Medieval Spring, by Milica of Varna

"When April with his showers hath pierced the drought Of March with sweetness to the very root, And flooded every vein with liquid power That of its strength engendereth the flower; When Zephyr also with his fragrant breath Hath urged to life every holt and heath New tender shoots of green, and the young sun His full half course within the Ram hath run, And little birds are making melody That sleep the whole night through with open eye, For in their hearts doth Nature stir them so, Then people long on pilgrimage to go,"

Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Spring, in modern times, is a season of life and rebirth. So it was in Medieval times, although the medieval year looked somewhat different than the modern one. Based on the old pagan holidays, it began in February with Candlemas and ended May 1, with the beginning of summer. In England, plowing for spring crops began in January the first Monday after Epiphany. Called Plow Monday, the holiday was celebrated by the freemen of a village who would race to plow a common field. In the late Middle Ages, a "plow fool" was chosen and hauled through the village dressed as an old woman. This rowdy group went door-to-door, begging for pennies. When refused, "Bessy" would be insulted and the ground before the skinflint's door would be plowed up.

Candlemas was the first true spring holiday, falling on February 2, the modern Groundhog Day. This pagan cross quarter was Christianized to commemorate Mary's "churching" , a practice in which a new mother donned her wedding gown and entered the church to be "purified" after giving birth. It marked the beginning of the agricultural year, and was the time when trees and vines were planted.

The season of Lent, of course, was an busy time in Medieval life, second only to the Christmas season in importance. Shrove Tuesday was a day of parties and games, followed by the long Lenten season. During this time, the churches were hung with veils and crosses were shrouded. On Palm Sunday, yew or willow branches were carried in procession, and on Good Friday, the cross was unveiled. Easter Eve was a celebration of candles and light, with old candles being extinguished and new ones lit. Easter, like Christmas, was a time of exchange between the common people and the lord of the manor. People of the village brought eggs to the lord, symbolizing rebirth, while he, in turn fed them a sumptuous meal, renewing his commitment to care for them. The week that followed Easter was a holiday, full of fun and games. This was the official beginning of the tournament season in the great halls of Europe, and knight began their tours from manor to manor, testing their skill against each other.

Easter Week ended with Hocktide, the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter, a two-day festival that included the odd custom of husbands whipping their wives on Monday and wives whipping their husbands on Tuesday.

In England, a favorite spring holiday was April 23, St. George's Day. The incarnation of the ideal hero, George was celebrated for his slaying of the dragon. In the Alps, St. George's Day is also remembered. Shepherds pay a special tribute to the Saint on the day when they move their flocks up the mountain to their summer pasture.

The end of Medieval spring and the beginning of summer was Mayday. The pagan Beltane on May 1, was a time for lovemaking and relaxed morality. Fires were lighted on May Eve and residents of the villages often spent the night in the forest or field, ensuring fertility and a good harvest. Children born of these unions were said to be especially blessed. On Mayday itself, noble lords and ladies would take to the woods to cut hawthorne boughs and pick wildflowers to crown the Lord and Lady of the May. In Germany, maypoles were erected and danced around, entwined with colorful ribbons and flowers, more fertility rites to bring a good harvest. In a time when a good harvest could ensure survival, nothing was left to chance.

After Mayday came the season for work. Fields needed to be tended and there was no longer time for week-long festivals. In the modern world, we still enjoy the remnants of medieval spring festivals with Mardi Gras and Mayday activities. For us, however, the beginning of summer marks the end of work and the season of fun, quite the opposite from the Medieval world.