The festival of Michaelmas, 29 September, marked the end of harvest time and a turning of the weather and seasons. The feast had both Christian and pagan origins.
Harvest was an important period of time in the medieval calendar. It lasted for three months and the success of the harvest determined quality of life for months to come. A good harvest gathered was a reason for celebration and a poor harvest meant that prayers and good omens were sought for a better farming year to come. Either way, the feast of Michaelmas was eagerly anticipated.
The Origins of the Feast of Michaelmas
Like many medieval feasts and festivals, the feast of Michaelmas had both pagan and Christian origins. The feast’s pagan origins relate to the celebration of the autumnal equinox and the marking of shorter hours of daylight. The Christian aspect of the feast came through Michaelmas marking the feast day of St Michael, the archangel who was credited with expelling Lucifer from heaven.
Aspects of both Christian and pagan traditions survived through generations to make up various aspects of medieval feast of Michaelmas. One of the oldest pagan practices, whose origins are obscure, is the corn dolly. This was made from the last sheaf of wheat of the harvest and was woven into a human shape, to take the place of honour on the harvest feast table and was believed to bring good fortune for the new farming year.
The Quarter Day of Michaelmas
Michaelmas was a quarter day, one of four days which divided the year into quarters. The cycle ran as follows; Christmas, Lady Day, Midsummer Day and Michaelmas.
Michaelmas day was traditionally a day of reckoning, as quarter days marked the times when rent was collected. Michaelmas also marked an end of many activities which could only be carried out during the summer months. These included fishing and fruit picking.
A winter curfew came into operation in many communities from Michaelmas Day and the church bell was sounded early in the evening from Michaelmas onwards, for the town gates to be closed to incomers until morning.
Celebrations to Mark the End of the Medieval Harvest
With the crops safely gathered, Michaelmas marked the time for landowners to stock barns and sheds full of food, ready for the winter ahead. Meats and fishes were salted, to be eaten during the cold months ahead and a new accounting and farming year officially began.
Many villages celebrated Michaelmas with a harvest feast, which offered all the best of what had been gathered and anticipated good times to come, with cupboards full for the coming months. It was traditional for a goose to be eaten at this feast.
On the day after the feast, farm labourers and domestic servants presented themselves at a ‘mop fair’, where they could be hired for work in the coming farming year.
The Michaelmas celebrations of medieval times marked the end of the harvest season, which had begun in August with Lammas Day. From here, thoughts would turn towards the coming winter season and the festivals of Halloween and Christmas, which would be highlights of the dark months ahead.
Gies Frances, Gies Joseph Life in a Medieval Village [Harper Perennial, 1991]
Lacey Robert, Danziger Danny The Year 1000 [Back Bay Books, 2000]