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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
At Christmas a capon,
At Michaelmas, a goose
And somewhat else at New Yere’s tide
For fear the lease flies loose
– Brewers Phrase and Fable
MICHAELMAS Day fell on 29th September, which was a fortnight ago. Old Michaelmas, I discover, once fell on the 10th or 11th of October – depending upon whom you ask. The confusing change of dates, which occurred in 1752, was due to an even more baffling Act of Parliament.
You think our Government initiates controversial changes today? They have nothing on the Government of 1752, who decided to switch over from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian one, losing us 11 days in the process. I don’t want to delve into this matter too deeply, because I believe that even if I fully understood it – which I don’t – it would prove to be rather unexciting.
The main point, however, is that, in 1752, Wednesday 2nd of September was followed by Thursday 14th of September. Have you got that? They made 11 days disappear. Just like that. Can you imagine David Cameron or Nick Clegg swinging such a move past us today? “Look guys, next month we’re all gonna lose 11 days. Anyone goddda problem with that?”
The move wasn’t just a British one; it was a European initiative with a fair amount of Roman Catholic weight behind it. Not everyone went along with it. Sweden and Finland had a double leap year in 1712, as a consequence of which February 30th became a real date.
If we and the North Americans came to the programme fairly late, we had nothing on the Chinese, who, because of rival warlords fighting it out on different calendars, didn’t start using it until January of 1929.
It would be almost impossible to orchestrate such a change nowadays, since it would ruck up computers, holiday plans, short prison sentences, sports fixtures and concert dates all down the line.
Let’s not even think about the really important stuff: the yearly interest on your savings, the date when your builder promised he’d finish the extension – oh and that wedding anniversary, omitted through no fault of your own, but for which your wife would forever hold you entirely to blame.
There might even be riots. It was popularly believed that this is what happened in 1752, with people besieging Parliament, demanding, “Give us back our 11 days.” It’s now thought it was a myth created by certain satirists of the time.
Having been distracted by the matter sufficiently, I returned to examining Michaelmas, or “Goose Day”, as our great forgotten festival was sometimes known.
Michaelmas was a Quarter Day, a time when you paid your landlord the rent and took on jobs for the new farming year. It also marked the end of the harvesting period and the beginning of autumn.
After the harvest had been fetched in at Lamas-tide (August 1st) geese were put out to graze upon the stubble fields. The birds were fattened and, by early October, were ready for table. While Michaelmas was an important date in the church calendar, for ordinary folk too it was a time of feasting and plenty, before winter swept in.
Michaelmas loomed large in Colchester’s calendar and for hundreds of years was roughly when the famous St Denis’s Fair was held on Berryfield, just behind East Hill. If you set your Tardis to travel back about 600 years, landing by the Firstsite Gallery’s entrance, you’d be on Berryfield.
Imagine a walled and leafy Colchester on a hill, surrounded by farmland, with its population of 8,000 somewhat smaller than modern Wivenhoe’s. Berryfield lay within the south-eastern corners of the old Roman wall, sloping gently south from East Hill towards St Botolphs Priory.
Although it was the site of a cattle sale, there would probably have been geese and other livestock there too. St Denis’s Fair, which lasted for a few days, would have been a big deal for a bustling market town such as Colchester.
Stand on East Hill today, with the Minories on your right, and gaze south over Firstsite towards St Botolphs. Ignore the traffic behind you, squint your eyes and try to imagine instead a cacophony of ruminants and poultry, punctuated by the yells and curses of husbandmen.
Further along towards High Street would be a more distant sound of the fair’s stallholders and craftsmen all bawling out their services and wares. Meanwhile, your olfactory senses would be assaulted by any number of rural smells hanging on damp autumnal air.
Is this how your Essex correspondent fritters away his spare time, standing in heavy traffic and imagining himself at a medieval Michaelmas fair? Occasionally, yes but I’m seeing a historian about the problem.
What about those geese though? Does anyone eat goose today? Not too many people, it seems although, I’m informed that in recent years, goose for Christmas has undergone a minor revival. ‘Very greasy.’ is the standard cliché about the bird. Goose fat though is excellent for roasting potatoes, greasing up garden tools and was once used for insulating cross-Channel swimmers against the cold. If you fancy trying goose, I’m assured that English Embdens are the ones you want. Goose isn’t commonly sold in supermarkets but two local stockists are Frank Wright’s of Colchester and Hubert’s Turkeys, of Grove Farm, Elmstead. I’ve always like the idea of Michaelmas and if we ever are granted an extra bank holiday, Goose Day might be a serious contender.