The poets of Anglo-Saxon England didn’t like winter. The same may have been true of their European counterparts, but, as Eleanor Parker explains in Winters in the World, “snow, hail, frost and ice beset the characters of many Old English poems, and it’s clear that this season appealed strongly to the imaginations of Anglo-Saxon writers”. In a calendar poem called The Menologium, winter is “an invading warrior, a conquering king who seeps through the earth with the fierce blasts of his snow-army”. In Andreasa poem featuring apostles and cannibals, snow and ice are hare hildstapan, “hoary battle marchers”. In Deorthe superhuman blacksmith Weland endures wintercealde wræce“winter-cold misery”, while the sea-bound exile of The wanderer is wintercearig, “winter-sorrowful”. The cheeriest description of the season comes in a riddle that reimagines ice as “a wonder on the wave: water turned to bone”, although that doesn’t sound all that cheery to me.
Parker takes us through the rhythms of the Anglo-Saxon year, charting its seasons and traditions: its weather and agricultural patterns, its festivals and religious customs. She introduces us to a world that resonates with our own, “a cycle we know by heart, and even some familiar words: winter sumor sun“. Some of this familiarity turns out to be illusory, however. With divine power in the calendar and magic in the harvest, the Anglo-Saxon twelve-month is not quite ours.
Closely intertwined in Parker’s journey through the year are the spiritual cycle of early medieval Christianity and the agricultural cycle of raising livestock and harvesting crops. She encourages us to think about “a diversity of calendars”, since “farmers and monks, kings and laborers, would all have experienced the seasons in different ways, depending on the patterns of work that gave shape to their months and years”. At the same time the whole of society observed the liturgical year, and everyone needed to know how the harvest was coming along.
The lines between magic, religion and the natural world, in these cycles, were blurred. Take the æcerbot, or “field blessing”, which was intended to protect crops and ensure a good harvest. It involved a ritual in which four pieces of turf were drizzled with yeast, honey, oil and milk, brought to church for a blessing, and replanted in the earth with rowan-wood crosses bearing the names of the four evangelists. The feast of Lammas at the beginning of August was associated with a similar prayer-ritual, meant to protect the harvest: “So that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and [then] hang them up without speaking”.
Parker’s study runs from large-scale festivals that would have dominated the whole of society to the etymological minutiae of individual words. These include “Easter”, an outlier term among European languages, its origins apparently not understood by the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The scholar monk Bede, writing in his Northumbrian abbey in the early eighth century, compiles a list of the various names of the months. Diverse and evocative, they conjure up a mysterious past. Writing about Christmas Eve he notes: “That night, which we now hold so holy … used then to [be called] by the pagan word Modraniht, that is, ‘mother’s night’, because, we suspect, of the rituals they performed through that night”. What were those rituals? The Anglo-Saxon era spanned roughly 600 years, from the fifth to the eleventh centuries, and by the time Bede was writing some of its history was already hazily distant.
Parker reminds us that the Anglo-Saxons lived in what we might think of as a post-apocalyptic world, amid the ruins of the Roman empire. “Emptiness and desolation in places that should be full of human life are deeply uncanny”, she writes, “the sign of something horribly wrong.” No wonder, then, that so many Anglo-Saxon poems focus on the transitory nature of life, the sense that everything is on loan and will eventually be carried off.
In this context the cyclical rituals of the year pointed helpfully, comfortingly, beyond the uncertain present. Particularly dramatic were the Midsummer bonfires and the dark-into-light customs of Holy Week. During the evening services of Holy Week monks knelt in a blacked-out church to “hear the young voices of the children of the choir singing ‘Lord have mercy'”. Their submission evoked “the terror of the darkness that covered the whole world at the moment of Christ’s death”. Later in the week the church was relit to symbolize Christ’s return from the dead.
Parker peppers her narrative with stories of human interest. The teenage St Wulfstan, future Bishop of Worcester, hides in a thorn bush to escape the amorous affections of a girl. Elsewhere, a man refuses to cut down a nut tree that overshadows a church, because it is his favorite summer spot for dicing and feasting. And then there are the village punch-ups and horse races mixed up with Rogationtide, that period in early summer when people were meant to pray for good weather and a bountiful harvest.
Behind these vignettes lies an awareness of the more-than-human natural world, and above all of the sea, given such rich expression throughout the corpus of Anglo-Saxon poetry: “whale’s home”, “gannet’s bath”, “seal’s track” , “swan road”. All these phrases emphasize that the sea is a space which belongs to wild creatures, not to human beings; They have roads, settlements and homes there, where they form societies and networks hidden from human eyes.”
Winter, in the Anglo-Saxon period, is a story of change and consistency exemplified by the central solstitial festival. “In the centuries after the Norman Conquest”, Parker says, “the three recorded Anglo-Saxon names for the festival – Midwinter, Yule and Christmas – were joined by other additions … This diversity of names, reflecting waves of Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman settlement, tests to a festival that has grown and adapted, like the English language itself, with the introduction of new cultural influences.” And there is continuity, too, for the waves of migration and invasion are set against a cyclical backdrop. Of 1066 she writes: “When Christmas came that year, England had a new king, and would never be the same again. But Midwinter itself would have looked no different, and the cycle began another round.
In many ways this cycle continued in much the same way up to the twentieth century, at which point it “became increasingly distant and unfamiliar … [as] people lost touch with the rhythms of the agricultural year.” Yet, as Eleanor Parker is keen to stress, that may be precisely why it still matters. Her lyrical, insightful book is being published in a year in which heat records have been broken across the world, and Weland’s winter-cold misery has led to a summer-hot equivalent. If heat is now the invading warrior, then it is one we have invited. As the crisis deepens, the texts that survive from Anglo-Saxon England “speak truths that we still need to hear” about the rhythms of nature and our dependence on the bounty of the earth.
Eleanor Rosamund Barracloughis a historian, broadcaster and author ofBeyond the Northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse sagas2016
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