Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New Year's Question

I'm rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for one of my classes; they're using the Tolkien translation (because it's in cheap paper and I like the attempt to get at alliterative verse), while I'm using that and my old trusty ME edition.

So I have a question for the real medievalists. I'm used to figuring the new year at Lady Day, March 25th, for early modern texts. But the fourth stanza (line 60) of Gawain begins
The year being so young that yester-even saw its birth (Tolkein)

Wyle Nw yer wats so yeth that hit watz nwe cummen
(Davis, 2nd ed; I've transliterated the yoghs to "y" and the thorns to "th" because I don't play with a full deck, so to speak).

The poem is clearly set at Christmas, so what's with the year being new thing?

Did they count the new year at January first, Lady Day, or both? Or at some point, did the new year move to Lady Day (and then back again, in 1752)?



  1. My undestanding from reading Juliet Barker's 'Agincourt' is that there were many different systems. New Year might be Christmas or Lady Day, apparently some even tried Easter! So it depends on which country and when, and possibly which chronicler.

  2. Ack, I don't really know the answer to this question, except that SGGK definitely starts and ends with the "Circumcision Calender" New Year (i.e., Jan. 1). According to the Handbook of Dates for Students of English History, "1 January was occasionally treated as the beginning of the year of grace in the Middle Ages." But if you go back to the Anglo-Saxons, Bede preferred the Christmas reckoning. And finally, under the "Christmas Day" section, the Handbook says, "The whole octave of the Nativity was, of course, a time of high festival, so that in practice the new beginning on 25 December and the older reckoning from 1 January sometimes shaded into each other." (Note: 1 January is the "older" reckoning because it coincides with the Roman civil calendar and was still used through the 7th century, according to the Handbook.) So that last bit seems to explain SGGK.

  3. Medieval Folklore states: "Both dates were maintained as New Year's Day in Europe throughout the Middle Ages; for example, in England March 25 was the beginning of the year for governmental record keeping, but January 1 was the date for New Year's celebration." This fits with what I've gleaned elsewhere.