Sources Cited: Eleanor Parker
A calendar-in-verse and an Anglo-Saxon year
This past year, I’ve noticed constancies between seasons. My scrutiny wasn’t climactic in nature, not entirely. Rather, the invariability reminded me of my childhood. I grew up in California where seasons famously don’t exist. You only notice when it’s hot enough to lounge on the beach all day, or when air conditioning’s lack becomes especially sleep-depriving. One’s annual rhythms, particularly as a child, are dictated by others without much consideration for the weather.
I left California and found the creep of tree tints novel, as was the deadened pace of a snowbound walk. Relief from those walks, too, once they were no longer so novel. This past year, though, I ran in winter with only a long-sleeved shirt. My cat missed fetching snowballs: a grievous injury to him. Spring brought sweat and bug-bite-free weather, and this past week I’ve kept the fan blowing at most hours, but even with those airy blips, the last four seasons have felt muted. They’ve felt a bit like California.
It doesn’t help to be housebound at such times. Last year, I was driving along Texas summer tarmac on the way to and from archives’ frigid air conditioning. This year, a ground-floor apartment dulls both cold and heat. I noticed these last few seasons first from my window, in how early the sun rises and as the light from outside grows greener and more shaded from leaves.
In this weather-hungry mood, I picked up Eleanor Parker’s Winters in the World: A Journey through the Anglo-Saxon Year and found myself drawn to its lovingly recreated rhythms, not only of seasons but weeks, days, and hours. And in the histories and mythologies, not merely dated to a nebulous past but fastened to a day, to be remembered on all future iterations of it.
“Then after six nights the next month,
ærra Liða, brings long days to town for us,
June into the dwellings, in which the jewel climbs up
highest in the year into the heavens,
brightest of stars, and descends from its place,
sinks to its setting.”
Dr. Eleanor Parker is a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford. There, her research focuses on the literature and history of Medieval England and Scandinavia. Dr. Parker is also a columnist for History Today. Winters in the World is out now from Reaktion Books.
“[On 1 May] comes to the city
sweeping swiftly, splendid in its adornments
of woods and plants, beautiful Þrymilce
to the dwellings; May brings many benefits
everywhere among the multitudes.
On the same day those noble companions,
Philip and James, brave thegns,
gave up their lives for love of the Lord.
And two nights afterwards God revealed
to blessed Helena the noblest of trees,
on which the Lord of the angels suffered
for love of mankind, the Measurer on the gallows
by his Father’s will. And after a week,
minus one night, summer brings sun-bright days
to the dwellings for mankind,
with warm weathers. Then the meadows
quickly bloom with blossoms, and joy mounts up
throughout the earth among many kinds
of living creatures; in manifold ways
they speak the praise of the King, extol the glorious one,
- The Menologium, tr. Eleanor Parker
Could you trace the path of how you came upon this material?
I’d been aware of this poem for some time before I started to pay attention to it. I don’t remember when I first read it; the corpus of Old English poetry isn’t that large, so I probably came across it when I was studying medieval literature as a graduate student and didn’t give it much thought at the time. It’s one of a number of short Old English poems which don’t get much attention from specialists because they’re seen as fairly straightforward and formulaic—not as interesting as major texts in the field, such as Beowulf. The Menologium, as it’s known, is seen as simply a way of helping people remember key dates in the Christian religious calendar. My story with this poem isn’t so much one of discovery as of coming to appreciate that there was more to understand about it than I had first realised.
How did you first interact with it?
I started to think more about this poem when I was in the early stages of writing Winters in the World. I wanted to get a sense of how the structure of the year might be seen by different Anglo-Saxon writers, and especially how the religious calendar intersected with the cycle of the seasons.
When I read the poem more closely, what struck me most was its tone of praise and celebration, its emphasis on finding beauty and wonder in every season of the year. It’s not just a simple list of dates, but a guide to seeing time as sacred—noticing the beauties of nature in every month of the year and connecting those beauties to the religious festivals which for this poet gave time its spiritual meaning. That emphasis on beauty and connectedness really touched me.
What did the material unlock for you in your work?
What this poem helped me to see was not just how closely entwined the seasonal and religious cycles were for medieval writers, but how the calendar itself could be a source of delight. In the Middle Ages, calculating dates and calendars was an aspect of scientific learning, and while the poem celebrates the beauty of the natural world, it’s also fascinated by technical precision with dates and numbers. It pins the beginning of the seasons to specific dates (summer starts on May 9, and so on), then will count forward something like “eight plus nine days later” to the next significant feast-day.
That complexity seems to be part of the point, because the poem loves the idea that knowledge of the calendar is a specialised skill, worked out with great ingenuity by scholars—learned people whom the poem calls rimcræftig, “number-crafty.” While the seasonal cycles of nature are outside human control, the poem understands calendars and dates as human creations through which we draw out meaning from those natural cycles. The poem was very helpful in showing me how the technical side of calendar knowledge, as part of medieval science, wasn’t distinct from its spiritual meaning or a poet’s delight in the natural world—religion, science and aesthetic pleasure are all united here.
Where did it lead to next?
For me, this poem was a kind of touchstone in writing Winters in the World. I kept coming back to it, and its structure underlies the structure of my own book. It also gave me my subtitle, because it imagines the year as a kind of journey: the arrival of each month is described with verbs of active movement, so that months ‘glide’ or ‘travel’ or ‘slip swiftly’ into the world. In one way my book is just a very expanded version of what’s included in this short poem, and it has some of the same aims—to sketch a holistic picture of the cycle of the year, and to suggest that it’s worth paying attention to the everyday beauties of the seasons we live through but don’t always notice.
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