How to Calculate Medieval Time

medieval-1When you read The Nameless Day you’ll see that chapter headings, as characters, use peculiar dates that apparently have neither rhyme nor reason. That’s because I used ‘medieval time’ in The Crucible rather than ‘modern time’.

What’s medieval time? Well …

Medieval people did not ‘tell’ or understand time in the same way we do. While we are able to conceptualise past, present and future, and understand that our present is vastly different to past societies (even if we might not completely know those past societies), medieval people couldn’t do that. They almost literally lived in islands of time, unable to conceptualise a world before their parents’ time, or a world beyond five or six years into the future (if that). Why? Part of (but not the only) reason lies in the kind of vehicles they used to locate themselves within time (how they ‘told’ time).

Medieval people did not use calendar dates (apart from a very few scribes). No peasant or noble ever said, “My youngest child was born on 15th July 1324”. Instead, he or she would have said something like, “My youngest child was born about Rogationtide in the year that Edward was crowned king.” A peasant might not even know of the coronation, so he or she would say something like, “My youngest was born about Rogationtide in the year that the storm blew the church steeple off.”

If anyone who wants to put a precise date on that they’re going to face some headaches. First, Rogationtide is a moveable Church festival (Church festivals are made up of both fixed and moveable festivals or feast days); it slides all over the place from late May to late July depending on the date of Easter. Note also that both peasant and noble said ‘about’ — ‘about’ was close enough … so the birth could have been a few weeks to either side of Rogationtide. We think that we might be able to locate the year (the year that Edward was crowned king), but you must also realise that as far as calculating official medieval time the year was usually dated as starting on March 25th, Lady Day (or the Feast of the Annuciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), although popularly New Years began on January 1st. So was the person who said their youngest was born in the year Edward was crowned referring to the official year … or the popular year? Was it 1324 or 1323? And as far as knowing the precise year the storm blew down the church steeple, we’re completely lost.

And so were medieval people. The other villagers knew vaguely when the church steeple fell down (about ten or twelve years ago, perhaps), but no-one outside of that village knew … so that village lived in its own peculiar island of time in calculating time around village events.

Basically, everyone only had a very vague idea of where they were in time simply because they had no precise means of determining dates as we do (calendar dating slowly became more widespread from the sixteenth century). To locate an event in time past people had to refer to some peculiar circumstance or happening which occurred about the same time. For instance, try to locate an event in your own past (at least five or six years distant) without using calendar dates. Everything instantly becomes vague. If your parents tried to describe to you an event that happened well before you were born you would never be able to locate it precisely in time, and you may not even be able to conceptualise this past event because you have no means to locate it in time.

Although people had immense problems locating events in time past (and imagine the problems trying to fix an event in time future), they had a reasonably reliable means to locate themselves within the yearly cycle. Firstly, they could use the seasons, secondly they could use the agricultural cycle, but mostly people used Church time – the yearly cycle of religious festivals and feast days. We still do this to a limited extent now – it is not uncommon to say, “It happened about Christmas two years ago”.

What does the yearly cycle of religious festivals consist of? Far more than just saints days! Several months ago I found archived on the WWW a wonderful email by Fr John Woolley explaining how to calculate the religious cycle of fixed and moveable festivals. I have Fr Woolley’s explanation archived here as well. My attempts to contact Fr Woolley have come to naught, so I sincerely hope he doesn’t mind too much if I’ve re-posted his explanation. Please read Fr Wolley’s email before going any further on this page.

If you want to use Fr Woolley’s methods of calculation, you should know the precise date of Easter Day for the year you want to calculate. That’s comparatively simple because of a wonderful web site that will do it for you: Ecclesiastical Calendar.

There’s also the useful Perpetual Calendar, which will give you month by month dates for the year you want.

But, of course, nothing is ever simple, and there are some things that Fr Woolley doesn’t discuss that need to be considered when trying to calculate festivals and observances.

Rogationtide: a moveable feast which occurs on the three days prior to Ascension
Rogation Sunday: the Sunday before Ascension
Rogation week: the week in which the Rogation Days fall
Corpus Christi: the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday
And then there were a whole variety of non-religious festivals and agricultural lore by which people also located themselves within the year and which must be used as well as the religious cycle. Below is a list of the major secular festivals (although there was often a religious element to them) and farming lore with a brief explanation of the festivities associated with them. Most of these festivals and/or agricultural lore were based on ancient pagan custom and had only the thinnest veneer of Christianity. This list also includes popular customs and weather lore. As with Fr Woolley, my list is strongly weighted in favour of the English year. I have given dates here for the otherwise dateless religious festivals – these dates are correct for the year 1379.

January:

Janiveer — freeze the pot upon the fier.

As the day lengthens,
The cold strengthens.

January 1: New Year’s Day. On this day the head of the household would gather family and servants about a bowl of spiced ale (called lambs wool) to toast in the New Year. The toast was “Wass Hael” (To your health), and the bowl was known as the Wassail Bowl.

January 6: Twelfth Day (the 12th day after Christmas). Marked with fire dances in fields, a Twelfth Day Cake (baked with a pea or bean inside and washed down with honey-spiced ale from the Wassail Cup or bowl). People also toasted fruit trees on Twelfth Day – an old fertility ritual – singing:

Here’s to thee; old apple tree
Whence thou mayst bud, whence thous mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! Caps full!
Three score bushes full
And my pockets full, too!
Huzza! Huzza! Huzza!

Twelfth Day often coincided with St Distaff’s Day, which was the traditional day on which women returned to their spinning.

Partly work and partly play
You must on St Distaff’s Day:
From the plough soon free your team;
Then come home and fother them:
If the maids a-spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.

Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St Distaff all the right:
Then bid Christmas sport goodnight,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation.

January 9th and 10th: The first Sunday after Epiphany was Plough Sunday, the next day Plough Monday. On the Sunday the plough was often dragged into Church and blessed by the priest, and on Monday young men dragged the plough through the village streets to the field where there would again be sword dances (an ancient fertility rite) and a priestly blessing of the clods and plough. Now was the time when traditionally men would take ploughs back into the fields to turn over the frozen ground before it thawed and became too muddy to work. In practice this early in January was often far too cold to work outside.

January 13th: St Hilary’s Day: In 1205 there was a terrible frost across many of the English counties, and after that time St Hilary’s Day became known as the coldest day of the year in popular lore.

January 21st: St Agnes’ Day: St Agnes was the patroness of maidens. On this day girls sometimes fasted all day and then at night would eat a salt-filled, hard-boiled egg (including the shell!) so that she would dream of her lover at night (if maidens didn’t fancy the salty and shelled egg, they could replace it with a raw red herring).

January 25th: St Paul’s Day: Many people believed you could predict weather on St Paul’s Day:

“If Saint Paul’s Day be faire and cleare
It doth betide a happy yeare;
But if by chance it then should rain
It will make deare all kinds of grain;
And if ye clouds make dark ye skie,
Then neats and fowles this yeare shall die;
If blustering winds do blowe aloft,
Then wars shall trouble ye realm full oft.”

On Saint Paul’s Day there was always a big celebration in St Paul’s cathedral, London.

February:

‘February fill-dyke’. (The month of snow melt)

February 2nd: Candlemass: yet more weather lore …

“If Candlemas Day be fair and clear,
There’ll be five winters in the year.”

“When Candlemas Day is fine and clear,
A shepherd would rather see his wife on a bier.”

February 3rd: St Blaise’s Day: St Blaise saved a boy from choking to death on a fish bone by touching his throat, thus on St Blaise’s Day people with diseases of the throat went to their local priest who touched their throats and said, “May the Lord deliver you from the evil of the throat, and all other evil.”

February 22nd: Shrove Tuesday: there is no meat or fat allowed in Lent, so all fat is used up in pancakes on this day. Other popular festivities to mark Shrove Tuesday included cock-fighting and throwing, pancake tossing, rope pulling and egg rolling and throwing.

March:

March 2nd: Feast of St Chad: “Sow beans and peas on David and Chad, be the weather good or bad.”

March 20th: Mothering Sunday (Mid-Lent, fourth Sunday in Lent). Worshippers presented gifts to the Mother Church, and children brought gifts of cakes and flowers to mothers. During Lent people ate Simnel cakes, which were raised cakes made of fine flour and water coloured dark yellow with saffron. The inside was filled with plums and lemon peel etc. The cake was boiled in a cloth for several hours, brushed over with an egg, then further baked. This made the crust as hard as wood.

March 21st: Feast of St Benedict: “If peas are not sown by Benedick, They had better stay in the rick.”

March 25th: Lady Day: start of the legal New Year, and one of the four main tax and rent days of the year.

April:

A cold April
The Barn will fill.
***
April showers,
Make May Flowers.
***
Summer is icumen in!
Loud sinf cuckoo!

Groweth seede,
And bloweth meade,
And springeth wood anew.
Sing, cuckoo!
Ewe bleatheth after lamb.
Low’th after calf the cow,
Bullock leapeth,
Buck he verteth.
Merrily sing cuckoo!
Cuckoo! Cuckoo!
Well singest thou, cuckoo!
Nor ever cease thee now.
(Medieval madrigal)

April 8th: Good Friday: people attended church and, sometimes, took part in strange Easter Friday rituals which involved burying the cros (so it could be ‘ressurrected’ on Easter Day).

April 9th: Holy Saturday

April 10th: Easter Day: easter eggs were exchanged, hot cross buns eaten, and whatever was buried on Friday now dug up. Sometimes an Easter-ale was held: a strong brew of ale was prepared and sold to parishioners in support of the local church or a charity. These church-ales could be held at any time throughout the year – a Whitsun-ale, for example.

April 24th: St George’s Day: This was a day of large agricultural fairs throughout England.

April 25th & 26th: Hocktide Monday and Tuesday (the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter): Hocktide was traditionally a time when persons of the opposite sex were ‘tripped up’ and forced to give to charity. In Conventry there was a pageant and play attached to the ceremony. In Hungerford Hocktide was marked with especial ceremony in the late fourteenth century for it was at this time in 1360 that John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, granted the town fishing rights in the nearby River Kennet.

Around about this time of year, varying in actual date from village to village, was held the custom of Rush-bearing when the rushes strewn across the church floor were ceremonially changed with fresh rushes gathered from local waterways.

May:

Change not a clout,
Till May be out.

During May there are many May fairs and hiring fairs. Although the first day in May was the principal day of games and sport, May-games could be held at any time throughout the month.

May 1st: May Day: People greet the dawn with May Day Songs, e.g.

Merry it is in May:
The foules syngeth her lay;

The knighttes loveth the tornay;
Maudens so dauncen and thay play.

In tyme of May, the nyghtyngale
In wode makith miry gale
So doth the foules grete and smale,
Som on hulle, som on dale.
May Day ceremonies were very ancient and very ‘pagan’. They revolved about the ancient custom of going into the forests (where frustrated clerics believed the revellers indulged in rampant sex) and bringing home a branch or small tree: the May Pole. This was called ‘bringing home the May’. Village women or maidens would then dance about this tree with ribbons. The most beautiful maid was often crowned the Queen of May, but a man was also sometimes crowned beside her … the Green Man, a direct descendent of the ancient worship of the God of the forests.

May 16th to 18th: Rogation Days: The priest leads a procession about the boundaries of the village fields, halting at all corners to ask God’s blessing on all growing things. Some peasant men also took their adolescent sons about the boundaries of their family strips and beat them at each boundary, ensuring the boy would never forget them! This was known as ‘beating the bounds’.

During holidays and fairdays in the summer season the young men of London marched into the nearby fields and exercised themselves by “leaping, shooting with the bow, wrestling, casting the stone, playing with the ball, and fighting with their shields.” Meanwhile the young women played upon their citherns (or cisterns) and danced to the music – often continuing well into moonlight.

May 29th: Whitsunday: one of the two popular horseracing seasons of the nobility (the other being Easter).

In somer at Whitsontyde,
Whan knightes most on horsebacke ride;
A cours, let they make on a daye,
Steedes, and Palfraye, for to assaye;
Whiche horse, that best may ren,
Three myles the cours was then,
Who that myght ryde him shoulde
Have forty pounds of redy golde.

[Forty pounds was an extraordinary sum!]

The ‘running-horses’ were extremely expensive as well, sometimes coming from from as far away as Spain. Tilting and quintain were also popular horseback games along with straight racing.

June:

Calm weather in June,
Corne sets in tune.

June 9th: Corpus Christi: Many processions and miracle plays performed in towns.

June 11th: St Barnabas Day:

Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright,
The longest day and the shortest night

June 23rd and 24th: Midsummer Eve and Day (the Feast of St John the Baptist). The night of Midsummer’s Eve was an ancient pagan festival connected strongly to the ancient worship of the sun. From this point the sun slid irrevocably towards winter as the days became shorter, and on the night before Midsummer’s Day fire dances and festivals were held on hill and in field. Typical was the rolling down a hill of a wheel of straw set alight, symbolising the decline of the sun. The fires were bonfires, or bone-fires, as bones were burned to keep evil witches and spiteful fairies at bay. Midsummer’s Day was marked by festivals (often drunken) in the fields and in the towns.

Then doth the joyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
When bonfiers great, with loftie flame, in every towne do birne:
And yong men round about with maides doe daunce in every streete,
With garlands wrought of Mother-wort, or else with Vervaine sweete,
And many other flowres faire, with Violets in their handes,
Whereas they all do fondly thinke, that whosoever stands,
And thorow the flowres beholds the flame, his eyes shall feel no paine.
When thus till night they daunced have, they through the fire amaine
With striving mindes doe run, and all their hearbes they cast therin …

(Young men often jumped through the flames to prove their bravery.)

In London, in addition to the bonefires and feasts, “every man’s door was shaded with green birch, long fennel, Saint John’s Wort, orpin, white lilies, and the like, ornamented with garlands of beautiful flowers.” Citizens stood outside to watch pageants, one of which included four giants, one unicorn, one dromedary, one luce [no-one seems to know what that was!], one camel, one ass, one dragon, six hobby-horses and sixteen naked boys. By the sixteenth century the Lord Mayor of London had decided to do away with the giants, the dragon and the sixteen naked boys …

In the country Sheep-shearing festivals were often held during June.

July:

No tempest, good Julie,
Least Corne looks rulie.

July 15th: St Swithin’s Day:

St Swithin’s Day, if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain:
St Swithin’s Day, if thou be fair,
For forty days it will rain no more.

August:

Drie August and warm,
Doth harvest no harme.

August 1st: Lammas Day: a kind of a harvest festival, and also one of the main rent and tax payment days of the year. Many fairs held this day. Lammas bread was bread especially baked from the new harvest.

At any fair or festivity held in England there were likely to be seen jugglers, tumblers, leapers, vaulters, balance-mistresses and masters (men and women who balanced things on their extremities: e.g. knives or wheels), bagpipers, dancers, puppet-masters, tinkers, fire-eaters, bears and bulls for baiting, bears for juggling, cocks for fighting, cocks for throwing, dancing horses, dogs and hares, singing asses, and peddlars selling everything from the blood of Christ Himself to pots for the housewife to use on her hearth.

August 24th: Feast of St Bartholomew: fairs held across England, the most famous being that held in Smithfield (London) which was both a trading and pleasure fair.

September:

September blowe soft,
Till fruit be in loft.

September 7th: the Worcester Great Fair. (There are many fairs held throughout September, typically hiring fairs where labourers hire themselves out for the next year.)

September 12th: Horn Monday (the first Monday after the first Sunday after 4th September): horn dances, with the use of stag horns. The origins of this are obscure, but definitely pagan!

September 14th: Holy Cross Day — Nutting Day. Young people gather nuts on this day.

September 14th – 16th: Barnstabe Fair in Devonshire (the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday preceding September 20th).

September 21st: Feast of St Matthew:

St Mathee shut up the Bee;
St Mattho, take out thy hopper and sow;
St Matthy all the year goes by;
St Matthie sends sap into the tree.

September 24th: Feast of In-Gathering:

Harvest-home, harvest home.
We have reaped, we have sowed,
We have brougt home every load,
Hip, hip, hip, harvest-home!

September 29th: Michaelmas: the start of the new agricultural year. People often marked the day with goose for dinner.

October:

October good blast,
To blowe the hog mast.

October 7th — 9th: The Nottingham Goose Fair (the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday in October).

November:

November take flaile,
Let ship no more saile.

November 1st and 2nd: the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows) and All Souls Day: people went a-soulling on these days, begging for cakes in remembrance of the dead. Soul cakes were buns rich in eggs and milk, spices and saffron, generally round or oval flat cakes.

November 11th: Martinmas ( a rent quarter day): a time for hearty feasting esp. on roast goose) and drinking.

December:

O dirtie December
At Christmas remember.

December 21st: Feast of St Thomas: often a day when the annual slaughter of the pigs began.

December 24th: Vigil of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ: a carol for Christmas Eve (regarding Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents):

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully, lullay.

O Sisters too
How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling,
For whom we do sing;
By by, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king,
In his raging
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might
In his sight
All young children to slay.

That woe is me,
Poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting
Neither say nor sing,
by by, lully, lullay.

December 25th: the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Christmas Day). medieval people celebrated much as do now — they went to mass where, apart from the religious service, they might also see a nativity play. After church they feasted (often at their lord’s expense), drank, caroused and had a good time. So began the Twelve Days of Christmas, a time of holiday for all.

Good husband and huswife now cheefly be glad,
things handsome to have, as they ought to be had;
They both do provide against Christmas doo come,
to welcome good neighbour, good cheere to have some.

Good breade and good drinke, a good fier in the hall,
brawne, pudding and souse, and good mustard withall.

Beefe, mutton, and porke, shred pies of the best,

pig, veale, goose and capon, and turkey well drest;
Cheese, apples and nuts, joly Carols to hear,
as then in the countrie is counted good cheere.
(Thomas Tusser)

A Christmas Blessing:

At Christmas be merie and thankfull withall,
And feast thy poore neighbours, the great with the small,
Yea, all the yeere long, to the poore let us give,
Gods blesing to folow us while wee doo live.

In towns people often elected a Lord of Misrule for the season of holidays — he was in charge of sundry games and festivities. The clergy of medieval cathedral churches often participated in a strange festival called the Festival of Fools: within a cathedral a bishop or archbishop of fools was elected. The bishop of fools wore outrageous clothing and masks, was waited upon by the clergy and conducted the singing of obscene songs in the choir during mass. At the end of mass they led a dance throughout the cathedral, dancing and singing and exposing themselves.

Many of the Christmastide festivities practiced in the home were relics of the ancient Yule festival (Yule is a Scandinavian word of no clear origins, but it refers to the winter solstice fire festivals): the Yule candle and log, Yule cake and so forth.

Finally, in this discussion of medieval time: Church hours. People told time within the day by several means:

  • work-related time (in the time it takes me to mow half a field)
  • the passage of the sun
  • (rarely) the use of such instruments as water clocks or sun dials or hour candles

Church hours

A local church or monastery rang out the seven hours of the day

  • The day began with Matins, usually an hour or two before dawn.
  • The second of the hours was Prime – daybreak.
  • The third hour was Terce, set at about 9 a.m.
  • The fourth hour was Sext (originally midday).
  • The fifth hour was Nones, set at about 3 in the afternoon, but, between the during the 1200s moved to 12 midday (noon) for unknown reasons (because the monks resented waiting so long for their meal and a break from work?).
  • The sixth hour was Vespers, normally early evening.
  • The seventh hour was Compline. Bedtime.