The Beauties of the Year

The beginning of another year provides Eleanor Parker with an opportunity to reflect on a meditation on time that combines exquisite Old English poetry with early medieval science.  

Cutting and loading wood: from an Anglo-Saxon calendar page for July, 11th centuryThe beginning of a new year prompts reflections on time. Early medieval historians and scholars were fascinated by the calculation of time and one of the most attractive insights into how they understood it is an Old English poem which survives in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It is usually known as the Menologium, though one might more poetically call it ‘The Beauties of the Year’, since that is really its subject.

The poem moves through the calendar year, month by month, feast by feast, finding something to praise about every season in the traditional language of Old English poetry. It marks saints’ days, the 12 months, the two solstices and equinoxes and the beginning of each of the four seasons, which are dated to the days halfway between each solstice and equinox. Every significant date or season receives its own brief lyrical description. The beginning of summer, for instance, falls on May 9th and ‘brings sun-bright days, with warm weather; meadows swiftly bloom with blossom, and joy mounts up throughout the earth among many kinds of living creatures’.

A few lines later, the poem extols the summer solstice (midway through the year and exactly midway through the poem): ‘the jewel climbs up into the heavens highest in the year, brightest of stars … The fairest of lights likes then to gaze longer upon the earth, to move more slowly across the fields of the world.’

This is an exquisite combination of Old English poetry and medieval science. It serves a practical function by reminding the reader of important dates in the calendar, but its purpose is not primarily functional; more important is the relationship the poem explores between the interlocking cycles of the year, between the seasons and sacred time. The poem begins with Christmas (not January 1st) and opens: ‘Christ was born, glory of kings, at midwinter.’ After proceeding through the year, it ends with Christmas, too, reflecting the medieval understanding of the meaningful link between the astronomical and sacred calendars: Christ’s birth takes place in deepest winter, at the solstice, because it is a victory of light over darkness.

What fascinates about this poem is not only its praise of the glories of the natural year, but the fact that it was preserved in one of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the invaluable vernacular record of England’s early medieval history. What was the reasoning behind putting these two texts together, making the Menologium serve almost as a preface to the Chronicle? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also begins with the birth of Christ, but it locates the event not in reference to the season of midwinter but to a historical era: its first entry reads: ‘Octavian ruled 56 years, and in the 42nd year of his reign Christ was born.’ From that similar starting point the two texts follow their divergent courses, reckoning their different kinds of time.

When this manuscript was made, around the middle of the 11th century, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had been continuously kept up for about 150 years. A reader could look back over the centuries of history it records, year by year, telling of wars, famines, invasions and the deaths of kings. To run your eye down the years listed in the Chronicle is to see at a glance the vagaries of history, the great tally of years making a single human life seem tiny by comparison.

Turning to the poem puts all this into a different perspective. Instead of recording hundreds of years, it tells of just one: a yearly cycle, which is constant, regular, sacred and beautified. For many medieval historians, thinking about time – what time is, and how we measure it – was an integral part of the study of history and the Menologium hints that the record of years enumerated in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be read in the light of this understanding of the year’s sanctified cycles.

This poem embodies a profound relationship between history, poetry, science and theology, which is far from a modern conception of the past, but which still has something to offer at the beginning of a new year. It suggests that thinking about history also involves appreciating what does not change, what remains constant at the most fundamental level of human existence. It provides a way of reflecting on our experience of living through time, shaped as it is by seasons and holidays and the calendars which give coherence to our years on Earth.

Eleanor Parker is a medievalist and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.

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