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Holy Days

Decoration from the Wollaton Antiphonal

'Worship well the holy days'

The pattern of medieval life cannot be understood without reference to the church. The word ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day’, and reminds us that days away from work were prescribed by the church and based on the Christian calendar.

Indeed, the church authorities in the Middle Ages, and afterwards, positively demanded that people refrain from work on Sundays and ecclesiastical feast days, and attend church instead. Records from the Archdeaconry of Nottingham show that people were brought to court for ‘Sabbath-breaking’ in the 17th century, and the recent ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaigns show that it is still a hotly-debated topic.

Not all church feasts were purely religious in tone. Elements of pagan celebration, particularly at significant times of the solar year, were adopted by the church authorities and merged with Catholic festivals. The most well-known example is Christmas, or Yuletide.

An extract from a 16th-century account book presented here also mentions celebrations on St Peter’s Eve (28 June). Together with St John’s Eve (23 June), this festival marked Midsummer and was celebrated with feasting and bonfires. Midsummer bonfires are a widespread Northern European tradition, and have been revived in Cornwall with the Golowan Festival.

The following extracts from literary and historical texts give some insights into the Christian year in medieval society.

 

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