Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Three, The English Year

The past, as has been noted, is another country. Or, if it's not, it might as well be for all the resemblance it bears to modern life. The third book on my list makes this abundantly clear as it details all sorts of customs and traditional observances that most twenty-first cntury people have never heard of, much less taken part in.

In reading The English Year, A month-by-month guide to The Nation's Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night – or rather in flicking through it and consulting it, it's not the kind of book you can sit down and read cover to cover (even the cover takes long enough to read) – you realise how much has changed since the time when The Black and The White is set [ie the mid-fourteenth century].

For instance, did you know that during the fourteenth century (and for centuries before that) the new year was on a different day? Not a little bit different, not a day or two for some weird adjustment of the calendar – months different. The church, in its wisdom, had decided that the December31st/January 1st-style new year was altogether too pagan and had decreed that the beginning of the year must be pegged to the Christian character. So they decided that if Christmas was the pivotal moment of the calendar – the moment at which God arrived on earth and everything in history changed - then the moment at which Christ was conceived must be the beginning of the change. So they decided that the Feast of the Annunciation, aka, the conception of Christ on the 25th of March, would be the beginning of the Christian New Year.

Of course, what with people having been wassailing and hanging out the holly and ivy for some considerable time before the Church got here, things became a bit confused. It seems that, from at least the thirteenth century, January the 1st was accepted by everybody as the official start of the year but the habit of letting the church dictate was hard to shake. Even as late as the 17th century Samuel Pepys refers to New Year's day at the beginning of January, but never changes the year in his diary until March 25th!

Which goes some way to explaining the oddity of financial and tax years coming at the end of March/beginning of April.

This is a dramatic example of what The English Year can tell you but there are lots of less dramatic but more picturesque examples. Kit-dressing at Baslow (Derbyshire) on the 4th of August. (Get your garlanded milkmaid's pail [kit] here!). Church clipping in Painswick (Gloucestershire) on the 19th of September. [Basically a saint's name day from the old word ycleped 'called'.) Hungerford (Berkshire) Hocktide court on the Monday or Tuesday after Easter. (Nobody knows...)

[Both Painswick and Hungerford appear in TBTW, though I don't mention either of the festivals in the book. But, somehow, just knowing they took place gave the feel of the places more depth in my mind.]

One of the things that I found fascinating was how often pagan supersititions were welded to apparently Christian festivals – usually saints' days.

For instance, the 24th of April, St Mark's Eve is, apparently, one of the key nights on which to divine the future. As Steve Roud, author of The English Year, points out 'Certainly, there seems to be nothing in the life or writings of the evangelist St Mark that would deserve this reputation, but the idea was extremely widespread.'

Widespread and wide-ranging, from the sane and familiar dreaming-of-your-future-lover motif to the startling notion that the wraith of your future lover would be summoned to your side; and not just summoned, but called to your side by a 'cake' baked of equal parts of flour, salt and the urine of all those taking part in the ritual!

Then there's St Vincent's day. Nobody knows why St Vincent of Saragossa was so popular across Europe in the middle ages – he doesn't seem to have been martyred in any particularly spectacular or horrifying manner (though ravens did guard his martyred corpse until it could be buried) – but popular he was. And his day was, like St Mark's, allied to divination. In this case it wasn't lover-divination but weather-foretelling of a sub-St Swithin kind. It seems to have been agreed that if the weather was nice on his feast day – January 22nd – then it was likely to be a pleasant year. Not amazing. Just pleasant. Clement. Nice.

He may have been from Saragossa but we English obviously took St Vincent and his weather to our hearts.

Of course it's not all saints and divination and calendar weirdness – though any one of those, ignored, could derail your novel. (Woe betide the historical novelist who doesn't know when the major festivals of the church year were because that's how people way-marked the year and dated their letters. It was 'the Tuesday after Ascension day' or 'the Wednesday before the feast of St John the Baptist' and all that. ) No, there are some plain silly customs in The English Year too. Some we've heard of like the cheese rolling Gloucestershire villagers (Painswick features again – I think it's the hill, Painswick beacon, which does get a mention in TBTW) and some are less well-known like the Shropshire practice of men and women lifting each other bodily off the ground on Easter Monday and Tuesday respectively. A Manchester correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine of 1784 described it:

'The men lift the women on Easter Monday, and the women the men on Tuesday. One or more take hold of each leg, and one or more of each arm, near the body, and lift the person up, in a horizontal position, three times. It is a rude, indecent, and dangerous diversion, practised chiefly by the lower class of people.'

Hmm. Methinks maybe he protested too much and might quite like to have been 'liften horizontally' by multiple ladies of the lower class himself.

So. The English Year. Customs large and small, sedate and mad, lost to history and still practiced. (You have to check out the website for the Mad Maldon Mud Race, described in The English Year as belonging to a category of custom which will be known to future historians as 'started with a discussion in the pub'. Discussion, or in this case, dare.) Customs based on religion – both Christian and pagan – and agricultural practices and beliefs and traditions that have vanished in the mists of time. But all fascinating. And all part and parcel of our world – even as half-recalled folk memories - as well as the world of the fourteenth century.

I'd have made lots of mistakes without The English Year. And I'd have missed out on lots of laughs and 'well I never' moments, too.


C. N. Nevets said...

I must needs get me that book. Sounds fantastic!

Alis said...

It surely is, Nevets. It's social history at its most social.