Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Michaelmas Day, the Feast of Saint Michael and all the Angels ...

Happy Michaelmas Day!

Today is the day on which the Western Church traditionally honours the Archangel Michael, revered as the Captain of the heavenly host for defeating Lucifer in the War of Heaven (Revelation 12: 7 -9). Given his battle credentials he was especially revered by the different orders of military knights.

The date of his feast day is so close to the autumnal equinox that it has always been associated with the beginning of autumn.

He was very popular here in England during the Middle Ages as is evidenced by the hundreds of early churches that were dedicated to him. The Archangel Michael was seen as a protector against the dark of night, and with winter beckoning it's hardly surprising that people would have turned to him at this time of the year for succour.

One of the rituals that was widely observed on Michaelmas Day was the cooking of a goose for Michaelmas dinner. Robert Forby's Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830) admonishes If you don't baste the goose on Michaelmas Day, you'll want money all the year.

There's also a tale that Queen Elizabeth I was dining on her Michaelmas goose when news arrived that the Spanish Armada had been defeated, whereupon she declared that from that day forth all good English folk should roast a goose on Michaelmas Day in remembrance of their national delivery.

In rural communities Michaelmas marked the end of the year. This was the date by which the harvest ought to have been gathered in and stored safely in the barns. It marked the logical end of the farming cycle. As such it was chosen as one of the quarter days on which bailiffs would appear to collect the rent.

As people migrated from the countryside to the towns they carried with them the notion of Michaelmas Day marking the end of the year. It became the day on which local courts would convene, rents were due, and annual employment terms expired. At Michaelmas fares up and down the country workers were hired. It was a popular day on which new mayors would be elected. The Lord Mayor of London is still elected on this day.

Arms of Walter de Oxeston, appointed Lord Mayor of Exeter in 1256

Down in Exeter the mayor was also elected on this date amidst a certain amount of civic pomp and ceremony. James Cossins described the scene in the 1820s:

On the day of the election, the members of the body and freemen assembled in the Guildhall; the intended Mayor was proposed, with the other officials; after taking the oath and duly signing the documents, on the cheering subsiding, the Hall echoed with the sound of various drawings of bottled wine corks, the liquor being freely passed around the table ... . A procession was then formed to perambulate the walls, headed by the tradesmen's corp of constables, about twenty four in number, then the staff and mace-bearers, sword-bearers, the Mayor-elect walking uncovered, with his hat in hand; Aldermen, with scarlet robes and three-cornered hats, followed by members and officials; in the rear being three tradesmen's sons, named Mayor's stewards (the outside one being called gutter steward), wearing long black robes, with tufts and three-cornered hats, who had the privilege of dining at the Mayor's banquets. Some of the electors and inhabitants would accompany the procession and give vent to their feelings by an occasional cheer. At two fixed points on the route apples were thrown about for a general scramble, and at another wine was provided. The ceremony wound up in the evening with the good old English custom of dinner. 

Arms of Walter Gervys, appointed Lord Mayor of Exeter in 1218
There were also other, earlier customs pursuant to which the in-coming Mayor would supply a bull to be baited in the streets for the people's entertainment, and, just before the new Mayor took office, there was a lawless hour, during which normal laws and rules did not apply. On mayor-making day there was understood to be an interregnum between the rule of the departing mayor and that of the incoming mayor, which created a hiatus in the administration of law and order. So the young folk would have a merry old time playing pranks on passersby. Gutters would be blocked and anyone who didn't pay a fine for safe passage would get soaked with the fetid water.

There was also a widespread belief across the country that blackberries went bad after Michaelmas Day, because the Devil interfered with them on that date. And there were many colourful variations on exactly how the Evil One defiled the blackberries ... .

Anyway if you're having a special dinner, good luck with basting your goose.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

1 comment:

  1. You must really love history. You always come up with some very interesting things. I'd never heard of this celebration, although I have heard of the Archangel, Michael. - Thanks for sharing.