Winter and its Discontents

Winter has always been a time of heightened anxiety, but it may be easier to bear when we face it together.

Snowball fights from the Hours  of the Duchess of Burgundy, c.1450.
Snowball fights from the Hours of the Duchess of Burgundy, c.1450. Bridgeman Images.

This summer, even in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave, many people were starting to feel anxious about the threat of the opposite seasonal extreme. Soaring energy prices have made the approach of winter this year a daunting prospect. For months, people have been swapping tips on how to stay warm without turning on the heating and keeping their fingers crossed for a mild winter. If it’s a harsh one, we’re all in for a difficult time.

To a historian, this is a concern which sounds strangely familiar. Just as the last few years have brought a renewed understanding of what it means to dread a pandemic, worry about a hard winter feels like the reawakening of an old fear. I’ve long been interested in medieval attitudes to the seasons and the cycle of the year and one ever-present constant in that cycle is precisely this anxiety: how do we prepare for winter?

Anglo-Saxon poets, for instance, talk more about winter than about any other season, mostly with a sense of profound threat. They frequently speak of winter ‘binding’ or ‘fettering’ the earth, keeping it in a condition of painful stasis. Before modern lighting and heating, the months of long dark nights and hostile weather were a severe trial, both physically and emotionally numbing. It was axiomatic that winter meant hardship. ‘A person cannot become wise before he has had his share of winters in the world’, one poet wrote; by this he meant that our ‘winters’ are the years of our life, but also our individual portion of this world’s suffering, which everyone has to share.

The coming of winter was a genuine fear and not something to treat lightly, but there were ways of managing that anxiety by making the preparation for winter a communal, even a festive experience. One of the major feasts of the medieval church year was Martinmas, the feast of St Martin of Tours, celebrated on 11 November. Patron of soldiers, St Martin was a very popular saint, but the importance of Martinmas relied more on its place in the seasonal calendar, on the cusp of autumn and winter. Martinmas became associated with the slaughter of pigs and cattle, so that livestock, too expensive to feed through the winter, could provide meat to be cured and salted for the months ahead.

That was work that had to be done – violent and bloody work, probably accompanied by some fear about how long those foodstocks would last out if the winter proved to be lengthy. But the necessity was turned into a positive through the celebrations of Martinmas. With a ready supply of meat available and the prospect of cold dark months to come, light and good food were both very welcome: the festival was celebrated across Europe with lantern parades, bonfires and feasting on beef or goose.

In early medieval England, the popularity of Martinmas was helped by the fact that it replaced a festival already celebrated in the Anglo-Saxon pagan calendar before the conversion to Christianity. For the Anglo-Saxons, the month equivalent to November was called Blotmonaþ, ‘month of sacrifices’, because at that time they killed cattle and consecrated them to the gods. These rituals were presumably linked to the same winter slaughter of animals, seeking divine aid through the season of scarcity to come. That could readily be transferred to the new saint’s feast, and the fundamental constant was the unchanging necessity of preparing for winter; whatever else changed, that need did not go away.

The history of other November festivals displays the same theme, of different ways to address the challenge of poverty and hardship as winter approached. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the November feasts of St Clement and St Catherine of Alexandria, on 23 and 25 November, were both occasions when it was traditional for children to go door-to-door and beg for food from their neighbours – ‘clemancing’ and ‘catterning’, as it was called. These winter begging customs have a distant relationship to Halloween trick-or-treating and one of their functions was to provide a socially encouraged opportunity to give charity to neighbours in need.

Perhaps we need to rediscover these rituals of charity and communal festivity as this hard winter begins to bite. The anxiety we’re facing may have taken a new form, but it is one of society’s oldest and deepest fears – and over the centuries, people have found it easier to bear by facing it together.

 

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and the author of Conquered: The Last Children of Anglo-Saxon England (Bloomsbury, 2022).