Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival

By Walsh, Martin W. | Folklore, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival

Walsh, Martin W., Folklore


Beginning with Elizabethan literary references to a carnivalesque celebration of Martinmas, the present article surveys the St Martin cult in England in order to isolate features of the medieval celebration of the Christian feast and determine the feast's relationship to seasonal activities of early November. Martinmas is seen as both the last harvest festival and a curtain raiser for the extended winter revelling season, in effect a "Carnival" in late autumn.

The great medieval feast days of the saints were steadily whittled away in England in the course of the Reformation so that little was left of them by the end of Cromwell's Protectorate. One which scarcely survived into modern times was evidently important enough in the Middle Ages to have earned the suffix -mas, along with Michaelmas, Hallowmas, Christmas and Candlemas. This was Martlemas or Martinmas (Middle English, Martinmesse), the principal feast of that early Western saint, Martin of Tours, celebrated throughout Europe on 11 November. [1] By sheer historical coincidence the date continues to be honoured in presentday England as Armistice Day, but the pacifist soldier-saint and monk-bishop is not the object of contemplation in the ritual minute of silence still widely observed thereon.

Literary Remnants of Martinmas

In the fertile literary period between the establishment of the Church of England and the Puritan Revolution we do, however, notice a variety of "surface finds," to use an archaeological metaphor, which strongly suggest that a developed celebration of Martinmas did exist previously in England. This festival had a pronounced secular character and was, indeed, a kind of "shadow" Carnival ushering in, instead of ushering out, the winter revelling season. It was simultaneously the final harvest festival, as an early record from Hedington indicates--inter festum S. Michaelis et S. Martini venient cum toto ac pleno dyteno (between the feasts of St Michael and St Martin they sing harvest home. Kennett 1816, 65). Martinmas also designated a micro-season of the agricultural year, roughly the middle two weeks of November, chiefly characterised by the slaughter of beasts for winter provision and the testing of the new wine (see Figure 1). This essay will explore both the feast and the season of Martinmas as interdependent phenomena, both under the aegis of the great bishop of Tours.


We can find conspicuous shards of this older English Martinmas in the works of no less an author than Shakespeare. Sir John Falstaff, that carnivalesque persona par excellence, is pointedly referred to as "the martlemas" in Act 2 scene 2 of Henry IV, Part 2--"the martlemas" is one of the choice cattle culled for slaughter at the winter threshold of 11 November. The ascetic saint of Tours, paradoxically, lends his name to the slaughtered animal and, by extension, to the indulgent feast upon its flesh. This association developed fairly early on. In an English illuminated almanac c. 1370, for example, Bishop Martin holds an axe identical to the one a butcher employs to stun an ox as a typical "labour" for the month of November (see Figure 2). The O.E.D. cites two fourteenth-century uses of the term mart from the Durham Account Rolls (1307) and the Priory of Finchale (1368), as well as a reference from the romance Sir Tristram (c. 1320). Elizabethan dictionaries confirm the identification. "A marte" equals bos saginatus (fattened ox) in Peter Levins's Manipulus Vocabulorum (1570); and Baret's Alvearie (1580) offers the variants, "a marte or marterne" (Levins 1867, 307). One of the godfathers of Gluttony in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus likewise is "Martin Martlemas-beefe" (Act 2 scene 1).


The Martlemas image adds to a cluster of references to Falstaff in I Henry IV as well-marbled, prime beef ("huge hill of flesh," "roasted Maningtree ox with a pudding in his belly," Act 2 scene 4; "sweet beef," Act 3 scene 3), or as the detritus of slaughter ("greasy tallow-catch," "stuffed cloakbag of guts," Act 2 scene 4).

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Medieval English Martinmesse: The Archaeology of a Forgotten Festival


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