05 February, 2008

Solmonath (February): the early English calendar

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.


Anonymous said...

Maybe here we have the origins of mud pies. :-)

Seriously, charms could be said over the creation of mud pies that are left in the sun to 'bake' and then perhaps broken up in a newly plowed field.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Hm, I should look up what Charlemagne called it in Ancient German.

But Mud months (Matschmonat) fits. :)

Carla said...

Michelle - Hello and welcome. Mud pies would certainly use fewer resources than multigrain loaves! Possibly a mud pie with charms said over it could symbolise a loaf most of the time, with a real loaf made with real grain used in exceptional circumstances. Rather like the way that paper models of objects are used in China as gifts for the dead, rather than real objects. The Aecerbot is a charm for 'healing' a field that has lost its fertility, so it could well be a step up from whatever the normal seasonal ritual was.

Gabriele - Please do, I'll be interested to hear the German name.

Bernita said...

"Mud month" is so - so logical I'm sure it's accurate.
Not that the people of the period restricted themselves to a single meaning/term any more than we do today.
I think it likely they were all applied.

Carla said...

Bernita - the surviving month names are a curious mixture of the practical and the religious. Not unlike the Roman names in that respect, I suppose, whose names are also a mixture of gods (January), political figures (July) and numbers (September etc).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. As it's been stated, sol (with the long "o" sound) is "sun" in Old English, as well as Old Norse, both akin to the Latin "sol" for sun, so there's good reason to believe it did mean Sun Month. It seems that Bede's reference to it as "month of cakes" might have been a nickname, as previouly suggested. Or, as also mentioned, the month may have had several names. Can't actually think of a month off-hand in our calendar that we have a "nickname" for, but we do refer to the season of "autumn" as either "fall" or "autumn." Something similar here perhaps with Solmonath? It's a good debate nonetheless.

Carla said...

Steven - perhaps one of the names referred to a festival that took place during the month, and was sometimes used to indicate the month itself. Nowadays if someone says "I'll do it at Christmas time" we can infer that they probably mean late December, because we all know that Christmas comes in December. If people got into the habit of saying "the month when we celebrate Christmas", you could imagine it could evolve into an alternative label for the whole month. Possibly 'month of cakes' derived from something like 'month of the cake festival'?
Or perhaps different groups called the month by different names, but each understood the other's name so they could be used interchangeably. That would be very like your fall/autumn example, where 'fall' tends to be used in the US and 'autumn' tends to be used in Britain, but by and large people in both countries recognise and understand both names for the season.
We'll never know for sure, so your guess is as good as anyone else's!

Rick said...

What most intrigued me was not months but seasons. I'm so accustomed to the familiar four - though they have little to do with actual seasons in California - that it never crossed my mind to think about the season words.

Summer and winter mean nothing else, save metaphorically, while spring and fall are general purpose words used for lots of things. Nearly a tipoff that spring and fall came into the language, and our thinking, at a different time, and probably later.

"Autumn" tells me that Normans did not think much of the English springtime, since evidently they ceased using and at last simply forgot the French word for spring. :)

Carla said...

Rick - since Bede says the original English calendar had two seasons, summer and winter, that would account for those two being old words. Perhaps the other two were added because early medieval Christianity liked sets of four (four gospels etc) and thought the seasons ought to follow the pattern. Why does the adoption of Middle French automne for autumn say that the Normans didn't think much of the English spring? I don't think I follow you there.

Doug said...

Hi Carla
I think the reference to the sun's reappearance is the most convincing. There may indeed have been a word "sol" for cake but we don't know, and is there a month when we are exempt from mud? But I read the article only hours after feeling relief that I could actually feel heat from the sun - in November to January it may shine but you can't feel it.

Carla said...

Hello Doug, and welcome. It's striking that the sun gets some real power back around February, isn't it? If it was called Sun Month one could understand why.

Rick said...

Carla - French has four season words, and perhaps all the Romance languages do. I don't know whether they were handed down from classical Latin, or came in as you suggest via the Church.

According to my old Oxford Universal, "spring of the year" is first recorded in 1530, and "fall" as a season only in 1545. Remarkable they came in so late! Does that make them modish slang words for my Catherine?

My snark about English springtime is argued from the language absorbing the Norman word for autumn, but not the Norman word for spring. As the Normans became bilingual, then primarily English-speakers, they were using a language with only summer and winter. They must have found themselves saying "autumne" even when speaking English. But printemps evidently came and went so fast it wasn't worth mentioning, and eventually they forgot how. Before they finally decided to invent "spring of the year" to identify the period between winter and what passes for English summer.

But it is all abstractions, got into the language from some imaginary island resembling Lyonesse. In the real world there are three seasons: Rainy, Foggy, and the month or so around the autumnal equinox when the California coast actually resembles what the rest of the world imagines.

Carla said...

Depends whether the language of your Lyonesse has the same history as modern English! If so, then yes they would probably be streetwise slang for Catherine :-) It is remarkable that they shouls appear so late, although there's always the possibility that something similar was in use earlier but not recorded. There was a sense of 'spring' as the beginning of something and Chaucer refers to 'the spring of the day', which sounds as if it could well be related to 'spring' in its current season as the 'spring of the year [into new life]', and 'spring' as a verb signifying quick and sudden movement is Old English enough (it turns up in Beowulf).
Autumn is in Chaucer too, in more or less the modern French spelling. Why 'printemps' never caught on is a mystery. Perhaps because an English spring does give this sense of everything bursting with life - on some days it almost seems that you could literally watch the buds uncurl - so the verb sense of 'springing into life' seems especially appropriate.

So are you saying that California isn't wall-to-wall golden sunshine all year round? Dear me. There go my illusions :-)

Rick said...

"Spring of the day" certainly has a similar overall flavor to "spring of the year."

Coastal California largely deserves its reputation, but the seasons are not what other people imagine, and in particular June gloom is locally famous.