21 May 2023


Eleanor Parker. Winters in the World – a Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year. Reaktion Books, 2022.

Although this book is presented as an analysis of Anglo-Saxon material relating to the seasons and the calendar, the author's intention is also to introduce the reader to Anglo-Saxon poetry and to share her evident love of the poets' use of words. As a layman reading this book I found the author's enthusiasm infectious. She celebrates the early flourishing of the English language in the two centuries before the Norman conquest; when it briefly replaced, and in turn was again replaced by, the use of Latin. 
Most surviving Anglo-Saxon literature is religious, such as homilies, but even these are beautifully poetic, showing off the descriptive powers of the ancient language.

Sources are a selection of the key surviving poetic works in the early English language. This book complements Tim Flight's book Basilisks and Beowulf - Monsters in the Anglo-Saxon world from the same publisher, which I had previously read and reviewed, as it uses similar poetic sources and references to inform a different subject. The author also makes use of contemporary Latin historical sources such as Bede.

We can see how important words - poetry and storytelling - were to the Anglo-Saxons. Writing is seen as treasure; for example equating a Gold Hoard with a Word Hoard (poems or a wise speech), and using the 'same' word for (God the) 'creator' and 'poet'. German, the Saxon successor, and Greek are reputedly the two languages with the widest vocabulary, and it is no coincidence that they are also the languages of philosophy.

In this book the author uses the structure of the four seasons, the cycle of the year (starting with winter and progressing though spring, summer and autumn) to collate references to traditions, celebrations and attitudes which together reflect the predominantly pastoral society of the Anglo-Saxons. Winters in the World expresses the number of annual cycles lived through, drawing parallels with the human journey through life, where ageing and decay are balanced by growth in wisdom as the years pass.

Few traces of pagan or pre-Christian traditions survive in written records, but there are some tantalising glimpses into that earlier world; for example the pre-Christian origins of Christian festival names (Easter, Lent, Yule) and the pre-Christian calendar. Although most Anglo-Saxon literature is written in Latin script, the use of runes, originating in the eighth century, survived alongside. I loved the idea of the rune characters being descriptive as well as phonetic, perhaps describing an object (trees) or concept (weather). Another link back to an earlier time are the Anglo-Saxon poets' reactions when observing Roman ruins “the ancient work of giants” and prehistoric barrows and earthworks.

We learn that the Anglo-Saxon year revolved around the equinoxes, particularly midwinter and midsummer, rather than the seasons. The difference this makes to their impressions of the seasons is notable, with spring seen as fierce and stormy, rather than tranquil, and evoking an itching to travel after the constraints of winter. They saved the “soft and pretty” aspects of our Spring for their summer; once “hell's doors be shut and heaven's opened wide”. Conversely late summer was associated with the harvest, and then followed immediately by winter. If you travel in Scandinavia in August, the sun may still have his hat on, but you can already feel that onset of winter, as the inhabitants cut logs and fix roads and roofs in preparation for the impending ice and snow.

If the reader is a Christian, familiar with Church festivals and rites, they will particularly appreciate the references described in this book. There are lovely descriptions of the origins of Candlemas, the Advent “O” antiphons, and “locking” the Alleluia for Lent, and the tradition of baptisms and coronations at Whitsun (King Charles, note, not on 6 May!). But modern Christians may baulk at the pagan-sounding rites, bordering on magic spells, for making the crops grow or to heal sick cattle.

The Normans dismissed their newly-conquered English territories as a land in the grip of perpetual winter, and the Anglo-Saxons certainly saw each winter as something to be overcome, a battle to be won. They say the Eskimos have 50 words for “snow”. In the same way the Anglo-Saxons had at least 50 words for winter and its weather, and they used them well in these poems, to evoke lovely images of feasting in the hall, a “beacon of warmth” by the fire, while the worst of winter batters outside. This is perhaps something that's still in the English psyche, passed down the generations; a love of drinking ale in a country pub with a roaring fire, the Yule log, Christmas feasting to excess.

All these festivals provided plentiful holidays for the agricultural and other workers. Two weeks at Easter, all twelve days of Christmas, the equinoxes (quarter days), and many more. And descriptions of “joyous crowds” thronging the fields at Rogationtide, and idle sunny afternoons playing games in the dappled shade under a tree suggests they enjoyed them to the full.

This book makes us realise that more was lost to the Norman conquest than perhaps we appreciate.
  • Carol Carlile

No comments: