March 28, 2013, by Christina Lee

Frost and Famine

The ongoing cold weather continues to dominate our news. March in Old English is hreðmonað ‘rough/cruel month’ and this March certainly plays up to its medieval title. With a fear of energy shortages we may perhaps understand why winter and early spring were difficult times for our medieval ancestors. Most of the food that had been stored or slaughtered for winter was eaten by now and it would be a long time – especially in a winter like the one we currently experience – before new food was available. Early spring, in the medieval period was a time of dearth and while the Christian Lent was clearly based on traditions from the Middle East and Mediterranean, the idea to restrict one’s food intake at a time when there was little to have must have very much pleased the pragmatic Anglo-Saxons. Incidentally, fasting in Anglo-Saxon England does not mean to eat nothing (as in some popular contemporary diets), but to abstain from meat and sometimes dairy products as well. In contrast to spring, early winter was a time of plenty and it is not surprising that one of the main feasts fell on the winter solstice. The Old English name for November is blodmonað ‘Bloodmonth’, after the sacrifices offered to the pagan gods. However, this was also a time when Anglo-Saxon farmers had to decide which beasts they would feed over winter and which they would slaughter for food supplies. By late December it would be high time to consume the meat that was not cured or turned into sausages.
Cold winters and late springs were a cause for concern and several times we are told about hard winters in annals and chronicles. For example, the Annals of Ulster tell us that in 700 there was such famine in Ireland that people turned to eating each other. This famine was preceded by a cattle disease, so that people were desperate at this stage. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that in 1005 there was such famine as there has been never before – a statement that implies that there have been famines before. The Old English poem The Fortunes of Man consider all kinds of fates that may befall a new-born child, hunger being one of them: ‘Sumne sceal hungor ahiþan’ (Some will be destroyed by hunger).
In Old Norse mythology the fimbulvetr – a three year long winter precedes the end of the world. In this winter, we are told by Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, there will be frost and keen wind and snow will drift from all directions. This winter is followed by civil war – a time when brothers will fight each other: ‘ax-age,…, wind age, wolf age, until the world is ruined. At the heart of the narrative about the gods is that climactic changes will lead to civil unrest .  Snorri does not mention hunger (unless he talks of the realms of the keeper of the Underworld Hel, in whose place people will be hungry and cold. I always like how this image shows much about Norse fears: Christian hell may be uncomfortable, but at least it is warm). While the Vikings knew how to have fun on ice (see a recent ‘Norse and Viking Ramblings’ blog), they also understood the harshness of winter (especially those who came from central Norway or Sweden). However, the Norse were not the first to consider unnatural weather as a token for impeding doom. A letter written by Pope Gregory the Great to King Æthelberht of Kent (c 560 – 616) gives the king a list of things that indicate the end of time: among them are unseasonable tempests as never before. The King may have felt quite secure about the other items on the lists, since earth quakes must have been rare in Kent even then.
If  all of this  makes depressing reading, we should remember that soon it will be þrymylce (May), a month which gets it Old English name from the fact that cattle supposedly could be milked three times a day in this month. If we are still alive, that is.

Posted in Anglo-SaxonArchaeologyFoodHistoryOld EnglishOld Norse