Friday, November 20, 2020

November in the Middle Ages

 It's November, a month that seems stuck somewhere between fall and winter, can't figure out which one it wants to be.  It's a month of major storms on the Great Lakes, as warm Gulf air comes up and meets Arctic air coming south, the "witch of November" as the weather pattern is called (referred to in the Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald").

The weather in November in the Middle Ages was moving toward what we would consider December weather, because they were on the Julian calendar, which had leap years every four years but didn't take account into the need to skip leap year on the century mark, so from our point of view they were 10 or 12 days further into winter weather than we are.

November was an important month for medieval people, even if they didn't celebrate Thanksgiving (which, in spite of all the talk about 1621, really only took the form we now take for granted at the end of the American Civil War).  Saint Martin's day (November 11) celebrated the saint, who had first introduced monasticism to the West at the end of fourth century and who had divided his cloak with a beggar (Christ in disguise), and also marked the day that a lot of rents came due.  Below is a famous El Greco (well post-medieval) picture of Martin (on the horse) and the beggar.

November was also the month to finish bringing in the crops and to round up the pigs, who had been running more or less wild all summer and fall.  We eat turkey for our big harvest-festival meal, a bird unknown in Europe before Columbus, but for medieval people, pork was the thing.  They ate as much fresh pork as they could at November hog-butcher time and salted and smoked the rest.  Europe's small Jewish and Muslim populations wouldn't eat pork, which everybody else thought just showed they didn't know a good thing.

November's other chore was getting ready for winter.  There were going to be some long months where not that much was going on other than trying to keep warm.  Firewood had to be gathered, cut and stacked.  A fireplace in a big castle or manor house (from the thirteenth century on) could burn its way through an awful lot of wood, though a peasant house would have a firepit, where the heat and smoke would not go up the chimney--more efficient though a lot smokier.

 And of course enough grain had to be carefully stored away, where (one hoped) mice and rats wouldn't find it, to make bread to last until spring (along with the occasional piece of ham or bacon with a side of lentils or turnip).  It was five months until the dandelion greens would be ready to eat.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval round of the seasons, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

No comments:

Post a Comment