April from the Hours of Henry VIII

Detail from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. 8 f2v April

This detail is from the April calendar page of the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII MS. H. 8. It features one of the most popular past times featured in book of hours calendar images for the labors of April; the courtly springtime pastime of picking flowers. The scene looks to be set in an enclosed garden; a woman wearing a garland of flowers is braiding another. Next to her her erstwhile swain, appears to be offering her at least one of the two bunches of flowers he bears.

The Morgan library describes the man as a “foppishly dressed youth” and suggests that he is holding flowers which she will weave into a garland; that’s certainly possible, and it might explain his bored eye-rolling expression. He’s waiting, impatiently for her to take the next bunch of flowers. The flowers he is holding, the flowers in the garlands, and the flowers in the grass around the two people all appear to be the same; they’re not clearly delineated, and it is tempting to speculate that they are the ubiquitous Cornflowers *Centaurea cyanus* (Bachelor buttons in North America), a favorite in books of hours.

April from the Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H8 f2v

Below the central image showing the April pastime, the calendar proper features the feasts of St. George (April 23), Peter the Martyr (April 29) and St. Eutropius (April 30). The border includes on the top right St. George slaying the dragon (click through for a larger image that’s zoomable).

In the border surrounding the calendar the center features the zodiac sign of Taurus the Bull in a blue rondel, then an image of Peter the Martyr, with the dagger used to stab him in the chest, and on the far right St. Eutropius, with the bishop’s crosier and the the axe used to kill him still embedded in his head.

March from the Hours of Henry The VIII

Detail showing pruning the vines March
Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r

This March calendar page from The Hours of Henry VIII is a fairly typical March scene in terms of the labors of March depicted in a book of hours. Workers are pruning the grape vines. You’ll notice that it’s early enough that the vines are still without leaves. While it’s possible to prune vines later, it’s not a good idea as the vines will often bleed sap, which isn’t conducive to producing happy grapes. It’s also much easier to tie the vines to a supporting frame or arbor when they aren’t in full leaf but have leaf-buds. As the workers prune grape vines, they tie them to the arbor so that as the vines grow and sprout leaves and then grapes, the vines will have support.

Detail showing a billhook from Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS H.8, fol. 2r

Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from Amazon

Amazon: Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife – Stainless Steel

You can see the pruning tool being used in the detail to the left. This is a Medieval billhook, a sort of all purpose agricultural tool with a double-edged curved blade and sometimes a short spike at the crown and a small hatchet-like blade on the outside edge. It’s perfect for a task like vine-pruning because you can slice the thinner vines with the curved blade and whack off those that are a bit thicker with the small hatchet. This is the same tool known as the falx or falx vinatoria used by the Romans to culivate vines. A modern vine pruning knife, while it often folds up and fits in a pocket, retains that curved cutting blade.

Picture of an Opinel No. 8 Pruning Folding Knife - Stainless Steel from AmazonOn the left the worker standing on the bench has a shock of fibers he’s using to bind the vines to the supporting framework of the arbor. On the ground, near the middle of the image in the front is a small flat-sided cask with a spout; this contained something for the workers to drink, possibly water, or water with vinegar and honey, and probably not wine.

In the bottom center of the calendar page is the astrological symbol for Aries, the Ram. The margins contain images  associated with feast days in March; St. Gregory for March 12, and the Annunciation on March 25 at the bottom right.

 

The Renaissance Writing Tablet

The first reference to a Renaissance writing tablet I remember reading is in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just after Hamlet’s first meeting with the ghost wherein the ghost tells Hamlet that Hamlet’s father the king was murdered by the king’s brother Claudius, Hamlet echoes the ghost’s last injunction to “remember me” in one of his soliloquies:

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile and smile and be a villain.
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark (Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 1 scene 5).

I want to look closely at the word table as used by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play. Table here is short for tablet as in definition 2b in AHD:

2.
a. A thin sheet or leaf, used as a writing surface.
b. A set of such leaves fastened together, as in a book.
c. A pad of writing paper glued together along one edge.
d. A lightweight, portable computer having a touchscreen as the method by which data is input.

This is the meaning of table discussed in the OED as Table 2b.

A small portable tablet for writing upon, esp. for notes or memoranda; a writing tablet. Frequently in a pair (of) tables. Now chiefly historical (s.v. OED table 2b).

Hamlet’s table is a writing tablet that’s a re-usable writing surface. These are not the wax tablets favored by the Romans and others of the Classical era. Instead, these tablets are made of specially coated parchment or paper, and are erased by means of a damp cloth. The hint that Hamlet’s tables are not wax is the use of wipe rather than the word smooth. There was, moreover, a gradual historical movement from wax tablets towards coated paper or parchment for use as an erasable temporary writing surface. Generally the parchment or paper was prepared by coating it with gesso, then carefully smoothed and a top coating of varnish or glue or another sealant was applied.

The best place to start researching the Renaissance erasable writing tablet is probably the 2004 article “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England” by Peter Stallybrass, Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe.1)FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419. Stallybrass et al discuss multiple extant Renaissance erasable tablets, several of which are in the Folger’s collections, and I’ve used their research liberally in this post.

Most eraseable tables or writing tablets consisted of blank tables bound with small pamphlets, typically  almanacs. These contained a front section of printed data; calendars, charts of weight and currency values, followed by several leaves of specially treated paper for use as an erasable writing surface. Most often, a metal stylus was used to write on the treated pages, though water soluble ink was also used. One almanac bound with several pages of erasable tables has the following instructions for erasing a page after use:

To make cleane your Tables, when they are written on.

Take a lyttle peece of a Spunge, or a Linnen cloath, being cleane without any soyle: wet it in water, and wring it hard, & wipe that you haue written very lightly, and it wyll out, and within one quarter of an howre, you maye wryte in the same place agayne: put not your leaues together, whylst they be very wet with wyping.2)From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).

The ability to erase or wipe clean the writing tablet was a distinct feature of the tablet’s utility; the writing was temporary, and old data could be replaced by new data. When Hamlet says

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

Hamlet is referring to wiping away the old, prior data in the table (tablet) of his memory (wetware; his brain). He describes the kinds of data he has currently stored in his memory; his “saws of books” is a clear reference to the commonplaces entered in commonplace books. Hamlet will wipe away the commonplaces, and instead, store information the ghost has given him regarding the murder of Hamlet’s father. But then Hamlet closes the soliloquy asking for his tables, his writing tablet, so that he may “set it down / That one may smile and smile and be a villain,” that is, Hamlet wishes to write in his tablet a commonplace.

Many writing tablets or tables were pocket-sized, and were used in very similar ways to modern paper “pocket notebooks.” Some of the tables were elaborately decorated and bound; others were very inexpensive, and sold as household commodities.

open leather cover of an English 16th century table book

Late 16th century English table book with panel stamped covers covering an erasable tablet. Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.

Inside the tables showing the coated tablet page with writing

Inside tablet page showing coated surface, Image: Folger Library STC 101.2.

 

In the first half of the sixteenth century Netherlandish paint Jan Gossaert painted a merchant in his office, surrounded by his everyday tools, including a writing tablet. As the National Gallery says:

Gossaert’s portrait shows a merchant seated in a cramped yet cozy space,surrounded by the tools of his trade. Scattered over the table are such useful items as a talc shaker used to dry ink, an ink pot, a pair of scales for testing the weight (and hence the quality) of coins, and a metal receptacle for sealing wax, quill pens, and paper. Attached to the wall are balls of twine and batches of papers labeled “miscellaneous letters” and “miscellaneous drafts.” The monogram on the sitter’s hat pin and index finger ring have led to his tentative identification as Jan Jacobsz Snoeck.

Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant
Netherlandish c. 1530
Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Detail from Jan Gossaert Portrait of a Merchant Netherlandish c. 1530 Oil on panel National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

If you look closely at the painting, at the far right of the painting  (on the merchant’s left) is a small leather bound writing tablet. It’s a little obscured by the round set of coin scales on top of it. I’ve inserted a detail showing the bound tablet and stylus to the right. This small bound notebook is an almanac with reusable tables. The clue that this is a writing tablet rather than a normal bound book is the hooked stylus on the cover. The stylus serves a double purpose in that it keeps the tablet closed when it is not in use.

There are several references, like this from John Aubrey’s biography of Sir Phillip Sydney, that suggest that writing tablets were often used the way we might today use Field Notes or other pocket-sized notebooks; to make notes while on the go. Aubrey writes:

My great uncle, Mr. Thomas Browne, remembred him; and sayd that he was often wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plaines, to take his table booke out of his pocket, and write downe his notions as they came into his head, when he was writing his Arcadia, (which was never finished by him).3)John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here

The Renaissance writing tablet was valued for erasability and reuse, and for its portable nature, allowing someone like Sidney to write while standing, because they didn’t require an ink-stand and, properly bound, didn’t require a hard surface. They were both temporary and portable.

 

 

References   [ + ]

1. FN Stallybrass, Peter and Roger Chartier, John Franklin Mowery, and Heather Wolfe. “Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England.” <cite>Shakespeare Quarterly</cite>. Volume 55, Number 4, (Winter 2004): pp. 379–419.
2. From Stallybrass p. 382 from Robert Triplet, Writing Tables with a Kalender for xxiiii. yeeres, with sundry necessarie rules (London, 1604).
3. John Aubrey, in Brief Lives, 1669-1696. Ed. Clark (1898) 2:247-52. Available here

February from the Hours of Henry VIII

Detail from the calendar page for January
Book of Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H f.1v
Jean Poyer, Tours, ca. 1500

Book of Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H f.1v

This calendar page for February from the Morgan Library’s Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan MS. H.8 f1v) features a typical scene in terms of the the labors of February featured in books of hours; the master of the house is standing in front of the hearth, warming himself by the fire.

He’s wearing expensive clothing, indicated in particular by the fur trimming on his hat and overcoat, as well as the visible purse he wears.

The gentleman is standing in front of a substantial fireplace, with his back to the fire, and his is lifting the hem of his overcoat to warm his backside; a more delicate version of a similar scene from the Très Riches Heures calendar page for February.

There’s a wooden settle in front of him, set before a table with a meal waiting. In the background is a bed with burgundy cover and curtains. In the front of the scene to the viewer’s left, a servant is entering, carrying two flagons which the Morgan library identifies as wine flagons; I can’t help but be reminded of the astrological symbol for January, Aquarius, the water-bearer.

Mead

Mead is essentially honey wine, made by fermenting watered honey, and sometimes, adding additional flavors like spices or fruit juice. Mead was a fairly popular alcoholic beverage in the European Middle ages, and earlier. Mead residue has been found in vessels in Celtic ritual burials, and even in the tomb of King Midas of Phrygia, c. 740-700 B.C.

Mead is so closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon senses of community and conviviality that the central building for community ceremony and conviviality is the mead-hall (Old English meduseld, borrowed by Tolkien as the name of King Théoden’s great hall at Edoras). So important was mead to the Anglo-Saxons that the word mead connotes joy in derivitive compounds like medu-dréam (mead-joy) and medu-scerwen, the deprival of mead (and hence joy). Riddle 25 in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records1)George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. <cite>The Anglo‐Saxon Poetic Records</cite> vol 3 (New York, 1936). is about mead.

Mead is also important as a poetic metaphor for the bond established between a lord, who provides mead in a mead-hall as well as food, weapons and treasure to the warriors who follow him; mead sometimes becomes a symbol of the exchange of fealty in the mead-hall. See for instance the speech Wiglaf utters in Beowulf to the thanes fleeing battle with the dragon:

“I remember the time when mead was flowing,
how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall
promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
make good the gift of the war-gear,
those swords and helmets, as and when
his need required it. He picked us out
from the army delibrately, honored us and judged us
fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts—
and all because he considered us the best of his arms-bearing thanes.” (Beowulf ll. 2633–2642).2)Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume IA The Middle Ages. W. W. Norton, 2000.

Modern English mead derives via Middle English mede, mead, from Old English medu, meodu. Mede or medu literally mean honey as well as mead. The proto Indo-European root of medu and meodu is * medhu-, which in addition to mead, gave us amethyst, methelyne, and the Greek word for wine, methu, as wells as Early Irish mid  “mead” (Old Welsh med, giving Moderm Welsh medd).

The Proto Indo-European root *medhu- is also the ancestor of the name of the mythological Irish queen Medb. Medb features prominently in the Medieval Irish epic, the Táin Bo Culinge as the queen whose desire for a bull the equal of her husband’s launches an epic cattle raid on the kingdom of Ulster. Medb’s name has been translated as “[she] who intoxicates,” or “intoxicating [one].”

Top of the Hochdorf prince's bronze cauldron showing an ornamental lions

The immense bronze cauldron from the Hochdorf Prince’s burial chamber
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Hochdorf Prince’s burial goods included an enormous bronze cauldron that at the time it was placed in the burial contained mead; filled, the cauldron could contain about 500 liters.3)The burial site is near Hochdorf an der Enz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was excavated in 1978/79.

Mead has steadily increased in popularity in the last decade, propelled in part by the increasing popularity of wine, and local microbrews and ciders, home brewing enthusiasts, and the fact that Mead is a really lovely beverage.

References   [ + ]

1. George Phillip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie. <cite>The Anglo‐Saxon Poetic Records</cite> vol 3 (New York, 1936).
2. Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature Volume IA The Middle Ages. W. W. Norton, 2000.
3. The burial site is near Hochdorf an der Enz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was excavated in 1978/79.

January from the Hours of Henry VIII

Detail from the calendar page for January
Book of Hours of Henry VIII Morgan Library MS. H f.1r
Jean Poyer, Tours, ca. 1500

 

Book of Hours of Henry VIII
Morgan Library MS. H f.1r

The calendar page for January from the Hours of Henry VIII (Morgan Library MS. H.8 f.1) features feasting in front of the fire, a typical labor for the month of January as depicted in books of hours. This illustration is an example of the “cutaway” scenes that featured in books of hours, with three panels.1)See for instance the February calendar image in the Très Riches Heures. On the far left the image shows the outside of the house. It’s clearly a snowy winter day. It’s snowing, and the ample wood pile is partially obscured by the falling snow.

The next vignette shows someone bringing in wood, while the central image features the master of the house at table, his back to the ample fireplace, dining, while the lady of the house sits on a low bench next to the hearth, warming her hands.

The border on the left shows images for the Feast of the Circumcision (on January 1). The medallion in the center of the bottom border contains the zodiac sign of Aquarius, the water-bearer.

 

_____________________________
January: Feasting and Keeping Warm (fol. 1)

Calendars in Books of Hours do not demarcate time by enumerating the days from the first to the last of the month, as seen in this January page, but, rather list the important liturgical feasts of the month.

Inside, the lord of the house sits at his meal, his back to the hearth,as his wife, closer to the fire, warms her hands.

While a heavy snow covers the land, a laborer carries a few logs from the woodpile into the manor.

When Calendars in Horea (Latin for “Hours”) were illustrated, they followed a tradition of depicting two vignettes in each month: the sign of the zodiac and the activity, usually agrarian, commonly undertaken during the season.

The borders illustrate some of January’s major feasts, including, at top left, the Circumcision (feast on January 1). At bottom center is the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier.

References   [ + ]

Navan Fort as Feasting Site For People From Across Ireland

A group of researchers led by Richard Madgwick of Cardiff University analyzed pig, sheep, and cattle bones discovered via excavation at Navan Fort in Armagh, Northern Ireland. The analysis included the bones of 35 animals (primarily pig, but also cattle and goat/sheep). After performing multi-isotope analysis on samples of tooth enamel to determine where the animals spent their formative years (water leaves a unique identifiable locality trace in the enamel), the researchers concluded that people brought animals over great distances with the intent of feasting at the Navan Fort ritual complex. This is important since in some cases the animals traveled 100 miles before being consumed at Navan Fort, indicating the importance both of feasting as a community practice, and of Navan Fort as a ritual site.

As the paper notes:

Navan Fort showing the grass-covered central mound

Navan Fort, Armagh, Northern Ireland Image: Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

People brought animals from across Ulster and beyond to Navan Fort and it is likely that the great prehistoric regional centres of Ireland acted as lynchpins in the landscape and centres for large-scale connectivity. The bringing of animals from great distances to Navan can be explained in two different ways. Documentary evidence indicates that cattle raiding was as endemic feature of the medieval Ireland with some raids taking place on an inter-provincial scale. Navan Fort is one of the principal settings of the Ulster Cycle of legendary tales which has at its core a tale of cattle raiding. Such raiding, however, was primarily concerned with cattle while pig was primarily the food of feasting, as indicated in such legends as The tale of Mac Da Thó’ pig. Feasting, almost invariably associated with sacrifice, was a social necessity of early societies where the slaughter of a large domesticate necessitated the consumption of a large amount of meat in a short period of time. The results of the analysis of the pig bones from Navan provides evidence for such occasional feasting at the site, with participants bringing their pigs, for sacrifice and consumption, from a wide catchment area.1)p. 11

Navan Fort, or Emain Macha in Medieval texts, is described in Irish mythology as the capital of Ulster. It’s one of the four ritual centers featured in Irish mythology, along with Tara, Rath Croghan and Dūn Ailinne.

You can read the research report in Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.2)Madgwick, R., Grimes, V., Lamb, A.L. et al. “Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.” Sci Rep 9, 19792 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55671-0 Dr. Madgwick is also the lead researcher for the earlier project which analyzed the bones of 131 pigs found at sites near Stonehenge, revealing that  people brought there pigs from many places across the British Isles, even as far away as Scotland.

References   [ + ]

1. p. 11
2. Madgwick, R., Grimes, V., Lamb, A.L. et al. “Feasting and Mobility in Iron Age Ireland: Multi-isotope analysis reveals the vast catchment of Navan Fort, Ulster.” Sci Rep 9, 19792 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-55671-0

Things I Dread About Samhain

Image credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid | A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland via WikiMedia Commons

Because I have a Celtic studies website, every October my email is peppered with messages from two large groups: fundamentalist Christians of various persuasions, and Neo Pagans of various paths. Both sects are writing to inform, deny, assert or correct me regarding Halloween and the Celtic feast known as Samhain in Modern Irish (Samain in Medieval Irish).

The amount of email (and comments) increases every year. And the articles posted all over the Web get a little more annoying in their diligent perpetration of myths. Several years ago I even wrote my own FAQ What Is Samain or Samhain to try to stem the tide, to no avail.

Both groups are still generally propagating ahistorical myths. Thing like:

Samhain is the name of the Celtic God of the Dead.

No, really, it’s not. There wasn’t a “Celtic God of the Dead.” There isn’t really even an Irish god of the dead. The various Celtic groups speaking various Celtic languages over several thousand years and many more miles had a lot of different deities, possibly hundreds, but unlike say, Greek or Roman deities, they don’t have neatly organized portfolios, pantheons or specific bureaucratic duties and job descriptions. Celtic deities tend to be multivalent, with a single deity having several associations, even associations that might seem to contradict each other, or change over time and geographic distances. Unlike the Romans, the ancient Celts don’t seem to have placed a high cultural value on consistency or linear organization.

However, while Samhain or (Sam Hain as some would have it) isn’t the name of a Celtic god of the dead, it is a feast, and a month. Samhain (Modern Irish Samhain, Old Irish Samain, Scottish Gaelic Samhuinn, Manx Sauin, and Gaulish Samonios), is the name for the ninth month in Modern Irish, and the name of a specific feast mentioned frequently in Medieval Irish texts. Celticist T. G. E. Powell writes:

The greatest festival in Ireland was known as Samain. In terms of the modern calendar it was celebrated on the first of November, but the preceding night was perhaps the most significant period of the festival. Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was considered to stand independently between the two, and its position in relation to the natural seasons shows it clearly to have been the turning-point in a pastoralist rather than an agrarian cycle. It corresponds to the end of the grazing season when under primitive conditions the herds and flocks were brought together, and only those animals required for breeding were spared from slaughter.1)T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.

Powell’s description is very much in line with the various references in medieval Irish texts to Samain and the feis Samain, the feast of Samain. Harvest requires a communal effort to gather the crops and herds, and it’s inevitably followed by feasting, as people consume the food that won’t last until Spring when fresh food again becomes readily available. Consequently Samain is also frequently associated in medieval Irish texts with oenaich, that is, festivals and great assemblies of people, assemblies that take place after most of the harvest is done, but before Winter arrives.

Samhain is the Celtic New Year

This one is pernicious. On the face of it, it’s not exactly wrong, there’s clearly a divide at the season of Samain/Samhain between two points of time and season. I wish that, instead of writing “Samain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next,” Powell had written that Samain marked the end of one agrarian cycle, and the beginning of the next cyle, or one season and the beginning of the next season. Samain does mark the end of Summer and the start of Winter. It’s worth noting that the Welsh name for November first is “Caland Gaeaf,” or the first day of Winter (caland is a borrowed word with Latin antecedents and cognate with English calendar, but gaef is good Welsh).

But labeling that divide as a celebration of a New Year is troubling, first, because it equates European/North American celebrations on the 31st of December and the 1st of January with the seasonal and agrarian cycles of multiple cultures from thousands of years ago and a very large geographic area. Secondly, it’s troubling because the best evidence we have, including ancient calendars like the Coligny Calendar, are more about cycles, about things repeating, than about a linear progression and totting up the years. It’s a little silly to tie our cultural assumptions about “New Year’s Day” to those of the various ancient Celtic-speaking groups.

The ancient Celts, like the other peoples of most of Europe, were agrarian. They raised crops and animals. They fed themselves and their animals (cattle, pigs, horses, and, eventually, sheep) on crops like oats and barley and then butchered some of the animals in late fall. They carefully saved some of the seeds from their crops (particularly oats and barley) to plant the following spring, much as they saved enough adult animals to breed swine and cows and horses in the spring.

In an agrarian economy, even now, you’re thinking about making it through winter when you butcher and harvest crops in the fall, eating now what you can’t preserve, and saving enough seed and young breeding stock for spring in hope of making it through to the next year for butchering and harvest. The New Year as such isn’t that important; the season is important. The cycle. The things you must do at the proper time and in the proper order in order to survive, because, as G.R.R. Martin puts it “Winter is coming.” Winter and dearth are predictable; spring and summer aren’t.

Samhain is the Celtic Feast of the Dead

Well, no, not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that Samhain marks a liminal time between the end of Summer and the start of Winter. As a liminal time, half-way between two seasons, Samhain is special in that it’s neither one thing or the other. In terms of Medieval Irish texts and myths, Samhain is a time when denizens of various Otherworlds, including the supernatural, the fey, and the dead, are free to cross over to this world, just as mortals can cross over to the Otherworlds. It’s also not really accurate to equate the various Celtic Otherworlds with Hell, or even with the land of the dead. Again, it’s not that easy. Lines blur with Celtic myths.

Samhain is the ancestor of Halloween

It’s perhaps better to categorize Samhain as one inspiration for Halloween. The medieval Catholic church celebrated a number of feast days or holy days commemorating the death of saints who had no particular feast specifically dedicated to them. The dates varied with various “local” Catholic churches in the Middle ages, but the church eventually settled on November 1.

In 609 Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or as Middle English has it, Alholowmesse. The Venerable Bede (d. 735) states that the celebration of All Saints Day occurs November 1 in England. The night before, October 31 was thus All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. In A.D. 1000 the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the souls of all the departed (particularly those in Purgatory), by praying for them. There are references to both days earlier, but these seem to be the dates of official approval and administrative standardization as feast days with their current places in the calendar.

Certainly the associations of harvest and the dying of the year underlie the church’s decision to have an official day of the dead for commemorative purposes, and it’s not unlikely that the church made a conscious decision to assign the feast officially to a day that already had local associations with commemorating the dead, which Samain assuredly has.

I am posting this now, because this morning’s email contained this year’s first Samain related link to a Chick tract; it’s going to be a long couple of weeks. Instead of reading Chick tracts, read this; Echtrae Nerai; The Adventures of Nera. It’s a medieval Irish tale set on Samain, it’s odd, and spooky and features a talking corpse and a visit to the Otherworld because “the fairy-mounds of Erinn are always opened about Halloween.”

An earlier version of this post was published in 2017 on Medium.com

References   [ + ]

1. T. G. E. Powell. The Celts. Thames and Hudson: New York, New York, 1985. p. 144.

Newly Discovered Pictish Carved Stone

Found near Dingwall, Scotland, as part of an excavation of an early Christian site in Easter Ross, the 1,200 year-old stone is not typical of other Pictish stones found in the area. The slab is probably a fragment from the massive slab forming the top section of a Pictish stone cross.

John Borland, of Historic Environment Scotland and president of the Pictish Arts Society, said: “The two massive beasts that flank and surmount the cross are quite unlike anything found on any other Pictish stone.
“These two unique creatures serve to remind us that Pictish sculptors had a remarkable capacity for creativity and individuality.

Via the BBC (see links below for images):
Rare 1,200-year-old Pictish stone found near Dingwall
Pictish carved beasts ‘unlike anything found before’

Important Iron Age settlement discovered: Warboys, Cambridgeshire

The 10-acre (four-hectare) site in Cambridgeshire was excavated by Oxford Archaeology East in preparation for a housing development by Bellway Homes.

“What makes this site really significant is we have evidence of early Saxon occupation mingled with the latest Roman remains,” said Mr Macaulay, deputy regional manager for Oxford Archaeology East.

Other finds include Saxon pottery, beads, worked antler and metalworking residues. Signs of Roman rural industry include a 15ft corn dryer and kilns, as well as Roman pottery.

According to Macaulay: “This a rare example of the Roman to Saxon transition in the east of England.”

The finds include eight roundhouses, some of which date back to about 100BC, three crouched human burials and 2,500-year-old pottery remains. There are in addition what looks like votive offerings including an equine burial.

Via The BBC: ‘Important’ Iron Age settlement found at Warboys dig