Michaelmas

In pre-modern Europe, the year was once organized by saints’ days, overlaid on key dates in the agricultural year.  Of these days, Michaelmas, coinciding with the harvest and celebrated on the 29th of September, was among the most important, and it still remains relevant on the British academic calendar.  Michaelmas is named for the most powerful of the medieval angels, the archangel Michael, who was a real fighter, fighting Persians, devils and dragons. I’ve always thought he was the best representative of medieval militant Christianity:  he convinced Joan of Arc to take up the mission of ridding France of the English during the Hundred Years’ War, and even after the Reformation he remained a powerful figure in British culture, appearing as the “flaming warrior”  who drives the sinful Adam and Eve out of Paradise and then defends it from all intruders in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

BL MS Harley624 (12th century) ; Michael Burgesse (engraver) after John Baptist Medina, illustration to Book XII of Paradise Lost, (1688); Michael speaking to Joan of Arc in the famous painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1879; Metropolitan Museum of Art) and in a Puck adaptation from 1912 featuring Teddy Roosevelt (Library of Congress).

Because Michaelmas coincides with the harvest it became associated with lots of other things:  it was the day that the annual rents were due, as well as a taxes, and the last flowers and fruits of the summer became known as Michaelmas Daisies (asters), and Michaelmas peaches and pears. It was a widespread custom to serve goose on Michaelmas evening, and to avoid blackberries the next day and after:  at that season of the year called Michaelmas, the Devil is said to touch with his club the black-berries, or to “throw his club over them”, none daring after that period to eat one of them, ‘or the worms will eat their ingangs’ (John MacTaggart, The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia: Or, the Original, Antiquated, and Natural Curiosities of the South of Scotland (1824).  There was also a custom involving apples harvested on Michaelmas Day that could forecast the rest of the year:  take oak apples and cut them, and by them you shall know how it shall go that year; spiders shew a naughty year, flies a merry year, maggots a good year, nothing in them portends great death (Lilly’s New Era Pater, or, A Prognostication  for Ever (1750).

Michaelmas Daisies by Jacob Huysum after Elisha Kirkall and John Martyn, 1741, Wellcome Library Images; Michaelmas Pears by Thomas Bensley, Pomona Britannica, 1812; a “Michaelmas goose”, 1840, British Museum.


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