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I recently read a blog that stated:

Ash Wednesday is a relatively late addition to the Christian liturgical calendar, first surfacing in the tenth century according to accounts written in the eleventh.

On the surface this seems a reasonable fact, and I initially accepted it. However, upon further research and reflection, in the context of the blog, I am having doubts. I am not much of a 10th Century history person, and I was wondering if anyone can verify or debunk this bit of info from that blog.

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The Roman Catholic Church has the start date as 1091. Historical sources in English are a bit sketchy but this one seemed to agree with most.....

....[T]he custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful...is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men.

Makes the 10th century seem a good time frame.

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    Thank you Rusty! I wonder why the church decided to perform this ritual, and what practice they may have been trying to subvert (like the christmas and saturnalia connection)? You know if there is any validity to the claim that this particular ritual is akin to a Viking ritual? I know that ashes play an important role in many, many superstitions throughout the world and history. – Larian LeQuella Mar 11 '11 at 22:43
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One of the best sources to go to for information on this kind of question is the Catholic Encyclopedia on the New Advent site. The entry for "Ash Wednesday" reads:

The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century.

The existence of a penitential ceremony at the beginning of Lent seems to have been in existence as a tradition prior to 1091:

There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents. But this devotional usage, the reception of a sacramental which is full of the symbolism of penance (cf. the cor contritum quasi cinis of the "Dies Irae") is of earlier date than was formerly supposed. It is mentioned as of general observance for both clerics and faithful in the Synod of Beneventum, 1091 (Mansi, XX, 739), but nearly a hundred years earlier than this the Anglo-Saxon homilist Ælfric assumes that it applies to all classes of men. "We read", he says,

in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins bestrewed themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.

And then he enforces this recommendation by the terrible example of a man who refused to go to church for the ashes on Ash Wednesday and who a few days after was accidentally killed in a boar hunt (Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, I, 262-266). It is possible that the notion of penance which was suggested by the rite of Ash Wednesday was was reinforced by the figurative exclusion from the sacred mysteries symbolized by the hanging of the Lenten veil before the sanctuary.

The tradition of marking oneself with ashes as a sign of penitence is found throughout the Bible.

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