Probably most of you know that our calendar comes from the Roman one. January is named after Janus, the two-faced god who looked front and back simultaneously, March comes from the Roman god Mars, the god of war, etc.
But the Anglo-Saxons of 7th century England had a very different calendar.
The most detailed account of this Anglo-Saxon calendar comes from Bede, who, in his book, The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD, details each of the months. It’s interesting to note that by the time Bede writes this book, this is very much an “old” way of reckoning the calendar year. The Julian calendar we still follow had come to England along with the Gregorian mission in 595 AD, and as Christianity spread, the old Germanic calendar fell into disuse.
It’s a good thing Bede bothered to include this old, “heathen” calendar in his book, because his summary preserved for us a bit of history we would not have, otherwise.
The Anglo-Saxon calendar was a lunisolar calendar, based on the moon’s cycle. But as the lunar cycles are about 29.5 days each, the year ends up with 354 days instead of 365. After two or three of these shortened twelve month years, the lunar cycle would be out of line with the solar year by about a month. The Anglo-Saxons got around this by inserting an extra month in summer time every so often to keep it all synchronized properly.
According to Bede, the new year began on December 25th, called Modranecht, or “Mother’s Night”. There is much speculation about what these “mothers” might be, but there is a tradition of Germanic peoples honouring female ancestral spirits, so possibly this is what Bede is referring to. It happened at the winter solstice, which was a very important day for the Anglo-Saxons, know as Geola (“Yule”).
The months of the year were as follows:
January – Æfterra Geola, or “after Yule”.
February – Solmonað, roughly translated as “mud month”, which Bede says refers to the cakes they offered to their gods in that month. However, the word “sol” is not generally translated as “cakes”, but “mud”. So maybe their cakes looked like mud? Or it’s a reference to the soggy English winter? Hard to say.
March – Hreðmonað. Bede tells us that this refers to the goddess Hreða, whom they sacrificed to in this month. We don’t know a lot about this goddess today. There is not much existing Germanic lore about her.
April – Eostermonað, corresponding to the goddess Eoster or Eostre, who was celebrated this month. This is where we get the name Easter, for the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is usually celebrated in April. Interestingly enough, like Hreda there is no information about Eostre apart from Bede’s writings.
May – Ðrimilcemonað, or “month of three milkings.” The idea being that the grass is so plentiful and rich that the livestock (cows, sheep, goats) could be milked three times in one day.
June – Ærra Liða, or “before mild”.
July – Æfterra Liða, or “after mild”. “Mild” refers to the calm breezes that made it easy to sail on the sea in the summer months (as well as the mild summer weather). At the height of summer, another month would be added occasionally to compensate for the shorter lunar cycles, a “leap month”, if you will. This month was called Thriliða, or “third mild”.
August – Weodmonað, or “weed month”. I’m sure modern gardeners can relate! However, to be fair, the word “weod” could mean “weeds” or could also refer to herbs, or grass.
September – Haligmonað, or “holy month”. Unfortunately Bede lets us down here and doesn’t give us any details as to why this month was given this name. Perhaps there were celebrations that happened to do with harvest. He merely says it was a month of sacred rites.
October – Winterfylleth, or “winter full moon”. This refers to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons counted the beginning of winter as the first full moon in this month.
November – Blotmonað, or “blood month”, as this was the month where surplus livestock would be slaughtered in preparation for the winter season, and/or sacrificed and consecrated to the gods.
December – Ærra Geola, or “before Yule”.
The early Germanic people counted the day as starting at sunset, not sunrise. It is possible the Anglo-Saxons did the same. The concept of the “week” came from the Romans, and was adopted by the Germanic peoples as well.
Although the Anglo-Saxon names of the months have not survived in today’s modern English, we can’t say the same about the names of the week. Perhaps I will do a blog post about those echoes from the Anglo-Saxon past that are still in use today.
In the meantime, I hope you have a happy Ðrimilcemonað!
Featured image is found at Medievalists.net, and is the phases of the moon, from an 11th century manuscript.
Subscribe to my newsletter, “News from the Path”, to be kep up to date on all publication news and to get access to exclusive content!