Fate, Faith and Paradox: Medieval Unlucky Days as a Context for 'Wytte Hath Wondyr.'

By Hirsh, John C. | Medium Aevum, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Fate, Faith and Paradox: Medieval Unlucky Days as a Context for 'Wytte Hath Wondyr.'


Hirsh, John C., Medium Aevum


One of the more difficult issues to document in the popular devout literature of late medieval Britain is the easy and accepted contradiction between what experience and reason seemed to demand, and what religious faith revealed. Since the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, attention to the cura animarum had grown apace, but the tendency was, in matters of accepted belief, to pass over contradictions in silence, whether in religious or in secular contexts. Throughout the late medieval period it is thus understandably difficult to find treatments of blind fate set in association with acknowledgements of divine providence, at least in a popular context.(1)

One particularly interesting example of this contradiction occurs in the fragment of a fifteenth-century English manuscript, Oxford Bodleian Library MS Lat. liturg. e. 10, written for devotional use, which contains a number of items clearly related to religious practices, two of which, in Middle English, will concern us here.(2) The first of these texts is 2 list of unlucky days, concluded in this manuscript by a devout commonplace which, taken together with the list, provides an intellectual context for 2 well-known lyric which precedes it, the Middle English poem usually known as `Wytte Hath Wondyr'.

A list of what the manuscript calls `perilous days' -- that is, days in which it was unlucky to fall ill, or have in accident, or be married, or begin a journey, or, indeed, commence any enterprise -- are a familiar feature of many late medieval manuscripts, and one with deep roots. Referred to as the dies maledicti, the `dismal days', or, in one form, as the `Egyptian days' (dies/Egyptian), such lists have been dated to AD 354, and though certain early Christian writers like Ambrose and Augustine attacked the evident superstition upon which they rested, their dissemination was general, though they appeared in many different forms.(3) It would be possible to adduce analogues, perhaps rising to influences, between Western medieval and Arabic calendars, which seem initially to have been agricultural and astronomical in origin, concerned with the operations of the planets and with the cycle of the seasons. It may have been for this reason that the unlucky days were understood throughout much of the medieval period as unvarying and natural occurrences, which could no more be changed than the weather; the misfortune they occasioned was impersonal, not malevolent. If Arabic calendars did inform Western ones, it was almost certainly through Spain that they did so, further complicating the arrangement and designation of days through a process which has yet to be fully explained.(4) The lists of unlucky days that the Western calendars contained included many variations, though I have not found an exact parallel to the version printed here. Its apparent uniqueness, though, probably owes less to occult knowledge than to scribal irregularity, since most of its unlucky days are quite traditional, and the eleven that are not follow no particular pattern.(5)

The following fist of `perilous days' appears in rubric on fol. [26.sup.v] of MS Lat. liturg. e. 10. Word-division and punctuation have been modernized in both the texts that follow:

Theys vnderwrytyn be pe perilous dayes for to take eny sekenes in, or to be

huete in, or to be weddyd in, or to take eny journey vpon, or to begynne eny

werke in pat he wold wele spedde. The noumbre of theys dayes be in the yere

xxxij. pat be theys:

In Janivere beth vij: the j, pe ij, pe iiijth, pe v, the vij, the x and the

xv.

In Feverere beth iij: the vj, pe vij & the xviij.

In March beth iij: the j, pe vj, the viij.

In Aprill beth ij: the vj & the xj.

In May beth iij: pe v, pe vj & pe vij.

In June beth ij: pe vij & pe xv.

In July beth ij: pe v & the xix.

In August beth ij: pe xv & pe xix. …

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