Merry old England celebrated numerous festivals during the Middle Ages. In some regions, over 125 days per year were devoted to festivals of some kind, several tied to old pagan origins while most corresponded to the Catholic ecclesiastical calendar. While festivals like Saint Crispin’s Day became tied to important historical events, most festivals and feast days were rooted in pre-Christian traditions like May-day. French historian Marc Bloch writes that, “Innumerable nature-rites, among which poetry has especially familiarized us with the May-day festivals, were celebrated in country districts.”
May-Day and the Summer Solstice
In the highly popular musical Camelot, Queen Guenevere sings about the “Lusty Month of May” – a time when everyone goes “blissfully astray.” The “dear forbidden fruit” eventually entangles her with Lancelot, paving the way toward the demise of the mythical Camelot. But the lyricist of the song got it right.
The celebration of May-day predated Christianity and it was the Catholic Church that ultimately banned aspects of the festival such as the maypole. It was, according to Sherrilyn Kenyon, a “celebration of life and love, of procreation and renewal.” The Maypole was the focus of the celebration, covered with streamers forming a circular pattern designed to imitate the course of the sun. Celebrants danced around the Maypole and lit bonfires at night. A “May Queen” was chosen – a practice reinvented during the Victorian Era.
May-day was celebrated to ensure a good harvest. Although the Church attempted to ban most rites associated with the old pagan holiday, Rogation processions, often imitating the Maypole festivities, supplanted the pagan focus. The ceremonial processions, however, had the same goal: offering prayers – albeit to the Christian god, for good crops. Most of the late winter and spring ecclesiastical feast days focused on agriculture and livestock, often taking cues from long established pre-Christian pagan festivals.
St. Crispin Day and Lammas
Although St. Crispin Day was celebrated in England for many centuries, and is still in the Anglican calendar, it took the October 25, 1415 battle of Agincourt during the final phase of the Hundred Years’ War to give it a sense of notoriety. Long after the battle, William Shakespeare immortalized the festival in his fictional speech of King Henry V: “…This day is called the feast of Crispian…” Henry exhorts his small army as they faced the French, telling them that in the years to come, they will be able to point to the “wounds I had on Chrispian’s Day.” Crispin was a 3rd Century martyr and patron of shoemakers. In fact, a “crispin” was a shoemaker in old English.
Lammas was celebrated on August 1st and was focused on bread. Part of the term derives from Germanic and Gothic influences referring to the notion of “rising,” believed by etymologists to mean in later decades the rising of bread as it bakes. A popular English game played on this festival by married women was called “Bringing Home the Bacon,” a term that eventually found its way into the political vocabulary of American politics.
Other Popular Festivals
Other popular festivals included Valentine’s Day, Easter, April fool’s Day, Michaelmas, All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Soul’s Day, Christmas, and Twelfth Night. In some cases, a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen to parody the medieval class structures. In the case of Twelfth Night, a King and Queen of the Bean officiated, presiding over skits and plays (mumming) and ending with a reenactment of the three Magi and the defeat of Herod.
Festivals and celebrations, long identified with nature rituals, served as an outlet for medieval people tied to rigid ecclesiastical obligations associated with the official feast days of the Catholic Church. Many of these practices continue in the rural areas of the British Isles as well as part of Europe. Much as they did a thousand years ago, these rituals offer hope and reassurance to people longing for meaningful relationships with their environment.