Saturday, February 28, 2009

Some more English months

In an earlier post , Carla noted that according to one Old English calendar, February was "cake month".  Hmmmmm. . . . . This, apparently, was the calendar the Venerable Bede used.  But there may have been several in use.  Elsewhere, by various means, I found another calendar, which may have been more "agricultural" or "popular" .  I will list the months below, but note:  since I have no familiarity whatsoever with Old English, other than a little German I studied years ago, all the names have been translated into modern English, though, at the time, I found myself quite able to figure out what most  of the modern equivalents were.  Here, for your edification, if that's the word, are the months:


January       Wolf Month

February     Kale Month

March           Lent Month

April              Easter Month

May               Mead Month

June              Hay Month

July               Midsummer Month

August         Ern Month(I think)

September Harvest Month

October      Wine Month

November Wind Month

December  Midwinter Month


These "month names" are interesting.  It's easy, for instance, to see how February is "kale month";  kale is a pretty tough plant that grows leafy, dark green leaves through much of the winter, and in Anglo-Saxon times, winters may have been mild enough for kale to grow through times where greens might otherwise have been unavailable.  And we get the liturgical season of "Lent" from the Old English name for March(the days are lengthening). Easter is obvious, too.  It is a little surprising that  "May" comes from "mead", but since mead is made from honey, flowers would be blooming and it would be possible to gather honey.  July is more or less the calendrical midpoint of summer. 

The only one of these months I couldn't figure out was August, "Ern" month!  But September was easy, too, since "herfast" translates easily to "harvest", and, interestingly the autumn season is "Herbst" in German today.   Anglo-Saxon England must have had a fairly mild climate, because October was "Wine Month"(if you could grow wine there, it must have been during the "medieval warm period"!). As for November, well, anybody who lives where I do, knows well about the wretched windstorms that sometimes hit my part of the world(and can do considerable damage in a "modern" context, though people in Anglo-Saxon times wouldn't have had to worry about power lines being blown down).  And December is pretty obvious, too, if you think about it.  December 21 is the shortest day of the year. 


Oh, I forgot January, "Wolf month".  That makes sense, too.  I don't know how much of a problem people then, thought they had with wolves, but wolves still existed in England at the time, and people were afraid of them and disliked them(agricultural people usually do, for obvious reasons).  Wolves, and their tracks, are often most easily seen(and heard), in the winter, because food is scarce, and packs will venture near human habitation in order to try to find some.


Perhaps a slightly different viewpoint here, but apparently calendars weren't entirely standardized , or at least different groups called months by different names.  Interesting perspective, that.

Anne G

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February (Solmonath): the Anglo Saxon calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) used a calendar based on the cycles of the sun and the moon.

Summary of the English calendar

The year was a solar year, and the two most important dates were the summer solstice (Midsummer, the longest day of the year) and the winter solstice (Midwinter, the shortest day of the year). The winter solstice was called Guili, or Yule, and is the origin of our word “Yuletide” for Christmas. Each new year began at Yule.

The year was divided into two seasons, governed by the spring and autumn equinoxes (the points when the day and night are of exactly equal length). The season when the days were longer than the nights was called summer, the season when the nights were longer than the days was called winter.

Months were reckoned by a full cycle of the moon. Since Bede tells us that winter began at the full moon of October, the months presumably also began at the full moon. The number of days in a solar year isn’t an exact multiple of the number of days in a lunar cycle, so there are 12-and-a-bit lunar months in a year. As a result, the English months moved around in relation to the solar year. Every so often an extra month was added at Midsummer, making a 13-month year, to keep the months aligned roughly with the seasons.

We know this from a contemporary document, Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD. Bede was concerned mainly with teaching his students how to calculate Christian festivals, such as that perennially knotty problem of the early Church, the correct date of Easter. Fortunately for the scholar of early England, however, Bede kindly added a chapter (Chapter 15) explaining how his people had calculated months before they adopted Christianity. It provides the main documentary evidence we have for the pre-Christian English calendar.

February – Solmonath, or Month of Cakes

The second month of the year, corresponding roughly with the Roman (and modern) month of February, was called Solmonath.

‘Monath’ is the Old English word for a month, and the direct ancestor of our modern English word ‘month’. ‘Sol’ is the Old English word for ‘mud’, see the online Dictionary of Old English. So Solmonath can be prosaically translated as ‘Mud Month’, which, as anyone who has ever walked across a ploughed field or tried to dig a vegetable garden at this time of year can tell you, is entirely appropriate to the usual weather.

Some people have suggested that ‘sol’ should be translated as ‘earth’ or ‘soil’ rather than ‘mud’, and so Solmonath might have a less prosaic meaning, perhaps more like ‘Earth Month’ or ‘month when the earth was honoured’.

Others have noted that ‘sol’ with a long ‘o’ is the Old English word for ‘sun’ (see the Old English dictionary. In temperate Europe, February is the time of year when the increase in day length that begins at the winter solstice becomes really noticeable, so it’s possible that ‘sol’ in the month name might refer to this visible returning of the sun.

According to the Old English dictionary, ‘sol’ in Old English could also mean a wooden halter for animals. So I’ll toss in another theory – perhaps ‘sol’ in the month name referred to the collar oxen wore to draw the plough, and Solmonath meant something like ‘Plough Month’? I haven’t seen that suggested elsewhere.

Whether Solmonath was the Mud Month, the Earth Month, the Sun Month or the Plough Month doesn’t really matter. Bede tells us something even more interesting about it:

Solmonath can be called “month of cakes”, which they offered to their gods in that month.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

The reference to cakes is reminiscent of an Old English charm for making a field fertile, the Aecerbot or Field Remedy. The charm survives written down in a manuscript dating from the tenth or eleventh century, though it may well be derived from a much older tradition.

Take then each kind of flour and have someone bake a loaf [the size of] a hand's
palm and knead it with milk and with holy water and lay it under the first
furrow. Say then:
Field full of food for mankind,
bright-blooming, you are blessed
in the holy name of the one who shaped heaven
and the earth on which we live;
the God, the one who made the ground, grant us the gift of growing,
that for us each grain might come to use.
--Aecerbot, translated by Karen Louise Jolly

The surviving wording of the charm is Christianised, but it doesn’t take a very great leap of the imagination to suggest that the god who was being asked to make the field fertile could just as easily be a non-Christian deity. Kathleen Herbert has argued that the deity being petitioned was an earth goddess (Herbert 1994).

Whatever the deity, Bede’s description of cakes being offered to ‘their gods’ is certainly consistent with a rite similar to that described in the Aecerbot charm.

There is no (surviving) Old English word ‘sol’ meaning cake, and it has been suggested that Bede was mistaken about either the name of the month or the tradition attached to it. I would be very reluctant to think that we know more about Bede’s culture than he did, so I personally would take his word for it. It is worth noting that he says Solmonath “can be called” the month of cakes, which may indicate that “month of cakes” was an informal name like a nickname, or that the month could have several names. Another suggestion is that the cakes offered to the gods were called something like sun cakes, from the ‘sun’ meaning of ‘sol’. In which case February, Solmonath, might mean something like Sun Cake Month.

Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Anglo-Saxon fun stuff

I inhabit several e-mail lists.  On one of them, I "know" someone whose last name is Elphick.  Now, Elphick is not a very common last name.  And I doubt if anybody would associate it with anything remotely Anglo-Saxon.  But if you go back, say, 1000 years, you will find people whose given names, eventually gave rise to "Elphick".  But back in "them days", their names weren't "Elphick".  They were called "Aelfheah".  You might get a clue as to how "Aelfheah" morphed into Elphick, eventually, if you run across some Victorian writers who wrote this name as "Alphege"(it was the name of a bishop, I think, but I'd have to look this up).  Really, though, the name was "Aelfheah".  What's even more interesting is, "Aelfheah" originally meant "high elf", or maybe "arch-elf".  A bishop named Arch-elf might seem kind of strange to us, but then, such names were common 1000 years or more ago, at least in England. 


Finally, let us not forget that there are a number of last names that derive, ultimately, from Anglo-Saxon sources, and most of them are a lot more familiar than Elphick.  Godwin/Goodwin is one of these; there is a plaque at our central library dedicated to a lady with a hyphenated name(one of the names is Japanese)-Goodwin.  And then there are people called things like Dunning, which was a man's name back 1000 years or more ago.  Some first names(especially for men) have made it into the modern world, too.  How many Alfreds or Edwards  or even Harolds do you know?  Probably you know some. 


In any case, these connections to a seemingly vanished world still exist.  And that's a fun fact, if you think about it.

Anne G

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Saxon Flax

Well, I did it. I just ordered flax seed for my self-initiated educational project. I have a tiny raised garden at 21 Acres, a local community garden program, and I decided to grow flax and then process it and spin it. I plan to put together a booklet with a description of the process and photos... and to publish it through Lulu and put a copy in plastic at the garden. And, of course, the whole point is to grow flax like the Saxons did.

I ordered one bag of ten lbs. of traditional brown flax. Clearly a lot more than I will use in a little 4' buy 8' garden, but that's how it goes. Hopefully this bariety is at least related to what the Saxons grew.

I will keep you all posted on my progress.. and look forward to any recommendations or other comments on my bit of reckless ambition.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Angles, Saxons, and Danes, Oh My!

Lest we forget, and Jutes as well.

When I called this blog "Early Medieval England" I really meant Anglo Saxon England, but I expect I will, as a Dane myself, find excuses to write about them folk too. My problem now is not how to fill this blog, but where to start! I could write about the era nonstop for a couple months I think.

With the able collaboration of Meghan Kawak and Anne Gilbert and guest posts from Carla Nayland and the other Anglo Saxon England freaks we invite, this should be both an interesting and entertaining blog. Depend on it!

Give us a little time, though.. after all, Lundenwick wasn't built in a day. It took at least a week.

Sunday, February 15, 2009