The medieval church calendar: a guide to the holy days
Medieval lives followed the ebb and flow of the Church calendar. Charlotte Hodgman and Nicholas Orme share some of the festivals and feast days celebrated in the Middle Ages…
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.
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...
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Visitation of the Virgin to her cousin Elizabeth
The Feast of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin
The Feast of Saint Peter (Lammas Day)
The Transfiguration of Jesus
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.
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.”
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 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.
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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.
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
Nicholas Orme is emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter
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