Medieval calendar – January

British Library – calendar page for January  ‘Isabella Breviary’ (Add MS 18851)

This calendar was created for Isabella of Castile in the 1480s.

Remember medieval calendars are perpetual.

The Roman numerals or golden numbers on the left hand side of the page tells you when the new moon will appear and logically when 14 days later the full moon will appear. The numbers are from 1 to 19 and represent the metonic cycle.

Thus you need to know where you are in the 19 year cycle to work out which of the 19 numbers is the new moon fo 4th year you happen to find yourself in.

The metonic cycle basically works on the premise that across a period of 19 years there are approximately 235 lunar cycles after which the cycle will repeat itself on the same day ie the moon will be in the same place in the sky with the same stars. The cycle was discovered by the Ancient Greeks.

The golden number of any calendar year (Julian or Gregorian) can be worked out by dividing the year by 19. Now add 1 to the remainder, and that number is the golden number for the year. 


2021 divided by 19 = 106 remainder 7

7 + 1 = 8. So in 2021 the Roman number 8 will provide the day in the metonic cycle on which a new moon appears. Of course you’d need to know which days fell where within the cycle to do the calculation. Then it’s a question of counting on 14 days to calculate the full moon. This was important for working out when Easter would fall in any given year (the first full moon after the Spring equinox.) Across the metonic cycle Easter could only happen on 19 specific dates and if you knew where you were within the cycle you could calculate this.

Calculating the golden number for any given year. table to work out when the new moon would fall in any given month using the golden number.

2021 is the eighth year of the metonic cycle but applying the medieval perpetual calculator to work out the date of the new moon in 2021 won’t work because of the drift in the Julian calendar – when we changed to the Gregorian calendar we lost 10 days! The first new moon of 2021 falls at about 5.00am on January 13th and is apparently a wolf moon whereas the Golden Numeral method of calculation states that the new moon falls on the 6th…which is clearly not correct!

The calendar page for January often depicts Aquarius- usually a bloke pouring water from a downturned jug. There may sometimes be an image of Janus – the two-headed god after whom January is named looking towards the future and back towards the past.

The main agricultural/seasonal illustration is often a winter scene or someone warming themselves by the fire as above.

The British Library has a lot of useful information on medieval calendars.

Peacock anyone?

Fifteenth Century French illustration

Clearly this is a medieval festive food and only for the incredibly important diner. Essentially the bird was baked or even turned into a pie. Then the tail would be reattached – on occasion the whole skin with feathers would be saved and the cooked bird reinserted – it was a statement meal but records suggest it wasn’t always very edible ( Adamson – Food in Medieval Times). And quite frankly draping an uncooked skin over a baked meat sounds like an invitation to the worst kind of food poisoning.

If you’d care for more detail please see the following fifteenth century recipe:

Adamson, Melitta. (2004) Food in Medieval Times.

Boar’s head anyone?

Day 4: Throughout the medieval period the boar’s head was regarded as a key part of the Christmas festivities – unfortunately by the time of Henry VIII there weren’t any left so Henry was reduced to wild boar pate sent as a gift by the king of France.

The Boar’s Head Carol dates back to the fifteenth century and references the “rarest dish all the land.” The actual serving of pigs at this time of year dates back much earlier to Neolithic times. Archeologists at Durrington Walls have discovered pits of pig bones that tell a story of midwinter feasting. The Anglo-Saxons referred to November as “blood month” because animals that couldn’t be kept over winter were slaughtered and many medieval books of hours depict November with a pig about to meet his end. Even the Vikings get in on the pig eating act with sagas recounting feasting upon wild boar.

Elizabeth Ayrton’s Cookery of England (1975) provides a recipe for the boar’s head, her recipe substitutes a pig’s head with that of a boar (incidentally can you still by such things?)

In wealthy medieval households the boar required much preparation. The head itself was stuffed with forcemeat and often gilded and decorated – it’s tusks may have been retained to make it look more lifelike and it might be given eyes created from sugar paste. It was carried to the table amidst much fanfare.

These days there are once again wild boar in England – follow the link for more information. I think I’ll stick to pigs in blankets and sausage rolls though.

A rendition of the Boar’s Head Carol can be found here:

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears. 167-171.

East Lenham – another monastic manor

In my last post I talked about the manor of Lenham which belonged to St Augustine’s Abbey. Today I shall discuss East Lenham. Queen Ediva, the second or even third wife of King Edward (son of King Alfred) lived in the tenth century. She was a patron of the priory of Christ Church in Canterbury. A picture belonging to Christchurch bears the legend:

To Christs church of Canterbury did give indeed, Mooketon and Thorndenne the monks there to feed, Mepham, Cleeve, Cowling, Osterland,
East farleugh and Lenham as we beleeve

The year Domio MLXI of Christy incarnation.

She effectively chopped out part of the manor of Lenham – to the tune of five plough lands and gave it to the priory creating East Lenham in the process. Importantly she gave it to the monks free from secular service aside from the repair of bridges on the land and the repair of any fortifications.

In 1066 William the Conqueror (and I know that the people of Kent are very proud of their county motto invicta meaning unconquered) declared all the land was his. He retained 1/5 for his own use and gave a 1/4 to the church. The Archbishop of Canterbury became his tenant-in-chief. So just as the manor of Lenham was returned to St Augustine’s the manor of East Lenham was returned to Christchurch. Archbishop Lanfranc is identified as William’s tenant in chief – which is fine so long as the archbishop and the monarch were getting along without any problems. Unfortunately the Normans and the Plantagenets weren’t always known for their smooth working relationships with the Church.

Meanwhile East Lenham was a world in itself. It was an economic and political unit – not the same as a parish. It had to be self sufficient and to administer the law – in this case a mixture of Church law and common law. In the medieval period you had to know where you were as to which laws applied to you. There were also issues of who held the right to a fair, woodlands and mills. The use of the mill, the bakery or even a cider press was subject to the customary laws of the manor as were the rights to hunt, forage or to graze your animals. All of this would be recorded by the manor court.

In East Lenham the hierarchy shifted early on to add a secular lord to the dimension. In 1066 the archbishop was the tenant but by 1087 and Domesday Godifred, or as we would call him Godfrey, Dapifer who had previously been the archbishop’s steward was now holding East Lenham as a sub tenant to the value of a knight’s fee. So in time of conflict Godfrey had to present himself in return for his manor at East Lenham demonstrating that Ediva’s generous terms weren’t returned exactly the same way. Further investigation reveals that the archbishop’s knight held lands in Sheppey as well.

East Lenham was taxed at the rate of two shillings, it was composed of two carucates of demesne land – so the lord’s own land worked by villeins of whom there were 15 and 2 borderers or cottagers who held an additional four carucates between them. So think three field strip system. There were also six acres of meadow, a mill and a wood that would provide pannage for ten hogs. The villeins had 4 plough teams whilst the lord had a further 2 teams. Interestingly the two teams are described as belonging to the priory suggesting that perhaps the change of landlord was a recent transition – but that is only speculation and could have course been a secondary source assumption.

Essentially although there are secular tenants in the role of lord of the manor throughout the medieval period- the family of Godfrey Dapifer was superseded by the Hornes for example- the land remains Church land. Feudal incidents become more important with the passage of time. Rather than military service knights paid scutage or shield tax.

The social hierarchy shifted with the Black Death that reduced the number of available labourers, the Peasants revolted destroying, in many cases, the manor court records which recorded who was free and who was not.

Then along came Henry VIII with his marital difficulties. The priory of Christ Church was dissolved along with all the other monastic foundations but Cromwell recognised that the dioceses and the archbishops needed to be maintained so rather than the land being sold off or becoming Crown estate an act of parliament passed East Lenham back to the church. The archbishop duly let the manor for a term of 21 years at the annual rate of £55. East Lenham moved from the feudal system to the more modern lease hold.

By 1557 when the Wotton Survey was undertaken East Lenham had changed a little. Thomas Wotton held land on twenty manors including Robyns Tenement in East Lenham and Goldhurdfield.

Over time the field system shows piecemeal enclosure of some of the common land – those 6 acres of meadow mentioned in the Domesday Book.

By 1643 Sir Robert Honywood of Charing held the lease and from there it passed into the hands of Philip, Earl of Chesterfield. After his death the lease was sold to George Gipps who sub-let the manor to the Knatchbull family taking us to the eighteenth century with the Church still being the landlord. The Kent History Centre holds a bundle of Knatchbull papers pertaining to the Manor of East Lenham.

And before you ask does the Church of England still own land at East Lenham? The honest answer is I don’t know unless I applied to the land registry for information. Currently the Church owns 0.5% of England – which isn’t bad going. At the Reformation it received back from Henry VIII some two million or so acres – and that is the number based on Victorian glebe land calculations. By 1976 this number had dropped to 111,628 acres. In 2004 Shrubsole estimated that there was about 70,000 acres of land left but a 2019 figure was higher – because land is rather valuable these days if it’s in a prime location to be built upon. And it should be noted that the Church Commissioners aren’t required to publish a map of their landholdings.

Edward Hasted, ‘Parishes: Lenham’, in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 5 (Canterbury, 1798), pp. 415-445. British History Online [accessed 30 November 2020].

Guy Shrubsole Who Owns England? 

Martinmas, geese and weather prediction

St Martin – aged 18 cutting his cloak in half to provide warmth for a beggar.

St. Martin’s Day falls on the 11th of November. Martinmas, or Martlemas, celebrates the feast of St. Martin of Tours. It was on this date that the agricultural work of the year came to it’s fruition. Pigs and cattle that could not be overwintered were slaughtered. Geese were sent to market. The sowing of autumn wheat was now complete. New wine could be tasted. Farm labours moved on and sought new work at fairs.

It is about this time of the year that the so-called “Goose fairs” are held before being known as goose fairs many were called Martinmas Fairs. Lenton Priory in Nottinghamshire was granted the right to hold a fair at this time of the year by Henry II.

The wine of St Martin after Breugal the Elder

It was also supposed to heal the preparations for Christmas – which did not involve as many festive meals as possible and a mad dash to the shops. It was supposed to be a period of fasting that lasted 40 days. It was called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini“,

Over time that changed and then during the seventeenth century was got rid of by the Commonwealth. In all fairness they had a point. The Anglo-Saxons called November “Blot Monath” Bede explained that it was so called because the cattle that could not be kept over winter were slaughtered in part of a sacrifice to the gods.

St Martin’s symbol was a goose – the former Roman soldier didn’t want to be a bishop so he hid in a goose shed but their honking gave him away. It became part of the feasts traditions to eat a goose on his feast day. In 1455, the physician, Johannes Hartlieb, wrote –

‘When the goose has been eaten on St Martin’s Day the oldest and wisest keeps the breast-bone and, allowing it to dry until the morning, examines it all around, in front, behind and in the middle. Thereby they divine whether the winter will be severe or mild, dry or wet, and are so confident in their prediction that they will wager their goods and chattels on its accuracy.’

According to weather folklore, if you haven’t got a handy goose wishbone, the weather on Christmas day will be the opposite of what it is at martinmas – so if muddy on the 11th November it will be icy on December 25th and vice versa.

dies Aegyptiaci – Egyptian Days – calamitous dates for the diary

Calendar pages for November, from the Hours of Joanna of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 11v-12

My head is full of bees and they’re quite happy buzzing around. As a result of the Zoom session which involved an understanding of medieval calendars I have a new bee buzzing gently at the back of my skull! Medieval calendars.

Egyptian Days, of which there were 24 each year, were the days that medieval calendar users believed to have been identified by ancient Egyptian astrologers as unlucky for new projects, battles, setting off on journeys, business deals and also for blood letting amongst other things. Apparently no self-respecting Anglo-Saxon would have eaten a goose on an Egyptian Day. The other way of describing them was as “evil days” which translated from Latin gives us the word “dismal.” And I’m very sorry if your birthday happens to fall on one of the days listed below. It was considered an unlucky start in life.

January 1st and 25th

February 1st and 26th

March 1st and 28th

April 10th and 20th

May 3rd and 25th

June 10th and 16th

July 13th and 22nd

August 1st and 30th

September 3rd and 21st

October 3rd and 22nd

November 5th and 28th

December 7th and 22nd

As with all these things there were those who dismissed bad luck days as superstitious nonsense, one such was the chronicler William of Newburgh who thought they were nonsense – unless you happened to be Jewish in which case England was to the medieval Jewish community what Egypt had once been which accounted for the murder of the Jewish community in York to to mention associated anti-jewish rioting and it was all down to Egyptian days rather than any unpleasantness by the local population.

As if that wasn’t bad enough there were plenty of medieval calendars that also incorporated dangerous hours. By the fourteenth century not only should you have your blood taken from an auspicious location according to the planets but you also had to watch out which day it was and what the time might be.

Egyptian Days can be found at the top of medieval monthly calendars and marked with a letter “D” for evil days.

SKEMER, DON C. “‘ARMIS GUNFE’: REMEMBERING EGYPTIAN DAYS.” Traditio, vol. 65, 2010, pp. 75–106. JSTOR, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

Royal Forests in medieval England

Forest comes from the Latin word meaning outdoors – so medieval forests included woods, heaths, wasteland and all manner of open spaces. Their aim was to protect the beasts which the king hunted – deer and boar amongst others. The rules of vert and venison were designed for the protection of habitat, animal and ease of the hunt.

By 1086 there were in the region of 25 royal forests. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle contains many bitter complaints on the matter. At one point during the thirteenth century it’s estimated that a quarter of the country was designated royal forest which meant that it fell under forest law which was an arbitrary system based on the king rather than common law and its precedents.

Now I know that there is still a words, words, words challenge ongoing but it seems to me that this has real potential – so here is an unexpected History Jar challenge – how many of the medieval royal forests can you name?

Forest Law- the courts

Royal Forests in medieval times  were overseen and administered by keepers who were appointed by the monarch and also by justices who applied Forest Law. There were two justices- one for the forests north of the River Trent and one for the forests south of the river. The laws that applied in the king’s woods were different to the common law applied elsewhere in the kingdom. The laws in the forest were what the king decided that they should be.

The laws were essentially to protect the animals that lived in these areas under forest law – and they weren’t all wooded – heaths and moors were also encompassed by forest law. The laws also prevented things like fencing and hedging which would have hampered the king from hunting. Eventually an accommodation of some kind was established for the people who lived in areas designated Royal Forest leading to commoners rights. These were documented in 1215 with Magna Carta when King John found himself at odds with his barons. The Charter of the Forest was signed in November 1217.

Woodmote – this is more properly a court of attachment. It was held every forty days. The judges were the wardens/keepers and their deputies and sometimes verderers. This court decided whether the people charged with breaking forest law should go to a higher court – the swainmote.

Swainmote – this court met three times a year. It tried cases where people had broken the rules about putting fields int he forest or grazing their livestock at times and in quantities that they shouldn’t. The swain element was the jury of freemen that sat once a year before the Feast of St John the Baptist.

Court of Regard – every three years officials called retarders checked that dogs living in the area under forest law had been declawed. This declaring is often called “lawing.” Regarders also dealt with instances of trespass.

The Eyre Essentially an eyre is a circuit court presided over by the king’s justices. It was held approximately once every five years after a notice of forty days was given.

Tigers in medieval England

tiger from the Northumberland Bestiary 1250-60

I was looking at the award winning photograph of the Amur tiger a couple of nights ago and that got me wondering about medieval depictions. The Amur used to be Siberian but the new name Amur reflects their decreased territories. This led me to looking at bestiaries with their strange mix of fact and fantasy. The fantastic animals, unicorns and manticores and suchlike, existed as part of culture and as with so much in the medieval world they became a tool to provide an insight into morality. And of course God created all the animals so their study was yet another way for mankind to get a bit closer to understanding God, the Cosmos and mankind’s place within it.

I’m not sure why the tiger was blue. Come to think of it I’m not totally sure why the tiger has spots rather than stripes other than because Isidore of Seville wrote that this was the case.

The illustration is based on a story by Pliny – so for those of the History Jar readers who have ventured into the medieval world of this autumn’s Zoom classes there is a neat rehearsal of a familiar pattern. We know for example that Pliny’s story appeared in Latin format and ultimately a French text before crossing The Channel. The knowledge of the Greeks arrives in medieval hands by circuitous routes. A key text in the evolution of bestiaries is the bestiary of Isidore of Seville who wrote in the seventh century – so back to one of those transition points for information to move from the Arab to the Frankish world.

The hunter in the story is attempting to steal tiger cubs. He makes his get away by dropping one cub at a time to distract the irate parent. In medieval minds tigers were very fast moving animals and dangerous if angry. (again thanks to Pliny) In the thirteenth century an additional element crept into the story when the story teller arranged for the hunter to drop something shiny so that the mother seeing her own reflection believed it to be her cub – clearly not aware of the sensitive olfactory moggy snout! Clearly the hunter gets away, either because the mother tiger is busy looking after her abandoned cubs or licking her own face in a mirror of some description.

The Northumberland Bestiary is in the hands of the Getty Museum https: // Unsurprisingly given it’s origins it was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland. It contains 112 illustrations.

As you might expect the British Library is the home for many medieval bestiaries:

Sergey Gorshkov’s winning photograph of the Amur Tiger. I should note that medieval writers were thinking about the Asian tiger and would sometimes note that the River Tigris was named for the tiger.

The Embrace by Sergey Gorshkov, Russia   –   Copyright  © Sergey Gorshkov/Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2020

A 1614 map of Earl Sterndale

1614 map of Earl Sterndale

Earl Sterndale is part of the parish of Hartington Middle Quarter in the Derbyshire Dales.  It was created as an ecclesiastical parish from a chapelry in 1763.  It’s church, St Michael’s and All Angels, has the distinction of being blown up by the Luftwaffe with a stray bomb in 1941.

I’m posting about Earl Sterndale today because I came across this 1614 map in a file of documents – it’s a random find and to be honest it has no reference on so I don’t even know which book it was taken from by whoever copied it. It’s a reminder though that whilst I tend to teach history in a neat linear pattern that history itself is much more untidy. The fields shown are a mixture of open strip farming and enclosed land. Enclosure was something that began more or less in the thirteenth century and escalated until at the end of the eighteenth century farming practises and land ownership wrought wholesale enclosure.

Records indicate that the farms around Earl Sterndale were largely monastic granges belonging to Basingwerk Abbey, Flintshire, Wales.  The abbey was a Cistercian foundation and it’s lands including the granges near Earl Sterndale were sold following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.   Basingwerk was a lesser monastery with an income of less that £200 per year.  It is perhaps not surprising that Basingwerk Abbey held property and the rights to churches in other parts of Derbyshire including Glossop.   But it’s not completely a monastic story – again history tends to be taught or written about in neat units but the distribution, in this case literally on the land, tells of different administration systems abutting one another and in some cases overlapping.

Within the medieval Manor of Hartington, of which Earl Sterndale was part land belonged in part to the Duchy of Lancaster – the land in Earl Sterndale once having been in the holding of the de Ferrers’ Earls of Derby until the 6th earl fell foul of Henry III and the land was given to Henry III’s second son – Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Lancaster. edmund’s great grand daughter Blanche (the daughter of Henry Grosmont the 1st Duke of Lancaster) married John of Gaunt – for those of you who like to make links.

Meanwhile the manor of Hartington of which Earl Sterndale was part worked on the three field open system where strips of land were allocated to various tenants (villeins).  Rent was paid along with labour for the lord.  In addition to which part of the manor functioned as demesne land which was farmed on behalf of the Duchy of Lancaster itself rather than the income all coming from tenants.  By the fourteenth century sheep had become an important part of the venture for the Duchy – as it was for the Cistercian granges. I’ve read elsewhere that as the Black Death plotted it’s course in 1348 demsesne farming was abandoned in the parish of Hartington; it being more profitable to rent land out.

It’s also worth noting that the village of Earl Sterndale held common grazing rights to a portion of land adding yet another dimension to the equation of who held the land.

The map of 1614 pictured above demonstrates that the three field system with its open strips didn’t suddenly stop here at the end of the medieval period nor was the dissolution of the monasteries sufficient to bring about total enclosure. It is  evident that strip farming around Earl Sterndale continued into the seventeenth century – although there is also evidence of enclosure in the form of Mr Thomas Nedham’s land.  Enclosure when it finally came was at the beginning of the nineteenth century.