For many of us New Year is a time for thinking about the year ahead and making resolutions. This isn’t a new idea: since the Middle Ages, at least, people have looked to the future at this time of year. Medieval people didn’t always celebrate New Year on 1 January, and in some places, it fell in the spring instead, but in medieval England, January does seem to have been a time for reflecting on the coming year.
But for all the similarities with our own time, medieval people approached the New Year rather differently to us. Instead of making resolutions, they tried to predict what would happen in the year ahead and to attract good fortune. They did this in various ways, some of which were acceptable to the Church and some of which most definitely weren’t…
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Christmas and New Year weather forecasting
The weather was a matter of great concern to everyone in a society that was dependent on agriculture because poor harvests could lead to real hardship. Christmas and New Year were, for some people, times to predict the weather for the year ahead. In manuscripts containing practical advice, we find various ways to do this, based on the day of the week on which Christmas Day or New Year’s Day falls.
One list of predictions from the 15th century, for example, says that if Christmas Day falls on a Tuesday, it will be a rainy winter, a windy spring and a rainy summer – and the sheep will die. If that weren’t bad enough, kings and princes would also die. This doesn’t sound like an especially cheerful year, but some predictions for other days of the week are better, and talk about good harvests and good weather.
What is interesting about this list is that it’s found in a manuscript owned by a member of the clergy, alongside sermons and treatises on theology. This suggests that many members of the clergy did not have a problem with making these sorts of predictions, probably because the predictions mostly dealt with general issues such as the weather and harvests, and with groups of people such as ‘princes’ rather than the fates of particular individuals.
For the Church, the difficulty came when people tried to predict or influence what would happen to individual people. This was a problem because medieval Christianity held that God had given everyone free will, and so people were able to do anything they liked – no-one could predict another person’s actions or control his or her behaviour. This meant that, at best, predictions were superstitious and wouldn’t work. At worst, they were a distraction from God and might cause evil demons to deceive you with false prophecies.
Because the Church opposed any attempt to predict or influence what individual people would do, we know about most of the New Year practices described here from religious treatises and sermons on superstition, documents in which clergymen told people not to follow these practices – usually with limited success.
Good luck gifts
Several members of the clergy complained that people exchanged gifts called hounsels at New Year, an activity that is still familiar today when we exchange Christmas presents. This might seem innocent enough but, according to the clergy, these gifts were not just tokens of friendship or family love in the way that modern Christmas presents are. Instead, the gifts seem to have been a way of swapping luck for the New Year because if you received a hounsel it was supposed to bring you good fortune. In some cases, people seem to have taken this idea to extremes. The 13th-century academic and priest Richard of Wetheringsett noted that some people wouldn’t give anything to their neighbours at this time of year unless they received a hounsel first.
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There were also ways, or so it was believed, to predict the future for the year ahead. The 14th-century monk Ranulph Higden complained about people who put beans by the fire to see how their plans for the year would turn out. It was possible to ask about anything: marriage plans, a business venture, the outcome of a journey or the harvest. Higden didn’t say exactly how this worked. Perhaps this was such a well-known activity that he didn’t need to spell it out, or perhaps he was reluctant to go into too much detail in case it gave people ideas. Certainly, a later cleric and preacher, John Mirk, said he wouldn’t describe New Year superstitions in detail in his sermons “lest they get drawn into use”. However, it’s likely the predictions were based on the way the beans jumped on a hot surface near the fire, because this is something we find in folklore in later periods.
Shoes over the roof beams
Ranulph Higden also tutted about a way of predicting rather more serious events. Some people, he said, threw shoes over the roof beams of their houses in order to see whether someone in the house would die in the coming year. Again, he didn’t say how this worked. Perhaps it depended on where the shoe landed, or whether the shoe got stuck on the beam.
Quite a few medieval clergy members also complained about unspecified pagan activities that took place at New Year but, again, did not give details. Religious treatises from earlier in the Middle Ages sometimes described New Year activities that may have gone back to pagan religions, such as dressing up in animal costumes.
By the 13th century, these practices had dropped out of the records, and clergy were probably thinking instead of the kinds of practices mentioned by Richard of Wetheringsett and Ranulph Higden. By this time, western Europe had been through many centuries where Christianity was on the rise. The people who used jumping beans and threw shoes probably regarded themselves as good Christians, and they were unlikely to have seen their activities as pagan. Nonetheless, some medieval clergy continued to view magic and superstition as suspiciously pagan in a general sense.
How seriously did medieval people take these superstitions?
People probably varied in how seriously they took these New Year activities. Some clergy were openly sceptical and criticised people who were stupid enough to believe in these sorts of superstitions. Some laypeople may have been equally sceptical, but their views are not recorded.
We can imagine some of these activities, such as putting beans by the fire, as being quite sociable, perhaps done by groups at New Year gatherings. But other activities, such as the shoe-throwing, could be far more disturbing if you truly believed someone in your house was going to die. Even exchanging New Year gifts had the potential to cause problems. If Richard of Wetheringsett was right, we can see how giving gifts – or, more importantly, not giving them – could lead to arguments between neighbours.
Nonetheless, serious or not, these beliefs tell us about some of the things medieval people wanted for themselves and for their loved ones, and about some of the things that worried them. Here, we can recognise anxieties that we still share today: worries about business ventures, love and marriage, luck, life and death. Many of the superstitions criticised by medieval clergy also continued long after the Middle Ages, which again suggests they answered deeply felt needs and anxieties. After all, many of us still read horoscopes at New Year and more of us take the time to think about how we can improve our lives – even if we no longer turn to throwing shoes or beans for guidance.
Catherine Rider is associate professor in medieval history at the University of Exeter and the author of Magic and Religion in Medieval England (Reaktion Books, 2012).