Sadly, it isn’t: it is in fact Michaelmas, the traditional beginning of autumn (in the northern hemisphere at any rate – it wouldn’t do to be parochial: though I must just moan that I went into the supermarket in daylight at 6.30 on Thursday evening, and came out again at 7.00 into darkness). But never mind, because there is a profusion of fun things to do at Michaelmas – all you need is a copy of Observations on Popular Antiquities, published by John Brand (1744–1806) in 1777, and later updated by Sir Henry Ellis (1777–1869), Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, and later Principal Librarian (i.e. Head) until his retirement in 1856 at the age of 79. (He was succeeded by the totally splendid Sir Anthony Panizzi.) It is Ellis’s two-volume version of 1813 that we have reissued. And in fact Brand’s earlier work was itself heavily dependent on the 1725 Antiquitates Vulgares (or Antiquities of the Common People) of Henry Bourne (1694–1733).
The ‘antiquities’ in question are not ruins or bits of Roman pottery: they are the folk beliefs of Great Britain, collected by historians and antiquarians both directly from the people who held the beliefs and practised the practices, and from research into earlier writings about such beliefs, including poetry, plays and prose (mostly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) which throw light on the subject – or, more often, toss in a completely baffling passing reference which Bourne, or Brand or Ellis then try to explain.
The book is fearsomely learned (there are footnotes to the footnotes, and no mercy is shown to those not completely fluent in French and Latin), but also really interesting. Beginning with New Year’s Eve, Volume 1 describes the origins and practices of British calendar festivals including religious holidays, saints’ days, seasonal celebrations such as May Day and the Summer Solstice, and more obscure festivities such as the Feast of Sheep Shearing or Hoke Day. Volume 2 concerns the origins and practices of British customs and ceremonies including marriage customs, death rites, belief in fairies, witchcraft, omens, and divination. It also provides explanations for obscure but common phrases and expressions; as does the wonderful A Glossary, by Robert Nares – the helpfully explicit subtitle is Or, Collection of Words, Phrases, Names and Allusions to Customs, Proverbs, &c. Which Have Been Thought to Require Illustration, in the Works of English Authors. This is another of those works, like the Bible Word-Book, that you dip into rather than reading. Nares (1753–1829), well known as a scholar and clergyman, was also a keen philologist and antiquary. This glossary was undertaken in his spare time, and compiled over forty years, as he was often occupied with various academic and clerical duties, including becoming Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum – he must have known Henry Ellis.
One of the many things that bothered me in my youth was (sad, I know) a couplet from ‘Now is the month of Maying’ (from a songbook by Thomas Morley, not by Shakespeare, as is sometimes thought). I couldn’t work out why, instead of ‘Say, dainty nymphs and speak / Shall we play barley-break’, the poet had not written the much better rhyme, ‘Say, dainty nymphs and speak / Shall we play hide-and-seek’. (I ignored the possibility that either ‘speak’ or ‘break’ was pronounced differently in the sixteenth century.) What on earth was barley-break anyway? Well, thanks to Nares, I now know lots about ‘barlibreak’, otherwise known as ‘the last couple in Hell’, both the English and the Scottish versions, and the surprising number of sexual double-entendre references to it in Elizabethan verse. It wasn’t restricted to May, and indeed the Scottish version seems to have required corn-stacks.
In the month of Maying, Bourne/Brand/Ellis report, people went out from the towns and cities to gather fresh green boughs and blossom, bringing the branches back to adorn the porches of their houses. In 1504, the parish of Reading paid eightpence for ‘felling and bryngy’g home of the Bow [bough] set in the M’cat-place, for setting up of the same, mete and drynk’. Feasting appeared to be an important part of the excursion: in 1623, ‘To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame / Of giddie people, to eat cakes and creame’. Morris dancing was also involved, and of course dancing round a may-pole, and the custom appears to have been followed by all classes – Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon went a-maying from Greenwich Palace to Shooter’s Hill. A pyramidal garland was processed from house to house by pretty young girls begging for money, and in London chimney-sweeps dressed up as girls with their faces painted with brick-dust roamed the streets. The book connects May Day celebrations with the pagan (Celtic) festival of Beltane, and cites many instances (especially in Scotland) where the feast name had survived in common use until at least the eighteenth century.
Michaelmas, Bourne/Brand/Ellis state, was the customary period for the election of local government officers, perhaps because the feast of angels brings to mind ‘the old opinion of tutelar spirits’ who would guard over the activities of these gentlemen. This thought leads to a long excursus about the guardian saints and angels of the various countries, trades and even parts of the body (though the latter are only ascribed to by ‘the Romish’): for example, ‘St Erasmus rules the belly with the entrayles’. Diseases are also the special responsibility of saints: oddly, you need to pray to St Clare for sores eyes, but to St Lucy (the more obvious eye candidate, one would have thought) for toothache. (St John Port-Latin is the patron saint of booksellers: was the church in Rome the location for bookshops at some point in its 1500-year history?)
But getting back to the feast of St Michael and All Angels, eating a goose is an important part of the festivities: either simply because ‘Geese now in their prime season are / Which, if well roasted, are good fare’; or because Queen Elizabeth heard the news of the destruction of the Spanish Armada while eating goose on Michaelmas Day, and ate goose on that day ever afterwards. This seems implausible chronologically (unless the reports were of the scattering and destruction of the remains of the Spanish fleet by Atlantic gales – ‘Flavit Jehovah et dissipati sunt’, as the Armada medal has it), but it might in any case go to show only that goose was already traditional fare at Michaelmas.
The feast is also one of the quarter-days on which rent was paid: ‘And when the tenauntes come to paie their quarter’s rent / They bring some fowle at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent / At Christemasse a capon, at Michaelmasse a goose; . . .’. In the Western Isles of Scotland, St Michael’s Cake or Bannock was baked; and in St Kilda, about as remote in the British Isles as you can get, each family prepared ‘a Loaf of Cake of bread, enormously large, and compounded of different ingredients’, which was shared by the family and visitors, everyone, in consequence, acquiring ‘some title to the friendship and protection of Michael’.
What the residents of Bishop’s Stortford, that sober and upstanding Hertfordshire town, got up to at Michaelmas, you need to look up in the book; as also groaning cake, corpse candles, toad-stones, the hunting of wrens, and golf.