Nettles and the Grecian Spring March 10th

Image of web site for Hesiod's works and days, showing pandora's box an illustration by William Blake

In the early modern almanacs there is much weather and horticultural advice to be had (Weather Lore. Richard Inwards).

March damp and warm
Will do farmer much  harm

or

‘In March much snow
to plants and trees much woe

The store cupboards are getting denuded of the fruits, nuts, preserves, pickles, salted and dried foods saved from the summer and autumnal abundance. Of course this is alleviated by the reduced consumption of the Lenten fast.  (I’m currently giving up, giving up things for Lent). But nettles are budding. I’ve recently taken to a regular cup of nettle tea provided by the excellent Cowan’s tea emporium in the Covered Market in Oxford. But I’m running out and not due to visit Oxford for a month or two. So Charles Kightley in his Perpetual Almanac tells me that young stinging nettles are appearing, and perhaps, I might change up the tea for a nettle beer:

Take a gallon measure of freshly gathered young nettles washed well dried and well packed down. Boil them in a gallon of water for at least a quarter of an hour. Then strain them, press them and put the juice in an earthenware pot with a pound of brown sugar and the juice and grated skin of a lemon. Stir well, and before it grows cool put in an ounce of yeast dissolved in some of the liquid. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place for four or five days and strain again and bottle it, stopping the bottles well.  It’ll be ready after a week, but better if left longer.

A more sinister use is provided by William Coles who gives a method of detecting virginity.

Nettle tops are usually boiled in pottage in the Springtime, to consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter have left behind. And it is said that if the juice of the roots of nettles be mixed with ale and beer, and given to one that suspected to have lost her maidenhood, if it remain with her, she is a maid, But if she’s spews forth, she is not.

William Cole’s Adam in Eden 1657.

Mrs Greaves in her ‘A Modern Herbal’ tells us that William Camden relates that Roman soldiers used nettles to heat up their legs in the cold of a British winter.  The 18th century poet Thomas Campbell is quoted on the virtues of nettles:

“I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”

Greaves tells us that when the German and Austrians had a shortage of cotton during the blockade of World War 2 they turned to nettles to replace cotton production believing it to be the only effective substitute.  It was also substituted for sugar, starch, protein, paper and ethyl alcohol. 

Pepys ate Nettle Pudding in February 1661 and pronounced it ‘very good’.  Nettles were added to horse feed to make their coats shine, and as a hair tonic for humans.  Nettle Beer was used for old people against ‘gouty and rheumatic pains’, and flogging with nettles was a cure for rheumatism and the loss of muscle power!

I can see I’m going to have to get out there and carefully pick myself some nettles! ( For Folklore of nettles look here). But this post was conceived as a piece on Spring starting with Hesiod!

The Works and Days is a farmer’s Almanac written for Hesiod’s brother. It has a mixture of seasonal good advice and moralising. He is, one of the first great poets of the western world, and near contemporary with Homer. He is an important source for important Greek Myths, and, for example, tells us that the story of Prometheus and Pandora is the reason the Gods cannot give us a simple wholesome life. He also talks about the ages of humanity which are: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Heroic Age, and our own decadent Iron age. This system was borrowed by C. J. Thomsen at the National Museum of Denmark in the early 19th Century to create out modern Three Age System of Stone, Bronze and Iron Age. Our system is more optimistic with a progressive trend while the Greek system degenerates through successive eras..

Hesiod sees Spring as a time to begin trading by sea but he warns us not to put all our eggs in one vessel as Spring can bring nasty nautical surprises.

In Rome early March is taken up much with celebrations of the Great God Mars, the one who enabled the Romans to conquer most of the known world. For the Anglo Saxon their poetry saw Spring as a great release when the ‘fetters of frost’ fall off and allow a welcome return to sailing on the high seas .

The Seafarer

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
meadows grow beautiful the world hastens on;
all these things urge the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
….

So now my spirit soars out of the confines of the heart,
my mind over the sea flood;
it wheels wide over the whale’s home,

Poem from the Exeter Book known as the Seafarer, quoted in Eleanor Parker’s ‘Winters in the World a journey through the Anglo Saxon year’.

Hesiod ‘Works & Days’

‘Spring too grants the chance to sail.
When first some leaves are seen
On fig-tree-tops, as tiny as the mark
A raven leaves, the sea becomes serene
For sailing. Though spring bids you to embark,
I’ll not praise it – it does not gladden me.
It’s hazardous, for you’ll avoid distress
With difficulty thus. Imprudently
Do men sail at that time – covetousness
Is their whole life, the wretches. For the seas
To take your life is dire. Listen to me:
Don’t place aboard all your commodities –
Leave most behind, place a small quantity
Aboard. To tax your cart too much and break
An axle, losing all, will bring distress.
Be moderate, for everyone should take
An apt approach. When you’re in readiness,
Get married. Thirty years, or very near,
Is apt for marriage. Now, past puberty
Your bride should go four years: in the fifth year
Wed her. That you may teach her modesty
Marry a maid. The best would be one who
Lives near you, but you must with care look round
Lest neighbours make a laughingstock of you.
A better choice for men cannot be found
Than a good woman,’

HESIOD’S WORKS AND DAYS Translated by Chris Kelk

By the way none of this is good advice to follow!

I have more on Hesiod:

Mars, Vesta & the Sabine Women March 6th

a sketch of several books of Swan vesta matches
Sketch of Swan Vesta Matches

For March 6th, Ovid in his Almanac Poem called ‘Fasti’ (Book III: March 6) tells the story of Vesta, who in Greek, is Hestria, and is depicted on the Parthenon Marbles, standing near Zeus and Athene. She was the Goddess of the Hearth, of the fire that keeps families warm, and fed. She had 6 Virgins as her Priestesses, and they had to remain 30 years, from before puberty, as a virgin or they suffered burial alive. Any partners in sin were beaten to death. At the end of their term they could marry, retire, or renew their vows.

At the beginning of Book 3 Ovid tells us the story of Rome’s foundation, and how Mars took Silvia the Vestal while she slept. She later gave birth to Romulus and Remus

The Vestal Virgins tended Vesta’s hearth, and it was not supposed to go out, as it had, in theory come from Troy with Aeneas. Also, housed in Vesta’s Temple was the Palladium, which was a wooden status of Pallas Athene, that kept Troy, then Rome free from invasion. Odysseus and Diomedes had stolen it just before the Trojan Horse episode ending the 10-year-long Trojan War.

(I just asked that question of Google, and he/she/it said it lasted 1hr 55 minutes. On closer examination, Google highlighted a reference to a film about Troy! I have a strong feeling that Google search is getting worse as the AI engines take over the control of the search from database search engines. Once upon a time, Google used to fetch what you asked for. Now it acts like a modern quiz show – giving the answer that will please most people! Finding anything specific is much harder than it was. Or so I think.)

The Temple of Vesta was in Rome’s Forum, and it was a circular temple or a Tholos. Next to the Sacred Shrine at Bath was a circular Tholos, which may have been dedicated also to Vesta.

photo of the Reconstruction of the Temple of Vesta in Rome
Reconstruction of the Temple of Vesta in Rome

Here is what Ovid says in his March 6th entry:

When the sixth sun climbs Olympus’ slopes from ocean,
And takes his way through the sky behind winged horses,
All you who worship at the shrine of chaste Vesta,
Give thanks to her, and offer incense on the Trojan hearth.
To the countless titles Caesar chose to earn,
The honour of the High Priesthood was added.
Caesar’s eternal godhead protects the eternal fire,
You may see the pledges of empire conjoined.
Gods of ancient Troy, worthiest prize for that Aeneas
Who carried you, your burden saving him from the enemy,
A priest of Aeneas’ line touches your divine kindred:
Vesta in turn guard the life of your kin!
You fires, burn on, nursed by his sacred hand:
Live undying, our leader, and your flames, I pray.

Translated by A. S. Kline online here.

Caesar is Julius Caesar. Aeneas was the last Trojan and survived the end of Troy. He came to Italy, found a Kingdom (Latium) in which his descendent, Romulus, would found Rome. This is told in Virgil’s Aeneid. So the Romans considered themselves to be Trojans.

The new City chose Mars, the Roman God of War, father of their founder – as its patron God because it suited the Romans and their destiny to rule the world. So March was named after Mars, and, unlike other Calendars the Kalends of Mars (1st March) was the beginning of the Roman year. (At least in Rome’s early days as we discussed on March 1st). Ovid in the ‘Fasti’ tells makes the point, through Romulus’s voice and explains something about the various Calendars run by different tribes/Cities:

‘And the founder of the eternal City said:
‘Arbiter of War, from whose blood I am thought to spring,
(And to confirm that belief I shall give many proofs),
I name the first month of the Roman year after you:
The first month shall be called by my father’s name.’
The promise was kept: he called the month after his father.
This piety is said to have pleased the god.
And earlier, Mars was worshipped above all the gods:
A warlike people gave him their enthusiasm.
Athens worshipped Pallas: Minoan Crete, Diana:
Hypsipyleís island of Lemnos worshipped Vulcan:
Juno was worshipped by Sparta and Pelopsí Mycenae,
Pine-crowned Faunus by Maenalian Arcadia:
Mars, who directs the sword, was revered by Latium:
Arms gave a fierce people possessions and glory.
If you have time examine various calendars.
And you’ll find a month there named after Mars.
It was third in the Alban, fifth in the Faliscan calendar,
Sixth among your people, Hernican lands.
The position’s the same in the Arician and Alban,
And Tusculum’s whose walls Telegonus made.
It’s fifth among the Laurentes, tenth for the tough
Aequians,
First after the third the folk of Cures place it,
And the Pelignian soldiers agree with their Sabine
Ancestors: both make him the god of the fourth month.
In order to take precedence over all these, at least,
Romulus gave the first month to the father of his race.
Nor did the ancients have as many Kalends as us:
Their year was shorter than ours by two months.

This section mentions the Sabines, these were a neighbouring tribe. The Romans were short of women, so they kidnapped the Sabine Women, in what became known as the Rape of the Sabine Women. People argue as to whether they were raped or kidnapped, and there is some concentration on how Romulus worked hard to convince them that it was done out of necessity for Rome’s future. The Women, or some of them, certainly tried to escape. Many became pregnant, and the Sabine Army approached and entered Rome to free their women and enact revenge on their neighbours. Ovid tells the story of Hersilia, Romulus wife talking to the Women, then the poem returns to Mars’ viewpoint, and ends with a beautiful description of spring in March.

The battle prepares, but choose which side you will pray
for:
Your husbands on this side, your fathers are on that.
The question is whether you choose to be widows or
fatherless:
I will give you dutiful and bold advice.
She gave counsel: they obeyed and loosened their hair,
And clothed their bodies in gloomy funeral dress.
The ranks already stood to arms, preparing to die,
The trumpets were about to sound the battle signal,
When the ravished women stood between husband and
father,
Holding their infants, dear pledges of love, to their breasts.
When, with streaming hair, they reached the centre of the
field,
They knelt on the ground, their grandchildren, as if they
understood,
With sweet cries, stretching out their little arms to their
grandfathers:
Those who could, called to their grandfather, seen for the
first time,
And those who could barely speak yet, were encouraged
to try.
The arms and passions of the warriors fall: dropping their
swords
Fathers and sons-in-law grasp each other’s hands,
They embrace the women, praising them, and the
grandfather
Bears his grandchild on his shield: a sweeter use for it.

Hence the Sabine mothers acquired the duty, no light one,
To celebrate the first day, my Kalends.
Either because they ended that war, by their tears,
In boldly facing the naked blades,
Or because Ilia happily became a mother through me,
Mothers justly observe the rites on my day.
Then winter, coated in frost, at last withdraws,
And the snows vanish, melted by warm suns:
Leaves, once lost to the cold, appear on the trees,
And the moist bud swells in the tender shoot:
And fertile grasses, long concealed, find out
Hidden paths to lift themselves to the air.
Now the field’s fruitful, now ís the time for cattle breeding,
Now the bird on the bough prepares a nest and home:
It’s right that Roman mothers observe that fruitful season,
Since in childbirth they both struggle and pray.
Add that, where the Roman king kept watch,
On the hill that now has the name of Esquiline,
A temple was founded, as I recall, on this day,
By the Roman women in honour of Juno.
But why do I linger, and burden your thoughts with
reasons?
The answer you seek is plainly before your eyes.
My mother, Juno, loves brides: crowds of mothers
worship me:
Such a virtuous reason above all befits her and me.í
Bring the goddess flowers: the goddess loves flowering
plants:
Garland your heads with fresh flowers,

Ovid Fasti translated by A. S. Kline online here.

My children’s favourite film in childhood was Seven Brides for ‘Seven Brothers’, which was loosely based on the Rape of the Sabine Women.

sepia Sketch of scene from 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'
Sketch of scene from ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’


The Month of New Life March 1st

The Kalendar of Shepherds – French 15th Century

This is the beginning of Spring, metrologically speaking. There is nothing magical about this day that makes it in any sense actually the start of Spring. It is a convenience determined by meteorologists, who divide the year up into 4 blocks of three months based on average temperature. It could be the 2nd March.  Or the 1st of February as the Celts favoured.

There is nothing that says we have to have 4 seasons. Egypt had three seasons for example. Plants have been blooming, sprouting and budding since January, and some will wait until later in the year. Lambs have been born since January. But scientists and society find it easiest to keep statistics on a monthly basis so March 1st it is.

Astronomically, the seasons are more rationally divided by the movement of the Sun, So Spring begins on the spring equinox, usually 21st of March.

March the 1st was the beginning of the Roman year in Rome’s early days. (see extract from Ovid’s Fasti below).  Ovid says thr year started on the Kalends of March

I discuss the strange way the Romans divided the month in another post, but he is what Britannica says about the system:

‘In a 31-day month such as March, the Kalends was day 1, with days 2–6 being counted as simply “before the Nones.” The Nones fell on day 7, with days 8–14 “before the Ides” and the 15th as the Ides. Afterward the days were counted as “before the Kalends” of the next month’.

The Month was named after Mars, the God of War, as Mars was the patron God of the City. March was also the beginning of the campaign season, and the army was prepared, and ceremonies held to Mars. The Salii, twelve youths dressed in archaic fighting costumes led a procession singing the Carmen Saliare. Ovid reports in his poem Fasti (3.259–392).

In Welsh the month is called Mawrth, (derived it is thought from the Latin Martius). Gaelic Mart or Earrach Geamraidth – which means the ‘winter spring’. In Anglo-Saxon ‘Hrethamonath’ the month of the Goddess Hretha. The evidence for the name comes from the Venerable Bede in his ‘The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD. Nothing else is known about her. Her name is Latinised to Rheda. J R. R. Tolkein used the Anglo-Saxon calendar as the calendar for the Shire where the third month is called Rethe.

For the Anglo-Saxon spring was looked forward to with great joy after the bleakness of winter. Christian Anglo-Saxons also saw this as the pivotal month in the year. It was in March that the world was created, and the Messiah conceived, revealed, executed, and ascended to heaven.

The illustration, from the Kalendar of Shepherds, shows that in Pisces and early Ares preparation was still the main order of the farming day, clearing out the moats, and preparing the fruit trees. Lambing is also increasing in number.

It is also the Feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales, who lived in the sixth century AD. Little that is known about him is contemporary but he was an abbot-bishop and important for the independence of the Welsh Christian tradition.

Kalendar of Shepherds.

Ovid Fasti Book 3

At the beginning of this book Ovid provides the story of Rome’s foundation, and how Mars took Silvia the Vestal while she slept. She later gave birth to Romulus and Remus. He also gives details of how Rome was organised and in the piece of the long text I have chosen below he discusses the arrangement of the year as Romulus decided upon. It is a year that began on the 1st March, and had only 10 months which is the number of digits we have and the length of pregnancy (so Ovid says). I wrote about Caesar’s reforms of the Roman year, yesterday.  See here

Ovid wrote:

So, untaught and lacking in science, each five-year lustre
That they calculated was short by two whole months.
A year was when the moon returned to full for the tenth
time:
And that was a number that was held in high honour:
Because it’s the number of fingers we usually count with,
Or because a woman produces in ten months,
Or because the numerals ascend from one to ten,
And from that point we begin a fresh interval.
So Romulus divided the hundred Senators into ten groups,
And instituted ten companies of men with spears,
And as many front-rank and javelin men,
And also those who officially merited horses.
He even divided the tribes the same way, the Titienses,
The Ramnes, as they are called, and the Luceres.
And so he reserved the same number for his year,
It ís the time for which the sad widow mourns her man.
If you doubt that the Kalends of March began the year,
You can refer to the following evidence.
The priest’s laurel branch that remained all year,
Was removed then, and fresh leaves honoured.
Then the king’s door is green with Phoebus’ bough,
Set there, and at your doors too, ancient wards.
And the withered laurel is taken from the Trojan hearth,
So Vesta may be brightly dressed with new leaves.
Also, it’s said, a new fire is lit at her secret shrine,
And the rekindled flame acquires new strength.
And to me it’s no less a sign that past years began so,
That in this month worship of Anna Perenna begins.
Then too it’s recorded public offices commenced,
Until the time of your wars, faithless Carthaginian.
Lastly Quintilis is the fifth (TXLQWXV) month from March,
And begins those that take their names from numerals.
Numa Pompilius, led to Rome from the lands of olives,
Was the first to realise the year lacked two months,
Learning it from Pythagoras of Samos, who believed
We could be reborn, or was taught it by his own Egeria.
But the calendar was still erratic down to the time
When Caesar took it, and many other things, in hand.
That god, the founder of a mighty house, did not
Regard the matter as beneath his attention,
And wished to have prescience of those heavens
Promised him, not be an unknown god entering a strange
house.
He is said to have drawn up an exact table
Of the periods in which the sun returns to its previous
signs.
He added sixty-five days to three hundred,
And then added a fifth part of a whole day.
That’s the measure of the year: one day
The sum of the five part-days is added to each lustre.

Translated by A. S. Kline online here:

Leap Day & and the Roman Calendar February 29th

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

I have just come back from my very first Leap Year Walk, which I gave tonight for London Walks. It was one of a series of my walks, which are about the year through London’s History. So far, I have done, a New Year Walk, an Imbolc Walk (1 February, St Brigid’s Day), a Spring Equinox Walk, a May Day Walk, a Summer Solstice Walk, an Autumn Equinox Walk, a Halloween Walk, and a Winter Solstice Walk. All, at their core, have the subject of the year, how it is arranged, and celebrated in different cultures and different times in London.

I hoped to get this post done, today, but on arrival at home my burglar alarm was ringing, so had to get an emergency electrician out to pacify my neighbours, and tracking down the fault meant turning my house upside down. I rushed it out, with many bad proof reading errors and ommissions, And have now, on the dawn of a new month, and a new Season, updated it. Probably, knowing me, it still has a far few errors! Now, I am rushing to look after my Grandson!

So, the reason there is a leap year, is that the Sun and the Moon have different cycles, which cannot be easily aligned. And secondly, the solar year is not a fixed number, it is not 365 days, but 365 days and a bit.

Originally though, probably, most cultures lived their lives with time keeping controlled by time markers from their everyday environment, days and nights, the waning and waxing of the moon, the seasons, and the changes in the rising and setting of the Sun. Budding nature would have provided other markers as to when to sow, to harvest, to prune, to slaughter, to worship and marry.

The months were given by the cycle of the Moon, which also gave us tides and menstrual cycles. The months were given names, which were often associated with the weather. The trouble was that the Solar year did not align with the Moon, soon the months would get out of kilter with the seasons. So over time, the society would find it was winter in June, or summer in December. (which is OK if you live in Australia).

Society dealt with this in a number of ways. It could be ignored, why shouldn’t it be cold in June, why should June always be in Summer? Another way was to add in extra days, or months, every so often to make sure June remained in the Summer. This is what Egypt, the early Romans and the Celts did. They kept their months aligned to the actual movements of the Moon, and aligned their Solar Year with it by the addition of extra days or a month or two. or a combination of both.

I reported on this in my post on the Terminalia for February 23rd. As I wrote:

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. February was the last month of the original Roman year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month every so often, 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. (For more on Terminalia look at my post for February 23rd on Terminalia-god-of-the-boundary)

Now, as the Roman Republic became more sophisticated, 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.

Caesar spent time with Egyptian Astronomers, trying to understand their solution to the problem. They identified that the year was not 365 days long but 356.25 days, so JC ‘fixed’the issue with a leap day every four years. Based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. The new calendar was inaugurated on the Kalends of Januarius 709 AUC, or as we would call it I January 45 BC. It became, in time, something the Romans were very proud of – rationalising, measuring, time itself. Romans counted their dates from the time their City was founded by Romulus in what we call 753 BC or 753 BCE. So, 45 BCE in our reckoning is 709 ab urbe condita (AUC ‘from the founding of the City) as the Romans saw it.

I prefer not to use BCE because it seems ‘dishonest’ to me. The idea of AD BC was made up based on a guess as to when Jesus was born. Changing BC to BCE may rid the date of an explicit Christian identification but masks the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘Common Era. What the Common Era is, is the idea made up in the Late Roman period guessing when Jesus was born/ So I think call a spade a spade, even if it’s a broken meaningless spade that is not fit for purpose, either replace it with something rational, or real or call it what it is.

The interesting thing is that Caesar put the leap year in on the 24th February. Why? Because February, being the month of death, was the end of the year. March 25th was originally the beginning of the Roman year (Caesar moved it to January 1st). Why March 25th? Because it was the Spring Equinox. If you look at my post for March 25th you will find out it is the date of the creation of Humanity, the Birthday of Adam, the conception of Jesus, and until 1752, the day the year number changed in Britain.

The other strange thing about the new leap day was that it was not called February 25th. It was not given a number. Rather, February 24th was two days long. This continued in Britain until the date February 29th started appearing in calendars in the 15th Century, although the legendary Lawyer, Edward Coke (1552 – 1634), refers to the two days of February 24th, but the two day 24th was completely replaced by February 29th in the 16th Century.

One slight complication to the story of February 29th was that February 29th did exist before the Julian reforms. When February was not interrupted by the intercalary month, as described above, it was 29 days long. Julius Caesar made the months alternate 30 and 31 except for February which was 29 days long. When the Senate gave Julius the honour of having the 7th Month named after him, things were OK, but then Augustus wanted the same thing. The Senate duly gave him the next month, which became known as August, but it only had 30 days. This could not be allowed! So they made it up to 31 and stole the 29th from February and made February only 28 days long. This change also meant that there were now three 31 days months in a row, so they reduced September from 31 to 30, boosted October to 31, reduced November to 30 and boosted December to 31,

Hence, we can no longer remember Caesar rational allotment of days in the month, and we need to hum to ourselves:

Thirty days have September
April, June, and November
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one.
Excepting leap year – that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

But Caesar had not solved the problem of the shifting year, he had just minimised it. By the Council of Nicea in the early 4th Century (and not yet called AD!) the small error had changed the date of the Spring Equinox, from March 25th to March 21st. So, when Constantine convened the Council to bang the heads together of the Church leaders to unify their religion, particularly in regard to the date of Easter, and whether Jesus was equal to God. They fudged the complex issue of the date of Christ’s death, and used March 21st as the foundation of their calculation on the moon-based festival of Easter (more of which at Easter!)

It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Pope Gregory, solved the problem of the inaccuracy of Caesar’s solution. They resynced the days to the seasons by removing days from the Calendar. And they stopped the drift by fine-tuning the leap year system, by not having a leap year in those centurial years which were not divisible by 400. So 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 is not. This allowed the systems to align correctly to this day. (although there is of course a little more to it than this). But for that level of detail, you will love ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan, or just look it up on Wikipedia or wait for me to compile various references to the Gregorian Calendar into a unified post on the subject.

Of course, Britain refused to join a Catholic innovation for nearly 200 years but, religious prejudice at last gave way to reason, when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. In the process we lost 11 days, much to the horror of the London mob, who rioted against their loss.

See the following posts for the Roman Year:

Romulus’s 10 month year here

Roman Months here and more on the Ides of March here

First Bank of England £1 Note 26th February 1797

 First £1 note,1797 Bank of England Museum source Joy_of_Museums Public Domain cc by sa 4.0
First £1 note of the Bank of England Museum 1797
Source Joy_of_Museums Public Domain (CC by sa 4.0)

On this day, the Bank of England issued its first ever one pound note (although some sources say March 1797). The Bank had been issuing paper notes since the late 17th Century, but this was the first £1 note. They still had to be signed by hand and allocated to a specific person. The hand signed white paper notes were withdrawn in 1820, and the pound note was, finally, withdrawn in 1988. The £1 in 1797 was worth the equivalent of £157.46 today, so quite a big note! (see here for the calculator.)

Interesting Archaeology discoveries.

The following discoveries were reported in Salon IFA the newsletter of the Society of Antiquaries of London in Salon: Issue 526  7 February 2024, which you can see here:

Pliny the Elder’s Villa found near Vesuvius?

The 1st Century seafront villa, with views of the Bay of Naples and of Mount Vesuvius, has been excavated at the town of Bacoli, which was the port of Misenum. Pliny commanded the fleet as ‘Praefectus classis Misenensis’. Pliny tried to rescue his friends and family, ignoring warnings saying ‘Fortune favours the brave’, ‘Audentes Fortuna luvat’. It didn’t and he died, at Stabiae, by toxic fumes. Read more about the villa here:

Face Reconstructed for a Victim of Roman Crucifixion

A male skeleton found, 4 years ago, in a Roman cemetery in Fenstaton in Cambridgeshire was found with a 2-inch nail through his heel bone. BBC 4 has made a documentary about the recent reconstruction of the man’s face by, as Salon reports it:

‘US forensic artist Joe Mullins, of George Mason University, Virginia. He usually works with law enforcement agencies, reconstructing the faces of modern-day crime victims. ‘

To follow the details, read more here, or watch the BBC documentary, ‘The Cambridgeshire Crucifixion’, which can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.

Sketch of a Roman skull of a man who was crucified.
The Image is a sketch of the ‘Facial Reconstruction, Impossible Factual/BBC’

Coltsfoot & Smoking & Blossom & Cholera February 24th

Coltsfoot by Andreas Trepte Wikipedia

Coltsfoot is a daisy-like plant which is flowering about now, and Gerard’s Herbal of 1633 suggests that the ‘fumes of the dried leaves taken through a funnel’ is good for those with coughs and shortness of breath. He suggests that it is smoked like tobacco and it ‘mightly prevaileth.’

This idea, Mrs Grieves says in her herbal (1931), is endorsed by ‘Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, and Boyle’. And Coltsfoot is ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs’. (This is historic information re herbs and NOT current medical advice, as Coltsfoot can be very dangerous!).

engraving of a man smoking
Lobspruch deß edlen hochberühmten Krauts Petum oder Taback Nuremberg, 1658 New York Public Library Public Domain
Detail from Lobspruch deß edlen hochberühmten Krauts Petum oder Taback Nuremberg, 1658 New York Public Library Public Domain

My grandson and parents found a 19th Century pipe bowl, much like the one above, by the Thames where there were many fragments of clay pipe. For more on 17th Century smoking, have a look here.

Blossom is also coming out in London a little early. (2022 we had a false spring when Cherry Blossom came out, and I think we are now just getting used to it, so I don’t think it is being noted so much in 2024). Blackthorn (I think) is coming out in profusion in my local park. Photos below by the Author of Haggerston Park in East London. Left February 2022, Right Feb 23.

One thing I am trying to improve in my Almanac of the Past, is to include more specific London content. This can be difficult on a daily basis. But I think I have, by chance, found a solution. I was trying to glue the toe flap on a perfectly good pair of trainers so that it did not flap, and I needed a heavy weight to press the two edges together. I found a random couple of heavy books for the purpose. 24 hours later, I lifted the books to discover the failure of my project. But, as I returned the books to their place in the book case, I found the heaviest was called ‘A London Year. 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals, and Letters.’ Compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Bennison, published in 2013, and the price on it of £5.99 makes me feel I must have bought it second hand. Have I opened it before now? Indeed, I had forgotten its existence, but Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Book! What a timely rediscovery.

Cholera in London.
The news of the Cholera being in London has been received abroad. According to the feelings of the different nations towards England, France, who wish to court us has ordered a quarantine in her ports of three days; Holland, who feels aggrieved by our conduct at the conference, one of 40 days. The fog so thick in London that the illuminations for the Queen’s Birthday were not visible.

24th February 1832 Thomas Raikes, Diary 1832 (from ‘A London Year’ Compiled by Travis Elborough and Nick Bennison, 2013,

I think the Conference mentioned above was the London Conference of May 1832, which aimed to establish a Kingdom of Greece with a King, It was set up by Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston without discussion with the Greeks and ended up giving them a Bavarian King. King Otto. Otto was forced from the throne in a revolution in 1862, and replaced by a Danish King, from whom Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was descended.

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

Feralia – the Roman Festival of the Dead February 21st

To illustrate rainwear in the Roman period and to illustrate winter showing Philu from Cirencester
Tombstone of Philus from Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) showing his rain cloak

Feralia is the last day of Parentalia a 9-Day Festival for the spirits of the Dead described in some detail by the Roman Poet, Ovid, in his Almanac of the year called the ‘Fasti’. Here, he describes how to honour a parent:

And the grave must be honoured. Appease your father’s
Spirits, and bring little gifts to the tombs you built.
Their shades ask little, piety they prefer to costly
Offerings: no greedy deities haunt the Stygian depths.
A tile wreathed round with garlands offered is enough,
A scattering of meal, and a few grains of salt,
And bread soaked in wine, and loose violets:
Set them on a brick left in the middle of the path.
Not that I veto larger gifts, but these please the shades:
Add prayers and proper words to the fixed fires.

There is much more Ovid says about Feralia, and you can read it for free, in translation by A. S. Kline (which I used above, at www.poetryintranslation.com)

For more about Parentalia look at my earlier post about the February festivals of the Romans:

In London, archaeologists have found many cemeteries around the City of London. The Romans forbade burial inside the City limits, so the dead were buried alongside the main roads out of the City Gates: Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Holborn, along Fleet Street, outside Ludgate, and along the main road South from London Bridge in Southwark.

Map of Roman Cemetaries from Museum of London exhibition on the Roman Dead
Map of Roman Cemeteries from the Museum of London exhibition on the Roman Dead, showing the River Thames and River Fleet. Holborn is to the left, marked ‘Western Cemetery’.

Various rites have been observed. Both inhumation and cremation practised. I remember excavating a Roman mortaria with a hole in the bottom with the ashes of the dead in it. These large bowls were used as a mortar for grinding foodstuffs. The bottom was deliberated gritted, but they often wore through, and sometimes found reused to hold cremation ashes. I like to imagine, granny being buried in her favourite cooking vessel (or grandad).

Many bodies were covered in chalk, perhaps to help preserve the body. A surprising number of bodies are found with the head by the knees. The large number of cases helps speculation that this was a burial rite, of whom only a percentage were beheaded as a punishment. Some graves shown signs of a funeral pyre.

Author’s photograph of a skeleton displayed at the Roman Dead Exhibition, Museum of London, She was between 26 and 35 years old, who lived a hard life, and possibly had anaemia. Her head was severed either: before and causing death, or shortly after death, and placed between her legs as shown.

The rich and powerful were remembered with huge monuments, prominently sited along the main roads. Perhaps the most famous are the burial stones found at Tower Hill of the Procurator Classicianus. This is famous as he is mentioned in Roman accounts of the Boudiccan Revolt of AD 60-61. He suggested to Nero that the Province could only be saved if the revenge against the British was de-escalated. Nero wisely withdrew the vengeful Roman Governor Suetonius Paulinus and replaced him with someone ready to conciliate. We, clearly, have lessons to learn from the Romans.

Reconstruction drawing of two stones found while building Tower Hill Underground Station. They read, something like, ‘To the Spirits of the Dear Departed Fabius Alpini Classicianius, Procurator of the Province of Britannia.Julia, Indi (his wife) Daughter of Pacata of the Indiana voting tribe. Had This Set up.

A beautiful carved eagle which adorned a tombstone was found in the Cemetery in Tower Hamlets. But recently a very grand mausoleum was found in Southwark. To find out more, have a look at the BBC website here:

Finally, a week or two ago, an excavation ran by MOLA discovered a ‘funerary bed’ in an just outside Newgate in Holborn. It was on the banks of the River Fleet, a tributary to the River Thames, that gives its name to the street of shame: Fleet Street. The fluvial location meant that there were extraordinary levels of preservation, which included this bed. It was dismantled and buried in the grave and may have been either/or or both a bed used as a grave good, perhaps for use in the hereafter, or the bed upon which the deceased was carried to the funeral.

sketch of Roman 'Funerary' Bed found dismantled in Holborn, London
Reconstruction of a Roman ‘Funerary’ Bed found dismantled in Holborn, London (Sketch from a MOLA reconstruction drawing)

They found other grave goods, including an olive oil lamp decorated with an image of a gladiator; jet and amber beads and a glass phial.

Sketch of Roman burial goods from Holborn 2024
Sketch of Roman burial goods from Holborn, London

For more look at www.mola.org.uk/discoveries

Metamorphosis, Crocus and Saffron February 19th

Snowdrop, Crocus, violet and Silver Birch circle in Haggerston Park. (Photo Kevin Flude, 2022)

Violets and crocuses are coming out. Apparently, in the UK 63% say crocuses and 37% use the correct Latin plural which is croci. And last year I used the incorrect crocii. Incidently, an earth shaking decision has been made at the Financial Times who have just updated their style guide to make the plural word data (datum is the singular form) take the singular form. So it is no longer ‘data are’ but ‘data is’. For example, it was ‘the data are showing us that most British speakers use crocuses as the plural’ but now ‘the data is showing us that 37% of British people prefer the correct Latin form of croci’. In 2018 they changed it to an option, but now it is mandatory to make data singular.

The crocus represents many things but because they often come out for St Valentine’s Day they are associated with Love ‘White croci usually represented truth, innocence and purity. The purple variety imply success, pride and dignity. The yellow type is joy.’ according to www.icysedgwick.com/, which gives a fairly comprehensive look at the Crocus.

Ovid tells the story of Crocus and Smilax in the Metamorphoses. This poem is one of the most famous in the world, written in about 6 AD it influenced Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Bernard Shaw and was translated anew by Seamus Hughes.

The mechanicals in ‘The Midsummers Night Dream’ perform Ovid’s story of Pyramus and Thisbe, Titian painted ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Shaw wrote about Pygmalion, and we all know the story of Arachne, claiming to be better than Athene at weaving and then being turned into a spider.

The stories are all about metamorphosis, mostly changes happening because of love. But it is also an epic as it tells the classical story of the universe from creation to Julius Caesar. It is about love, beauty, change and is largely an arcadian/rural poem in contrast to Ovid’s ‘Art of Love’ which I have long used for illustrations of life in a Roman town.

He tells us ‘Crocus and his beloved Smilax were changed into tiny flowers.’ But he chooses to pass by this and other stories. So we have to look elsewhere for more details. There are various version. In the first Crocus is a handsome mortal youth, beloved of the God Hermes. They are playing with a discus which hits Crocus on the head and kills him. Hermes, distraught, turns the youth into a beautiful flower, and three drops of his blood form the stigma of the flower.  In other versions, love hits Crocus and the nymph Smilax, and they are rewarded by immortality as a flower. In one version, Smilax is turned into the Bindweed, which perhaps suggests that she is either punished for spurning him, or that she smothered him with love.

Photo Mohammad Amiri from unsplash. Notice the crimson stigma and styles, called threads

The autumn-flowering perennial plant Crocus sativus, is the one whose stigma gives us saffron. This was spread across Europe by the Romans, and was used for medicine, as a dye, a perfume. It was much sought after as a protection against the plague. It was extensively grown in the UK and Saffron Walden was a particularly important production area in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

It was grown in the Bishop of Ely’s beautiful Gardens in the area remembered by Saffron Hill (home to the fictional Scrooge). This area became the London Home of Christopher Hatton, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1. It is on the west bank of the River Fleet, in London EC1, in the area now know as Hatton Garden. The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley.

But I did find out more about Saffron from listening to BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question time and James Wong.

The placename Croydon (on the outskirts of London), means crocus valley. a place where Saffron was grown. The Saffron crops in Britain failed eventually because of the cost of harvesting, and it became cheaper to import it. It is now grown in Spain, Iran and India amongst other places. But attempts over the last 5 years have been made to reintroduce it, This is happening in Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent and Sussex – the hot and dry counties. It likes a South facing aspect, and needs to be protected from squirrels and sparrows who love it.

Saffron Photo by Vera De on Unsplash
Morning Glory or Field Bindweed photo Leslie Saunders unsplash

Bindweed is from the Convolvulus family, and I have grown one very successfully in a pot for many years. But they have long roots and according to the RHS ‘Bindweed‘ refers to two similar trumpet-flowered weeds, both of which twine around other plant stems, smothering them in the process. They are not easy to remove.’ Medically, Mrs Grieve’s Modern Herbal says all the bindweeds have strong purgative virtues.

Viola odorata CC BY-SA 2.5 Wikipedia

Violets have been used as cosmetics by the Celts, to moderate anger by the Athenians, for insomnia and loved because of their beauty and fragrant. They have been symbols of death for the young, and used as garlands, nosegays posies which Gerard says are ‘delightful’.

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