Wednesday 23 August 2017

'An elephant in its bath'

An extract from my latest piece for History Today:

I recently read a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937, when The Hobbit had just been published. Tolkien wrote to his publishers to comment on the description on the dustjacket, which compares his book with the work of Lewis Carroll. As Carroll the mathematician amused himself in Wonderland, the blurb suggests, so Tolkien the medievalist took inspiration from his specialism to write his children’s book. ‘Here again a professor of an abstruse subject is at play,’ it trills.

With patient precision, Tolkien takes issue with the use of the word ‘abstruse’ to describe his academic work. ‘I do not profess an “abstruse” subject,’ he protests. ‘Some folk may think so, but I do not like encouraging them. Old English and Icelandic literature are no more remote from human concerns, or difficult to acquire cheaply, than commercial Spanish (say). I have tried both.’ He also objects to the publishers’ description of him as ‘a professor at play’ – ‘a professor at play rather suggests an elephant in its bath,’ he remarks wryly.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

'As the sun shines upon this middle-earth'

The Dormition of the Virgin Mary, in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold 
On þone fifteogðan dæg þæs monðes bið seo tid þæt is sancta Marian tid. On þone dæg heo geleorde of middangearde to Criste, ond heo nu scineð on þam heofonlican mægene betwyh þa þreatas haligra fæmnena, swa swa sunne scineð on þisne middangeard. Englas þær blissiað, ond heahenglas wynsumiað, ond ealle þa halgan þær gefeoð in sancta Marian. Sancta Maria wæs on feower ond sixtegum geara þa þa heo ferde to Criste. Sancta Maria is godfæder snoru ond godes suna modur ond haligra sauwla sweger ond seo æðele cwen þara uplicra cesterwara; seo stondeð on þa swyðran healfe þæs heahfæder ond þæs heahcyninges.

On the fifteenth day of the month is the feast which is St Mary's feast. On this day she departed from the world to Christ, and now she shines in the heavenly host among the crowd of holy virgins, as the sun shines upon this middle-earth. Angels rejoice there, and archangels exult, and all the saints are glad with St Mary. St Mary was sixty-four years old when she went to Christ. St Mary is daughter-in-law of God the Father and the mother of God’s son, and mother-in-law of the holy souls and the noble queen of the citizens of heaven; she stands upon the right side of the great Father and High King.
- Old English Martyrology (from here)

Today is the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, the first of the two great Marian feasts of the harvest. In medieval England both the Assumption and the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, on September 8th, were known as 'Our Lady Day in harvest', to distinguish them from 'Lady Day in Lent' (the Annunciation, March 25 - 'Lent' meaning 'spring' here) and 'Lady Day in December (the Feast of the Conception, December 8). The different seasons of the year had their different Lady Days, though today the term usually refers only to the springtime feast. The Assumption was also called 'Marymass', especially in Scotland. The September feast was sometimes referred to as 'the latter Lady Day' - a name which appears as early as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - to distinguish it from the Assumption, and this period of slightly less than a month between the harvest feasts was a season too, when something might be said to have happened 'between Our Lady's days'.

All these feasts grew out of a wealth of ancient traditions about the life of the Virgin, part scriptural, part apocryphal, part popular legend. Over the course of a thousand years or so a rich narrative developed which traced Mary's life from the very beginning to the very end, from the joy of her parents at her conception to the moment when, surrounded by apostles on earth and angels in heaven, she was tenderly taken out of her earthly body. In between the story of her life was mapped out in a pattern which would have been familiar to many medieval women, through domestic, everyday scenes: parents rejoicing in the birth of a longed-for baby; a little girl learning to read with her mother, or climbing the steps to the temple like a child on her first day at school; a teenage Mary with her female friends, singing to her baby, at her churching, or in the last days of her life. These were familiar rituals of childhood and motherhood which resonated with medieval audiences, and there's something profoundly beautiful about elevating such ordinary family relationships to the dignity of high art. Though Mary is unique and peerless, in these stories she is every medieval woman, not an unapproachably distant figure but a woman imagined in relationship to others: a daughter, wife, mother, friend.

An alabaster panel of the Assumption (England, 15th century)

In particular, the story of her Assumption is full of other people and their love for her - the apostles and her friends gathering around her bedside, Christ cradling her soul in his arms like a child. The Bible gives no information about the end of Mary's life, but numerous traditions and narratives on the subject had developed by the fifth and sixth centuries, telling how Christ received his mother's soul and/or body into heaven at the end of her life on earth. The details of these stories vary (see this book for details), but today I thought I'd post a few extracts from an anonymous Anglo-Saxon homily for the Assumption. This is a translation of a text known as the Transitus Mariae, a widely-known apocryphal account of Mary's life which circulated in several different versions and in multiple languages in the Middle Ages. The English translation comes from the tenth-century Blicking Homilies; it's too long to give in full, but the whole text can be found at part 1 and part 2. Here are three short extracts.

Men ða leofestan, gehyrað nu hwæt her segþ on þissum bocum, be þære halgan fæmnan Sancta Marian, hu be hire on þas tid geworden wæs. Heo wæs wæccende dæges & nihtes & hie gebiddende æfter Drihtnes upstige. Þa com hire to Drihtnes engel & he wæs cweþende, ‘Aris þu, Maria, & onfoh þissum palmtwige þe ic þe nu brohte, for þan þu bist soþlice ær þrim dagum genumen of þinum lichoman, & ealle Drihtnes apostolas beoþ sende þe to bebyrgenne.’ Þa cwaeð Maria to þæm engle, ‘Hwæt is þin nama?’ Þa cwæþ se engel to hire, ‘Hwæt secestu minne naman, forþon he is mycel & wundorlic?’

Þa Sancta Maria þis gehyrde þa astah heo on þone munt þe wæs nemned Oliuete. & þæt wæs soþlice swiþe scinende palmtwig, & hit wæs þa swa leoht swa se mergenlica steorra, þe heo þær onfeng of þæs engles handa. Þa wæs heo swiþe wynsumiende & mid mycle gefean gewuldrad. & ealle þa þe wæron hie gesawon þæt se engel þe ær com to hire astah on heofenas mid myclum leohte. Þa wæs Maria eft hweorfende to hire huse, & heo þa alegde þæt palmtwig mid ealre eaþmodnesse, þe heo ær onfeng of þæs engles handa; & heo eac alegde hire hrægl þe heo mid gegyred wæs, & þwoh hire lichoman & heo hie gegyrede mid þon selestan hrægle, & þa wæs swiþe gefeonde & swiþe blissigende, [& bletsode] God & wæs cweþende, ‘Benedico nomen tuum... et laudabile in secula seculorum. Ic bletsige þinne þone halgan naman, forþon þe he is mycel & hergendlic in worlda world. Ic þe bidde min Drihten þæt þu sende ofer me þine bletsunga.’ Þa wæs Maria cweþende, ‘Mid þy þe þu me hate of minum lichoman gewitan, þonne onfoh þu minre sawle.’ Þa wæs se engel cweþende, ‘Ne beo þu, Maria, geunreted.’ Mid þy þe heo þis gehyrde, þa wæs heo cleopigende & cegende ealle hire magas þa þe þær neah wæron, & wæs cweþende, ‘Gehyraþ me nu ealle, & gelyfaþ ge ealle on God Fæder Ælmihtigne, forþon þys morgenlican dæge ic beo gangende of minum lichoman & ic gange to minum Gode; & ic bidde eow ealle þæt ge anmodlice wacian mid me oþ þa tid on þæm dæge biþ mines gewinnes ende.’

Dearest men, listen now to what is related here in these books about the holy virgin St. Mary, what happened to her at this time. She was keeping watch by day and night and praying after our Lord’s ascension. Then an angel of the Lord came to her and said, ‘Arise, Mary, and receive this palm-branch which I have now brought you; for truly, before three days have passed you shall be taken from your body, and all the Lord's apostles shall be sent to bury you.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘What is your name?’ The angel said to her, ‘Why do you seek to know my name? For it is great and wondrous.’

When St. Mary heard this, she ascended the hill which was called Olivet. And truly, that was a very shining palm-branch - as bright as the morning-star - which she had received from the angel’s hand. She was rejoicing and was glorified with great joy. And all those who were there saw that the angel who had earlier come to her ascended into the heavens, with great light. Then Mary returned again to her house, and with all humility she laid aside the palm-branch which she had received from the angel’s hand, and she also laid aside her garment with which she was clothed, and washed her body and adorned herself with the finest garment. Then she greatly rejoiced and exulted and blessed God, saying, Benedico nomen tuum quoniam magnum et laudabile in secula seculorum, ‘I will bless your holy name, because it is great and worthy to be praised, world without end. I beseech you, my Lord, send your blessing upon me.’ Mary said, ‘When you command me to leave my body, receive my soul.’ The angel said, ‘Be not sorrowful, Mary.’ When she heard this, she invited and called all her relations who were nearby, and said to them, ‘Now listen to me, all of you, and believe in God the Father Almighty, for tomorrow I am going from my body and going to my God. I pray you all that you watch with me together until that time, the day which will be the end of my labours.’

Mary receives the palm from the angel (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 132v)

The text then tells how the apostles gather around Mary, having been told that the end of her life is near, and she gives them instructions for her burial.
& þa æfter þysum wordum þa com þær ure Drihten & he hie gemette ealle anmodlice wæccende, & he hie onlyhte mid his þæs Halgan Gastes gife. & he wæs cweþende to him, ‘Broþor þa leofestan, ne sy eow nænigu cearo þæt ge geseon þæt þeos eadige Maria sy geceged to deaþe, & ne biþ heo no to þæm eorþlican deaþe ac heo bið gehered mid Gode, forþon þe hire bið mycel wuldor gegearwod.’ & mid þy þe he þis gecweden hæfde, þa ascean samninga mycel leoht on hire huse þæt ealle þa fynd wæron oferswiþde þa þe þær wæron, & þa þe þæt leoht gesawon þa ne meahton asecgan for þæs leohtes mycelnesse. & þa wæs geworden mycel stefn of heofenum to Petre & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa gyfylnesse þisse worlde.’ & þa ahof Petrus his stefne & wæs cweþende, ‘We bletsiaþ þinne naman mid urum saulum & we biddaþ þæt þu fram us ne gewite; & we bletsiaþ þe & we biddaþ þæt þu onlyhte ure world, for þæm þe þu eallum miltsast þæm þe on þe gelyfaþ.’ & þis wæs cweþende se eadiga Petrus to eallum þæm apostolum & he trymede heora heortan mid Godes geleafan.
Æfter þyssum wordum gefylde, þa wæs Maria arisende & wæs ut gangende of hire huse, & hie gebæd to þæm gebede þe se engel hire tocwæþ þe þær com to hire; þa þis gebed wæs gefylled þa wæs heo eft gangende on hire hus & heo þa wæs hleonigende ofer hire ræste, & æt hire heafdan sæt se eadiga Petrus & emb þa ræste oþre Cristes þegnas. & þa ær þære syxtan tide þæs dæges þa wæs semninga geworden mycel þunorrad, & þær wæs swiþe swete stenc swa þætte ealle þa slepan þe þær wæron. & þa apostolas onfengon þære eadigan Marian & þa þre fæmnan þe him Crist ær bebead, þæt hie wacedon buton forlætnesse & þæt hie cyþdon Drihtnes wuldor be hire & ealle medemnesse be þære eadigan Marian. Þa slepan þa ealle þe þær wæron; þa com þær semninga ure Drihten Hælend Crist þurh wolcnum mid myccle mengeo engla & wæs ingangende on þære halgan Marian hus on þæt þe heo hie inne reste. Michahel se heahengel se wæs ealra engla ealderman, he wæs ymen singende mid eallum þæm englum, mid þy þe Hælend wæs ingongende. Þa gemette he ealle þa apostolas emb þære eadigan Marian ræste, and he bletsode þa halgan Marian & wæs cweþende, Benedico te quia quicumque promisisti — ‘Ic þe bletsige min Sancta Maria; & eal swa hwæt swa ic þe gehet eal ic hit gesette.’ Ond þa andswarode him seo halige Maria & wæs cweþende, ‘Ic do a þine gife, min Drihten, & ic þe bidde for þinum naman þæt þu gehwyrfe on me ealle eaþmodnesse þinra beboda, forþon þe ic mæg don þine gife. Þu eart gemedemod on ecnesse.’ & þa onfeng ure Drihten hire saule & he hie þa sealde Sancte Michahele þæm heahengle, & he onfeng hire saule mid ealra hisleoma eaþmodnesse. & næfde heo noht on hire buton þæt an þæt heo hæfde mennisce onlicnesse; & heo hæfde seofon siþum beorhtran saule þonne snaw...

þa cleopode semninga þære eadigan Marian lichoma beforan him eallum & wæs cweþende, ‘Wes þu gemyndig, þu gewuldroda Cyning, forþon ic beo þin hondgeweorc, & wes þu min gemyndig, forþon ic healde þinra beboda goldhord.’ & þa cwæþ ure Drihten to þære eadigan Marian lichoman, ‘Ne forlæte ic þe næfre min meregrot, ne ic þe næfre ne forlæte, min eorclanstan, forþon þe þu eart soþlice Godes templ.’

And then after these words our Lord came there, and found them all watching together, and he enlightened them with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and said to them, ‘Dearest brethren, have no sorrow because you see that this blessed Mary is called unto death; for she is not called to earthly death, but she shall be favoured by God, for great glory is prepared for her.’ And when he had said this, there suddenly shone a great light upon her house, so that all the fiends who were there and those who saw the light were overpowered, and were unable to speak because of the greatness of the light. And then came a loud voice from heaven to Peter, saying, ‘I am with you always unto the end of this world.’ And Peter lifted up his voice, and said, ‘We bless your name with our souls, and we beseech you never to depart from us; and we bless you and beseech you to bring light to our world, for you have mercy upon all those who believe in you.’ And blessed Peter said this to all the apostles, and he strengthened their hearts with the faith of God.

After he had finished these words, Mary arose and went out of her house, and she prayed the prayer that the angel who came to her had told her. When this prayer was finished, she returned to her house and rested on her bed, and at her head sat the blessed Peter, and about the bed Christ's other disciples. And before the sixth hour of the day there suddenly came a loud thunder, and there was a very sweet smell, so that all that who were there slept, and the apostles and the three women, whom Christ had commanded to watch without intermission, took charge of the holy Mary, so that they should make known the glory of the Lord in her and all his kindness to the blessed Mary. And while all who were there were sleeping, our Lord Christ suddenly appeared there in a cloud with a great company of angels, and entered the house of the holy Mary where she was at rest. The Archangel Michael, the leader of all angels, was singing hymns with all the angels, as the Lord entered. He found all the apostles round the blessed Mary’s bed, and he blessed the holy Mary, and said, ‘Benedico te quia quæcumque promisisti — ‘I bless you, my holy Mary, and all I have promised you, I will perform.’ And holy Mary answered him, and said, ‘My Lord, I give forth your grace always, and I beseech you for your name's sake that you grant me obdience to your commands, so that I may give forth your grace. You are honoured for ever.’ And then the Lord received her soul, and gave it to Saint Michael the archangel, and he received her soul with reverence in all his limbs. She had nothing upon her save only a human body, and she had a soul seven times brighter than snow...

Then suddenly the body of the blessed Mary cried out before them all, and said, ‘Remember, glorious King, that I am your handiwork; and be mindful of me, for I keep the gold-hoard of your commandments’. And then our Lord said to the blessed Mary’s body, ‘I will never leave you, my pearl; I will never leave you, my arkenstone, for truly you are the temple of God.’

Mary's death, with Christ holding her soul (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 133)

There's some lovely language here. Christ calls Mary min eorclanstan, my arkenstone - more properly translated as 'my precious jewel' - a word with a long and fascinating history. She calls herself the goldhord of his commandments, his 'treasure-house'. Such tender speeches between Mary and her son are the most appealing part of texts about the Assumption - I posted some later medieval English examples here.

The burial of Mary (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 134v)

After this Mary's body is buried, and there's a story around her funeral, too long to post, which involves the conversion of a Jewish leader who touches her funeral bier. When she is buried, Christ appears again with a host of angels, to lead her body out of the tomb:

& þa hraþe bead Drihten Gabriele þæm heahengle þæt he wylede þone stan fram þære byrgenne duru. Ond þa Michael se heahengel geong weardode þære eadigan Marian sawle beforan Drihtne. Ond þa wæs Drihten cweþende to Marian lichoman, ‘Aris þu, min seo nehste & min culufre & mines wuldres eardung, & forþon þe þu eart lifes fæt, & þu eart þæt heofenlice templ, & næron nænige leahtras gefylde on þinre heortan, ond þu ne þrowast nænige þrowunge on þinum lichoman.’ Ond þa cwæþ Drihten eft to þæm lichoman, ‘Aris þu nu of þinre byrgenne.’ & þa sona aras Maria of þære byrgenne, & ymbfeng Drihtnes fet, ond þa ongan wuldrian on God & wæs cweþende, ‘Min Drihten, ne mæg ic ealle þa gife forþbringan þe þu me forgeafe for þinum naman, & hweþre hi ne magon ealle þine bletsunge gefyllan. & þu eart Israhela God & þu eart ahafen mid þinum Fæder & mid þinum þy Halgan Gaste on worlda world.’ Ond þa ahof Drihten hie up & hie þa cyste, & hie þa sealde Michahele þæm heahengle & he hie þa ahof up on wolcnum beforan Drihtnes gesihþe. Ond cwæþ Drihten to þæm apostolum, ‘gangaþ nu to me on wolnum.’ & þa mid þy þe hie wæron gangende to him þa, wæs Drihten hie cyssende & wæs cweþende, ‘Pacem meam do uobis. Alleluia!’ Ic forlæte mine sibbe to eow þurh mines Fæder þone Halgan Gast. Ond ic eow sylle mine sibbe þurh min þæt hehste lof, ond ic beo mid eow ealle dagas oþ þa geendunga þisse worlde.’ & Drihten cwæþ to þæm englum, ‘ Singaþ nu & onfoþ minre meder on neorxna wonge.’

Then staightaway the Lord told Gabriel the archangel to roll away the stone from the door of the tomb. And then Michael went forward and took the soul of the blessed Mary to the Lord. And the Lord said to Mary's body, ‘Arise, my kinswoman, my dove, and the dwelling of my glory, for you are the vessel of life, and you are the heavenly temple; no sins were committed in your heart, and you will suffer no pain in your body.’ And the Lord said again to the body, ‘Arise now from your tomb.’ And immediately Mary arose from the tomb, and she embraced the Lord’s feet and began to glorify God, saying, ‘My Lord, I cannot produce all the gifts that you gave me for your name's sake,  nor can they exhaust all your blessings. You are the God of Israel, and you are exalted with your Father and with your Holy Spirit for ever.’ And then the Lord raised her up and kissed her and gave her to the archangel Michael, and he lifted her up in the clouds before the Lord's presence. And the Lord said to the apostles, ‘Come now to me into the clouds.’ And when they went to Him, the Lord kissed them and said, Pacem meam do vobis. Alleluia. ‘My peace I leave with you through my Father’s Holy Spirit, and my peace I give you through my highest praise, and I will be with you always unto the end of this world.’ And the Lord said to the angels, ‘Now sing, and receive my mother into Paradise.’

Mary is lifted up to heaven (BL Yates Thompson 13, f. 135)

The above series of images comes from an illustration of the story in a 14th-century Book of Hours, BL Yates Thompson 13. It's four centuries later than the Old English text, but you can see that many of the details of the Transitus Mariae story are also present here - it continued to be popular throughout Europe during the medieval period, though is hardly known today. There are several versions in Middle English, including a lovely verse homily, as well as depictions in art. One of the most memororable of those depictions is found in the church of St Mary's, Chalgrove, Oxfordshire. This beautiful village church has an exquisite painted chancel, decorated in the first half of the fourteenth century, which shows scenes from the life of Mary and Christ, together with saints and angels, against a background of flowers.

The north side of the chancel depicts the life of Christ, from a blossoming Jesse tree at one end to the Crucifixion and Resurrection at the other. On the south side is the narrative of Mary's passing. The paintings were covered in limewash at the Reformation and so one or two later monuments have intruded into the series, but it's still remarkably complete. The first glimpse of it is breathtaking - no picture can do it justice.

The sequence begins with Mary receiving the palm from the angel, and praying on her knees:

We see her surrounded by the apostles and her friends, with the women in some beautiful fourteenth-century clothes:

Then comes the scene (now obscured by a monument) when her soul leaves her body, and Christ receives it:

Christ is the central figure, with angels behind him, and Mary's little soul is visible just next to him, being raised up from her body by angels.

Then comes her funeral procession, with the conversion of the Jewish leader, who touches her bier and then goes to preach to his friends:

Most of the burial scene is now lost, except for the tenderness with which this figure is cradling Mary's head:

Below are two almost lost scenes, then on the adjacent wall, beside the east window, are the Assumption and Coronation.

They parallel the upward movement on the other side of the window, of Christ's Resurrection and Ascension.

Chalgrove is a treasure of a church, and the chancel has the kind of air about it that Lady Chapels often have - a feeling of lightness and delicacy in the decoration, as of sunlight caught in spiderwebs. It sounds silly to say it, but it feels ladylike. For this reason I'm always particularly moved by the destruction of these scenes, such as you can see in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, where a whole carved sequence of scenes from Mary's life was systematically vandalised - exquisite scenes like this, of a little girl and her tenderly watchful parents, with their heads cut away.

All the apocryphal stories about Mary's life, because of their uncertain authority, have long attracted criticism, and - like all but one of the 'Lady Days' - their place in British culture did not survive the Reformation. Almost all the stories they tell about Mary's life are unfamiliar now, even to many Christians. (I clearly remember my own surprise when I learned, on an August visit to Germany as a teenager, why the shops were closed for a public holiday; I don't think I had ever heard of the Feast of the Assumption, or knew what it celebrated.) But it's not difficult to see why these stories were so popular in the Middle Ages, and our understanding of medieval Christianity is impoverished unless we recognise just how prevalent and how popular they were - how much imaginative and artistic space the medieval church dedicated to Mary's story. Though these legends contain plenty of miracles and marvels and angels, they're also very human and ordinary; they are the medieval church at its most 'homely' (to use Julian of Norwich's word), where the everyday, the domestic, the familiar is sanctified and honoured. Full of mothers and daughters and Mary's friends, these stories celebrate a sacred version of female community and female relationships; they are completely relatable, not only for mothers like Margery Kempe but for anyone who has ever had a mother, ever been a child. (And perhaps this is, in fact, one reason why they have historically attracted such virulent objections.) When these stories were forgotten, when the paintings were whitewashed and the statues were broken, something important and beautiful was lost.

Tuesday 1 August 2017

A Little History of Lammas

Today is Lammas, an Anglo-Saxon harvest festival celebrated on 1st August. Its name comes from Old English hlaf, 'loaf' and mæsse, 'mass', and it may have been a day when loaves of bread made from the first corn were blessed. Much about the origins of Lammas is obscure, but it's a festival with a long, interesting, and somewhat unusual history.

I said 'may have been' because we really don't know much about how Lammas might have been celebrated in Anglo-Saxon England. It's mentioned a number of times in Anglo-Saxon texts, but most of those references simply treat it as another name for August 1st, with no indication of any particular customs associated with the day. The name and the timing of the feast suggest a link to the wheat harvest and the blessing of bread, but we have no evidence to suggest what form that might have taken. However, it's often suggested that since the date of Lammas corresponds to recorded Irish and Welsh festivals, and there are no close continental parallels for a harvest festival on that date, 'Lammas' may be a Christian name given by the Anglo-Saxons to a pre-Christian festival celebrated in Britain and Ireland.

This means Lammas is often said to be a pagan festival (and it has been adopted as such by Neo-Paganism, where it seems to be considered as interchangeable with Lughnasadh). Though this is a plausible supposition, there is no firm evidence to support it. Despite its possible pre-Christian origins, the name 'Lammas' is both Christian and English: the second element -mæsse ('mass') was borrowed into Old English from liturgical Latin, and is only used to refer to Christian or Jewish festivals. In the Anglo-Saxon period and long afterwards it was endlessly productive as a suffix, giving us not only names we still use, like Christmas and Candlemas, but an almost limitless variety of Christian festivals with comparable names: Childermas, Michaelmas, Martinmas, Marymas, Ellenmas, Hallowmas, Roodmas, Crouchmas, and so on. It's very unlikely that it would be used for a festival which was perceived to have a substantial non-Christian component.

Similarly, our few references to Lammas are from fairly late Anglo-Saxon texts, and survive in a learned Christian context (as you would expect from the nature of the surviving sources). Lammas doesn't regularly appear in Anglo-Saxon calendars or liturgical books, where August 1st is instead the feast of St Peter ad Vincula and/or the Maccabees, but there are various intriguing references to it. The earliest may be in the Old English Martyrology, probably dating to the ninth century, which doesn't use the name Lammas but does refer to 1st August as the day of hlafsenunga, 'blessing of bread'. In this word senung, which is related to the verb segnian, 'to make the sign of the cross', is another borrowing from ecclesiastical Latin (signare), so we're no closer to finding any pre-Christian terminology here.

Harvest, from an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 6v)

The first recorded use of the word Lammas itself is probably in the Old English Orosius, which refers to 1st August in passing (while telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra) as 'the day that we call Lammas'. This text likely comes from the last decade of the ninth century, and that late date is interesting - it's already a good few centuries later than our usual authority on pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon customs, Bede (who doesn't mention Lammas). All the references to Lammas in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - again, simply as another name for August 1st - are from the tenth, eleventh or twelfth centuries. The homilist Ælfric, usually such a helpful guide to the cycle of the church year, also only mentions Lammas as an alternative name for 1st August: he refers to it it in passing in a homily about St Peter, telling his congregation that 1st August is the day 'you [not 'we'] call Lammas'. This might suggest he thought of it as primarily a secular rather than a religious occasion (though not a pagan one, or he probably wouldn't mention it at all). Perhaps by this time it was an extra-liturgical custom, adopted and supported by the church but not incorporated into the liturgy. If it was a day when people brought loaves to church to be blessed, we don't have any record of specific blessings attached to Lammas, though there are general blessings for bread and crops which might have been used.

Alternatively - though it's impossible to say for sure - it might be that by this date Lammas was for some people just a name for 'the beginning of harvest', rather than a festival with any particular customs. (Something like 'Boxing Day' in modern Britain, a name for 'the day after Christmas' which everyone knows and uses but can't really explain, and which bears no relationship to how anyone now actually spends the day.)

Lammas appears just once in Old English poetry, in the beautiful calendar poem known as the Menologium. In the section for August, Weed-month, this poem describes Lammas and the coming of autumn:

And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Weodmonað on tun; welhwær bringeð
Agustus yrmenþeodum
hlafmæssan dæg. Swa þæs hærfest cymð
ymbe oðer swylc butan anre wanan,
wlitig, wæstmum hladen. Wela byð geywed
fægere on foldan.

And [after the feast of St James] after seven nights
of summer's brightness Weed-month slips
into the dwellings; everywhere August brings
to peoples of the earth Lammas Day. So autumn comes,
after that number of nights but one [i.e. on August 7],
bright, laden with fruits. Plenty is revealed,
beautiful upon the earth.

According to the system of dating used by this tenth-century poem, the season of autumn began shortly after Lammas on August 7th - a date calculated by its position halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. I've written about this dating system before, and I wrote about some Old English harvest poetry in a post last year. This poem unfortunately tells us nothing about Lammas except that it comes 'to peoples everywhere' (which is actually far from true, since it was such a localised festival!). But you can see how closely it coincides with the coming of harvest/autumn - the Old English name for autumn is hærfest, so they're the same thing here. The link between autumn and harvest is one thing which makes the Anglo-Saxon view of this season quite different from our modern perspective. Think of autumn and you might think of reddening leaves, dewy chilly mornings, darker shorter days - probably not of harvesters working under a blazing August sun. But in Old English, linguistically speaking at least, autumn and harvest are indistinguishable.

Harvesting (BL Add. 50000, f. 4v)

Our final and perhaps most interesting Anglo-Saxon reference to Lammas appears in a ritual, intended to protect harvested corn from mice and other pests:

[...] lange sticcan feðerecgede 7 writ on ægðerne sticcan[...] ælcere ecge an pater noster oð ende 7 lege þone [...]an þam berene on þa flore 7 þone oðerne on [...] ofer þam oðrum sticcan. þæt þær si rode tacen on 7 nim of ðam gehalgedan hlafe þe man halgie on hlafmæssedæg feower snæda 7 gecryme on þa feower hyrna þæs berenes. þis is þeo bletsung þærto. Vt surices garbas non noceant has preces super garbas dicis et non dicto eos suspendis hierosolimam ciuitate. ubi surices nec habitent nec habent potestam. nec grana colligent. nec triticum congaudent. þis is seo oðer bletsung. Domine deus omnipotens qui fecisti celum et terram. tu benedicis fructum istum in nomine patris et spiritus sancti. amen. 7 Pater noster.

[Take two] long pieces of four-edged wood, and on each piece write a Pater noster, on each side down to the end. Lay one on the floor of the barn, and lay the other across it, so that they form the sign of the cross. And take four pieces of the hallowed bread which is blessed on Lammas day, and crumble them at the four corners of the barn. This is the blessing for that; so that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and do not cease from saying them. 'City of Jerusalem, where mice do not live they cannot have power, and cannot gather the grain, nor rejoice with the harvest.' This is the second blessing: 'Lord God Almighty, who made heaven and earth, bless these fruits in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit.' Amen. And [then say] a Pater Noster.

Quoted from Karen Louise Jolly, 'Tapping the Power of the Cross: Who and For Whom?', in The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Catherine E. Karkov, Sarah Larratt Keefer, and Karen Louise Jolly (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press), p. 79; my translation.

The manuscript from which this charm comes, British Library, Cotton Vitellius E xviii, is a psalter, written in a monastery at Winchester in the middle decades of the eleventh century. This charm survives alongside other prayers and rituals and an assorted collection of highly useful information: good and bad days for bloodletting, how to cure sick cattle and sheep, how to keep people from stealing your bees, the most lucky days for childbirth, and so on. A list can be seen here. Although to modern eyes this kind of ritual often looks like pagan folk-magic, it's part of a complex picture of popular and learned devotion in early medieval England; this particular ritual might well have been performed by a priest, and it's made up of explicitly Christian symbols and practices - the cross, the Pater Noster, and the consecrated bread. This charm suggests that there was something special about the bread blessed at Lammas, but it might plausibly refer to the Eucharist consecrated at a mass said on Lammas Day rather than to specific Lammas loaves.

(If you'd like to read more about these kinds of fascinating texts and the people who used and recorded them, I refer you to the brilliant blog For the Wynn - on modern ideas about Anglo-Saxon paganism see especially this post.)

Harvesting sheaves of corn (British Library, Lansdowne 383, f.6v)

Well, that was an exhaustive history of the Anglo-Saxon sources! Let's skip over the next seven centuries a bit more quickly. Later in the medieval and into the early modern period Lammas seems to have retained this kind of quasi-official status, acting mostly as a fixed date for various secular customs rather than being celebrated as a festival itself. It was still commonly used as a name for August 1st and sometimes for the whole month of August; often it seems to be simply another name for 'the season of harvest'.

Some later medieval writers understood the name to be 'Lamb-mass' (festum agnorum) and thought it had something to do with lambs, which suggests they didn't recognise the 'loaf' element or the connection with bread. Others treat 'Lammas' as if it were a name for the feast of St Peter in Chains, the feast more widely celebrated in medieval Europe on this day. In the fifteenth century John Lydgate, summarising the festivals of summer, includes in his poetic list 'Petrys cheynes wer brooke in prysoun, / The feeste therof callyd Lammesse', while his contemporary John Capgrave writes of 'the feest of Seynt Petyr, whech thei clepe in Latyn, 'ad vinculam', in Englisch, 'Lammesse''.

Given the time of year and the huge importance of getting in the harvest, Lammas was a popular date for fairs and local feasts. It was also one of the regular dates on which rents would be paid, debts settled, contracts made, and labourers hired. Because it was associated with such payments, 'latter Lammas' became a humorous phrase for 'a day which is indefinitely delayed', or 'never', as in these wonderful OED citations (note how late the dates are!):

latter Lammas, a day that will never come. at latter Lammas: humorously for ‘never’.

1567 GASCOIGNE Instruct. Making Verse Posies (1575) Many writers...draw their sentences in length, & make an ende at latter Lammas.

1576 GASCOIGNE Steele Glas. This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde)...That courtiers thriue, at latter Lammas day.

1642 FULLER Holy State. IV. xv. 316 This your will At latter lammas wee'l fulfill.

a1734 NORTH Lives of Norths (1826) I. 4 The very expectation of them puts me in mind of latter Lammas.

1805 W. TAYLOR in Ann. Rev. III. 244 This convocation was somewhat unbecomingly postponed to latter Lammas.

1857 KINGSLEY Two Years Ago vii, A treatise...which will be published the season of Latter Lammas, and the Greek Kalends.

In some English towns you still find fields and meadows called 'Lammas land', areas of common land where people could pasture their animals for a fixed season running from Lammas until the following spring. Above and below are the Lammas Lands at Godalming in Surrey, looking particularly beautiful in August last year.

I love those two phrases, 'latter Lammas' and 'Lammas lands' - while mundane enough in their definitions, both have an irresistibly poetic ring! And there's also the beautiful phrase 'Lammas growth' (also called 'Lammas leaves' or 'Lammas flush'), which is the name given to a renewed spurt of growth which occurs in some trees around early August - a second shoot of greenness following after the first burst of spring. A flush of fresh growth in a mature tree - isn't there a poem waiting to be written in that?

This is a wonderful puzzle of a festival. On the one hand, we have abundant evidence for its history over many centuries, from the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote the Menologium to the keen eye of the gardeners looking out for 'Lammas growth', from the witty sixteenth-century courtiers joking about 'latter Lammas' to the cherished land-rights of medieval villagers. On the other hand, we have very little evidence for the celebration of the festival itself. But however obscure its origins, it's a day which has had meaning, of many different kinds, to a variety of people and communities for more than a thousand years.

It's worth concluding by emphasising that variety, because it adds some nuance to the way Lammas is often popularly presented these days. Having been almost entirely forgotten in our less agricultural society, it's now frequently characterised as a 'pagan festival' (often a 'Celtic pagan festival'), as if that were the beginning and end of its history. As with much of what's said about Eostre, this is largely the product of 19th-century scholarly speculation, much of which is based on false assumptions or an imperfect understanding of the Anglo-Saxon sources. Specialists in the period now take a different view - but since these speculations of Victorian scholars were very influential in the development 20th-century Neo-Paganism, they are repeated uncritically all over the internet and elsewhere. Here's a typical example, from the BBC's Religions subsite:

Lammas, also called Lughnasadh, comes at the beginning of August. It is one of the Pagan festivals of Celtic origin which split the year into four. Celts held the festival of the Irish god Lugh at this time and later, the Anglo-Saxons marked the festival of hlaefmass - loaf mass or Lammas - at this time. For these agricultural communities this was the first day of the harvest, when the fields would be glowing with corn and reaping would begin. The harvest period would continue until Samhain when the last stores for the winter months would be put away. Although farming is not an important part of modern life, Lughnasadh is still seen as a harvest festival by Pagans and symbols connected with the reaping of corn predominate in its rites.

Notice how this elides everything between early paganism and modern pagan practice (and how 'still seen' suggests an unbroken continuity of practice which isn't there; the modern version is a complete reinvention, of course). That's a huge period of time just skipped over, jumping more than a thousand years from the pre-Christian period to the twentieth century - and what's ignored is everything in the sources discussed above, including all the Anglo-Saxon sources. A purportedly historical account of a festival which ignores every single documented source for its history is... shaky, to say the least. Typically, this also treats 'Lammas' and 'Lughnasadh' as if they are interchangeable names for the same thing, which is not just an oversimplification but also culturally tone-deaf; even if they have linked origins - and that's a big if - the Irish and English festivals have very different histories, and have to be understood within their different cultural contexts. (The cynical part of me wonders if English people like to use the name 'Lammas' instead of 'Lughnasadh' just because they find it easier to pronounce and spell...)

I'm very glad that there are people today who celebrate Lammas, and for whom it has a sacred significance - I don't want to disparage that at all. But from a historical point of view, we shouldn't ignore such a great swathe of recorded history just because it doesn't fit with modern black-and-white ideas of what is 'pagan' and what is 'Christian'. To modern eyes, a harvest festival somehow looks pagan - but that doesn't mean it is, and the assumption that it must be reveals more about us, and our impoverished view of the natural world, than it does about the past.

I'm conscious of this danger because I write fairly often about the seasons and the natural year in medieval literature, and although many readers seem to find this subject as interesting as I do, a small minority react very oddly and aggressively to it. For me, it's fascinating to see how medieval writers thought about and wrote about the seasons, and especially to try and tease out the kinds of meaning - poetic, religious, spiritual, philosophical or scientific - which they found in seasonal cycles. This is the theme of some of the loveliest poetry in Old and Middle English, as well as some intriguing examples of medieval science.

Because almost all surviving medieval English literature (my particular interest) was written down in a Christian culture, such poetry and science are often framed in explicitly Christian terms. This upsets some people very much. These people take the view that interest in natural cycles, or the natural world as a whole, is by definition solely 'pagan' (according to their understanding of that term, usually a markedly 20th-century one), and that Christian writers have no business caring about it. In their view, the Christian nature of a festival like Lammas is a kind of false shell within which a 'real' festival is somehow hiding. The nastier ones accuse me of deceitfully concealing this 'real' paganism for my own nefarious ends - they demand that I produce the secret pagan texts I'm hiding, and are never put off by the inconvenient fact that such texts simply don't exist. There is an presumption of bad faith, and they are determined to believe the worst both of me and of the medieval writers. In their imagination, someone like the Anglo-Saxon monk who wrote down the Lammas charm becomes part of some vast and wicked Catholic conspiracy, rather than a fairly ordinary product of his time, place and education.

What they can never seem to accept is that much of what modern audiences view as 'pagan' - solstices, the healing power of plants, astrology, and so on - were standard parts of medieval science, religion, and medicine. They were subjects of learned as well as popular interest, which even the most orthodox Christian writers accepted without question. (Not because they were too stupid to know better, but because their view of such learning and its sources and purpose was simply different from our own.) When people object to medieval Christians 'stealing' concepts they think of as pagan, it's often because they are projecting back onto the past a very modern view of such matters, one ingrained with suspicion of the catholic (and Catholic) nature of the medieval church.

I wouldn't mind this so much if it came from people who identify as pagans, but in fact it mostly comes from self-proclaimed atheists, who see it as a stick with which to beat Christianity. For them the idea that a conspiracy of Christians 'stole' seasonal feasts from paganism is a check-mate, proving that religion is a big fraud and they're the only ones smart enough to spot it. Having read a lot of Dan Brown and not much else, they wield a pub-bore armoury of 'facts', which are either very basic or entirely inaccurate (of the idiotic Ishtar/Easter variety); and my goodness, there are a lot of them about. Some of them even write for national newspapers. There's almost no point trying to talk to these people; they don't want to learn anything which might disrupt their existing prejudices, and all they want from historians is confirmation of what they already think they know. (People often ask me 'how did the Anglo-Saxons celebrate Easter?', to which the honest answer is 'well, what we know best from the surviving sources is that they went to church. Let me tell you about liturgical drama and some interesting Good Friday popular customs!' That answer, while true, isn't the one they want - they want an easy story about eggs and bunnies, and they don't much care whether it's accurate or not.)

The truth is, of course, that though the roots of a festival like Lammas, or other frequently cited 'pagan festivals' like Easter, are likely to be pre-Christian, we have very little (if any) firm evidence for how they may originally have been celebrated. That doesn't mean their pre-Christian history doesn't matter - not at all - but it's important to be clear about what evidence we do and don't have, and what it does and doesn't tell us. In the case of Lammas, what we do have is evidence for a harvest festival in Christian Anglo-Saxon England, on a date which continued to be marked for many centuries after the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. Lammas lands and 'latter Lammas' are not pagan by any definition, but they're part of the history of Lammas too - not more or less important than the putative pre-Christian festival, but much better attested. It doesn't make sense to argue about what the 'real' Lammas is - it's all real.

The idea that interest in the natural world is inherently pagan is one which would have made no sense at all to most medieval writers, or for that matter to most people for centuries after the end of the medieval period. It's a feature of an urban and post-industrial society to think that noticing and caring about natural cycles is an optional extra, or some esoteric magical secret - in fact, it's a modern luxury to be able to ignore them. We have light available to us, every hour of the day, at the flick of a switch, and so some people fiercely believe that only super-spiritual cosmos-attuned pagans could ever have thought to care about full moons and solstices. Go back even a hundred years and that's nonsense, of course; there was a time (and there are still many places) where solar and lunar cycles were unavoidably important, where moonlit nights were the only time it was feasible to go out in the evening and the lengthening or shortening of the days made a huge difference to the routines of daily life. Of course people knew when Midsummer was, and found ways to celebrate it  - it's not exactly a mystery! It's a failure of imagination not to realise that this is one of the ways in which the past (even the quite recent past) was very different to the present, and it's a very modern kind of arrogance to think that it takes some special deep insight to notice or care how the cycle of the year works.

This is especially true of the harvest and a festival like Lammas. In an agricultural society the harvest affects everyone - it's not an optional extra or a mystic observance. You don't even have to go back to the Middle Ages to become aware of this - think of Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, oblivious that it's unreasonable to expect to hire a cart in the countryside in harvest-time because she holds 'the true London maxim, that everything is to be got with money'. Today many of us are more like than Mary Crawford than the farmers she offended; we're fortunate enough to be able to obtain food of whatever kind we like, all year round, without having to worry about scarcity or season, and that makes harvest festivals seem like nothing more than a nice decorative adornment to the calendar. But we shouldn't forget this is a modern and a privileged perspective, and we shouldn't impose it back onto the past.

Everywhere you look at the moment, you see people projecting their fantasies back into history, rather than allowing the past to be different from the present. This comes from people across the political spectrum, but what they all have in common is that they only really care about history as far as it serves modern political goals. They're only interested in the past to the extent that it supports their modern prejudices, whatever those happen to be; they can't or won't face it on its own terms and by its own lights. What doesn't fit, they choose to ignore. The people who angrily object to the idea that Lammas has a Christian history as well as a pagan one have their own fantasy, of a homogeneous, 'pure' paganism, and they want me to provide for them a version of Anglo-Saxon culture with the nasty Christianity taken out - not because they care one jot for pagan beliefs or the mystery and glory of the cycles of the earth, but because they want grist to the mill of their political opinions. Of course I don't demand that such people take an interest in the later history of the festival - they can be interested in whatever they like! - but I do object to them insisting that I, in writing about medieval texts, suppress or distort what the sources actually do give us because they don't fit with a modern fantasy. The past - at any particular place and any particular moment - was very different from the world you know. Let it be different. Let it be what it was, and not what you want it to have been.

If you'd asked your average Anglo-Saxon monk or medieval villager whether celebrating the harvest was a Christian or pagan thing to do, I wonder whether they would even have understood the question. It's the harvest; it matters to everyone. No one stole it from anyone, because it belongs to everyone. Of all British festivals, Lammas is perhaps simultaneously the most local and the most universal. Throughout its long history, and in its different forms, it has been a name which honours what we all need ('peoples everywhere', as the Menologium says): the fruits of the earth, and our daily bread.

Harvesters, in an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Cotton Julius A VI, f. 6v)