Seasons, saints, and feast days

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

The seasonal cycle

Despite its heavyweight title, a newly published work by Rhiannon Comeau, Land, People and Power in Early Medieval Wales: the cantref of Cemais in comparative perspective, contains some striking evidence for the influence of solar and astronomical phenomena on the lives of the people of medieval Pembrokeshire.

One might expect that the timing of most agricultural activities would be flexible, and that such seasonal practices as ploughing, sowing, heath-burning, the closure of arable fields to grazing, and haymaking; the movement of people and animals to and from summer pastures, animal mating, and the use of woodland by pigs; and the harvest and the post-harvest grazing of open fields and meadows might all be governed by the weather and by local experience. Instead, it turns out that early medieval agriculture was just as much governed by the calendar as by rental payment dates and legal proceedings.

Rhiannon has scoured an impressive body of data from archaeological excavations, landscape surveys, place-names, written records, law codes, saints’ lives, and poetry, and has found a high degree of clustering of rural activities around eight key dates in the year – the spring and autumn equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), the summer and winter solstices (21 December and 21 June), and the intervening cross-quarter days (2 February, 1 May, 1 August, and 31 October). Based on this finding, Rhiannon paints a picture of the countryside alive with activity and movement on and around these eight dates, marked by seasonal fairs and markets, formal assemblies and informal gatherings, ancient cultic practices and church rituals, the payment of food rents and tribute, and the aristocratic displays associated with stag-, hind-, and boar-hunting.

left Like their modern counterparts, medieval calendars could be illustrated with temporally appropriate images. This leaf, from a lavish 15th-century manuscript from Bruges, is decorated with an agricultural scene featuring peasants harvesting grain using sickles. Saints’ feast days are listed in the centre of the page.
Like their modern counterparts, medieval calendars could be illustrated with temporally appropriate images. This leaf, from a lavish 15th-century manuscript from Bruges, is decorated with an agricultural scene featuring peasants harvesting grain using sickles. Saints’ feast days are listed in the centre of the page. Image: © British Library Board, Add MS 18851 f. 4v.

Patronal feast days

One of the most convincing of Rhiannon’s discoveries is that two-thirds of the churches in the cantref (lordship) of medieval Cemais are dedicated to saints whose feast days occur within a week of a quarter day. As the author says, it hardly seems accidental that 33 out of 54 dedications cluster within just 43 days (12 per cent) of the year. The point is not that people chose to dedicate their churches to saints because their feast days fall on these dates, but that the dates were chosen by hagiographers as the most appropriate for commemorating the deaths of such Welsh saints as Teilo, Cawey, Curig, Brynach, Samson, Bleidd, Dogmael, Illtud, and Meugan because the Church wanted to appropriate dates that were already of significance and associated with pre-Christian traditions.

Rhiannon’s study focuses on one small part of Wales, a landscape that encompasses the Preseli Hills, famous as the source of the Stonehenge bluestones (see CA 366, 345, and 311), but several pages of her book are devoted to showing that these eight turning points in the year have long been considered special in many parts of the northern hemisphere, not just in this rural and remote part of medieval Wales.

The four seasons

The cross-quarter days – called Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lugnasad in Welsh and Irish legal documents – are the dates on which the seasons traditionally begin and end. The fact that they are celebrated by modern pagans should not blind us to their genuinely ancient origin and to what Rhiannon describes as the ‘abundant evidence’ from early medieval Welsh sources that these turning points in the calendar were marked by gatherings, feasting, horse-racing, markets, and legal assemblies. The Welsh names for the three months of crop-growth also enshrine this calendric structure: Cyntefin (May) means ‘start of summer’, Mehefin (June) means ‘middle of summer’, and Gorffenaf (July) means ‘end of summer’.

Rhiannon can only speculate (or theorise, if you prefer) on what this all means, but these transitional dates appear to be the underpinning for calendric activities that go back to the origins of farming, and perhaps many thousands of years before that. Today we are remarkably unobservant as a whole of the seasonal cycle (so much so that Radio 3 presenters can say that they are ‘looking forward to the beginning of spring’ in the last week of May). There is an objective and observable reason why we should recognise that the seasons do begin and end on the quarter days (and why midsummer and midwinter really are what they say): the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days mark key points in the solar cycle, and it is the resulting daylight length and temperature that triggers plant growth and the behaviour of insects, birds, and animals.

Past and future

Rural communities around the world tend to be more aware of these days than urban populations, and Sherds wonders: when exactly did we begin to lose touch with the natural cycle of the sun, the stars, and the seasons? Was it at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when people moved from land-based activities to working in factories, quarries, furnaces, and mines? Was it, as the poet John Clare believed, when enclosure cut people off from the natural world? Was it the fracturing of so many rural traditions that resulted from two World Wars? Was it, as George Sturt, author of The Wheelwright’s Shop (1929) believed, when farms became mechanised? Or was it when post-war urbanisation began to swamp rural settlements, as Laurie Lee thought was the case?

above Inside the nave of Christ Church in Cheylesmore, built in the ‘Festival Style’ between 1956 and 1958.
Inside the nave of Christ Church in Cheylesmore, built in the ‘Festival Style’ between 1956 and 1958. Photo: © Historic England Archive.

Is it overly idealistic to think that our disconnection from seasonal dates and patterns could be repaired? Instead of one trudging, dreary round in which commercialised Christmas and Easter seem to go on for months and the other main event of the year is the summer holiday (over which COVID has cast its shadow this year), would it not be fun to mark the eight key dates again? Could the collective desire to escape the city for rural homes with gardens in the new post-COVID world, with more people working from home, lead to a rediscovery of the seasonal round and the festivities that go with it?

The Festival of Britain

On the subject of fun, Historic England has announced that two important historic buildings have had their listings upgraded, while seven others have had their list entries updated to recognise their connections with the Festival of Britain, which took place 70 years ago, from May to September 1951, as an attempt to jolly the nation after the Second World War. The Festival is associated with London’s South Bank, but celebrations took place at more than 2,000 locations across the UK, and had a lasting influence on design and architecture in the 1950s, a fact reflected in the upgrading from Grade II to Grade II* of London’s Calvary Charismatic Baptist Church (originally the Trinity Congregational Church) at 119 East India Dock Road.

This was completed in 1950 and regarded as an exemplar of modern post-war building construction. Historic England refers to its combination of ‘modernism with whimsy and Englishness’, but the architects themselves acknowledged a debt to Scandinavian style – specifically Stockholm Town Hall, whose Ragnar Östberg tower influenced the cupola and tower of this church. A further innovation for Britain was the concept of a ‘church centre’, with meeting rooms and recreational facilities as well as worship space. The design was widely published in the contemporary architectural press, and became a model for subsequent places of worship of many denominations.

The other building to be upgraded is Christ Church in Frankpledge Road, Cheylesmore (a Coventry suburb). This was designed in 1953 and built between 1956 and 1958 in what became known as the ‘Festival Style’, with large areas of brickwork disguising a concrete frame under a lightweight copper roof. The lavish interior decoration was inspired by the Festival Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park, which in turn was based on Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens – further evidence of the Scandinavian influence that was also prominent in the design of home furnishings of the period. Historic England says the church ‘illustrates a period that marked a shift towards joyful, community worship’, which sounds like something we would all welcome at the moment: perhaps we will feel more festive as we come closer to next June’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.