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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Renaissance and Medieval Advent and some Winter Weather Lore

Advent begins with the first Sunday in Advent which is the first Sunday on or after St Andrew’s day, the 27th November.  Advent is a time of waiting; it is not a time of feasting in the Renaissance; the opposite, it’s a time of fast.  The most extreme fast is on the three Ember days, the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the third Sunday in advent, when only one meal is permitted to be consumed [and that within the confines of fast, ie fish and vegetables] with exemptions for pregnant and nursing women, children and men who are doing physical labour.
This was fewer men that one might think as there were very few jobs to be done by the peasant through December.  Most of the animals were slaughtered at Martinmas, 11th November, which also coincided with the end of harvesting and was celebrated with a feast on which the parts of the animals that could not be kept were eaten up.  The few animals not destined for breeding that were left were generally slaughtered in December for smoking or curing in time for Christmas.  The jobs left were making and mending tools as the few stock remaining were quickly seen to.
Not until the so-called Agricultural revolution when the turnip was raised as winter feed was it viable to keep the stock alive over the winter.   The religious aspect of the waiting period was however well designed to overcome the shortage of meat and to prevent the hunting of wild birds and animals in a season when they too had very little food and found life hard; the Christmas feasting would be a relief from this and something to look forward to.  Without any animal products – no eggs or dairy either both by the custom of the fast and because the few cows gave little if any milk over the winter, and most hens went off lay – the intake of protein was almost entirely from fish and pulses. 
Fasting was however very much a matter of interpretation in some respects.
In the 14th century poem ‘Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight’ Gawaine comes to Bercilak’s halls on the last day of advent, Christmas Eve, though meatless:
“Many kinds of fish [were served] some baked in bread, some broiled on the coals, some boiled, some in sauces flavoured with spices;” [Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, translation by W.A. Neilson]
The apology for ‘this penance’ is under the circumstances fairly laughable.   
Oh and by the way fish wasn’t always fish.
According to Canon law puffins counted as fish because of their extremely fishy flavour [EEEEEWWWWW]; so too did the tails of beavers [why just the tails?  Because they have a faintly fish like shape being a rudder?] and rabbits.
Now remember that by rabbits I mean baby conies – not what we call rabbits today.  The baby rabbits which were still suckling counted as fish and I have no idea where THAT piece of extreme casuistry came from.

The peasantry would have been watching the fauna and flora to see what sort of winter it was likely to be as well as keeping an eye to the weather itself.  I’ve personally noted that a lot of the old sayings do seem to pan out; if squirrels were storing up many nuts it was held that God told them that they needed to prepare for a long winter. Animals, driven by instinct do indeed seem to know when a hard winter’s in store. My hedgehogs are stuffing themselves silly in preparation.

Other sayings

Many haws, many snaws; many sloes, many cold toes

If the oak bear much mast [acorns] it foreshows a long and hard winter

We’ve had a huge amount of berries this year.

If the ice bear a man before Christmas, it will not bear a mouse after

If there’s ice in November that will bear a duck, there’ll be nothing after but sludge and muck

If ducks do slide at Hollantide [Halloween] At Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Hollnatide, at Christmas they will slide.

A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard.  [but brings a heavy harvest].


  1. This was great!! The references to food in Gawain make me think of the many references to food in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"--there is a tremendous amount of information to be gleaned about what the researchers these days call "foodways" from late medieval vernacular literature, and probably from Shakespeare's plays as well (although I am assuming the cuisine in Titus Andronicus should not be considered a norm, hee hee....)

    Advent, and the nip of winter in the air, is such an interesting time to think about--your description evokes Brueghel paintings and visions of peasants shivering before an inadequate winter fire. But I am particularly interested in the statement "a green Christmas makes a fat churchyard." Does this refer to the way that wet, moderate winters allowed the plague bacillus, and other deadly viruses, to flourish long enough to presage serious epidemics?? Or were there other factors involved in warm winters--disruption to the growing season, perhaps--that made them potentially dangerous??

    Thanks for this excellent post!!

  2. since in recent years, having had many warm winters, the older people in the community have been wagging sage heads and declaring that a cold winter will kill off all the germs, which has been validated by members of the medical profession, I'm going with the survival of bacilli of various types. Don't undersestimate either the impact of the survival of the flea which carries not merely plague but also a selection of parasites like worms and can pass other infections through its bite. In days of insectisides to ruthlessly treat our furniture in lieu of cold houses over winter the realities of dealing with flea bites tend to be forgotten.

  3. This reader was particularly struck by the connection to the "little ice age" inception with rainy, longer, winters even when they were not quite as cold...but it also makes me think about the possible role of environmental factors in precipitating the potato blight...there's a new history of the potato that has been published, which talks about the way the fungus not only intersected with extremely unfortunate political facotrs in Ireland, but even surfaced in other parts of the world (like China) where the potato became a there are, as you say, two pieces to this...the way particular weather conditions can create a hospitable environment for lethal microbes & viral agents, and the way certain fungi and blights that attack crops can create secondary hardship among humans who depend upon them...

    watching the sky anxiously....


  4. I'll have to get around to the weather in the Regency too, well, long Regency, when the potato in Ireland becomes important, though actually the cold weather caused by the many volcanos from the 1780's to Mount Tambora in 1815 causing the 1816 'year without a summer' was ended by the time of the potato famine as the weather from 1818 warmed up considerably. As I understand it the potato blight was more caused by an insufficiency of land for the Irish peasants to plant in, and therefore spreading disease as a result of insufficient rotation [and I know all about that with my ruddy tomatos which are also Solanums and very vulnerable]