The early anglo Saxons based their year on the lunar calendar, when a month was marked by the phases of the moon (hence the name monath from the word mona meaning moon). As a result a year was made of 354 days. This obviously resulted in an accumulation of days at the end of every couple of years for which a thirteenth month had to be added. When this happened the first full moon in this new month was called a blue moon and that year was referred to as þæs monan gear the moon year.
At the Synod of Whitby in the 7th century this calculation was changed to the more efficient roman way of calculating the year. The roman year was based on an average year of 365 and one quarter days which meant that 8 days were added over 1000 years. This doesn’t sound like such a big deal and wasn’t for the people at the time, but in 1582 the amount of extra days in the year had amounted to 10. Pope Gregory the 8th added the leap year day to sort this problem out but in true style, Britain refused to convert. By 1752 Britain was 11 days behind the rest of Europe and only then did they conform.
According to the great scholar Bede in the 7th century, the new year started on Modranecht, Mothers’ Night, the 25th of December also the day of Jesus’ birth. Many who still followed the celtic ways however, celebrated the start of the new year in November with the last day of the old year being Samhain or Halloween.
It is also worth mentioning that the Anglo-Saxons began their new year in November so that when some of the chronicles and contemporary sources give dates as happening in November or December of 900, they may in fact be referring to the November or December of 899.
For most Anglo-saxons however, life was more simple than worrying about how many days made a year. That was for the church and their important documents to worry about. They were more interested in the seasons and months, markers which told them when to sow, plough, or store their food or when they could go sailing or attack an enemy. Their whole year revolved around the tasks and activities they had to carry out in the warmer periods and as a result when they referred to how old something or someone was in years, they used the season of winter. For example, ‘he was 18 winters old’ or ‘she has lived in that house for three winters.’ Everything else, from the month of May until the beginning of October, was known simply as summer. This two season year was common amongst the Scandinavian kingdoms as well as in Anglo-saxon Britain. Autumn is a word that didn’t come into being until the 17th century as people preferred to refer to this season as the harvest season. Likewise spring is a later term from the 16th century meaning first season of the year.
Important dates in the Anglo-saxon year
December was known as Ærra Geola, the ‘first Yule’ or ‘preceding Yule’. This was because the winter solstice, known as Yule, occurred on the 25th of December. Similarly January was known as Æfterra Geola, or after Yule. In the Christian period Yule and the 25th December was overshadowed by the chosen date of Christ’s birth. The word Yule still remains even today but it is now associated with Christmas more so than the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
February was called Solmonað. Bede writes that this came about because of the cakes that were offered to the gods around this month by the pagans. The word sol can also be linked to a word meaning mud and it is thought that perhaps this is the true link behind the name Solmonath. February would be the time when the winter snow starts to melt away, leaving puddles of mud everywhere.
Embolc or Imbold on the 1st of February is part of the celtic calendar and marks the beginning of the lambing season. In the Christian calendar the same date is also used for Candlemas, the time when the virgin mary was purified after Jesus’ birth. It is also the shortest day of the year and people would light candles in a ritual to word off bad spirits. The church used this date as the time to purify their own candles as well.
Hreðmonað was the month of march, named after the goddess Hreða. The vernal or spring equinox also occurred in march on the 21st .
During the months of March and April, depending on the date easter fell on, was the Christian season of Lent. Lent actually comes from lent/lenct which means length and alludes to the lengthening of days after winter (called Lencten or Lenctentide). The church borrowed the word for the time period before easter day when the Christians were fasting. The fast is in rememberance of 40 days that Jesus spent suffering in the wilderness. Shrove Tuesday, the day before the lent fast begins, is marked by a feast.
The month of april was known as Eostermonað first named after the goddess Eostre, it too became absorbed into the Christian calendar so that even today we associate Easter with Jesus and how he rose from the dead.
May was called Ðrimilcemonað, the ‘month of three milkings’. By this time the fields were so healthy and green and the baby calves were starting to be born and so by necessity their mother would have to be milked three times a day. This was fantastic for both making food for humans as well as the calves but if the cows were not milked regularly the udders would become swollen and sore and prone to infections and siknesses. The first day of May was also known as Beltane and it marked the official beginning of summer. The Christian tradition of Rogantide also fits in with this time of year. As a bit of a mix between the two religions the local priests usually led their people through their parishes, beating the bounds and blessing the crops in a tradition reminiscent of the Roman feast of terminus, god of fields and landmarks.
Once we reach the middle of the year we have names for the months similar to those used around Yule. June is known as Ærra Liða translated as first or proceeding Liða, and July is called Æfterra Liða, or after/ following Liða. At first glance this may relate to midsummer’s day on the 24th of June, just as Yule was used for the 25th December. However the meaning of the word Litha is gentle or navigatable and has more to do with the calm and gentle breezes at this time of year that lead to smooth sailing.
During the pre-christian era in those years when an extra month needed to be added to the lunar calendar it was done so during these two months. This then new month then was known as Ðriliði meaning three lithas.
August was the month of weeds, or Weodmonað, although to be fair on poor august it could also refer to any kind of herbs or grasses. The plants were growing long and tall, especially the crops which had been growing all year. the first of August was called Lughnasa(gh) in the celtic calendar and marked the beginning of the harvesting season. On this day would be a festival of the first fruits of the harvest. The first sheaves of corn were ground up to be made into loaves of bread as an offering to the gods. This day was also known as ‘hlaf-maesse’ to the Anglo-saxons, the day of the loaf mass which in Christian times was called Lammas.
September was Haligmonað, or ‘holy month’. Rather than refering to any Christian beliefs and practices, Bede says that this month was used by earlier pagans as a month of sacred rites. It was also the time of the Autumn equinox on the 24th of September called Mabon, and then five days later it was Michaelmas on September 29 roughly. This date roughly coincided with the end of harvesting which could also be a clue as to the nature of the earlier pagan rites that were being celebrated at this time. Not only was the end of September the end of the harvest but it was also the time for many animals to be sold at the great fairs. The best could be sold/bartered for in exchange for tools, debts or supplies for the coming winter. Those animals that were not sold and were not chosen as breeders for the next year would meet their ends in November.
October, Winterfilleð, the beginning of winter. The word filleth refers to the full moon, because winter began on the first full moon of that month. The world was getting colder, animals were being sold, the houses and halls were being preapared to wait out the long winter ahead, and the thin wall between this world and the afterlife was at its thinnest. October 31st was the celtic festival of Samhain, All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
And the last of the months was November, the Blotmonað, the time in which surplus livestock that could not be fed and looked after over the bleak winter months with the harvest that had been collected were killed and preserved. Further north in Scotland this happened on St Andrew’s day, November 30. This was because of the cooler summers resulting in a later harvest. Those lucky sheep and cows who survived the cull were mated at this time also so that a new flock or herd could be calved in the spring.
Bede also mentions that it was the month of blood sacrifices which were made by the pagan peoples to guarantee safety in the colder months. The Icelandic word for November is also similar Gormánuáðr , the ‘gor-month’ or ‘slaughtering-month’.
The days of the week look suspisciously familiar to the Scandinavian gods and goddesses but you would be mistaken if you thought this was a result of the 8th century viking invasions. Don’t forget that the Anglo-saxons were also Germanic people that first came to Britain as Angles, Saxons and Jutes. It was as a result of them mixing with the Roman culture that the days of the week got their names, which we still use today.
Monandaeg – Day of the moon (Mona being Anglo-saxon for moon, like in Month)
Tiwesdaeg – Day of Tiw, a god of war and the sky
Wodnesdaeg – Day of Woden (Anglo-saxon version of Odin), a god of war, wisdom and poetry
Thunresdaeg – Day of Thunor (Anglo-saxon version of Thor), the god of thunder, sky and weather
Frigesdaeg – Day of Frig (Anglo-saxon version of Freya), the goddess of love and fertility
Saeturnesdaeg – Day of the Roman god Saturn, god of sowing or seed.
Sunnandaeg – Day of the sun (Anglo-Saxon Sunne)
A day for the anglo-saxon people was as black and white as the year being split into summer and winter. A day was simply the time when the sun shone and night was when it didn’t. Only the priests and those who were more learned (or more interested) in the sciences thought of days as we do, in 24 hour blocks.
The Church was one of the main time keepers during this period. They divided the day with seven times of prayer. Matins at sunrise, prime in the early morning, terce was late morning, sext was midday, nones in the midafternoon, vespers at sunset and compline just before bedtime. Church bells also rang out these hours of prayer which not only helped the monks and priests of the abbey or monastery, but also the people in the villages and even in the fields. thanks to these bells they could judge what time it was, whether to get up at the first bell or go home after the 5th or 6th.
The men and women of the church were also early scientists. They were the ones who wrote down as Bede did, the ways in which their society marked time and in some cases how the pagans did as well. Sundials were another way of keeping the time and two examples are on the walls of st gregory’s church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire and St bartholomew’s church in Aldbrough, East Yorkshire. There were also known to have been water clocks and candle clocks. The candle clock was apparently invented by Alfred the great by earlier versions from 6th century are known from china. The first alarm clocks were used later on. A nail was inserted into a candle and when the wax had melted down to that spot the nail fell out and clattered onto a plate underneath the candle.
2 thoughts on “Seasons and festivals: Time in Anglo Saxon and Viking England”
Fascinating! I have learned a lot – thank you. I had forgotten a lot of this information, and it’s good to have it all explained again. We take our calendars too much for granted – how can we have been 11 days behind Europe until 1752?! It boggles the mind!
I know I was the same. I knew vaguely that we changed calendars early on in history but it was a great refresher for me too. I love learning/relearning history for these posts.