29 May, 2008

Thrimilchi (May): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The fifth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of May, was called Thrimilchi. Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Thrimilchi was so called because in that month the cattle were milked three times a day; such, at one time, was the fertility of Britain or Germany.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

This might be literally true. As far as I know, lactation is a continuous process so presumably a cow could be milked three times a day instead of the usual two if that happened to be convenient. It might also be a variant on the “Lost Golden Age of Far Away and Long Ago” which humans have a tendency to look back on with longing, regardless of whether it really existed. Nostalgia never goes out of fashion.

However, the month name might reflect the sudden availability of fresh pasture and fresh dairy products after the long months of winter. In lowland areas of Britain the grass usually starts to grow by April – which end of the month depends on latitude, local climate and weather – and is getting quite lush by May.

In areas with upland grazing, May corresponds to the time of year when livestock can be moved up to hill pastures. In the Lake District, Pennine hills and North York Moors the snow has gone even from the summits by May in most years and the vegetation is starting to grow strongly enough to withstand the attention of hungry sheep and cattle. Even in the Scottish Highlands, further north and higher altitude, the snow has melted and the grass started to grow again by May in all but the highest corries. This frees up the low valley fields to be cropped for hay (or, these days, silage). It has been suggested that cows grazing outdoors on fresh grass produce milk with higher nutritional content than cows fed on silage and concentrate, and anyone who's ever been into a French cheese shop will have noticed that cheese such as Beaufort produced "a l'Alpage" (from cows grazing on upland pastures) carries a noticeable price premium over the same cheese produced during the winter when the cows are living indoors (I daresay this is partly just marketing, but it does taste nicer too).

After the long dark months of winter, when people had been living on probably limited and almost certainly rather dull supplies of dried or salted produce, the sudden appearance of milk, butter, cream and cheese must have been a most welcome addition to the diet. Not so surprising if it was commemorated in the name of the month!

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh, May Gouda is definitely yummy. As is the local spring cheese I buy at a farm outside town.

Carla said...

Gabriele - It does make a difference, doesn't it? I suppose traces of all those fragrant flowers and clover and what not find their way into the milk and thence into the cheese. Whereas no doubt quantity was the most important consideration (especially if the cheese was going to be a major part of the winter food store), I daresay quality would have been noticed as well.

Meghan said...


I love cheese. And it's strange to think that before modern times foods and dairy was seasonal. Now we can get cheese, as well as fruits and vegetables all year-round. I think we're truly blessed that way, though it's sad to think there are people still starving around the world...

At any rate, thanks for the information. Very interesting!

Rick said...

So where is the Lusty Month of May in all this? May Day and Maypoles look mighty old and pagan, and more than a bit lusty. Or is that all or mostly a later romantic invention?

What an odd para-holiday May Day is. I have the vague image of Maypoles, but it is very vague. In modern times the Left took it over, for reasons we have not a clue. The US has 'Labor Day' at the end of August, handily marking the end of summer vacation, but I believe it was explicitly invented to stifle May Day with its commie associations.

Was it Thrimilchi Day originally, or do we know anything of its early origins at all?

Carla said...

Meghan - Indeed, compared with most people at most times in history we live in Paradise. Cheese and butter could be stored through a northern hemisphere winter, though supplies might run short if the housewife wasn't a careful manager. In one of the Icelandic sagas a woman steals butter and cheese from her neighbour because she has been careless and her own has run out, and provokes a deadly blood-feud. Something to bear in mind as one loads up a supermarket trolley!

Rick - May Day coincides with the Irish/Celtic festival of Beltane, which fell (roughly) on 1 May. I suspect that the Lusty Pagan stuff, maypoles, Queen of the May and so on derive from there, although with what antiquity I wouldn't care to speculate :-) Whether the early Engish had a spring festival at the same time, or whether (as I personally think more likely) the festival of Eostre in the preceding month was their equivalent, is anyone's guess. Bede doesn't mention an English festival in May, but then he wouldn't necessarily do so as he doesn't need it to explain either the month name or the name of a Christian feast, so absence of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of absence.

Rick said...

Carla - I just let my fingers do the walking to Wikipedia, where it says:

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during "Þrimilci-mōnaþ"[14] (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings).

None of this has citations, though, except for a link to Bede, so the author may just be handwaving. In a general way, though, it stands to reason what when spring is busting out all over, people will tend to go a-picknicking, and no doubt canoodling in the tall grass.

Carla said...

Rick - Absolutely. One would expect that any subsistence farming society in temperate Europe is going to notice and celebrate light, warmth, snow-melt, growth of pasture and the subsequent productivity of their livestock, birth of young animals, etc, because those have a major practical influence on their lives. The details of the celebrations and the deities associated with them probably varied from region to region and also changed over time. We don't have any primary sources from pre-Christian England (Bede is the nearest in date but he is Christian), so what form any celebrations and traditions took is largely up for speculation. Walpurgis Night in Germany falls on or around 1 May and might be a survival of a Germanic May festival that corresponded to the Irish Beltane. The Maypole might be a representative of something like the World Tree from Norse myth, with which it would be consistent, or it might represent something different. Ditto with any other tradition. They might be 'derived from pagan Anglo-Saxon customs' as the Wikipedia author says - as we don't have any real evidence what those customs were they might have involved maypoles and morris dancing and garlands and Beltane-style fires, or they might have been invented at a much later date as an excuse for a good time.

Rick said...

Carla - or they might have been invented at a much later date as an excuse for a good time.

Minus the "much later date," this pretty much lets the cat out of the bag on holidays in general, no? Which relates to something I mentioned a few AS months back, 'natural' holidays. People will always find an occasion to party, but the season determines how they party.

But here's a little out-of-season question: What's the traditional counterpart of Thanksgiving? The American Thanksgiving has a specific historical root, but a big ole harvest feast seems a natural for that time of year.

Carla said...

Rick - Quite so; so one would expect a spring party to feature flowers and an autumn party to feature fruit and ripe grain. Harvest festivals have surely existed in every society since farming became dominant in the Neolithic. September in the Old English calendar was called Holy Month, which may indicate some sort of celebration of the grain harvest, and November was Blood Month and was associated with animal sacrifice, which may have been making a virtue out of necessity. Winter fodder would have been limited and animals keep better as salted beef and bacon if you can't feed them. Both of these would be naturals for an autumn feast (or two), and either or both might be a 'counterpart' of Thanksgiving. Although whether you could say such a festival was really a counterpart of Thanksgiving is an interesting question, since Thanksgiving belongs to a known and specific belief structure, and the belief structure of the pre-Christian English is almost entirely lost to us. Maybe this is more like parallel evolution, where a similar solution to a similar set of circumstances can be arrived at independently several times over. The pioneers had come to a strange land, had harvested enough to survive through the winter, and gave thanks to the god they believed had helped them do this. That must have been common to many farming communities in many times and places, and circumstances dictate the range of forms a celebration can take. So the outer form of the custom (a big autumn feast) can look very similar, but the details of the belief structures can be very different. I personally would be wary of connecting festivals because of this parallel-evolution effect. Does this make any sense?

Rick said...

"Parallel evolution" is exactly what I have in mind. The American Thanksgiving is indeed rooted in both a particular event and a particular religious tradition. People in England couldn't have had turkey dinner anyway!

In the same way, July 4 has the cultural flavor of a midsummer holiday, as you'd expect, in this case having nothing directly to do with what is being celebrated. A line in our national anthem - regarding a different historical event - gives a pretext to shoot off fireworks, and how wonderful to do it after nearly the latest sunset of the year. Once we started celebrating Independence Day, because it is midsummer it became a midsummer style holiday.

Although you shoot off fireworks, or used to, at a completely different time of year!

The thing that got me wondering about Thanksgiving is that I'm not aware of any English harvest-feast tradition that it effectively replaced, the way July 4 presumably replaced Midsummer. Is there any fall pig-out hidden just under the surface, perhaps relating to Advent? (I haven't followed the Advent calendar tour, but it's a wonderfully charming online custom.)

Of course there is also deliberate holiday theft, Christians being notorious culprits. They swiped Saturnalia, of all holidays, with the end result that in the modern US everyone wants a piece of the December pie. Jews brought Hannukah off the third string holiday bench to pinch hit, and while I don't know how Kwanzaa originated, it's at the party now too.

Carla said...

"Is there any fall pig-out hidden just under the surface, perhaps relating to Advent?"
There's a tradition of having a Harvest Festival in the early autumn. When I was a kid it involved bringing items of food to a school or church service that were then distributed, which sounds to me like a modern version of a free meal all round. There's also an account of a Harvest Queen written by some German visitors in 15-something, though this doesn't specifically mention a feast as far as I remember. Both of these are September-ish.
Moving nearer to late October, there was probably a feast associated with the Celtic Samhain (now Halloween, 31 October). On the English side, I should imagine at least some of the animals sacrificed at the Blood Month (November) ceremonies mentioned by Bede were eaten by the congregation, and if the Christians followed Pope Gregory's advice, after the conversion they all would have been. So that might literally (!) have been a pig-out.

Rick said...

Harvest Festival, Harvest Queen - okay, that sounds like just the stuff I'd have expected, before we invented stuffing. (I don't guess we did, but we invented stuffing it into a turkey.)

The local Harvest Festival in a nearby California town is in fact around early October. I know profoundly little about ag, and all I know about harvest season here, in England, or anywhere else is that it is in the fall. For all I know, Thanksgiving is unusually late in the season for the sort of holiday it is.

Carla said...

'Harvest' occurs at different times for different types of produce, and also varies with the local climate and the vagaries of the weather. We grow our own vegetables and I'm usually harvesting some crop or other most months between May and March - so I could celebrate 'harvest' at almost any time of year depending on the crop in question - I could hold a harvest festival in May for the asparagus or in July for the blackcurrants or September for the blackberries and plums or November for the butternut squash (sometimes reflected in the monthly recipes).
In southern lowland England most cereal crops are harvested around late August/September, but the apple harvest is more like September/October (with some varieties as early as August and others as late as November). In England cherries are harvested in late June or July, but in central France it's late May and in south-west France it's April.

I would guess that most societies tend to celebrate 'harvest' when they get their main staple crop in, whatever that is, the one that's going to determine whether they starve during the winter or not. That varies depending on the local economy. In most of Europe this would traditionally be the cereal crop. In a livestock-raising society it might be the autumn slaughter or livestock markets, in one based on upland dairy produce it might be getting the last of the cheese safely down the mountain and into store. At the point when you have finished the harvest, you can see whether you've got enough to keep you alive all winter, and if you have, that's a good reason to celebrate and thank the gods.

Modern agriculture doesn't really have an autumn livestock slaughter because processed cattle cake is available, and fresh meat is wanted, all your round. In a society that relied on outdoor pasture, though, the autumn slaughter and feast would happen when the outdoor pasture stops growing. That happens much later than the cereal harvest, but at different times in different places - e.g. it might be October in a high Scottish corrie and late November in lowland England. In Alpine Switzerland they celebrate when they bring the cattle down from the alpine pastures and that happens in the middle of September.
So you might expect different dates for traditional harvest festivals in different regions and cultures depending on the normal harvest date of the traditional staple crop, or perhaps several separate 'harvest' festivals with different names.
US Thanksgiving in late November seems unusually late for a 'harvest' festival by European standards, so presumably it either reflects the particular crop(s) that the first settlers raised (perhaps they celebrated when the very last crop was harvested, whatever it was?) or the date was picked for some other reason. Canadian Thanksgiving in mid October is more when I would expect a harvest festival to fall.

Gina said...

Enjoyed reading over your blog, which I found searching for "Middle Earth fireworks."

Farmers do milk three times a day if they can, in modern times too. I imagine right after spring calving when the cows' udders were quite full, it was productive to do so, and late spring when the cows could be on grass again would mean it would not stress the animals too much. The more you take out of a cow the more she makes, but thrice-daily milking is a lot of demand on their energy and health.

Rick said...

Carla - thanks for all that Stuff I Really Should Know!

I read the Wikipedia article on Thanksgiving, the kind of subject where it is generally reliable. The historical 1621 feast that is prototype of our Turkey Day was a harvest feast, but not a 'thanksgiving.' The custom of annual Thanksgiving merged into harvest feasts gradually, celebrated at various times - the first recorded one in June.

The national date was proclaimed by Lincoln in 1863; the article doesn't explain why the late November date - perhaps when the main crops would be in everywhere, so no one was stuck celebrating before they'd finished the heavy work.

Carla said...

Gina - Hello and welcome! If you were Googling for 'Middle Earth Fireworks' you probably also found Rick's blog - if not, his post on the subject is well worth a read. Thanks for that - so the name of the month could be literally true and reflects the sudden jump in milk production when the cows have plenty of food and have just calved.

Rick - That's interesting that the date was fixed as late as 1863. By then industrialisation would have been seriously under way and the economy wouldn't have been nearly as closely tied to agricultural cycles as in earlier centuries. In any case in a country like the US that spans an entire continent, it's a fair bet that 'harvest' (however defined)would happen at a different time in California compared to Maine or Florida. Not to mention all the different cultural traditions. Could the date have been chosen as an arbitrary one that didn't match any pre-existing holiday and so would be acceptable to everyone?