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Holy Days: View Documents

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Document 1

MS 250, f. 207r: Calendar for January, from the Wollaton Antiphonal (first half of the 15th century, c.1430, Latin)
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Medieval calendars like this were primarily used by priests. The calendar has columns for the ‘Golden number’ (a code allowing priests to calculate when Easter would fall in each year, shown in Roman numerals), the ‘Dominical letter’ (a code for the day of the week, from ‘A’ to ‘G’), the date of the month, details of the saints being commemorated, and the number of lections (readings) for the day. The date of the month is reckoned in the Roman style, counting down to three individual days (the kalends, nones and ides) within one month. Important days are marked in red or blue, giving rise to the phrase ‘red-letter day’.

The calendar for January includes the feast of St Agnes, virgin and martyr, on 21 January (12 Kalends Februarius) and the feast of her nativity, shown as 'St Agnes the second', on 28 January (5 Kalends Februarius). St Agnes of Rome (c.291-c.304) is the patron saint of chastity, rape victims and virgins. She is said to have been executed after refusing to marry the son of the Prefect Sempronius. She was taken to a brothel to have her virginity forcibly taken from her, but her prayers caused her would-be assailants to lose their sight.

Another female saint remembered this month is St Batilda or Bathilde, Queen, on 30 January (3 Kalends Februarius). She was a slave working in the palace of Neustria (modern-day northern France), who married King Clovis II of Burgundy and Neustria. She was famous for her charitable service and generous donations. In her widowhood she entered the Abbey of Chelles near Paris, giving up her royal rank. She died on 30 January 680.

 

Document 2

WLC/LM/9, f. 16v: ‘Speculum Vitae’, lines 1025-1036 (composed mid-14th century, English) 
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This extract explains that marking Sundays and holy days by refraining from work is one of the Ten Commandments. Housewives may not have got such a break from work as their husbands, since the medieval family, as today, would have expected something to eat after the Sunday service!

 

Document 3

Mi A 6, pp. 63, 64 and 68: Extracts from the household expenditure account of John Levissey, servant to Sir Henry Willoughby (1521, English) 
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This account book contains evidence of gatherings of women to celebrate saints’ days. Parish guilds, run by women, raised money to pay for candles (‘lights’) or services in honour of particular saints. It is too much of a stretch to see these groups as forerunners of organisations such as the Women’s Institute, but women may have joined the guilds in order to socialise with neighbours, as well as for religious reasons.

Three of the extracts here refer to donations made on behalf of Sir Henry Willoughby to groups of women gathering ‘for Our Lady’s light’, that is, around lights on an altar or in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

 

Document 4

Pa D 35: Extract from a grant of land in Bunny, Nottinghamshire (3 June 1405, Latin) 
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Ecclesiastical festivals and saints’ days were so prominent that it was common to refer to the timing of other events in relation to them. The Virgin Mary was a particularly important saint. Her feast day of the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day (25 March), was the official start of the year until 1752. It was also one of the four ‘quarter days’ on which rents were traditionally paid in England.

This grant was made by Isabella, daughter and heiress of William de Boney [Bunny], to William Maltby, parson of the church of Gotham. Rent was to be paid on two feasts associated with the Virgin Mary, and the grant was dated on the ‘Wednesday after Ascension’. We have to use reference books such as C.R. Cheyney and M. Jones’ A Handbook of Dates (Cambridge, 2000), to work out when that was.

There are more details relating to medieval dating styles in the 'Dating Documents' unit of our Research Guidance webpages.

 

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