The Church calendar was deeply ingrained in the lives of medieval people and the passing of time was marked by Church festivals as much as by the day and month.

Advertisement

The Church year was divided into two parts. The first followed Christ’s life on earth, beginning on Advent Sunday and ending on Corpus Christi in midsummer. Its services referenced the events of the life of Jesus. The second covered the rest of the year, in which the services had more general themes. The year was also punctuated by many saints’ days.

Lay people were expected to observe the Church year by attending services on the special days and by fasting on Fridays, during Lent and on the days before major feasts. Holy days were also holidays, allowing (and indeed requiring) abstention from work apart from domestic tasks.

With so many observances to remember, it was the job of the clergy to remind their congregation of the upcoming festivals and what was expected of them. Liturgical books included calendars to help the clergy keep track, and literate lay people would have them in the front of their own personal prayer books.

Here is just a small selection of the festivals and feast days celebrated in the Middle Ages...

More like this

January

The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ

Then, as now, 1 January was regarded as New Year’s Day, although the year date (up to 1752) did not change until 25 March.

The Octave of Epiphany

An eight-day celebration (6–13 January) of Christ’s baptism and the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

February

Candlemas

This festival (2 February) honoured the churching of the Virgin Mary 40 days after Christ’s birth and, from at least the 10th century, was a major feast day requiring church attendance. Each parishioner – adults and children – came to church bringing a candle, where they would hear mass and make a monetary offering. The candles became the perquisite of the parish clergyman.

March/April

Lent

The date of Easter – as it does now – varied from year to year. Linked to the first new moon of spring, the festival could fall at any point between 22 March and 25 April. Easter was preceded by Lent, a period of six weeks beginning on Ash Wednesday. This was a penitential day; ashes would be blessed and then painted on the foreheads of the clergy and laity in the shape of a cross. During Lent a large curtain, known as the Lenten veil, screened the high altar in the chancel from view and all the images in the church were veiled, too. Adults were also required to abstain from animal products other than fish, and to make their confession in church.

Holy Week and Easter

The last week of Lent began with Palm Sunday, a day of celebration. It was a week full of elaborate ceremonies. After mass on Maundy Thursday, the altars were stripped of coverings and ornaments. The next day, Good Friday, was a day of mourning on which the story of Christ’s passion was read from the Gospel of John. The laity would perform the ritual of ‘creeping to the cross’, crawling or crossing the floor on their knees to kiss the cross. Easter Day required all adult parishioners to receive communion in the form of a consecrated wafer and a sip of unconsecrated wine.

Hocktide

This folk custom – held on the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter – saw men and women take turns to capture each other. The money each paid for their release was given for the upkeep of the parish church.

Rogationtide

The three-day celebration of Rogationtide – each day representing one of the three ages of the world – took place six weeks after Easter, with long processions led by a straw-stuffed dragon as a representation of the Devil. On the third day, the dragon had the straw removed from its tail so that it hung limp, and was relegated to the back of the procession. The Devil had been defeated and Christ was now triumphant.

May/June

Pentecost (Whit Sunday) Seven days after Rogation week, this was the third great festival of the Church year. People were required to come to church to offer their ‘smoke farthings’ – the amount required from every house with a hearth. The following week, the money was sent to the local cathedral in a procession of lay people; the various parish processions often wrangled over who came in front of whom, sometimes leading to fights.

Corpus Christi

Celebrated on the second Thursday after Pentecost, this feast honoured the communion bread and wine, which were believed to become Christ’s blood and body. A public procession displayed the consecrated elements to the world.

July/August

2nd July

The Visitation of the Virgin to her cousin Elizabeth

26th July

The Feast of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin

1st August

The Feast of Saint Peter (Lammas Day)

6th August

The Transfiguration of Jesus

A Renaissance depiction of Saint Michael – one of the archangels
A Renaissance depiction of Saint Michael – one of the archangels. (Image by Getty Images)

September

Michaelmas Day

The feast of Saint Michael the Archangel was celebrated on 29 September. As summer ended and winter loomed, this and some other Christian festivals sought to deflect the ill effects of the darkness to come. Michael is especially associated with victory over the powers of evil.

October/November

5th Oct

The Feast of Saint Raphael

All Saints Day

Celebrated on 1 November, this was a major feast day, as was All Souls the next day. On All Saints Eve, vigils were kept in churches and church bells rang through the night on behalf of the souls in Purgatory.

23rd & 25th Nov

According to a proclamation of Henry VIII in 1541, the feasts of Saint Clement (23 November) and Saint Katharine (25 November) saw children dress as “counterfeit priests, bishops and women, and so led with songs and dances from house to house, blessing the people and gathering of money.”

December

Saint Nicholas Day

This day (6 December) saw the ceremony of the boy bishop, a custom that was often repeated on Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December). In a reversal of roles, a boy of the parish would act as bishop (with other boys serving as his clergy or servants) for 24 hours, during which he would preside over the liturgy and bless those in church. Afterwards, the boys would tour the local area asking for food and money.

The Magi – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – present their gifts to the infant Jesus
The Magi – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar – present their gifts to the infant Jesus while Jesus and Mary look on. (Image by Getty Images)

Advent

The season of Advent began with Advent Sunday, which could fall between 27 November and 3 December, and was a solemn period. The Book of Isaiah, with its prophecies of Christ’s birth, would be read at the morning service and fasting was recommended. Marriages were forbidden, as with Lent and Rogationtide.

Christmas

This was the last of the three great feasts of the year (with Easter and Pentecost). Three masses could be celebrated, beginning at midnight, and churches could be decorated with holly and ivy or extra candles. The three days after Christmas (those of Saint Stephen, Saint John the Evangelist and the Holy Innocents) were also major festivals. Wealthy households would take the period between Christmas and Epiphany (6 January) as a holiday, exchanging gifts on 1 January, New Year’s Day, rather than at Christmas.

Advertisement

This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Charlotte HodgmanStrategic Projects Editor, HistoryExtra

Charlotte Hodgman is Strategic Projects Editor for HistoryExtra. She currently looks after the HistoryExtra Academy and was previously editor of BBC History Revealed, and deputy editor of BBC History Magazine - although not at the same time. She also makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast

Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement