How Ancient Europeans Created Time
The early Anglo-Saxons based their year on the lunar calendar, when a month was marked by the phases of the moon (hence the name ‘monath’ from the word ‘mona’ meaning moon). As a result, a year was comprised of 354 days. Resulting in an accumulation of days at the end of every couple of years, a thirteenth month was added, and the first full moon in this new month was called a Blue Moon, and that year was referred to as ‘þæs monan gear’, the moon year.
At the Synod of Whitby in the 7th century, this calculation was changed to the more efficient Roman way of calculating the year. The Roman year was based on an average year of 365 and one quarter days, which meant that 8 days were added over 1000 years. In 1582, there were 10 extra days in the year, so Pope Gregory the 8th added the Leap Year. However, Britain refused to convert and by 1752, Britain was 11 days behind the rest of Europe and then conformed.
According to the great scholar Bede in the 7th century, the new year started on Modranecht, Mothers’ Night, on the 25th of December and the day of Jesus’ birth. Many who still followed the Celtic ways however, celebrated the start of the new year in November with the last day of the old year being Samhain/ Halloween. The Anglo-Saxons also began their new year in November.
Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavian kingdoms saw the year in two seasons. They were concerned with seasonal markers that told them when to sow, plough, or store their food or when they could go sailing or attack an enemy. Winter told time and age in years; for example, a person was a certain number of winters old, or had lived in a house for so many winters. The month of May until the beginning of October was known as summer. Spring came into being in the 16th century to mean the first season of the year, and Autumn came into being in the 17th century when it became known as the harvest season.
December was known as Ærra Geola, the ‘first Yule’ or ‘preceding Yule’. This was because the Winter Solstice, known as Yule, occurred on the 25th of December. January was known as Æfterra Geola, or ‘after Yule’. Yule and the 25th December was overshadowed by the chosen date of Christ’s birth with the spread of Christianity. The word Yule remains today but is now associated with Christmas more so than the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice.
February was called Solmonað. The scholar Bede wrote that this came about because of the cakes that were offered to the gods around this month by the pagans. The word ‘sol’ can also be linked to a word meaning mud and it is thought that perhaps this is the true link behind the name Solmonath; February is when winter snow starts to melt away, leaving puddles of mud everywhere. The 1st of February marks Embolc, or Imbold, in the Celtic calendar and marks the beginning of the lambing season. In the Christian calendar, the same date is also used for Candlemas, the time when the Virgin Mary was purified after Jesus’ birth. This was also the shortest day of the year and people and the church would light candles in a ritual to word off bad spirits.
March was named after the goddess Hreða, as Hreðmonað. The Spring Equinox occurs on March 21st. During the months of March and April, depending on the date Easter fell, was also the Christian season of Lent. The word ‘Lent’ comes from ‘lent’ or ‘lenct’ which means length and alludes to the lengthening of days after winter, called Lencten or Lenctentide. The church borrowed the word for the time period before Easter day when the Christians were fasting. The fast is in rememberance of the 40 days Jesus spent suffering in the wilderness. Shrove Tuesday, the day before the Lent fast begins, is marked by a feast. The month of April was known as Eostermonað, first named after the goddess Eostre, which also became absorbed into the Christian calendar.
May was called Ðrimilcemonað, as the ‘month of three milkings’. By this time, baby calves were starting to be born and so their mother would have to be milked three times a day. The 1st of May was also known as Beltane and it marked the official beginning of summer. The Christian tradition of Rogantide also occurs at this time of year. Local priests usually led their people through their parishes, beating the bounds and blessing the crops in a tradition reminiscent of the Roman feast of Terminus, God of fields and landmarks.
At the middle of the year, the names for the months are similar to those used around Yule. June is known as Ærra Liða, meaning ‘first or proceeding Liða’ and July is called Æfterra Liða, meaning ‘after/ following Liða’. The meaning of the word ‘Litha’ is gentle or navigable, relating to the calm and gentle breezes at this time of year that led to smooth sailing. During the pre-Christian era, when an extra month was needed to be added to the lunar calendar it was done so during these two months. This new month was known as Ðriliði, meaning ‘three lithas’.
August was the month of weeds, or Weodmonað, referring to herbs or grasses. In the Celtic calendar, the first of August was called Lughnasa(gh) and marked the beginning of the harvest season, celebrated by a festival of the first fruits of the harvest. The first sheaves of corn were ground up to be made into loaves of bread as an offering to the gods. This day was also known as ‘hlaf-maesse’ to the Anglo-Saxons, the day of the loaf mass, which in Christian times was called Lammas.
September was Haligmonað, or ‘holy month’. Rather than referring to any Christian beliefs and practices, the scholar Bede said this month was used by earlier pagans as a month of sacred rites and was the time of the Autumn Equinox on the 24th of September, called Mabon, followed by Michaelmas on September 29th. This latter date roughly coincided with the end of harvest, which could also be a clue as to the nature of the earlier pagan rites that were being celebrated at this time. The end of September was the end of the harvest and also when many animals were sold at great fairs. The best animals were sold or bartered for in exchange for tools, debts, or supplies for the coming winter. Those animals that were not sold and were not chosen as breeders for the next year would meet their ends in November.
October, or Winterfilleð, marked the beginning of winter. The word ‘filleth’ refers to the full moon, because winter began on the first full moon of that month. The thin wall between this world and the afterlife was at its thinnest on October 31st, the Celtic festival of Samhain, also known as All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
The last month of the year was November, Blotmonað, when surplus livestock and harvest were killed and preserved. In Scotland, this happened on St Andrew’s Day on November 30th. Their cooler summers resulted in a later harvest. Bede said November was also the month of blood sacrifices, which were made by the pagan peoples to guarantee safety in the colder months. The Icelandic word for November is also similar Gormánuáðr, the ‘gor-month’ or ‘slaughtering-month’.
The Anglo-Saxons included Germanic people that first came to Britain as Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes. Their mixing with Roman culture over time led to the naming of the days of the week got their names, which are similar to the names of Scandinavian gods and goddesses.
Monandaeg – Day of the moon (Mona is Anglo-Saxon for moon, as in ‘month’)
Tiwesdaeg – Day of Tiw, god of war and the sky
Wodnesdaeg – Day of Woden (Anglo-Saxon version of Odin), god of war, wisdom and poetry
Thunresdaeg – Day of Thunor (Anglo-Saxon version of Thor), god of thunder, namesake, sky, and weather
Frigesdaeg – Day of Frig (Anglo-Saxon version of Freya), goddess of love and fertility
Saeturnesdaeg – Day of the Roman god Saturn, god of sowing or seed
Sunnandaeg – Day of the sun (Anglo-Saxon Sunne)
The men and women of the church were early scientists. They were the ones who wrote down as the scholar Bede did, the ways in which their society marked time and in some cases how the pagans did as well. Only priests and those who were more learned in the sciences thought of days as we do, in 24-hour blocks of time. The Church was one of the main time keepers during this period, dividing the day into seven times of prayer.
Matins at sunrise, prime in the early morning, Terce was late morning, Sext was midday, Nones in the mid-afternoon, Vespers at sunset, and Compline before bedtime. Church bells rang out these hours of prayer to help the monks and priests of the abbey or monastery and the people in the villages and fields. Thanks to these bells, people could judge what time it was, whether to get up at the first bell or go home after the 5th or 6th.
Sundials were another way of keeping the time, with two examples on the walls of St. Gregory’s church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire and St. Bartholomew’s church in Aldbrough, East Yorkshire. Water clocks and candle clocks were also known to keep time. The candle clock was invented by Alfred the Great, and the first alarm clocks were used later, with a nail inserted into a candle and when the wax had melted down to that spot the nail fell out and clattered onto a plate underneath the candle.