In the Anglo-Saxon year-reckoning, the moon-meted month which fell about the month now known as August was then called Wéodmónað. Of its wordlore, Béde wrote that “Wéodmónað is known as the “month of weeds” as at that time they are most fulsome.”[i] It was at the beginning of Wéodmónað that early Anglo-Saxon Christians took bread, baked from the first of the wheat or barley harvest, and bore it to the church to be blessed. As betold in The Old English Martyrology (800-900 CE), the 1st of August was þonne dæg æt hláfsenunga, “the day of the bread-signing,” meaning that the loaves of bread were marked with the sign of the rood.
Yet the blessed bread was more than an offering given to the god at harvest. In a psalter written at Winchester in the middle of the 11th hundredtide, there is found a spell which speaks to a belief in the holy loaf’s might to ward the harvest from mice. As lain down in the leechdom:
[Take two] long four-edged sticks and write on either stick onto each edge, to the end, a Pater Noster and lay them in the barn on the floor, the one over the other, so that the rood’s token (the sign of the cross) be there upon it; and take thee from the hallowed loaf that was hallowed on Lammas Day four bits and crumble them on the four horns (corners) of the barn.[ii]
This holytide, known then as Hláfmæss, “Loaf Mass” and later named Lammas, marked the beginning of the Harvest yeartide. As recalled in Byrhtferþ’s Enchiridion (1010-1012 CE), “August fares to men mid fulsome harvest, and Autumn – that is harvest time.”[iii] And, as found in The Old English Menologium (1044-1066 CE);
And the ever it glides,
around seven nights, summer-brightened
Weedmonth to town. Everywhere bringeth
August to the great théod,
Lammas Day. So the harvest cometh.[iv]
To wend such words from laycraft to layman’s words: “And around seven nights the summer-brightened Weedmonth glides into town. Everywhere Lammas Day brings August to mankind. In such a way, the harvest comes.” As such, Lammas marked the first of the harvest fainings, and it was upon this day that folk were also “bound to bring in wheat of that year to their lord.”[v] Such may well have been the bere-gafol, “barley tribute,” spoken of in the laws of Ine, King of Wessex (694 CE), where it was deemed that “a man shall always as barley-tribute, give for any worker six pounds [of barley].”[vi]
So great was this bond between bread and athelingdom amid the Anglo-Saxons that their nobles were known as “lords,” from the Old English hláford, meaning “loaf warder” and their brides, “ladies,” from the Old English hlǽfdige meaning “loaf kneader.” Indeed, in 616 CE, Bishop Mellitus was driven from the Kingdom of Essex by its heathen kings Sexræd and Sæward when he would not give them the white holy loaf (hálgan hláf) of the Christian housel lest they be baptized.[vii] That a blótere of any belief would withhold blessed bread from the highest loaf-warders in the land was unfathomable to the early Anglo-Saxons. Godsprung kingship lay at the heart of Anglo-Saxon heathen holiness and it was the king’s hál, “luck,” that brought the fullsome harvest. Thus, in forbidding the holy bread to the kings Sexræd and Sæward, Bishop Mellitus had gainsaid their holy lordship over the land. That Mellitus was driven from the kingdom and not then and there martyred may well have been a kindness afforded to him by the brothers for the friendship that he had shown their late father Sæberht.
As to the ground from whence Lammas first sprung up, it has long been thought that the holytide is a holdover from heathen times, one which may well have been bound up in the runes of holy kingship. Though such is but guesswork, the holding of a housel to fain the first of the harvest fits well with what we know of the old belief. In truth, there is nothing in the offering of the Lammas-loaf that is not in keeping with the worship of the elder troth. As such, in the Ealdríce we hold this harvest tide, having first called it Hláftíd, “Loaftide,” some years ago as it would be wrongful to call a Théodish faining a “mass.” Thus, on the full moon of Wéodmónað, we bake bread and brew beer and then bear each to our holysteads as gafol (tribute) to Ing-Fréa (ON: Yngvi-Freyr), god of fullsome fields, Scéafa, god of the wheat sheaves, or Béowa (ON: Byggvir), the god of barley. In truth it has been the thew at Whitthenge Heall since our guild’s founding to give great worship with much beer and bread to Béowe at this time, believing him to be the John Barleycorn recalled in British folksong.
Athelingdom – Nobility
Betold – Described
Blótere – A sacrificer, a priest
Fain – Celebrate
Faining – A celebration
Fullsome – Abundant
Godsprung – Descended from the gods.
Guesswork – Theory
Housel – Eucharist
Hundredtide – Century
Laycraft – Poetry
Leechdom – Medicine, in this case, a medical text or “prescription.” The word “leech” originally meant “physician.”
Moon-meted Month – Lunar month
Rood – Cross
Runes – Mysteries
Théod – A tribe, a people, a nation
Thew – Tradition
Troth – Truth, religion
Wend – Turn, translate
Wordlore – Etymology
Year-Reckoning – Calendar
Yeartide – Season
[i] De mensibus Anglorum of De Temporum Ratione (725 CE)
Vueod-monath mensis zizaniorum, quod ea tempestate maxime abundent. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht
[ii] Cotton Vitellius E xviii, A 12th hundredtide psalter.
[…] lange sticcan feðerecgede ⁊ writ on ægðerne sticcan[…] ælcere ecge an pater noster óð ende ⁊ lege þone […]an þam berene on þá flore 7 þone oðerne on […] ofer þam oðrum sticcan.
þær si róde tacn on ⁊ nim of ðám ȝehalȝedan hláfe þe man háliȝe on hláfmassedæg snǽda ⁊ ȝecryme on þá féower hyrnan þæs berenes.
Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht. The second half of this spell was first found in Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, Volume 3, by Oswald Cockayne and published by Longman, 1866. Page 290. I later happened upon the first half in The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England by Catherine E. Karkov, Sarah Larratt Keefer, Karen Louise Jolly Boydell Press, 2006 Page 79 after coming across that text on the blog, A Clerk of Oxford https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2017/08/a-little-history-of-lammas.html?m=1
MS Cott. Vitell., E xviii.,fol.16 a. as found in Lch. iii. 290, 28. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, Volume 3, by Oswald Cockayne and published by Longman, 1866. Page 290
[iii] Augustus sihð tó mannum mid genihtsumun hærfeste, and Autumnus – þæt ys hærfesttíma.p76 Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[iv] The Old English Menologium 136b-140:
And þæs symle scriþ
ymb seofon niht þæs sumere gebrihted
Wéodmónað on tún, welhwær bringeð
Hláfmæssan dæg. Swá þæs hærfest cymeð
Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[v] John Brand’s Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1777) p 348
[vi] Mon sceal simle tó bere-gafole agifan æt ánum wyrhtan six púnd-wǽga, Law 59. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht
[vii] Béda, Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, Book II, Chapter V