Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) used a calendar based on the cycles of the sun and the moon.
Summary of the English calendar
The year was a solar year, and the two most important dates were the summer solstice (Midsummer, the longest day of the year) and the winter solstice (Midwinter, the shortest day of the year). The winter solstice was called Guili, or Yule, and is the origin of our word “Yuletide” for Christmas – for more details, see my earlier post. Each new year began at Yule.
The year was divided into two seasons, governed by the spring and autumn equinoxes (the points when the day and night are of exactly equal length). The season when the days were longer than the nights was called summer, the season when the nights were longer than the days was called winter.
Months were reckoned by a full cycle of the moon. Since Bede tells us that winter began at the full moon of October, the months presumably also began at the full moon. The number of days in a solar year isn’t an exact multiple of the number of days in a lunar cycle, so there are 12-and-a-bit lunar months in a year. As a result, the English months moved around in relation to the solar year. Every so often an extra month was added at Midsummer, making a 13-month year, to keep the months aligned roughly with the seasons.
We know this from a contemporary document, Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD. Bede was concerned mainly with teaching his students how to calculate Christian festivals, such as that perennially knotty problem of the early Church, the correct date of Easter. Fortunately for the scholar of early England, however, Bede kindly added a chapter (Chapter 15) explaining how his people had calculated months before they adopted Christianity. It provides the main documentary evidence we have for the pre-Christian English calendar.
February – Solmonath, or Month of Cakes
The second month of the year, corresponding roughly with the Roman (and modern) month of February, was called Solmonath.
‘Monath’ is the Old English word for a month, and the direct ancestor of our modern English word ‘month’.
‘Sol’ is the Old English word for ‘mud’, see the online Dictionary of Old English. So Solmonath can be prosaically translated as ‘Mud Month’, which, as anyone who has ever walked across a ploughed field or tried to dig a vegetable garden at this time of year can tell you, is entirely appropriate to the usual weather.
Some people have suggested that ‘sol’ should be translated as ‘earth’ or ‘soil’ rather than ‘mud’, and so Solmonath might have a less prosaic meaning, perhaps more like ‘Earth Month’ or ‘month when the earth was honoured’.
Others have noted that ‘sol’ with a long ‘o’ is the Old English word for ‘sun’ (see the Old English dictionary). In temperate Europe, February is the time of year when the increase in day length that begins at the winter solstice becomes really noticeable (as observed, quite by chance, by a commenter on my earlier post this month), so it’s possible that ‘sol’ in the month name might refer to this visible returning of the sun.
According to the Old English dictionary, ‘sol’ in Old English could also mean a wooden halter for animals. So I’ll toss in another theory – perhaps ‘sol’ in the month name referred to the collar oxen wore to draw the plough, and Solmonath meant something like ‘Plough Month’? I hasten to add that as far as I know that theory is my invention and I haven’t seen it elsewhere.
Whether Solmonath was the Mud Month, the Earth Month, the Sun Month or the Plough Month doesn’t really matter. Bede tells us something even more interesting about it:
Solmonath can be called “month of cakes”, which they offered to their gods in that month.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.
The reference to cakes is reminiscent of an Old English charm for making a field fertile, the Aecerbot or Field Remedy. The charm survives written down in a manuscript dating from the tenth or eleventh century, though it may well be derived from a much older tradition.
Take then each kind of flour and have someone bake a loaf [the size of] a hand's palm and knead it with milk and with holy water and lay it under the first furrow. Say then:
Field full of food for mankind,
bright-blooming, you are blessed
in the holy name of the one who shaped heaven
and the earth on which we live;
the God, the one who made the ground, grant us the gift of growing,
that for us each grain might come to use.
--Aecerbot, translated by Karen Louise Jolly
The surviving wording of the charm is Christianised, but it doesn’t take a very great leap of the imagination to suggest that the god who was being asked to make the field fertile could just as easily be a non-Christian deity. Kathleen Herbert has argued that the deity being petitioned was an earth goddess (Herbert 1994).
Whatever the deity, Bede’s description of cakes being offered to ‘their gods’ is certainly consistent with a rite similar to that described in the Aecerbot charm.
There is no (surviving) Old English word ‘sol’ meaning cake, and it has been suggested that Bede was mistaken about either the name of the month or the tradition attached to it. I would be very reluctant to think that we know more about Bede’s culture than he did, so I personally would take his word for it. It is worth noting that he says Solmonath “can be called” the month of cakes, which may indicate that “month of cakes” was an informal name like a nickname, or that the month could have several names. Another suggestion is that the cakes offered to the gods were called something like sun cakes, from the ‘sun’ meaning of ‘sol', in which case February, Solmonath, might mean something like Sun Cake Month.
Full-text sources available online are linked in the text.
Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.