… is about now, sort of. It is an ancient festival, but seems to have meant different things to different people, and to have been celebrated at different times in different circumstance. It is not an official moveable feast of the Church, like those based on the date of Easter, but, because it depends on the time of the beginning of the cereal harvest, it inevitably shifts around a bit. Add to this pagan origins, old-style versus new-style dates, and various false/folk/hindsight-driven etymologies, and there is quite a lot to untangle.
John Brand has a section on ‘The Gule of August, commonly called Lammass Day’. For those baffled by the word ‘Gule’, he explains that (according to one Dr Pettingal, at any rate) it derives from ‘the Celtic or British “Wyl”, or “Gwyl”, signifying a festival or holyday’. ‘Gule of August’ thus means no more ‘than the holyday of St Peter ad Vincula in August, when the people of England under popery paid their Peter pence’. (‘Peter’s pence’ was the hugely unpopular tax, based on land-holding, paid to the pope since Anglo-Saxon times, and abolished when Henry VIII broke with Rome.) Brand adduces another source to ‘confirm’ this, connecting ‘Wyl’ etymologically to ‘Vincula’.
However, he then goes off at a tangent, with a (French) theory that the month of August was first in the ancient Egyptian year, and that ‘the first day of it was called Gule, which being Latinized makes Gula. Our legendaries, surprized at seeing this word at the head of the month of August, did not overlook, but converted it to their own purpose. They made out of it the Feast of the daughter of the Tribune Quirinius, cured of some disorder in the throat (Gula is Latin for throat) by kissing the chains of St Peter, whose feast is solemnized on this day.’
The feast of St Peter ad Vincula celebrates the miraculous release of St Peter from the prison into which he had been cast by Herod Agrippa, ‘guarded by four quaternions of soldiers to keep him’ (Acts 12.4, KJV). This has been the subject of many paintings, including Honthorst’s rather bemused looking, newly awakened saint (below), and Antonio de Bellis’s Caravaggio-influenced version.
and the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London (handy for the scaffold on Tower Green), which contains the bodies of three executed queens on England, among many others.
Brand (wrongly) asserts that York Minster is dedicated to St Peter ad Vincula (it is in fact the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York), but he uses this belief to attach St Peter to the equally obscure and complicated etymology of ‘Lammas’ itself. ‘Some suppose it is called Lammass Day, quasi Lamb-Masse, because, on that day, the tenants who held lands of the Cathedral Church in York, which is dedicated to St Peter ad Vincula, were bound by their tenure to bring a live lamb into the Church at high mass.’
But Brand’s alternative explanation of the word is more generally accepted today: that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlaf-maesse’, ‘loaf-masse, or bread-masse, so named as a feast of thanksgiving to God for the first-fruits of the corn. It seems to have been observed ‘with bread of new wheat: and accordingly it is a usage in some places for tenants to be bound to bring in wheat of that year to their lord, on or before the first of August.’ Brand also quotes the ‘Salisbury Manuals’, in which Lammas Day is descried as ‘Benedictio novorum fructuum’, the blessing of the first-fruits; and there are recorded traditions of burying pieces of the blessed loaf in the four corners of a field to ensure continuing fertility, or in the four corners of a barn to protect the grain stored there.
The pagan origins of this feast of first-fruits are hinted at in an Irish glossary where ‘Cormac, archbishop of Cashel in the tenth century’ states that ‘in his time, four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids; viz. in February, May, August, and November’. These correspond to the Celtic division of the seasons, where the year started on 1 November with the Samhain feast, followed by spring (Imbolc), summer (Beltane) and autumn (Lughnasa). There are still some Lammas festivals in Ireland, such as the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, held on the last Monday and Tuesday of August: food specialities are dulse and yellowman (seaweed and honeycomb sweets respectively).
Lammas fields, or Lammas lands, still exist in some British parishes, the one in Cambridge probably being the most famous.
A form of common land, it was available to commoners for pasture for their animals after the arable harvest or haymaking, from Lammas to either 1 February or 6 April. Coe [= Cow] Fen, Sheep’s Green and Lammas Land form a green wedge on either side of the River Cam from the west of the city to the Silver Street bridge, and Lammas Land is now a recreation area, including a paddling pool and children’s playground.
Cattle are still pastured in this area of fen, which is full of willow trees and sometimes floods in winter: a medieval survival reaching into the heart of the city.