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Winter and its Discontents

by Enochadmin

Snowball fights from the Hours of the Duchess of Burgundy, c.1450. Bridgeman Photographs.

This summer season, even within the midst of a record-breaking heatwave, many individuals have been beginning to really feel anxious about the specter of the alternative seasonal excessive. Hovering power costs have made the strategy of winter this 12 months a frightening prospect. For months, individuals have been swapping recommendations on tips on how to keep heat with out turning on the heating and holding their fingers crossed for a light winter. If it’s a harsh one, we’re all in for a troublesome time.

To a historian, it is a concern which sounds unusually acquainted. Simply as the previous couple of years have introduced a renewed understanding of what it means to dread a pandemic, fear a couple of laborious winter feels just like the reawakening of an previous worry. I’ve lengthy been fascinated by medieval attitudes to the seasons and the cycle of the 12 months and one ever-present fixed in that cycle is exactly this nervousness: how will we put together for winter?

Anglo-Saxon poets, as an example, speak extra about winter than about another season, principally with a way of profound risk. They continuously converse of winter ‘binding’ or ‘fettering’ the earth, holding it in a situation of painful stasis. Earlier than trendy lighting and heating, the months of lengthy darkish nights and hostile climate have been a extreme trial, each bodily and emotionally numbing. It was axiomatic that winter meant hardship. ‘An individual can not change into smart earlier than he has had his share of winters on the planet’, one poet wrote; by this he meant that our ‘winters’ are the years of our life, but in addition our particular person portion of this world’s struggling, which everybody has to share.

The approaching of winter was a real worry and never one thing to deal with evenly, however there have been methods of managing that nervousness by making the preparation for winter a communal, even a festive expertise. One of many main feasts of the medieval church 12 months was Martinmas, the feast of St Martin of Excursions, celebrated on 11 November. Patron of troopers, St Martin was a very talked-about saint, however the significance of Martinmas relied extra on its place within the seasonal calendar, on the cusp of autumn and winter. Martinmas grew to become related to the slaughter of pigs and cattle, in order that livestock, too costly to feed by means of the winter, may present meat to be cured and salted for the months forward.

That was work that needed to be accomplished – violent and bloody work, in all probability accompanied by some worry about how lengthy these foodstocks would final out if the winter proved to be prolonged. However the necessity was was a constructive by means of the celebrations of Martinmas. With a prepared provide of meat obtainable and the prospect of chilly darkish months to return, gentle and good meals have been each very welcome: the competition was celebrated throughout Europe with lantern parades, bonfires and feasting on beef or goose.

In early medieval England, the recognition of Martinmas was helped by the truth that it changed a competition already celebrated within the Anglo-Saxon pagan calendar earlier than the conversion to Christianity. For the Anglo-Saxons, the month equal to November was known as Blotmonaþ, ‘month of sacrifices’, as a result of at the moment they killed cattle and consecrated them to the gods. These rituals have been presumably linked to the identical winter slaughter of animals, searching for divine assist by means of the season of shortage to return. That might readily be transferred to the brand new saint’s feast, and the basic fixed was the unchanging necessity of making ready for winter; no matter else modified, that want didn’t go away.

The historical past of different November festivals shows the identical theme, of various methods to deal with the problem of poverty and hardship as winter approached. Within the 18th and nineteenth centuries, the November feasts of St Clement and St Catherine of Alexandria, on 23 and 25 November, have been each events when it was conventional for youngsters to go door-to-door and beg for meals from their neighbours – ‘clemancing’ and ‘catterning’, because it was known as. These winter begging customs have a distant relationship to Halloween trick-or-treating and considered one of their features was to offer a socially inspired alternative to offer charity to neighbours in want.

Maybe we have to rediscover these rituals of charity and communal festivity as this tough winter begins to chunk. The nervousness we’re going through could have taken a brand new kind, however it’s considered one of society’s oldest and deepest fears – and over the centuries, individuals have discovered it simpler to bear by going through it collectively.


Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose School, Oxford and the creator of Conquered: The Final Youngsters of Anglo-Saxon England (Bloomsbury, 2022).

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