Terminalia God of the Boundary February 23rd

Hans Holbein the Younger Design for a Stained Glass Window with Terminus. Pen and ink and brush, grey wash, watercolour, over preliminary chalk drawing, 31.5 × 25 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel.
‘Terminus is often pictured as a bust on a boundary stone,

Today is ‘Terminalia, the Roman day for setting land boundaries.

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. Ovid says that when King Tarquinus swept away the old Gods on the Capital Hill and Jupiter became the Great God, all the old temples were taken down except for that of Terminus. Jupiter’s Temple was built around it. It had a hole in the roof because Terminus had to be worshipped in the open air.

Terminus’s motto was “concedo nulli” which means “I yield to no one”. This was adopted by Erasmus as his personal motto in 1509.

The Terminalia was celebrated on the last day of the old Roman year. February was the last month of the year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year..

The intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons. It fixed the problem with a leap day every four years, based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. It was another 1500 years before that inaccuracy was corrected with the introduction of the Gregorian Year, by which time the year was another 11 days out of kilter.

The festival of Terminus was a pastoral outdoor festival marking the boundaries of towns and villages. It resembles the Beating of the Bounds tradition that we have in Britain, which is recorded from anglo-saxon times, and still continues in some parishes. I will talk about this on Ascension Day in May!

Here is what Ovid, in ‘Fasti’ says about Terminalis

Book II: February 23: The Terminalia
When night has passed, let the god be celebrated
With customary honour, who separates the fields with his
sign.
Terminus, whether a stone or a stump buried in the earth,
You have been a god since ancient times.
You are crowned from either side by two landowners,
Who bring two garlands and two cakes in offering.
An altar’s made: here the farmer’s wife herself
Brings coals from the warm hearth on a broken pot.
The old man cuts wood and piles the logs with skill,
And works at setting branches in the solid earth.
Then he nurses the first flames with dry bark,
While a boy stands by and holds the wide basket.
When he’s thrown grain three times into the fire
The little daughter offers the sliced honeycombs.
Others carry wine: part of each is offered to the flames:
The crowd, dressed in white, watch silently.
Terminus, at the boundary, is sprinkled with lamb’s blood,
And doesn’t grumble when a sucking pig is granted him.
Neighbours gather sincerely, and hold a feast,
And sing your praises, sacred Terminus:
You set bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms:
Without you every field would be disputed.
You curry no favour: you aren’t bribed with gold,
Guarding the land entrusted to you in good faith.
If you’d once marked the bounds of Thyrean lands,
Three hundred men would not have died,
Nor Othryadesí name be seen on the pile of weapons.
O how he made his fatherland bleed!
What happened when the new Capitol was built?
The whole throng of gods yielded to Jupiter and made
room:
But as the ancients tell, Terminus remained in the shrine
Where he was found, and shares the temple with great
Jupiter.
Even now there’s a small hole in the temple roof,
So he can see nothing above him but stars.
Since then, Terminus, you’ve not been free to wander:
Stay there, in the place where you’ve been put,
And yield not an inch to your neighbour’s prayers,
Lest you seem to set men above Jupiter:
And whether they beat you with rakes, or ploughshares,
Call out: This is your field, and that is his!
There’s a track that takes people to the Laurentine fields,
The kingdom once sought by Aeneas, the Trojan leader:
The sixth milestone from the City, there, bears witness
To the sacrifice of a sheep’s entrails to you, Terminus.
The lands of other races have fixed boundaries:
The extent of the City of Rome and the world is one

Translated by A. S. Kline copyright 2004

London Stone as a Palladium February 20th

OLD ENGRAVING OF London stone
Old Engraving of London Stone, Cannon Street

On February 18th, I revised a post about Ravens, King Bran’s Head and other Palladiums that protected Britain (or London) from invasion. If you missed it, look here. A possible Palladiun I missed out is London Stone. To remind you, London Stone is an eponymous stone found in Cannon Street, in the heart of the City of London, It is first mentioned in the 12th Century, and no one knows why it was famous.

In 1862, an ‘ancient proverb’ surfaced:

“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”

It was made anonymously in the journal Notes and Queries. In Welsh, it was “Tra maen Prydain, Tra lled Llyndain’ This verse, if genuine, would link the Stone to Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder of London. (To be precise: by genuine, I don’t mean it would prove the stone was linked to King Brutus, I mean, if genuine, it would prove that in the medieval period the stone was linked to Brutus.)

However, the writer has been identified as Richard Williams Morgan, who was a passionate Welsh Nationalist and prolific author, who was not very scrupulous with his analysis of sources. As no earlier source can be found, it is thought Morgan made it up.

He lived in London in the 1850s and was very struck by the London Stone. Archaeologists prefer the idea that London Stone it is, likely, a milestone from which the Romans measured distance. For Shakespeare, it was the stone on which rebel Jack Cade claimed lordship of London. For the romantic, it was a coronation stone; a stone of power; the sword in the stone stone; or an ancient megalith. The truth is, we have no idea. It has been called the London Stone since the 12th Century, but why was it so named and what was it ‘for’ or symbolic of, we still don’t know.

picture of london stone from the inside
Pic by Graham Hussey pic shows the LONDON STONE which is in Canon Street, London .pic taken inside the Tech Sports shop

Morgan came to the conclusion it was the stone plinth on which the original Trojan Palladium had stood. This was a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, that protected Troy from invasion and which was stolen by Odysseus and Diomedes shortly before the successful Trojan Horse plot. It was then taken to Italy.

Morgan’s idea was that King Brutus brought it from Rome when he sailed into Exile in Britain. Brutus, was a descendent of Aeneas. Aeneas was the only Trojan leader to escape from the destruction of Troy, who found his way to Rome, after leaving Dido in Carthage. He was the ancestor of Romulus who founded Rome, but also the ancestor of King Brutus. Brutus gathered all the Trojan slaves and exiles and sailed to found a new Troy in our green and pleasant lands. His new capital he called Troia Nova, which became Trinovantum, then Lud’s Dun, and finally London.

Morgan’s theory held that the Stone was used as the altar stone of the Temple of Diana (supposedly on the site of St Pauls Cathedral) and set up by Brutus.

Morgan was the first person to link London Stone with Brutus, or so people thought and still think (see Wikipedia, until 2018.

Picture of the plinth in which London stone is rehoused recently
London Stone as recently rehoused.(Photo K Flude)

John Clark, Emeritus Curator at the Museum of London, in 2018, found a reference to a narrative poem of the 14th Century, that links London Stone to Brutus and to the future prosperity of London. Just as Morgan did. So, it makes it possible, at least, that Morgan did not just make the link-up but draw on this medieval ‘tradition.’

Brutus set up London Stone
And these words he said anon:
‘If each king that comes after me
Makes this city wide and roomy  
As I have in my day,
Still hereafter men may say 
That Troy was never so fair a city  
As this city shall be.’

From Burnley & Wiggins 2003b, lines 457–64(John Clark’s modern English version)

For the full story, see John Clark’s article.

Recent archaeological discoveries that London was the site of Late Neolithic feasting on a possibly large scale (discussed here🙂 makes the chances that the stone is a ‘ritual’ stone from prehistory slightly more likely than previously thought. At least that is my opinion.  But, of course, there is still no evidence that London Stone is prehistoric, nor that Brutus actually existed.

Written in 2023 and revised in February 2024.

The Raven, the Palladium and the White Hill of London February 18th

Shows a photo of a missing Raven at the Tower of London
The Independent January 2021

The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the west and north by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they, again, cover most of the UK except the eastern areas.

Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. Here is a very famous quotation from Y Gododdin, a medieval poem but thought to derive from a poem by the great poet Aneirin from the 7th Century

He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur.’

Aneirin-he-glutted-black-ravens

This is one of the much argued-about references to Arthur in the ‘Was he a real person’ argument.

The Raven was also the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was one of the legendary Kings of Britain and his sister, Branwen, was married to the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I hope to tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled by her Irish husband to the scullery. She trained a starling to smuggle a message to her brother.

Bran took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.

Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed, having previously given away his cauldron of immortality to the Irish King in recompense for the insults given to the Irish by his brother.

So, the dying Bran, told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years.

At last they got to London where he told his men to bury his head on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain would be safe from foreign invasion.

This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’

A raven landing with a brown background
By Sonny Mauricio from Unsplash

But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.

The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill with its summit at Trinity Gardens, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation for the story, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales.

A Palladium is something that keeps a city or country safe, and was named after a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, which protected Troy. Perceiving this Odysseus and Diomedes stole the Palladium from Troy shortly before the Trojan Horse episode. The palladium then went to Italy (I’m guessing with Diomedes who is said to have founded several cities in Italy), and ended up in Rome.

The Romans claimed to be descendents of Trojan exiles led by Aeneas so it was back with its rightful owners. It protected Rome until it was transferred to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, and then disappeared, presumably allowing the Ottoman Turks to conquer the City of Caesar.

So what was Arthur doing destroying the palladium that kept Britain safe? Vanity is the answer the story gives. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.

The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is still said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiz when one goes missing.

Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell,who is a friend of mine told me that while working at the Tower of London he searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the tale before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.

The Welsh Triads give a total of three palladiums for Britain.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain;

The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which llud son of Beli concealed;
And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

All good but then came the three unfortunate disclosures:

And there were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed form the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman;
And it was he who disclosed the Dragons;
And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.

Gwrtheyrn is Vortigen, the leader of the Britons after the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, one or two leaders before Arthur.

The Dragons were making a terrible noise, causing miscarriages and other misfortunes, and King Ludd, whom legends says gave his name to London (Ludd’s Dun or Ludd’s walled City), had them buried in a cavern in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The Dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern in trying to build a castle in Snowdonia at Dinas Emrys disturbed the Dragons and their disclosure caused the Saxon conquest.

Gwerthefyr is Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, who was keeping the Saxons out, but his father betrayed his own people for the lust of Rowena the daughter of Hengist, the Saxon.

After Vortimer’s death his bones were buried at the chief ports and they kept the country safe.  But they were moved to Billingsgate which allowed the Saxons to land safely on the Kent coast and consolidate their increasing hold over Britain and turning it into Englandw

Written in February 21 revised in February 23 and 24

Ash Wednesday February 14th

Ash Wednesday Forehead Ash Cross.  Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

This is the First Day of Lent, the solemn time which runs up to Easter, and is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness.

February means the ‘Month of Purification’ in Latin, and in Anglo Saxon the name for Spring was ‘lencthen’ thought to derive from the idea of lengthening days. So strictly Lent means Spring. In the Romance languages the term used derives from the Latin ‘Quadragesima’ which means the 40 days of Fast. Spanish (Cuaresma), French (Carême), and Italian Quaresima). In German it is the fasting time: fastenzeit. In England, Lent became a specialised word for the fast period, and Spring took over as the name of the season.

A time of fasting, or at least, a time when we are supposed to give something up – a bit like Dry January? Ash Wednesday gets its name as ashes used to be smeared on the heads of worshippers to remind them that we are dust. My footballing friend Andrew, is a Vicar and missed this week’s game as he was in Church marking people’s foreheads with ash crosses. The ashes were traditionally made from palms from Palm Sunday which is indeed what Andrew did.

In the midst of life we are in death, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.

Thomas Cranmer

On the subject we go to dust on death Joni Mitchell reminds us that:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

Seynt Valentyne’s Day & Magpies February 14th

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thynke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey Chaucer

This is my ‘translation’

For this was St. Valentine’s Day
When every bird came there to chose their mate.
Of every type, that men think may
And that so huge a noise did they make
That earth and sea and tree and every lake
So full was, that hardly was there space
For to stand so full was the place.

This is the first reference to St Valentine’s as a romantic day. St Valentine, is supposed to have been martyred in the 3rd Century (290AD) and for refusing to stop marrying people in the Christian rites. He is the patron Saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers. But until Chaucer, there was no particular link with romance. In fact, there are at least three Saint Valentines who were martyred in the Roman period and their relics are scattered around Europe (have a look at this National Geographic article for the full S.P.), including bones in Glasgow and his heart in Dublin.

Chaucer’s poem suggests one possible route to the link with romance. This is about the time when birds pair off—if they want to have their chicks at optimal time, then they need to get going before spring has really sprung.

When I think of love, I don’t think of birds. Maybe, this is because I live on the Regent’s Canal, and outside my garden I frequently see and hear a Coot chasing his pair across the water before violently mounting her. But then they are fiercely monogamous and defend their nest, fearlessly, against much bigger birds. And swans glide in beautiful family groups. But Magpies are my favourite lovebird because you see one, and then look around, and you very often see the partner. I have adopted an old tradition that you are supposed to say:

‘Hello, Mr Magpie! How’s your wife’?

And it is good luck if you see her and bad luck if you don’t. (Please feel free to assign your own favourite gender!)

‘One for Sorrow’ is a well-known nursery rhyme found in many variations, and is an example of ‘ornithomancy superstition’ whereby the number of Magpies you see determines some aspect of your future. As to the likelihood of seeing thirteen magpies together – they always appear to be in pairs to me, or singletons, and occasionally threes. Magpies normally mate for life, and are not gregarious during the nesting season, but thereafter, they ‘join together in large wintering flocks of more than 20 or so birds.‘. So, perhaps we need another seven lines for the rhyme?

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

Here is another version.

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

For details of the history of versions of this poem, click here:

Magpies don’t have a good reputation, traditionally being regarded as thieves and scavengers with untidy nests and eating habits. They are supposed to be attracted to shiny things, but Exeter University did some research and found that they have the normal Corvid’s curiosity for objects, but they are as happy to snatch a dull object as a shiny one. So, we can see they are very intelligent and faithful lovers and, for me, a good-omened bird (as long as I see the two of them).

First Published in February 2023, revised and updated in February 2024

Shrove Tuesday – Pancake Day – Mardi Gras – End of the Carnival February 13th

Les_Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail)  The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry February (Detail) The people inside are warming their legs and their hands in front of a roaring fire.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, this day is the end of the Carnival.

Carnival

1540s, “time of merrymaking before Lent,” from French carnaval, from Italian carnevale “Shrove Tuesday,” from older Italian forms such as Milanese *carnelevale, Old Pisan carnelevare “to remove meat,” literally “raising flesh,” from Latin caro “flesh” (originally “a piece of flesh,” from PIE root *sker- (1) “to cut”) + levare “lighten, raise, remove” (from PIE root *legwh- “not heavy, having little weight”).

Folk etymology has it from Medieval Latin carne vale ” ‘flesh, farewell!’ ” Attested from 1590s in the figurative sense of “feasting or revelry in general.” The meaning “a circus or amusement fair” is attested by 1926 in American English.Related entries & more 

www.etymonline.com

Pancake Day is the day we eat up all our surplus food so that we can begin our lenten fast and turn out mind to repentance. Traditionally, in Britain it is a simple pancake with lemon and sugar (here is a recipe from the BBC) but it can also be a day of excess before the 40 days of restraint. As we saw before on ‘Lardy Thursday’ the Carnival period might be up to a week. Shrovetide was normally three days from the Sunday before Lent to Ash Wednesday the beginning of Lent.

In France, it’s called Mardi Gras which means Fatty Tuesday, in Italy Martedi Grasso. In New Orleans it stretches from Twelfth Night to Shrove Tuesday, in most other places it is a week or three days. In Anglo-Saxon times there was ‘Cheese Week’, ‘Butter Week’, ‘Cheesefare Sunday’ and ‘Collop Monday’.

Shrove Tuesday is the day we should be ‘shriven’ which means to make confession. The point is that the Church has been leading up to Easter since Advent – before Christmas. Easter is the date of the conception and, also, the date of the execution and apotheosis of Jesus Christ. So the pious should confess their sins, then undertake their lenten fast before entering the Holy Week purged and sin-free.

In the Anglo-Saxon Church, there was a custom called ‘locking the Alleluia.’ The Church stopped using the word Alleluia from 70 days before Easter. Alleluia represented the return from exile in Babylon, and with the approach of the death of Christ it was not felt appropriate to be celebratory.

The sombre nature of this block of time was highlighted by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010)

Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and make amends according to the guidance of his teachers; and let everyone encourage each other to do good by good example.

Ælfric, Catholic Homilies Text Ed. Peter Clemoes quoted in ‘Winters in the World’ Eleanor Parker

Shrove Tuesday was traditional for football games in the days before football had any rules to speak of. It was a wild game in which teams tried to get a bladder from one end of town to the other, or one side of a field to the other. In Chester, the traditional football game on the Roodee island which was held on Shrove Tuesday was so rowdy that the Mayor created the Chester Races specifically to provide a more sedate alterative to the violence of the ‘beautiful game.’

Here is a youtube video of Shrovetide Football.

Royal Asbourne Shrovetide Football

In London, John Stowe quotes Henry Fitzstephen who was a contemporary of Thomas Becket and is writing about London in the late 12th Century:

‘Every year also at Shrove Tuesday, that we may begin with children’s sport, seeing we all have been children, the school boys do bring cocks of the game to their master, and all the forenoon they delight themselves in cockfighting. After dinner all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball. The scholars of every school have their ball, or baston in their hands. The ancient and wealthy men of the City come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility.’

I have just found a video of the pancake race at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London. It is an inter-livery company pancake race competition. The competitors, representing the medieval Guilds, have to run across the Guildhall while holding a frying pan and pancake. There is a zone where they have to toss the pancake. There is also a novelty costume race. Here is a youtube video of the 2023 race.

First published on February 21st, 2023 republished on February 13th 2024

St Apollonia’s Day. A Day to Cure the Toothache February 9th

Saint Apollonia. Woodcut. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark. She is shown with forceps and extracted tooth and the martyr’s palm.

The 9th of February is St Apollonia’s Day. She was martyred at Alexandria in 249 AD during the persecution of Emperor Decius. She was attacked during an anti-Christian riot and struck around the face knocking her teeth out. Then, she was taken to a bonfire and told they would throw her in if she did not renounce her faith. So, without waiting, she spoke a prayer and walked into the fire. This information is recorded in a near-contemporary letter from St Dionysius of Alexandria and so is a rare well documented martyrdom. Because her teeth were knocked out she is, therefore, Saint of Toothache.

I can remember my Grandmother prescribing cloves for me when I had toothache. And this was, and is, a common remedy. In my case, we would keep a clove or two in the mouth close to the site of the pain. According to Natural Ways to Sooth an Toothache cloves contain

‘Eugenol, a natural form of anaesthetic and antiseptic that helps get rid of germs. Eugenol is still used in dental materials today’

Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, tended to use a pill to soothe sore gums, but also a oil from a wood called ‘Ol. Lig. Heraclei’ which may be oil from the Bay Tree. (‘John Hall and his Patients’ by Joan Lane). Most of his tooth cases seem to be sore gums, which suggests to me Dr John Hall did not generally do dental work.

To get a tooth drawn you could go to a Barber Surgeon, a Blacksmiths or specialist Tooth Drawer. This would be terrifyingly painful and probably only done when the pain was unbearable, but just think what a premium could be demanded by a really competent drawer. The drawers would probably not have any formal training, but the skills would be passed on by the drawer to his apprentice or assistant. So, they were a very important part of the health care system.

A bill of mortality for London 1665, showing 11 deaths caused by 'teeth' (as opposed to 353 for 'feaver'
List of causes of death, London during the plague of 1665. Teeth killed 11 people

‘Teeth’ was a common cause of death – most likely being from infection or an abscess. It is interesting that someone as erudite and educated as the 17th Century writer, John Aubrey tells us in a chapter on Magick of less formal ways of tooth care. He tells us, in places, that the person who told him the story is worthy of belief. So he seems to give some credence to the efficacy of these magickal ‘cures’. But, judge for yourself; this is what he wrote:

To Cure the Tooth-ach.

Take a new Nail, and make the Gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an Oak. This did Cure William Neal, Sir William Neal’s Son, a very stout Gentleman, when he was almost Mad with the Pain, and had a mind to have Pistoll’d himself.

To Cure the Tooth-ach, out of Mr. Ashmole’s Manuscript Writ with his own Hand.

Mars, hur, abursa, aburse.
Iesu Christ for Marys sake,
Take away this Tooth-ach.

Write the words, Three times; and as you say the Words, let the Party burn one Paper, then another, and then the last.

He says, he saw it experimented, and the Party immediately Cured

John Aubrey’s Miscellanies 1695

May, Williams and Bishop at the Old Bailey accused of murder in pursuit of bodysnatching

In 1832, in London Bishop, Williams and May were accused of bodysnatching. After killing the Italian Boy ( wonderful book by Sarah Wise ‘The Italian Boy‘) they jemmied out the teeth and took them to a South London Dentist. They ‘cheapened’ (I cheap, you cheap, we are cheapening: meaning to barter) with the Dentist to get a decent price for the teeth. The dentist wanted to use them for false teeth for his patients. If I remember correctly, he paid £1 for them.

The teeth were evidence in the trial of the murderers, and once two of them had been hanged (the third turned King’s Evidence), the dentist asked for the teeth back! They were released back to the Dentist who promptly put them in the window of his surgery as an advert for his professional skills!

Earlier, one of the Borough Boys Resurrectionist gang (based in Southwark, London) toured the battlefields of the Peninsular Wars and came back with hundreds of teeth extracted from dead soldiers to sell to dentists as false teeth – they became known as Waterloo Teeth.

When I first wrote this in I added ‘How things have changed!’, but recent news that people in parts of Britain, without effective access to Dental care, have begun resorted to doing their own dental work. This often means extracting their own rotten teeth. Effectively, it seems this Conservative Government is allowing dentistry to slip out of the NHS just like it did with eye health. For a study in what has happened to Dentistry in the UK in recent years, please look at this report here.

First writen February 2023, revised February 2024.

Winter’s End February 7th

Photo of the cover of Winter's in the World by Eleanor Parker
Winter’s in the World by Eleanor Parker

I have long had an interest in Almanacs and Calendars in different cultures, whether it be Egyptian, Greek, Julian or Gregorian, Roman, Christian, Celtic, Jewish, Chinese, French Revolutionary, or Legal, Mayoral, Academic, Theatrical, etc. But, for some reason, I never got very far into the Anglo-Saxon year, only delving a little into Norse legends but not with any confidence.

So, when I saw the front cover above appear on an Anglo-Saxon Facebook page, I bought the book immediately. When it arrived a couple of days ago, I was initially disappointed as I had hopes of a day by day almanac-type presentation which I could mine, conveniently, for this, my Almanac of the Past.

However, reading it properly, I think it is an excellent book. What I like it is that it has a poetry about it, and, for a non-Old- English speaker, it really gives some understanding of the language.

Anyway, the point of this post is that, for the Anglo-Saxons, winter was over on the 7th February, and we are now in the season of ‘lencten’ which probably comes from ‘lenghtening days’ and which is Spring as we call it. The word eventually got absorbed into the Christian calendar, giving us the name of the fasting season which is ‘Lent’.

So Winter began on 7th October and ended on the 7th February. January was ‘Gēola‘ the month of Yule and February ‘Sol-mōnaþ‘ Mud month which Bede calls the ‘month of cakes’ which they offered to their gods in that month’.

The Venerable Bede says that before conversion to Christianity the Anglo-Saxons had two seasons of Winter and Summer. Winter began on the first full moon of October which they called Winterfylleth. The summer was called ‘sumor’ or ‘gear’ (which developed into our word ‘year’.

manuscript drawing possibly of the Venerable Bede
Thought to be the Venerable Bede, the first historian of the English

There is some sense in this as by February 7th, lambs are being born and many buds and shoot are appearing on branches and poking up from the cold earth. So, their winter is essentially, the time when nothing is growing, while ours is more aligned to the coldest period. Similarly, the Celtic year begins on Halloween, and the spring begins with Imbolc on the 1st February.

Marcus Terentius Varro wrote about the Roman year, dividing it into 8 phrases and his spring began also on 7th February. This is when the west winds began to blow warmer weather and so farmers ‘purged’ the fields, readying them for planting. They would be cleared of old growth and debris, blessed, weeded, pruned with particular attention given to preparing the grain fields, the vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees.

In the section on Winter Eleanor Parker gives a poetic description of winter. What seems particularly interesting about it is that the harshness of winter is often paired with what seems to be descriptions of the ruins of Roman Civilisation. So, the despair of winter, the barren soil, the fight for survival is made more melancholic by the comparison to failed civilisation and nature battering away at the useless ruins, and the destruction of people’s dreams.

Here, is a flavour of the juxtaposition of the bleakness of winter and the sadness of lost society, from ‘The Wanderer’ an alliterative poem from the Exeter Book, dating from the late 10th century. I have presumed to change a couple of words to make it a little more accessible.

Who’s wise must see how ghostly it has been
when the world and its things stand wasted —
like you find, here and there, in this middle space now —
there walls totter, wailed around by winds,
gnashed by frost, the buildings snow-lapt.
The winehalls molder, their Lord lies
washed clean of joys, his people all perished,
proud by the wall. War ravaged a bunch
ferried along the forth-way, others a raptor ravished
over lofty seas, this one the hoary wolf
broke in its banes, the last a brother
graveled in the ground, tears as war-mask.

“That’s the way it goes—
the Shaper mills middle-earth to waste
until they stand empty, the giants’ work and ancient,
drained of the dreams and joys of its dwellers.”

Translation Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter.

As I read this I wonder if it is a tradition that began in the cold of Scandinavia as England, at least Southern England, is more often mild than ferocious?

However, there is also an idea about the circularity of life and the interconnectedness of everything. There are 4 Seasons, 4 Ages of Man, and the cycle was from childhood to old age, from Spring to Winter. We start young, and become vigorous, and then we decline and eventually die. And so does the world of the Anglo-Saxons. The world of Adam was young, restored to vigour by the coming of Jesus, and was now in its old age awaiting the Apocalypse, before the Day of Judgement. So Winter was connected with Old Age and Death.

Parker recounts a beautiful image of Bede’s. The King of Northumberland is thinking of taking his wife’s religion, and has invited the Christian, Paulinus to his court. Inclined to convert, he asks the opinion of one of his pagan advisers, who answers to the effect.

‘We are in the Great Hall, gathered warm with friends and family around the roaring fire, with Winter raging outside. A sparrow comes in from a hole in the end wall, flies through the warm of the Hall, and flies out through the other side. Such is life. The Hall is this world, we are the Sparrow, and as pagans we have no idea what happens before we enter the Hall, nor what happens after we leave. How much better it is to embrace a religion that can give us certainty as to what happens when we leave the hall.’

We have also seen that the Kalendar of Shepherds also takes this idea of the year mirroring life. The Kalendar takes the span of Man to be 72 years, divided into 12 ages of 6 years. January represents unproductive childhood from years 0 – 6. February represents the time when children begin to learn and become able to be productive, 6 -12. And so on.

First published in February 2023, republished on 7th February 2024

St Agatha and Motor Cycling in Inferno

Procession of female saints leaving Classis (bottom left) behind the Three Kings heading to the Virgin Mary (bottom right between four angels). Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (pic. Wikipedia)

Today, I have revised February 5th’s entry on Saint Agatha (link below), whose Feast Day it was. My entry seemed quite comprehensive enough, but I decided to get an early image of Agatha because she is a martyr whose cult spread early on, and therefore, likely to be genuine.

As I started to track down her image I was led, with some joy, to one of the most amazing Churches in the wonderful town of Ravenna, a place I visited with some wonderment when working as an archaeologist at Ferrara, in Emilia-Romagna. As I found the picture of the wall upon which St Agatha appeared, I had to find out which one of the 22 female Saints was St. Agatha. I discovered a pretty comprehensive description and as I looked at it, I found the record was made by, or involved, Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins who was the Director of the site my friends and I worked on in Ferrara!

Medieval Excavation in Ferrara. The author is in the centre of the photo,

I’m guessing Bryan suggested we visit Ravenna on one of our trips to the beach at Rimini. Ravenna was just awesome because the City became the capital of the Roman Empire in the west for a while after Rome fell, then part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, then of the Byzantine Empire. And so, it was provided with some of the great glories of 5th and 6th Century Architecture. — the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neronian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and spanned the period when the Arian heresy was in full flow. Its hard to overestimate the impact on a young British archaeologist of seeing 5th Century buildings with roofs and astonishingly detailed mosaics still intact. Please visit!

Detail showing the first four female saints behind the Three Kings. Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo wikipedia

Bryan Ward-Perkins description says All the saints are haloed, bear crowns and are dressed in elaborate court dress. Unlike the men …., all have essentially the same youthful features. The only saint with a distinguishing attribute is Agnes, who is accompanied by a lamb ‘ St Agatha, the list says, is the Saint next to Agnes with her lamb; the third in precedent.

St Agatha
Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo wikipedia

Enough of the sublime! Now for the ridiculous. Whether on this visit or another, we decided to have a day at the beach at Rimini. After the day on the beach a collective decision to stay over was made so we could go to one of the big clubs (did we call them discos?) probably to dance to ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’.

Archaeologists, Italian and English, on the beach at Rimini

However, the hotels were all full up and so I decided, late at night to go back to Ferrara, on my own on my 175 cc Yamaha motor bike.

My Yamaha 175cc bike looked something like this but was red. A thing of underpowered beauty.

Thing was, I had started the day in Ferrara in the blazing Italian summer heat and hopped onto my bike dressed in shorts and t-shirt. Ferrara was 77 miles away (says google). One hour into the trip back I was getting pretty cold, and really not enjoying driving through the lonely countryside. So I decided to pull off the main road to see if I could find a rural hostelry to stay the rest of the night.

Now, I remember this very vividly – the only likely road I could find was signposted to ‘Inferno’. I shrugged my shoulders, wondering what that was about, and drove towards it on a very deserted road. Eventually, I came to a sign which told me I was about to enter ‘Inferno’.

There was something very surreal about the situation and my state of frozen mind and my courage failed me! I was not going to stay in a ‘motel’ in a place called ‘inferno’! I had seen too many horror films. So, I turned round and continued my cold journey to Ferrara.

Whenever I tell this story, I have some doubt about whether I really saw a place called ‘Inferno’ But I have, for the first time, checked Google which tells me that the road off the Rimini to Ferrara road on the way to Bologna goes through somewhere called: Vicolo Inferno, 40026 Imola BO, Italy. I have not heard of any serial killers based there.

Below is the updated page about St Agatha of Sicily who has a most interesting story.

Written in 2023 and updated in 2024

St Agatha’s Day February 5th

Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán FROM wikipedia
Saint Agatha, detail from a painting of Francisco de Zurbarán – she is carrying her severed breasts

She is a Sicilian Saint, who refused to sleep with a powerful Roman in the third Century AD, and was imprisoned, tortured, had her breasts pincered off, still refused to sleep with him and died in prison. She is remembered by cakes shaped as breasts eaten on her feast day of February 5th (I kid you not).

She was martyred in the last year of reign of Emperor Decius (c. 201 AD – June 251 AD) and is thus an early martyr whose cult was established in antiquity, although details of her life and death are, as usual, much later traditions.

breast shaped cakes called Minne di Sant'Agata, a typical Sicilian sweet
Minne di Sant’Agata, Sicilian (Wikipedia)

‘She is also the patron saint of rape victims, breast cancer patients, martyrs, wet nurses, bell-founders, and bakers, and is invoked against fire, earthquakes, and eruptions of Mount Etna.’

(Wikipedia).
St Agatha's Church, Kingston on Thames
black and white illustration
St Agatha’s Church, Kingston on Thames

It is suggested that illustrations of her severed breasts led the bell founders and bakers to mistakenly adopt her as patron saint as they thought the platter shown in illustrations of the Saint held bells or loaves not breasts! If you seach Google images, you will find most look clearly like breasts, but I guess you could mistake one or two for cakes, but I’ve never seen a bell that shape.

Results of a search for images of St Agatha in Google