Christmas Round Up


I started Scéla (this blog) in 2002.

I’ve had at least one Christmas-related post almost every year since then. Here they all are:

Christmas Eve, 2004 I posted the Christmas story in Old English from Matthew 2, c. 995, taken from Joseph Bosworth, The Gothic and Anglo-Saxon Gospels in Parallel Columns.

Christmas 2004, I posted “Ryse, hyrd-men heynd” from the Second Shepherd’s Play/ Secunda Pastorum by the Wakefield Master.

Christmas 2006 I posted Luke 2:1 in Gothic.

Christmas Eve 2007 I posted an English version of a Flemish carol about “The Angel Gabriel”.

Christmas Eve 2008 I posted Luke 1:26–2:24.

On Christmas Eve of 2009 I posted another in a series of posts about carols; this time, about the Latin carol Gaudete.

On Christmas 2009 I posted an excerpt about King Arthur and Christmas at Camelot from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

December 20th of 2010 I posted about The Wexford Carol.

On Christmas 2010 I posted about the Book of Kells and the Chi-Rho page.
On Christmas Eve 2010 I posted about The Cherry Tree Carol.

January 2011 I posted about the New Year’s day passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The passage (and the post) features an exchange of gifts, including hondeselles, and the relationship of the “kissing games” alluded to in SGGK to “handy-dandy, prickly-prandy.”

Getty Releases Images

Medieval Book of Hours image from Spinola Hours showing boaters making music for the May calendar image

Getty Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 3v May Calendar image” credit=”

Last August the Getty Museum announced that it has made 4,600 pieces of art from the museum’s collection free to use. They’re focussing on “public domain” works of art, that means works that have endured beyond the limits of copy right, and users are free to  use, modify, and publish these works for any purpose.

These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size. You can browse the images, or look for individual “download” links on the Getty Museum’s collection pages. Before the download actually begins, the Getty site asks simple questions about how you plan to use the images.

There’s a well-written Getty Open Content Program FAQ.

The Getty released images of many of its most famous works, including paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, but I’m especially excited by the medieval manuscripts (The Getty purchased the Ludwig collection, a huge collection of manuscripts rich in psalters and books of hours several years ago, and already had a solid collection, and they’ve added mss. since).

Stammheim Missal

Wenceslaus Psalter

Spinola Hours

Hours of Simon de Verie

Another May Day

May day or the first of May is also known as Beltane, as I’ve noted before. I’ve written about both of my favorite May Books of Hours images from the Golf Book, and the Très Riche Heures, so here’s another lovely May image.

Here’s an image from a Book of Hours illuminated by Jean Poyer; the Hours of Henry VIII/The Prayer Book of Ann de Bretagne, from the collections of The Morgan Library. This is the calendar page for May, otherwise known as f. 3. The image below is from the top part of the folio, above the calendar proper.

Morgan Library Hours of Hnrey VIII/Anne de Bretagne f.3

 Notice that it appears to be a courtship scene, entirely appropriate for May, and May day (they tend to favor courting and hawking scenes, often accompanied by greenery). They look as if they’ve been out “bringing in the May,” or “getting some green,” in the wee hours of May 1.

While we know the work is that of Jean Poyer, and that it was once owned by Ann de Bretagne, there’s an unproven eighteenth-century tradition that claims King Henry of England once owned this book of hours.

Mostly, I just like the Maying reference, and the little dog.

Christmas and Xmas

I noticed an online acquaintance the other day becoming extremely agitated that someone had referred to Christmas using the colloquialism Xmas. She felt that this was insulting, and offensive in the extreme. What she didn’t realize was that Xmas as a shortened form for Christmas has a venerable (and solidly Christian) history.
The word Christmas is a compound of Christ + mass; we see it first in Old English in the form Cristes mæsse in 1038, according to the OED. The Old English form eventually evolved to the Middle English Christemasse. The word Christ is derived from the Greek word Christos, meaning “anointed,” a literal translation of the Hebrew cognate of messiah. Mass, as in the Christian ritual, derives from  Middle English masse, from Old English mæsse, from Vulgar Latin *messa, from Late Latinmissa, from Latin, feminine past participle of mittere, to send away, dismiss.]

The X of Xmas is a shorthand way to refer to the name of Christ. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the Greek letter Chi, written as X (the ancestor of the English letter X) is the first letter of Christ’s name. X has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since at least the early 1500s. Earlier, and closely related abbreviations include Xp and Xr, from the Chi, the Rho and the Iota (our letter I/i), the Greek letters that spell the Chr, the first three letters of Christ. 
In medieval manuscripts the Chi Rho page is typically a very highly ornamental page in from the beginning of the book of Matthew. The name is because the text is about the birth of Christ  from the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .” The most famous page in the Book of Kells is the Chi Rho page
An entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle c. 1100 uses the shorthand of Xres masesse for Christmas; an abbreviation like Xmas is not so heretical, after all, and in truth, is quite traditional. 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: The Boar Hunt

At this time of year, I always think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, because the tale opens and closes with references to Christmastide. It also features a boar hunt, the second of three hunts that Sir Gawain’s host at Haut Desart, Sir Bertilak engages in while, back at the castle, Sir Gawain is pursued by the lady of Haut Desart.

Livre de la chasse
France, Paris, ca. 1406–1407
Morgan Library MS M.1044 fol. 64r

This image from The Morgan Library’s ms. of Gaston Phoebus’ Le Livre de la chasse/The Book of the Hunt (MS M. 1044 (fol. 64r) shows that the lymerer and his lymer, the huntsman with a dog who flushes the boar into the open, have forced the boar into the open.The boar, exhausted by the hounds, is attempting to flee, but one noble hunter (notice the clothing and the horses) has a spear at the ready, another a sword, and there’s also a standing hunter ready with a crossbow.

It’s quite similar in many respects to the boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The boar hunt takes place on the 30th of December, and starts about line 1412.

Schalkez to schote at hym schowen to þenne,
Haled to hym of her arewez, hitten hym oft;
Bot þe poyntez payred at þe pyþ þat pyȝt in his scheldez,
And þe barbez of his browe bite non wolde—
Þaȝ þe schauen schaft schyndered in pecez,
Þe hede hypped aȝayn were-so-euer hit hitte.
Bot quen þe dynteȝ hym dered of her dryȝe strokez,
Þen, braynwod for bate, on burnez he rasez,
Hurtez hem ful heterly þer he forþ hyȝez,
And mony arȝed þerat, and on lyte droȝen.
Bot þe lorde on a lyȝt horce launces hym after,
As burne bolde vpon bent his bugle he blowez,
He rechated, and rode þurȝ ronez ful þyk,
Suande þis wylde swyn til þe sunne schafted.
Þis day wyþ þis ilk dede þay dryuen on þis wyse,
Whyle oure luflych lede lys in his bedde,
Gawayn grayþely at home, in gerez ful ryche

of hewe (ll. 1454–1471).

Here’s Jesse Weston’s prose translation:

Then the men made ready their arrows and shot at him, but the points were turned on his thick hide, and the barbs would not bite upon him, for the shafts shivered in pieces, and the head but leapt again wherever it hit.

But when the boar felt the stroke of the arrows he waxed mad with rage, and turned on the hunters and tore many, so that, affrighted, they fled before him. But the lord on a swift steed pursued him, blowing his bugle; as a gallant knight he rode through the woodland chasing the boar till the sun grew low.

So did the hunters this day, while Sir Gawain lay in his bed lapped in rich gear.

In the case of SGGK, after spending all day chasing the boar, the boar makes for a hole, by a mound and a large rock, where he turns and faces the hunters and dogs who are on foot, across a stream from him.

Til þe knyȝt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
Syȝ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde;
He lyȝtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȝt bront and bigly forþ strydez,
Foundez fast þurȝ þe forþ þer þe felle bydez.
Þe wylde watz war of þe wyȝe wiþ weppen in honde,
Hef hyȝly þe here, so hetterly he fnast
Þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
Þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
Þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepeȝ
In þe wyȝtest of þe water; þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult, þat þe hert schyndered,
And he ȝarrande hym ȝelde, and ȝedoun þe water

ful tyt (ll. 1581–96).

The lord rides up, dismounts, wades into the stream, with his sword, and stabs the boar, in the chest and through the heart with his sword (thus providing a porcine instance of the Celtic motif of death at the ford).

The Labors of December

We often think of December as the entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours for December most often feature an image of hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread) as December labors of the month.

showing a boar being butchered

Morgan library MS M.399, f. 13v Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515

This wintery scene on the right of hog-butchering is the work of Simon Bening, from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). You’ll notice that the landscape is snowy. The people are also dressed much more warmly. They appear to be bleeding out the hog. The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used.

There’s a famous depiction of a boar hunt in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and a ceremonial feast after, featuring the boar, and of course there’s the still popular medieval Christmas “The Boar’s Head Carol” about the Christmas tide feast featuring the boar’s head as the ceremonial center piece, carried into the hall in a triumphant procession.



Red Letter Day

“It’s a great piece of luck, ma’am,” said Mrs Belfield, “that you should happen to come here, of a holiday! If my son had not been at home, I should have been ready to cry for a week: and you might come any day the year through but a Sunday, and not meet with him any more than if he had never a home to come to.”
“If Mr Belfield’s home-visits are so periodical,” said Cecilia, “it must be rather less, than more, difficult to meet with him.”
“Why you know, ma’am,” answered Mrs Belfield, “to-day is a red-letter day, so that’s the reason of it.”
“A red-letter day?”
“Good lack, madam, why have not you heard that my son is turned book- keeper?”

Fanny Burney. Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress.

“Red-letter day” is one of those expressions we use quite frequently without really thinking about its ancestry. Everyone knows that a “red letter day” is one that stands out as important, or “Memorably happy,” as the AHD puts it. Behind the idiom lies an actual medieval calendar tradition.

Phaidon's Book of Hours with facsimile images of pages from several books of hoursIn the middle ages, the wealthy had expensive and often luxuriously illustrated prayer books known as books of hours. These personal prayer boks provided prayers and readings tied to the various times of days, and to particular feast days in the Catholic ecclesiastic calendar. The book of hours associated the feasts days, saint’s days, and other religious days in the church calendar with specific images, and prayers. Each month of the year was represented, with a list of the important dates, and, typically, an image of a seasonal agricultural or aristocratic practice (hawking in May, for instance, or harvesting nuts in November) and an illustration showing the zodiac sign for that month, for instance Gemini in May and Scorpio in November.

The illustration was either accompanied by or incorporated into a list of dates for the particular month. This list or calendar used color-coding to indicate the really important dates from the less important dates. The major religious feast days like Easter were in gold leaf; while the lesser but still important dates were in red— hence “red letter day.”

Glassgow Hours folio 13r: calendar page for December

To the left of this paragraph I’ve linked to an image of a calendar page (click the image to enlarge it) from a book of hours in the Glasgow University Library Special Collections Department. This particular Book of Hours manuscript is known as the Glasgow Hours and was made in North-East France in about 1460. You can click the image for a larger version. The “red letter” days displayed on the calendar are the feasts of Saint Nicholas (December 6), the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8) and the feast of Saint Nicasius (December 14). The particular saints and feasts recorded on a calendar in a book of hours often help indicate where the manuscript was produced, and when, since there were particular saints favored more or less in different areas and times. The phrase “red-letter day” is first noted by the OED in 1704; the quotation from Burney’s novel in the opening of this post was published in 1782. In the context of the passage, I suspec that “red-letter day” is meant to suggest that not only is it “special,” but that it is special in particular for Mr. Belfield, who works as a book-keeper, because the day in question is a bank holiday, and thus a holiday for him.


Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Keats To Autumn ll. 1-11

Autumn noun
1. The season of the year between summer and winter, lasting from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice and from September to December in the Northern Hemisphere; fall.
2. A period of maturity verging on decline (AHD).

Modern English autumn via Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, from Latin autumnus.

Today is the first day of fall, or autumn, if you will. It seems an auspicious date to start a new blog about words and language.

The etymology offered for autumn by the AHD seems clear enough, but the earlier history of autumn is not at all clear, once we track back to Latin autumnuns. The OED refers the etymologically curious to the standard Lewis and Short Latin dictionary. Lewis and Short suggests that Latin autumnus may be related to the older Latin augere, or “increase.”

Standard English usage before about the sixteenth century favored harvest was the preferred name for this time of year; now, in North America, fall seems to be the more commonly used word. In any case, today while the sun is bright and the temperature moderate, the breeze sending leaves waft and skirling along the sidewalks is very much the signature of fall or autumn, and a harbinger of harvest to come.

Yes, It’s Saint Patrick’s Day

Image of Saint Patrick's Bell, Armagh, Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Bell

As a Celticist, I have an abiding interest in Irish culture, and around March 17, so, apparently, does most of the United States. I’ve written a rant about Irish cultural myths, I’ve written about the true place of corned beef in terms of Irish culture, genuinely Irish food, like Irish Soda Bread, colcannon, Guinness, and Irish Whisky, and even Irish loan words in English, and the real nature of Leprechauns.

All of that said St. Patrick seems to have been a fifth century Romano-Britain, a speaker of a language closely related to Welsh, before he became the national saint of Ireland.

January and Feasting in the Très Riches Heures

January in the middle ages was especially associated with feasting, and exchanging gifts on New Year’s and on Twelfth Night. In the c. 1400 Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the narrator refers to the nobles at Arthur’s court on January 1st exchanging gifts and playing games, including kissing games, perhaps, and something resembling handy-dandy prickly-prandy.

January saint’s days include the Feast of the Circumcision on the first, the Epiphany on the sixth, Saint Agnes on the twenty-first, and the Conversion of Saint Paul on the twenty-fifth, among other feats. Typically the calendar page will show the sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer in a border (at the top of the full size page of this folio) and/or of Janus, the two-faced deity associated with doors, and beginnings and endings of years. Books of Hours for January are very fond of feasting images, like this one from the Trés Riches Heures:

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.

Trés Riches Heures Musée Condé MS. 65 f.91v

This particular feasting image might be set at New Years or the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The seated gentleman on the right with the fancy hat and the blue and gold robe is the Duke himself. Behind him is a very large fireplace. Above the fireplace the red and blue banner features Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices—the swan and the fleur de lys. At the very top edge of the banner are two bears—a reference to the Duke’s beloved Ursula. Behind the dining scene is a large, expensive tapestry that seems to be showing a scene from the Trojan wars. The damask tablecloth and the large, ornate salt cellar in the shape of a ship are items that are listed in inventories of the Duke’s household possessions.

The two richly dressed in grey and green young men on the opposite site of the table appear to be his cupbearer and carver, respectively; these are squires or young courtiers, rather than servants. Notice the dog, a white hunting hound, begging (and receiving) food from a courtier. At the far right on the table, just at the edge, two kittens appear to be playing. In the back new guests are just entering, stretching their hands towards the fire, while they look at the guests.

Art historians have attempted to identify some of the figures besides the Duke. For instance, the gentleman to the Due’s right, with the tonsure and the reddish-purple robe is possibly the Duke’s close friend Martin Gouge, the Bishop of Chartres. In the crowd of people entering on the left, behind the table, is a fellow with a white or gray floppy cap. He’s behind a figure dressed in green with a large red hat. The person is the white hat is possibly the artist Paul de Limbourg. The same person is also featured in images in two other mss. that the Limbourgs created, the Petites Heures (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and the Belles Heures (The Cloisters, New York).