diverse collection of local citizenry, suddenly the apostles had been given the ability to spread the truth to “eueri whore”, including those who speak frensch, Englisch and Walsch. No need to translate from latyn, now was there.
The OED has a fairly convincing argument that Whitsunday is derived from Old English Hwíta Sunnandæg, White Sunday. I suspect that Whitsun=wisdom is a folk etymology—an old one, if Richard Rolle mentions it.
that must be the “seven-fold” reference
The concept of “seven fold wisdom” is part of long-standing Jewish and Christian mystical traditions. The phrasing is found in the Apocalypse of Weeks, one of the older sections of the Book of Enoch, second century BCE.
Interesting to see in Rolle’s list of Pentecostal tongues the independence of Gascon and Picard from French.