Feast Days and the Yearly Cycle in Medieval England

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

This article is in many ways a sequel to an earlier one I wrote on reckoning time. Here, however, I will focus not on the various calendars in use in the medieval world, but on one aspect of time reckoning which shared some similarities wherever one went in medieval Europe: the yearly cycle. The modern Western mind is not so married to the yearly cycles, since far fewer Westerners are tied to the land these days. Medieval Europe was still an overwhelmingly rural society, so it will come as little surprise that for most people, the agricultural cycle formed the foundation for most of their activities. A look at both pagan holidays and at the development of saints' days which later succeeded them in importance will reveal their roots in this cycle.

Today, with artificial lighting and central heating and air conditioning, the yearly agricultural cycle is not nearly so important, except to farmers. However, even those of us who live in cities know that certain kinds of produce are only available at certain times of the year, and the cycle of annual holidays is still important to most of us. For people in the Middle Ages, these cycles provided an anchor of sorts; in pre-industrial societies, knowing when is the best time to plow or harvest is very important. I hope the reader will excuse me for focusing on England in the high and later Middle Ages, the country and period I know best. The cycle of seasons is a little different just about everywhere in Europe, although many of the major religious festivals were similar, and European seasons are in turn different from what we know in Canada. (Case in point: I returned from England, where leaves were just barely beginning to turn, on October 19, to find that the maples here had mostly shed their leaves and that I had missed the peak of the autumn colour).

I will be touching mostly on what are known as festa ferienda , or major feast days, which excepted people at least partially from servile work. Virtually every day on the calendar is the feast of some saint; which ones were festa ferienda varied from place to place; most of those in this article are common throughout Europe, although the celebrations associated with them varied. Often included in the festae ferienda was the feast of the patron of onešs parish church, which usually occasioned a local procession and often a large public feast, leading in the later Middle Ages to special guilds devoted to presenting these celebrations, along with promoting charity and the maintenance of the church properties. (These religious guilds, in fact, far outnumbered the more familiar craft guilds.) That aside, let's begin our tour through the medieval calendar.

Spring in England was considered to begin in February, when the ground generally thawed enough for plowing; by the end of the month, farmers were sowing peas, beans, and oats. On February 2 fell the Feast of the Purification of Mary, more commonly called Candlemas after a tradition of holding candlelit processions on this day. The parish priest would also bless candles on this day to be taken away by the people, which were believed to be especially helpful in times of sickness. This is approximately the halfway mark between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox; while we now look to the groundhog on the same date to tell us whether we shall have six more weeks of winter, medieval Englishmen and women undoubtedly saw Candlemas as heralding the approach of spring.

Spring was also equated with Lent, the forty day fast which precedes Easter. Since Easter is a movable feast, Ash Wednesday--the first day of Lent--fell anywhere between February 4 and March 9. The day before was called in England Shrove Tuesday or Shrovetide; in France, of course, it is known as Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday", a reference to the customs of wild revelry and overindulgence that preceded the beginning of the Church's most solemn fast the next day. In England, as in many places, the customary food for Shrovetide was pancakes.

Lent began the next day. This forty-day period of fasting (no meat other than fish was to be eaten, and the faithful were encouraged to go even further in their devotion) was by far the most important period in the medieval church--a time for introspection and acts of piety. Traditionally, palms left over from the last Palm Sunday were burnt to produce the ash which the priest used to mark each parishioner with the sign of the cross. Once yearly confession became mandatory for all Christians, they were encouraged to do it during Lent. No marriages could take place during this period without special dispensation.

In England, the calendar year began anew at Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation--nine months before Christmas Day) on March 25, at least until the latter part of the sixteenth century).

Easter Week began on Palm Sunday, when the faithful would bring "palm leaves" (usually willow, box or yew) or rushes into the church in honour of Christ's procession into Jerusalem. In the later Middle Ages, this evolved into an occasion of great pageantry, with costumed parishioners representing the Prophets processing around the churchyard along with the church's relics and a consecrated Host in an elaborate container, carried under a canopy. Great acts of charity were often done on Maundy Thursday, and a special Mass was held where all the candles were symbolically extinguished one by one during the liturgy to symbolize the coming darkness of the Crucifixion. The priest prepared for the coming days by consecrating three Hosts during Mass (as there would be no Mass on Good Friday, a day of mourning) and stripping the altars afterwards, washing them with water and wine symbolizing Christ's passion. In cathedral churches, the washing of the disciples' feet by Christ was reenacted by the bishop with the cathedral clergy. On Good Friday, the people of the parish followed the custom of "creeping to the cross"--approaching a special cross barefoot or on one's knees to kiss its base. One of the Hosts consecrated the night before was then placed, along with this cross, in a special sepulchre in the north side of the church, and a guard was placed on it until Easter morning. The week culminated in Easter, the greatest feast day of the medieval calendar (it fell between March 22 and April 25), when the Host and cross were taken out of the sepulchre and carried in procession into the church, led by the great Paschal Candle, which symbolized the reentry of light into the world. By Easter, dairy work had usually commenced in England.

The weeks following Easter were a time of great merriment--Lent was past, and the hard work of planting crops was over, except perhaps the planting of flax and hemp for spinning and weeding of the fields. On Hock Monday, the young women of the parish would capture passing men on the streets, only releasing them after a small ransom was paid into the parish funds. The men got their revenge the following day, Hock Tuesday, when the custom was reversed. May Day (or the Festival of Sts. Philip and Jacob the Apostles), of course, has a history long preceding the Christianization of Europe, and the celebrations reflect a general theme of fertility appropriate to what was considered to be the first day of summer. Besides the maypoles, gathering of flowers and forays into the woods (even by town-dwellers), there were diversions of a less innocent nature.

On Rogation Sunday (which fell five weeks after Easter), the parish priest, along with the people, would "beat the bounds"--walking around the boundaries of the parish, accompanied by handbells, offering up prayers to insure the success of the crops; a large session of communal drinking often ensued. Along with May Day, Ascension Day (the Thursday after Rogation Sunday) and Whitsunday (Pentecost; ten days after Ascension Day) were popular days for "ales" or festivals; attending these was called going a-maying. While the parish church sold ale to raise funds, plays (often of Robin Hood or St. George) would take place, dancing (including, late in our period, Morris Dancing) would occur, and perhaps a tournament, presided over by an elected King and Queen.

Somewhere between May 21 and June 23, depending on the date of Easter, fell the Corpus Christi festival, with its focus on the consecrated Host of the Mass; in England, this became the traditional time for the presentation of pageants and plays commemorating the life of Christ, often sponsored by the town guilds. As with many feast days, this day became the focus of religious guilds--usually the most prestigious--which sponsored processions similar to those described for Palm Sunday. June was also the month for sheep shearing, and festivals often marked this event. The festival of St. John the Baptist (June 14), or Midsummer, was the culmination of this festive season, whose celebrations once again contained pre-Christian echoes. Popular were huge bonfires, staying up the whole night on Midsummer's Eve, parades and military displays, and civic processions. After Midsummer was the time to mow the fields and prepare for haymaking, which usually occurred in July, although the Translation of St. Thomas of Canterbury, England's most preeminent saint, on July 7 provided yet another chance for revelry.

In August, the main crops would be harvested, and all other work ceased in rural areas as there was much work to do in a very short time. August's major feast was Lammas, or the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, which because of its date (August 15) often became a harvest festival as well. This provided a break in the heavy toil to attend diversions such as morality and mystery plays. Sometime in September, the harvest came to an end with the bringing in of the last sheaf of grain; the celebration of "harvest home" marked this occasion, where seed cakes were the traditional meal. As the grain was threshed and the fields winnowed, orchards were also harvested, and on Holy Rood Day (September 14) it was traditional to go nutting. By the end of the month, the winter fields had been plowed and sowed with rye, and by Michaelmas (the Festival of St. Michael the Archangel, on September 29) the harvest was over. Rents were usually due on this day, the beginning of a new agricultural year, and accounts were reckoned as farmers now had the means to pay debts. University terms commonly began about this time.

October marked the sowing of wheat, the brewing of ales for winter, and the preparations for the winter season. All Hallows' Eve (October 31, the evening before All Hallows' or All Saints' Day), as it is today, was considered to be a time when the ghosts of the dead walked amongst the living. In November, animals were brought in from pasture and stalled in barns, and some were slaughtered to provide meat for the winter, traditionally on St. Martin's Day (November 12), and any final cleaning was done before it became too cold to work outdoors. St. Catherine's Day (November 25) was also very popular, and the traditional time for young women to perform various rituals ( such as noting whether the shape of an apple peel allowed to fall to the floor resembled any initial) which were believed to help foretell the name of their future husband.

On the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day (November 30), the fast of Advent began. Although technically as solemn as Lent, observations of this fast were generally not as strict. With little to do outdoors except for woodcutting, it was (as it is today) a season of good cheer. St. Nicholas' Day, on December 6, was a time for role reversal in the schools, where one of the boys would be elected as Bishop for the day, presiding over a court of misrule. The truly festive portion of the season began on Christmas Eve and lasted through to Twelfth Night, the evening before Epiphany (January 6), the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the infant Christ. While gifts were exchanged particularly on this night, they were also common at any time during the twelve days, particularly on Christmas and New Year's (or the Feast of the Circumcision--although the date did not change until Lady Day on March 25, this was still remembered as the first day of the Roman year). Homes were decorated with evergreens, bay, holly, ivy, and mistletoe, and special foods--pies, nuts, fruits (particularly oranges), the Boar's Head, and the Wassail, a spiced ale served in a brown bowl with great ceremony--marked the occasion. The emphasis on light and warmth (embodied in the Yule Log) dates back to the pre-Christian period. The people enjoyed games and dancing, and plays of a more secular nature and mumming were popular customs, as was the appointment of a King and Queen of Misrule. On the day after Christmas (St. Stephen's Day), lords and servants might reverse roles, and those in service received their yearly gift of a set of clothes or livery. After Twelfth Night, the people got back down to business, and the yearly cycle began anew as farmers began to plan for spring by performing maintenance work around the homestead.

Other than of Advent and Lent, I have not mentioned fast days. One was expected to fast on the Ember Days (the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday following St. Lucy's Day (December 13), Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday, and Holy Rood Day), as well as on the vigils (evening before) of all the feasts of the Apostles except for Philip, James, and John, and on the vigils of Christmas Day, Whitsunday, Assumption Day, St. Lawrence's Day (August 10), St. John the Baptist's Day, and All Saints' Day.

It has been mistakenly asserted by some that medieval people had no sense of the passage of time. As I hope this article demonstrates, that is simply not true--the yearly cycles of feasts and fasts, along with the agricultural cycle, made them intimately aware of it, and the proof is to be found in such treasures as medieval books of hours, which brought the yearly cycle down to a personal level.


Duffy, Eamon. The Stripping of the Altars . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Singman, Jeffrey L. Daily Life in Elizabethan England . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.