A (Holi)day in the Life in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #7)

The medieval year during the 13th century in England was noticeably different than in modern life.

To begin with, the four seasons – marked in accordance with the medieval agricultural calendar – were observed at different times of the year than we recognize then today.

According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,

Winter was the season from Michaelmas (September 29) to Christmas when wheat and rye were sown.  From the end of the Christmas holidays to Easter was the season when spring crops were sown: oats, peas, beans, barley, and vetches.  From the end of Easter week to Lammas (August 1) was summer, and from Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest, or autumn. (p. 206)

This is in contrast to our modern calendar of seasons, which occur approximately as follows:

  • Spring: March 20
  • Summer: June 21
  • Autumn: September 22
  • Winter: December 21

This isn’t the only key difference between the medieval year and the modern.

In the present day western world, with a couple of months’ exception, most nations observe one statutory holiday a month (for all that not everyone necessarily gets all these holidays off work).

At the same time, most professional jobs offer a standard two weeks annual vacation to start, with the ability to slowly accrue more every 10 years or so.  Many other jobs that pay an hourly wage, however, offer no significant vacation benefits at all.

Medieval people – particularly villeins, who I’ve written about previously – likewise lived workaday lives.  But surprisingly, they worked considerably fewer days a year than many people of today.

Many days out of life

Three great festivals marked the medieval year, these being Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost/Whitsunday on the seventh Sunday after Easter.

Of these three, Christmas was the longest, which, including the period from December 24 until Epiphany (January 6), resulted in a 14-15 day holiday.

No farming could be done during this time because the fields were either frozen or flooded with rain.

Medieval Christmas was celebrated in a thematically similar way to today, including decorating the home and church, carol-singing, special games and other entertainments, feasting, and a manner of giving of gifts.

The Gies write:

Services required of villeins were suspended, and the manorial servants – the hayward, the lord’s plowman, the shepherd, the swineherd, the oxherd – received their “perquisites”, bonuses such as food, clothing, drink, and firewood that were their traditional Christmas due….

Tenants on manors owed special rents but also enjoyed special privileges….

At the upper end of the scale, barons and king entertained their knights and household with a feast and with gifts of “robes” (outfits comprising tunic, surcoat, and mantle) and jewels (pp. 207-9).

The Christmas holiday ended with special ceremonies and plowing games to honour the plow and the distaff – the two principal tools of medieval subsistence.  Real plowing, however, did not occur before Candlemas (February 2), which was formerly known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Following Candlemas was Shrove Tuesday, which preceded Ash Wednesday.  This, in turn, preceded the beginning of Lent and its forty dreary days of repentance, abstinence from meat, and (supposedly) abstinence in general.

The eventual arrival of Easter Sunday was cause for good cheer.  According to the Gies,

Easter, like Christmas, was a day of exchanges between the lord and tenant.  Tenants brought the lord eggs; the lord gave his manorial servants dinner.  The week that followed was a holiday for the villeins, celebrated with games. (p. 214)

The last two days of Easter week – the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter – was a festival called Hocktide.  This at times involved, according to the Gies, “wives whipping husbands on Monday and husbands wives on Tuesday.” (p. 214)

After Hocktide came the start of medieval summer and Maytime celebrations.  For Mayday, villagers went into the woods to cut windflowers, greenery, and hawthorn, sometimes sleeping overnight in the forest.  Then they “carried the May” through the village, singing and hanging the vegetation from window and balconies.

Mayday was also, according to the Gies, “a time for lovemaking, when moral taboos were relaxed.” (p. 214).

Two other, smaller feasts – Rogation Days and Ascension – also took place during Maytime, which concluded with the feast of Whitsunday and marked another week’s holiday in which villeins didn’t have to work for their lord.

For the remainder of the castle year, villeins’ lives revolved around a never-ending cycle of planting and harvesting, while the lives of castle-dwellers revolved around the village or villages that supported the castle.

This is an important fact to remember.  The Church had consecrated all the medieval holidays (i.e. holy days), particularly the three main ones, which included a Church feast as part of their festivities.

However, each of these celebrations – ancient agricultural festivals recast in the image of Christianity – had strong pagan roots that reached far back in time.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

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5 thoughts on “A (Holi)day in the Life in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #7)

  1. How about Saturday & Sunday though Janna? Later in history (from the Industrial Revolution) Saturday certainly was a standard working day, cut gradually to a half-day before generally disappearing.

    I guess agricultural workers were probably expected to work most days, especially if they worked with livestock.

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    • You make a good point, Roy – one I hadn’t thought of and wasn’t discussed in any of my general reference books that helps re-balance the equation of who actually enjoys/enjoyed more time off. For sure, villeins would have worked on Saturday. Most likely Sunday as well, although perhaps being God’s day, they got to spend less time in the fields and more time engaged in church events. I have a dull, exhaustive tome I haven’t cracked in years for that very reason all about the church in 13th century England that might hold the answer. I’ll do some digging and report back.

      Personally, I’m glad to have two days off every five rather than a week or two all at once every couple of months.

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  2. I’m wondering how the stupid calendar we still have, where Easter could be early one year, very late another, fouled up the harvesting and planting. I can’t believe this helped anything – some non-farmers got into the mix, and then it was too late.

    Down that line of inquiry, since they were sort of based on Passover, which also had a varying calendar (though the climate in the Middle East was not as extreme), how that affected the people in that region.

    I guess, if they didn’t really know when was best, and things varied, they could be lucky part of the time, but I thought early farmers were more attuned to the seasons.

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    • Okay, I just looked up how the date of Easter is calculated because I never really knew. I certainly didn’t know it was based on the timing of a full moon (the so-called Paschal full moon, which isn’t even an astronomical event) or that there have been several Controversies regarding when Easter should be celebrated. Fascinating stuff.

      Personally, I suspect medieval farmers relied as much on their inherent sense of things for planting and harvesting as actual calendar dates (kind of like how, in Canada, it’s said that the May long weekend is the official start of garden season where you can direct seed in the ground, but avid gardeners usually have a good sense of whether they can do so sooner or should wait a bit longer).

      According to my research, there were usually certain members of medieval villages who were excellent husbandmen, to the point that they would be elected to positions of leadership in that regard by their peers. These men in particular, I would guess, would be especially attuned to the seasons. But really, I suspect all the villeins were to some extent since they lived so close to the land and relied so directly upon it for their livelihood. I think it would be impossible to not develop that sense given this way of life.

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      • Made it complicated to follow things like lenten fasting and abstaining regulations in Christian Europe.

        But you’d think the church seasons would be more aligned (like +/- 7 days, instead of a lot more) with the siderial seasons; plants really need to go in the ground around the same time every year to take advantage of sun (the rain varies, but is also more seasonal than random). Famine was a real possibility when farmers got it wrong – they usually didn’t have enough for two sets of plantings.

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