26 August, 2008

Weodmonath (August): 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 eighth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of August, was called Weodmonath, meaning “weed month”.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Weodmonath means “month of tares” for they are very plentiful then.

--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

Anyone who has ever managed a garden knows that weeds are plentiful at more times than just August! Why pick on August as the weed month? It might be just a convenient name. The month has to be called something and ‘weed month’ might have been considered as good a name as any.

However, August is the time when the main cereal crops of temperate Europe – barley, rye, wheat, oats – are fully grown and ripening. The proportion of weeds in the cereal fields would be obvious by August. Perhaps it was a good indicator of (a) how difficult it was going to be separate the cereal from the weeds at harvest and threshing time and (b) the likely cereal yield; the higher the proportion of weeds in the cereal fields, the lower the yield of cereal. Maybe August was the weed month because it was then that you could judge how difficult the harvest was going to be?

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


Bernita said...

They are certainly plentiful in mine!

Jules Frusher said...

They're plentiful in mine too - but only because I haven't done any weeding since May! But I do love August - and not just because it's my birth month. You can start to feel Autumn approaching - the air smells different and the birds also start to sing in a different tone.

Mind you, I could do without the wasps!

Nicola Griffith said...

I imagine the green weeds would stand out particularly brightly against the wheat and barley as they ripened and turned gold. Perhaps that's when children got sent into the fields to start tearing out the green stuff in advance of the harvest.

FYI, I've really been enjoying your posts on all things seasonal. I'm in Seattle, and missing England horribly at the moment, wishing I could just stick my head out of the door and see and hear and smell the changes instead of having to imagine them. Thank you.

Carla said...

Bernita - and mine, as they have been all summer

Lady D - I have, but it's a losing battle. I agree, August is a turning point. Even the trees go a different shade of green.

Nicola - Hello and welcome. That's a very fair point. Not all weeds are green, as some of them ripen and change colour when they set seed, but they don't turn the same shade as the cereal crop. I imagine people may have been more finely attuned to small distinctons before herbicides were invented, too. Certainly anything that was green in a cereal field around harvest time was a weed, even if the reverse might not necessarily be true! Thanks for your kind words, and I'm delighted that you're enjoying the posts. I love to watch the seasons turn, ever-changing, ever the same.

Nicola Griffith said...

Carla, thanks for the welcome, and congrats on the sparkly award :)

Rick said...

Knowing nothing about gardening, I would have assumed that 'weed month' was when the things grew like, well, weeds. But your guess makes perfect sense.

Carla said...

Nicola - thanks.

Rick - weeds grow like weeds anywhere, everywhere and all the time :-) But as for why August got the name, your guess is as good as mine.

Anonymous said...

maybe it was the month when they finally got around to the actual weeding..

Carla said...

Seizing Destiny - Hello and welcome. You may very well be right :-)