Friday, September 16, 2011

Quarter Days

For societies located in the temperate latitudes, the turning of the seasons provides a natural division of the year into quarters. In Britain, the Quarter Days, used at least since the Middle Ages, mark these four major parts of the year.

The four Quarter Days in southern England, and in Wales and Ireland are:
Lady Day - March 25, Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, the traditional day for hiring farm workers for the coming year
Midsummer - June 24, Feast of St John the Baptist, the midpoint of the growing season
Michaelmas - September 29, Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, start of the harvest
Christmas - December 25, Feast of the Birth of Jesus, high point of the year, when farm workers were paid for the year's labor

The Quarter Days originally referred to the agricultural cycle. But because they're easy to remember, they became the markers for other events and obligations. Servants were traditionally hired and paid on these dates. Rents were due then, giving rise to their other name of Gale (or Rent) Days. In England, leasehold payments and business premises rents are still often due on the Quarter Days. Since the dates were already associated with debts, other debts were usually also paid then, too.

The Quarter Days were also used for legal matters. At those times, justices of the peace discharged their responsibilities for dealing with taxes and the care of roads, and could order the constables to pay the amount of money owed the poor.

School terms remain loosely linked with the Quarter Days. For example, Michaelmas term at Cambridge runs from October through December, the Lent term from January to March, and the Easter term from April to June.

In the northern part of England and in Scotland, the four Quarter Days (also called Old Scottish Term Days in Scotland) are:
Candlemas - February 2, Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary
Whitsunday - May 15, Feast of the Holy Spirit
Lammas - August 1, Feast of St Peter’s Deliverance from Prison
Martinmas - November 11, Feast of St Martin the Bishop

Note that the days are different for England and Scotland. Both mark the start of the seasons, but according to different calendars. The English Quarter Days roughly align with the astronomical seasons, while the Scottish Quarter Days mark (more or less) the start of the seasons according to the Celtic calendar. These Scottish days correspond more closely, but not exactly, to the cross-quarter days, or mid-season days, of the English calendar.

More on the cross-quarter days next time.

Thank you all,

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Books, history, memories

I haven't blogged for a while and I feel nostalgic. Not for blogging, but for the kind of experience that got me fired up with history in the first place.

I grew up in Exeter, a city that, in spite of the devastation wreaked on it by 1960s rebuilding, is still up to its ears in history: medieval sandstone churches, a cathedral worth travelling miles to see (and with the priceless Anglo-Saxon manuscript known as the 'Exeter Book' in its library), a Roman legionary fortress (now excavated and reburied), underground passages, bits of city wall, a Tudor merchant's house moved bodily and intact in 1961 to allow for development. Amongst the school history lessons and the family visits to historic buildings, I did a lot of solo pottering and hanging around in bookshops.

There used to be a lot of rambling secondhand bookshops in Exeter then, and the books were cheap. For an obsessive lad with a taste for history and reading, there was plenty to go at. One - Cummings', I think -was in the Cathedral Close and had a Roman well in the basement, another near the nineteenth-century Iron Bridge. At yet another, at the bottom of Fore Street, towards the river, I picked up a battered 18th-century school Virgil with long-nosed caricatures on the cover. The shop was a sort of Dickensian labyrinth of dust and shelves, now long gone. The buildings there were demolished forty-plus years ago, to reveal several arches from the first stone bridge over the River Exe, begun in around 1190 AD. It's that kind of place.

The history and the book-buying go together for me. I still have some of those books, some local history, some travel books about the Mediterranean, though a lot of other stuff has been traded in, given to charity or flogged on the internet. For some reason I still have a publication containing some of the city records, bought without a cover and rebound inexpertly with the cardboard from the box a new shirt came in.  And here is a message for Henry Blight of Shebbear: If you're out there in the ether, still looking for your copy of Ovid's Epistles with facing-page translation, published in 1753 and given to you by a Miss Mary Rundle some time in the next century, you can't have it. It may have your name in it, but I paid a pound for it out of my pocket-money and it's mine.