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

The Great Freeze February 12th 1895

Skating on the Serpentine by Lucien Davis
Antique wood-engraved print. Illustrated London News double page from 2 March 1895 (print owned by K Flude)

London, February 12. There is no abatement of the abnormally cold weather which has prevailed in northern Europe for the last week. The Upper Thames is frozen over, and huge blocks of ice breaking away from the mass are floating down, the river, causing much damage to the smaller shipping craft. Water traffic is consequently at a complete standstill. Many cases of death from cold and exposure are reported, the privation and distress in the east end of the city being particularly severe. The cold is so intense that birds are found frozen to death on the branches of the trees, and thousands are perishing. The severe weather has also directly caused considerable mortality, a number of deaths from exposure having been reported among postmen, omnibus drivers, cabmen, and labourers.

Contemporary Newspaper quotation on February 12th 1895 quoted by Isle of Dogs Life blog

Winter of 1895 Limehouse to left, Tower of London to right. Images from Isle of Dogs blog.

For more details and contemporary newspaper accounts read the Isle of Dogs blog. 1895 was the culmination of a decade of particularly cold winters (and for some the end of the so-called Little Ice Age. On the 11th February the coldest day in British History was recorded at Braemar at −27.2 °C. February 1895 was the second coldest on record, with the lowest minimum temperatures on record. Shipping in the biggest port in the world was stopped. Many workers were laid off, and had to resort to what were then called ‘soup kitchens’ and now ‘food banks’. Winter death rates were said to be doubled, with people dying in the street and in unheated homes.

Record minima were set for these dates in February 1895:

  • 7th: −21.7 °C or −7.1 °F
  • 8th: −25.0 °C or −13.0 °F
  • 9th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 10th: −25.6 °C or −14.1 °F
  • 11th: −27.2 °C or −17.0 °F
  • 12th: −20.6 °C or −5.1 °F
  • 13th: −21.9 °C or −7.4 °F
  • 14th: −21.7 °C or −7.1 °F
  • 16th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 17th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 18th: −23.9 °C or −11.0 °F
  • 19th: −22.2 °C or −8.0 °F

Source Wikipedia.

On the flip side people resorted to ponds around London particularly the Serpentine which had 6 inches of ice and 50,000 skaters, with speed skating competitions.

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

Daffodils & the Fabulous Boy February 11th

Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé; Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz — in Wort und Bild für Schule und Haus

In 2023, I saw my first Daffodil in Hackney in a Council Estate on 12 Jan 2023) and see them popping up around and about. Mine were not yet more than green leaves, but they are now coming out. My first daffodil in 2024 was outside my first floor window a week ago, but now Daffodils are appearing in the south-facing front of my house, but not yet in the North facing, canal side garden.

12 Jan 2023. Hackney, London, the first Daffodil.

Their formal name is Narcissus. The Roman natural historian, Pliny tells us that the plant was ‘named Narcissus from narkē not from the fabulous boy.’ Narkē is the Greek word from which we derive the word narcotic, and this is a reference to the narcotic properties of the narcissus. An extract of the bulb when applied to open wounds produced numbness of the whole nervous system and paralysis of the heart. The flowers are also slightly poisonous, which led to their use as an emetic – to bring on vomiting when it was felt necessary that the stomach be emptied. It was used to treat hysteria and epilepsy; treating children with bronchial catarrh; and epidemic dysentery; among Arabian doctors it was used to cure baldness and as an aphrodisiac. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve.) Please remember these are not recommendations for use medicinally, but are historic uses and may be dangerous.)

The fabulous boy, mentioned by Pliny, was Narcissus. Narcissus, according to the Roman Poet Ovid, met the nymph Echo, and she fell in love with the beautiful boy. He spurned her, and she faded until all that remained of her was her voice – the echo we hear.

Nemesis, the Goddess of Revenge (the one with the fiery sword) decided on revenge upon the handsome boy. She lured the thirsty youth to a fountain, where he saw an image of a breathtakingly handsome boy and fell in love. It was an image of himself, and he faded from life realising he would always be unfulfilled in his love, He eventually metamorphised into a white and yellow flower which was named after him.

Daffodils are mentioned in a list of Spring Flowers by Shakespeare in the pastoral play The Winter’s Tale:

(Please note that as you read Shakespeare’s words below that Prosperpina is the wife of Pluto, the God of the Underworld, Dis, is another name for him, Cytherea is the Goddess of Beauty and Love. Phoebus is the Sun God. And the Spring Flowers are Daffodils, violets, primroses, oxlips(primula), Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis), Lilies, flower-De-luce (Iris)

Perdita to Camillo

Out, alas!
You’d be so lean that blasts of January
Would blow you through and through.
(To Florizel)
I would I had some flowers o’th’ spring, that might
Become your time of day –
(to the Shepherdesses)
That wear upon your virgin branches yet
Your maidenheads growing. O Proserpina,
For the flowers now that, frighted, thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon! Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength – a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one: O, these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend
To strew him o’er and o’er!

WT IV.iv.110.2

The reference to Daffodils suggests that for Shakespeare they are around to withstand the March Winds before the Swallows arrive in April. With selective breeding, early flowering species have been developed and now February and even January are within the scope of the glorious bulb. (here is a post on winter flowering varieties)

Below is the text of Ovid’s Echo and NarcissusTranslated by Brookes Moore

NARCISSUS AND ECHO, THE HOUSE OF CADMUS

Once a noisy Nymph, (who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun) mocking Echo, spied him as he drove, in his delusive nets, some timid stags.—For Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,—and, more than vapid sound,—possessed a form: and she was then deprived the use of speech, except to babble and repeat the words, once spoken, over and over. Juno confused her silly tongue, because she often held that glorious goddess with her endless tales, till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace, had made escape adown a mountain. But for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile; “Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense, shall be of little use; your endless voice, much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph was stricken as the goddess had decreed;—and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns their final words.

One day, when she observed Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods, she loved him and she followed him, with soft and stealthy tread.—The more she followed him the hotter did she burn, as when the flame flares upward from the sulphur on the torch. Oh, how she longed to make her passion known! To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love! But now, till others have begun, a mute of Nature she must be. She cannot choose but wait the moment when his voice may give to her an answer. Presently the youth, by chance divided from his trusted friends, cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!” Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around, and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!” She calls the youth who calls.—He turns to see who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims, “Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns. He tries again, again, and is deceived by this alternate voice, and calls aloud; “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries, “Oh let us come together!” Never sound seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods she hastens in accordance with her words, and strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says, “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save, “Caress me!” Thus rejected she lies hid in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face with the green leaves; and ever after lives concealed in lonely caverns in the hills. But her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up her skin, and all her lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds—nothing remains except her bones and voice—her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear her calling in the hills, ’tis but a voice, a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.

Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more, sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves; and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.—and therefore, some one whom he once despised, lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods, “If he should love deny him what he loves!” and as the prayer was uttered it was heard by Nemesis, who granted her assent.

There was a fountain silver-clear and bright, which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats, that range the hills, nor any cattle’s mouth had touched—its waters were unsullied—birds disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs that fall so often from the trees. Around sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees that shaded from the sun let balmy airs temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired of hunting and the heated noon, lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool—and loves; loves an imagined body which contains no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. He cannot move, for so he marvels at himself, and lies with countenance unchanged, as if indeed a statue carved of Parian marble. Long, supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white. All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself:—he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt. And how he kisses the deceitful fount; and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck that’s pictured in the middle of the stream! Yet never may he wreathe his arms around that image of himself. He knows not what he there beholds, but what he sees inflames his longing, and the error that deceives allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy, so vainly catching at this flitting form? The cheat that you are seeking has no place. Avert your gaze and you will lose your love, for this that holds your eyes is nothing save the image of yourself reflected back to you. It comes and waits with you; it has no life; it will depart if you will only go.

Nor food nor rest can draw him thence—outstretched upon the overshadowed green, his eyes fixed on the mirrored image never may know their longings satisfied, and by their sight he is himself undone. Raising himself a moment, he extends his arms around, and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh, ye aisled wood was ever man in love more fatally than I? Your silent paths have sheltered many a one whose love was told, and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast have rolled away since your forgotten birth, but who is he through all those weary years that ever pined away as I? Alas, this fatal image wins my love, as I behold it. But I cannot press my arms around the form I see, the form that gives me joy. What strange mistake has intervened betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no, nor walls with closed gates deny our loves, but only a little water keeps us far asunder. Surely he desires my love and my embraces, for as oft I strive to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream my lips, so often does he hold his face fondly to me, and vainly struggles up. It seems that I could touch him. ‘Tis a strange delusion that is keeping us apart. Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not! Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou? Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise. When I extend my loving arms to thee thine also are extended me—thy smiles return my own. When I was weeping, I have seen thy tears, and every sign I make thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips have seemed to move, that, peradventure words, which I have never heard, thou hast returned. No more my shade deceives me, I perceive ‘Tis I in thee—I love myself—the flame arises in my breast and burns my heart—what shall I do? Shall I at once implore? Or should I linger till my love is sought? What is it I implore? The thing that I desire is mine—abundance makes me poor. Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire unknown to me before, for I would fain put off this mortal form; which only means I wish the object of my love away. Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run, and in my early youth am I cut off; but death is not my bane—it ends my woe.—I would not death for this that is my love, as two united in a single soul would die as one.”

He spoke; and crazed with love, returned to view the same face in the pool; and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream, and ripples on the surface, glassy clear, defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth, when he beheld that lovely shadow go; “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me that I may see thy lovely form, for though I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke he rent his garment from the upper edge, and beating on his naked breast, all white as marble, every stroke produced a tint as lovely as the apple streaked with red, or as the glowing grape when purple bloom touches the ripening clusters. When as glass again the rippling waters smoothed, and when such beauty in the stream the youth observed, no more could he endure. As in the flame the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts in early morning ‘neath the genial sun; so did he pine away, by love consumed, and slowly wasted by a hidden flame. No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white of his complexion fair; no strength has he, no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought for love so long: alas, that handsome form by Echo fondly loved may please no more.

But when she saw him in his hapless plight, though angry at his scorn, she only grieved. As often as the love-lore boy complained, “Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned; and as he struck his hands against his arms, she ever answered with her echoing sounds. And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!” “In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words; and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!” sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.

First published in February 2023, revise and republished in February 2024

Chinese New Year February 10th

Handy Chinese Year Calculator

The Chinese New Year is a lunar festival that falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. However, not always. The need to keep the lunar and the solar years in some sort of sync means they add in intercalary months from time to time, in which case the Chinese New year will fall on the third new moon after the winter solstice.

If you look at the chart you will see this is the year of the dragon, the wood dragon, representing both wood and earth, which are, to some extent, in conflict. To find out more and for predictions of the year, look here:

First written in January 2023 and revised in February 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.

Fat & Lardy Thursday February 8th

plate of doughnuts called pączki for  tłusty czwartek (Fat Thursday)
A plate of Polish pączki for tłusty czwartek (Fat Thursday)

Today is El Jueves Lardero in Spain, Giovedì grasso in Italy, Weiberfastnach in the Rhineland, Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) in Poland and Tsiknopempti in Greece. It is the first day in the Carnival season, which reaches a climax on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when the 40 days of fasting before Lent begins. Last year it was on February 16th.

In Poland, the tradition is to eat pączki which we call doughnuts and the Germans call Berliners. (remember when Kennedy made that famous speech in Berlin and said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, well what he was saying was ‘I’m a doughnut’). The doughnuts traditionally should be made with red jam, but now people can use cream, or almost any sort of sugary addition.

Spain is more savoury, where tortilla are eaten but also eat sausages, bacon, and pork on that day. In Catalonia, they eat tortilla with butifarra.(which are sausages in the Roman tradition). Here is a recipe for butifarra.

In Italy giovedì grasso is when “the fooling and the mumming, the dancing, shrieking, and screaming would be at its height.” according to the English writer Marie Corelli in her book Vendetta (1886). For more on Fat Thursday and El Jueves Lardero.

Butter Week & Lardy Cake

There are some indications that the week before Shrove Tuesday in the Anglo Saxon period was one of merriment and eating the things that were not allowed in Lent. So in Old English this week is Cheese Week or Butter Week, and there was a Cheesefare Sunday. (‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker).

But I cannot find any references to traditions of a fat Thursday or a Lardy Thursday in the UK. But we do have the fabulous Lardy Cake, it is a cake that drips with sugar and pig fat, and is one of my very favourite cakes. The main ingredients are rendered lard, flour, sugar, spices, currants and raisins. I was brought up on Chelsea Buns, Spotted Dick, Lardy Cake and Sticky Willies (iced buns). I am surprised I wasn’t an overweight child!

It is by no means a countrywide cake. My own theory is that it was a delicacy of the West Saxons. And I fondly imagine King Alfred tending to the Lardy Cake when musing about defeating the Vikings. I have bought it in Woking and Guildford in Surrey, in Winchester (Alfred’s Capital), Reading, and the best were sold in Cornmarket in Oxford, in the since closed Woolworths. These are all in areas controlled by Wessex in the 9th Century.

When lecturing at Worcester I found a variant of it which is called Worcester Dripping Cake and Worcester is in the Kingdom of Mercia. Wikipedia says Lardy Cake is from: ‘southern counties of England, including Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire.’ But I have never found it myself around Stonehenge, or in Dorchester, nor in the Cotswolds. So I would say Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire are the lardy cake heartlands. It is said to have been originally for special occasions, so maybe there once was a Lardy Thursday tradition. It feels like there should be one!

A slice of lardy cake from The Indulgent Baker at 32d Church Street, Caversham, Reading, Berkshire, England, UK.Photo Wikipedia.SmuconlawCC BY-SA 4.0

And here, courtesy of the BBC and the handsome (but possibly a little ‘lardy’) Paul Hollywood of Bake-off fame, is a recipe for Lardy Cake. Please make it and feel that wonderful English Pudding feeling of a lead weight in your stomach.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/lardy_cake_80839

The recipe says ‘This recipe has a generous amount of dried fruit in a rich dough that’s lighter and less sweet than most shop-bought lardy cakes’. So, it’s not going to be entirely authentic!

Following posting this page on Facebook Heike Herbert posted this response concerning ‘Women’s Fast Night on February 8th in Cologne or Koln:

Screenshot of Facebook post about Women's Fast night in Cologne on 8th February.

Aristotelis Psitos emailed me to say that the Greek Orthodox ‘Fat Thursday is not until 16th February.

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

Day of the Moon Goddess Selene February 7th

Full Moon Photos by Natalie Tobert – you can find out more about her work here:

The Goddess Book of Days’ has the the 7th as the Day of Selene and other Moon Goddesses. (February 6th as the Festival of Aphrodite)

Selene is one of the most beguiling of Goddesses as she is the epitome of the Moon (Romans knew her as Luna). She, who gives that silvery, ethereal light to dark days, who appears and disappears to a routine few of us really understand. She is therefore beautiful, beguiling, unknowable. She is the Goddess of Intuition. She brings the tides and the monthly periods, and so is a Goddess of power as well as fertility, pregnancy and so love, and mothers, and babies.

To my mind, far more powerful than Aphrodite, Selene seems much more independent. On the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum she is shown with her brother Helios, the Sun God; with Hercules – the epitome of male strength, Demeter and Persephone, representing the earth and underworld (or life and death), Athene and her father, Zeus; Iris, the messenger Goddess; Hestia, the Goddess of the home, and Dione with her daughter ,Aphrodite, representing love. At one end, Helios brings up the sun with his Chariot and Horse and at the other, Selene’s horse sinks exhausted in Oceanus after a glorious night of moon shine. It’s a wonderful arrangement, which suggests the scheme was to show a balanced cosmos between female and male forces, framed by the Sun and the Moon.

cartoon of Elgin Marble, showing Selene's Horse at the right hand end
Cartoon of Elgin Marble, showing Selene’s Horse at the right hand end

I did a longer piece on this pediment of the Parthenon Marbles here

Photograph of the Moon against a black background byMike Petrucci -unsplash
Selene – Moon Goddess by Mike Petrucci -unsplash

I have used several of Natalie Tobert’s photos in my post which I pluck from Natalie’s face facebook feed which is a veritable visual feast. She worked, as an archaeologist at the Museum of London at the same time as me. She is an excellent potter, photographer and artist. Natalie was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a member of Society of Designer Craftsmen. You can see more of her pictures here.

First published in 2022, and revised 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