Saturday, 10 November 2012

Bring up the (Animal) Bodies: Martinmas Day.

The modern world remembers November 11 for marking the end of the First World War, but celebrations on that day were nothing new: in fact, the date had been an important one in the calendar for centuries. Commemorating the life of St Martin of Tours, a fourth century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity, it became known as Martinmas, the “blood-month” when across medieval Europe, animals were slaughtered for the winter. It was one of the last opportunities to eat fresh meat before the rest was dried and salted, as “Martinmas beef” and marked a final spree before the forty day fast of advent.  Legend has it that Martin’s hiding place was betrayed by the cackling of a goose, so goose suppers were common. Often an ox was killed and the meat given to the poor, whose patron St Martin was, in memory of his martyrdom which supposedly saw him “carved up” like an animal. St Martin was also the patron saint of tavern owners and wine growers, so it was traditionally the day that the new wines were tasted after harvest. It was a significant turning point in the farming calendar, which dictated the rhythm of so much of medieval work and ritual, after which winter had formally begun. Providing the harvest had been successful and the animals healthy, it must have been a time of plenty.  However, the weather on the day was taken to be an indication of the harshness of the season to come and the medieval peasant knew that hard times were coming.

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