Wednesday, 19 September 2018

'This fast is kept four times in the year'

A diagram of the Ember Days in a manuscript made at Thorney Abbey, c. 1110

Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of this week are the harvest Ember Days, a three-day period of prayer and fasting which recurs four times over the course of the year. By ancient tradition there are four periods of Ember Days, corresponding with the four seasons: they fall in the weeks following the first Sunday in Lent, Whitsun, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14), and St Lucy's Day (December 13). The last two, being tied to fixed rather than moveable feasts, will always fall fairly close to the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and so at the mid-point of these seasons (in traditional reckoning the solstices and equinoxes were usually understood to mark the middle or height of seasons rather than, as often today, the beginning).

The origins of the Ember Days are usually explained as lying in pagan Roman custom, petitioning the gods for aid at different points in the agricultural cycle, from the seed-time to the harvest, in the height of summer and the depth of winter. By the fifth century, and perhaps before, they had been adopted for Christian use by the church in Rome, and as they gradually spread further afield they were widely observed by the medieval church. Though not much noticed today, they are a reminder of how closely linked the medieval church was to the natural world, intently attuned to its seasons and cycles, and always ready to see human life not as separate from nature or from God but as part of one organic whole, in which the natural, the human, and the divine are interrelated at the most essential level.

(I've written about this many times, especially in reference to the Anglo-Saxon church - a collection of links can be found on this page.)

The Ember Days were observed in Anglo-Saxon England from at least the eighth century onwards; they are regularly prescribed in lawcodes and mentioned in standard learned works on computus (the calculation of time and church calendars - a very complicated science, which was an endless fascination to mathematically-minded early medieval scholars!). Most of the images in this post come from 11th and 12th-century English manuscripts which find different ways of representing the Ember Days in diagram form - divine science which is turned into art, too.


In Latin these days are called quatuor tempora, and tempora might perhaps be the origin of the Old English name, ymbren, from which we get 'Ember'. However, since ymb- is a very common Old English prefix, meaning 'around', a learned Anglo-Saxon might have perceived a (perhaps etymologically spurious, but nonetheless meaningful) connection between the word ymbrendæg and a large group of words relating to cycles and circles, such as ymbhweorfan 'to revolve, turn around', ymbhwyrft 'a ring, a circular course, an orbit', ymbhabban 'to surround, encircle', and so on.

The link between the Ember Days and the cycle of the year was made clearly visually in diagrams such as the one above (where the Ember Days are in the four corners of the circle), and in the works of scholars of computus, such as Byrhtferth of Ramsey, who links them to the numerous other patterns of four and its multiples which, to him, structure not just the year but everything in the world: four seasons, four solstices/equinoxes, twelve months, twelve astrological signs, the elements, the winds, the four cardinal virtues, and the four seasons of human life (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age). It's all connected...

Byrhtferth's diagram of interconnection (BL Harley 3667, f. 8)

Other scholars in Anglo-Saxon England were less interested in the calculation of the Ember Days than in their history and their moral purpose. There was a firm belief, mentioned in several late Anglo-Saxon sources, that they had been introduced into England by St Augustine of Canterbury himself when he was sent by Pope Gregory to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons at the end of the sixth century. (It's possible this is true, though it would be hard to prove either way.) A homily attributed to Wulfstan gives a memorably rhyming encapsulation of this detail: 'Ymbrenfæstena healde man rihte, swa swa Scs. Gregorius Angelcynne sylf hit gedihte' (roughly: 'Ember-fasting keep we ought, / as St Gregory the English taught'). To Anglo-Saxon Christians of this period, educated in the tradition of Bede's narrative of the English church, there was no greater earthly authority than that of St Gregory and Augustine; they were the founders and fathers of English Christianity, and a custom linked with them must be supremely venerable.

An Old English poem known as 'Seasons for Fasting', probably written in the eleventh century, describes the history and practice of the Ember Days in this light. It traces their history back to Moses and four fasts of the year described in the Old Testament, emphasising continuity between the Christian practice and the Jewish heritage of the church. It goes on:

Nu we herian sceolan her for life
deorne dædfruman, and him dogera gerim
ælmesdædum ure gefyllan,
and on fæstenum, swa se froda iu
Moyses mælde, and we þa mearce sceolan
heoldan higefæste mid Anglum,
swa hie gebrefde us beorn on Rome,
Gregorius, gumena papa.

Now we should praise here for life
the glorious Deed-doer, and for him complete
our tally of days with almsdeeds
and fasting, as the wise one, Moses,
taught long ago, and we should keep
the dates resolutely among the English,
as the princely man in Rome appointed for us,
Gregory, Pope of the people.

The poem describes the dating of each of the four periods of Ember Days, and then goes on to preach about the benefits of fasting in reconciling human beings to God. (At the time there was some dispute about the dating of the spring and summer Ember Days, and part of the poet's purpose is to urge people to keep the 'English' dates supposedly taught by Gregory rather than any continental alternatives; don't let any Bretons or Franks tell you differently, he says, these are the right days! The dates the poem recommends are the ones we keep now, since the controversy was settled later in the eleventh century.)

In the poem the discussion of the Ember Days and fasting in general is followed by a fervent denunciation of sinful priests, whose duty is to help the laity become closer to God, but who are themselves, it says, too often stained by sin: they 'daily offend the Lord by their neglect', misleading their people and caring more for drinking wine and eating oysters (!) than for their sacred duties. At this point the poem breaks off, before the poet can enumerate any further enormities of the contemporary clergy. The gluttony and self-indulgence for which the poem attacks priests are, of course, meant to be tamed by fasting and self-denial such as practised in the Ember Days.


Another and more widespread explanation of the Ember Days is provided by the Golden Legend, the hugely popular medieval compendium of saints' lives which originated in the thirteenth century and circulated for centuries in various different forms. This text offers no fewer than eight ways of understanding the four-fold pattern of the Ember Days and their relation to the four seasons of the year. Here's what it has to say (in Caxton's 15th-century translation):

The fasting of the Quatretemps, called in English Ember days, the Pope Calixtus ordained them. And this fast is kept four times in the year, and for divers reasons. For the first time [first season, i.e. spring], which is in March, is hot and moist. The second, in summer, is hot and dry. The third, in harvest, is cold and dry. The fourth in winter is cold and moist. Then let us fast in March which is printemps [spring], for to repress the heat of the flesh boiling, and to quench luxury or to temper it. In summer we ought to fast to the end that we chastise the burning and ardour of avarice. In harvest for to repress the drought of pride, and in winter for to chastise the coldness of untruth and of malice.

The second reason why we fast four times; for these fastings here begin in March in the first week of the Lent, to the end that vices wax dry in us, for they may not all be quenched; or because that we cast them away, and the boughs and herbs of virtues may grow in us. And in summer also, in the Whitsun week, for then cometh the Holy Ghost, and therefore we ought to be fervent and esprised in [inspired by] the love of the Holy Ghost. They be fasted also in September tofore Michaelmas, and these be the third fastings, because that in this time the fruits be gathered and we should render to God the fruits of good works. In December they be also, and they be the fourth fastings, and in this time the herbs die, and we ought to be mortified to the world.

The third reason is for to ensue [follow] the Jews. For the Jews fasted four times in the year, that is to wit, tofore Easter, tofore Whitsunside, tofore the setting of the tabernacle in the temple in September, and tofore the dedication of the temple in December.

The fourth reason is because the man is composed of four elements touching the body, and of three virtues or powers in his soul: that is to wit, the understanding, the will, and the mind. To this then that this fasting may attemper in us four times in the year, at each time we fast three days, to the end that the number of four may be reported to the body, and the number of three to the soul. These be the reasons of Master Beleth.

The fifth reason, as saith John Damascenus: in March and in printemps the blood groweth and augmenteth, and in summer choler, in September melancholy, and in winter phlegm. Then we fast in March for to attemper and depress the blood of concupiscence disordinate, for sanguine [blood] of his nature is full of fleshly concupiscence. In summer we fast because that choler should be lessened and refrained, of which cometh wrath. And then is he full naturally of ire. In harvest we fast for to refrain melancholy. The melancholious man naturally is cold, covetous and heavy. In winter we fast for to daunt and to make feeble the phlegm of lightness and forgetting, for such is he that is phlegmatic.

The sixth reason is for the printemps is likened to the air, the summer to fire, harvest to the earth, and the winter to water. Then we fast in March to the end that the air of pride be attempered to us. In summer the fire of concupiscence and of avarice. In September the earth of coldness and of the darkness of ignorance. In winter the water of lightness and inconstancy.

The seventh reason is because that March is reported to infancy, summer to youth, September to steadfast age and virtuous, and winter to ancienty or old age. We fast then in March that we may be in the infancy of innocency. In summer for to be young by virtue and constancy. In harvest that we may be ripe by attemperance. In winter that we may be ancient and old by prudence and honest life, or at least that we may be satisfied to God of that which in these four seasons we have offended him.

The eighth reason is of Master William of Auxerre. We fast, saith he, in these four times of the year to the end that we make amends for all that we have failed in all these four times, and they be done in three days each time, to the end that we satisfy in one day that which we have failed in a month; and that which is the fourth day, that is Wednesday, is the day in which our Lord was betrayed of Judas; and the Friday because our Lord was crucified; and the Saturday because he lay in the sepulchre, and the apostles were sore of heart and in great sorrow.
This traces eight different ways in which the Ember Days can related to patterns of human and natural cycles, encompassing interpretations moral, allegorical, seasonal, historical, scientific, and medical. Such an assortment of post-hoc explanations for the practice, provided by various authorities and supported by reference to the science of the four humours, might today raise a smile, but it's really rather beautiful in its own way; rather than simply explaining the history of the Ember Days, as a modern preacher might, this seeks to explore deeper correspondences between the four seasons, and the fasts which mark them, and cycles of growth and death which affect everything in the natural world, including the human body. (I particularly like that in autumn 'we fast in order to control melancholy'; that feels about right!) The various explanations are meant to complement each other, and they reflect a view of the world as essentially ordered, in which the cycles of human health, or human emotion, or natural growth and decay, are all connected to divinely-arranged patterns which shape the universe.

The Ember Days in Ælfwine's Prayerbook (Cotton MS Titus D XXVII, f. 13v)

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