Wednesday, 22 September 2010

On Feasts and Fasts and Ember Days

On the theme of continuity with our medieval past...

Last week, September 14th, was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, or Holy Rood Day*, to be more medieval. Three days in the week following that feast - the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday - were traditionally Ember Days, set aside as times of fasting and prayer. There are four periods of Ember Days in the year, at the four seasons of the year: the first week in Lent, the week after Whitsun, the September days, and the week following St Lucy's Day in December. Wikipedia offers, without citation, this mnemonic:

"Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie."


The OED derives 'ember' in this usage from the Old English ymbren, which comes ultimately from OE. ymbryne, that is ymb 'about, round' + ryne 'course, running'. (Although our cautious lexicographer adds "It seems however not wholly impossible that the word may have been due to popular etymology working upon some Vulgar Lat. corruption of quatuor tempora". Not wholly impossible, no.). They do not mention the rather sketchy etymology provided by one fifteenth-century writer, John Mirk, an Augustinian canon from Shropshire who wrote in his collection of homilies for festal days, "Þes dayes byn callet Ymbryngdayes..for encheson þat our old faders wolden ete þes dayes kakes bakyn yn þe ymbres". That is, "these days are called Ember-Days because on these days our ancestors used to eat cakes baked in the embers." Well, no, John, but not a bad try.

(In case this makes you wonder: ember in relation to a fire is not related to the Ember Days; it comes from OE æmerge, and the -b- sneaked in there later).

So the word evokes the turning course of the year, and provides an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, the involvement of God in the needs of the different seasons of the year. It's an ancient practice of the church, dating back ultimately to pre-Christian tradition, though now observed only sporadically. What always strikes me about such observances, as indicated by the English names they bear - see also, Lammas and Whitsun - is how thoroughly enmeshed they once were in English life. The collections of quotations about these words in the OED and the Middle English Dictionary don't come from learned works, or even from church calendars: they're from laws, charters, letters, even cookery books - mentioned in passing in the records of everyday life, more to be counted on than dates reckoned in days or months. The cycle of medieval life was a round of feasts and fasts, many of which are now almost forgotten. I'm trying to think my way into them, one by one.

*Sometimes in medieval usage called "Holyrood day in harvest" to distinguish it from the Feast of the Invention of the Cross, in May. The two feasts have now been merged... sigh.

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