After weeks of darkness and cold, spring is finally upon us—or, at least, it is according to the 1,200-year-old Anglo-Saxon calendar. More than a millennium ago, winter officially started on Nov. 7 and ended on Feb. 6.
The historical evidence for this calendar was detailed by Eleanor Parker, professor of medieval English literature at Oxford University, in her blog, where she writes about “the literature and history of medieval England, as well as about saints, churches, folklore, Vikings, poetry, and anything else that interests me.” In a post about the literary history of the beginning of winter, Parker notes that The Reckoning of Time, a manuscript by 8th-century monk St. Bede, which was published in the year 725 and is the earliest surviving account of the Anglo-Saxon calendar, describes winter as 92 days long, dating from Nov. 7 to Feb. 6.
In St. Bede’s telling, spring began on Feb. 7, summer on May 9, and autumn on Aug. 7. Parker points to corroborating evidence from the period, including an Old English poem “The Menologium,” which details the beginnings of each season and names of the Anglo-Saxon months, and which calls Nov. 7 “winter’s day.”
Though the notion of springtime in February is thoroughly at odds with our contemporary understanding of the seasons in the northern hemisphere (officially, winter now ends on March 20) today’s calendar still bears the imprints of these historical notions of the passing year. The word February, for example, is derived from the Roman word februa, which refers to the Februalia (or Februatio or Lupercalia) festival, a Roman springtime purification ritual event, and the implements used in the ritual processes. According to Caillan Davenport, a senior lecturer in Roman history at Macquarie University, every Feb. 15, Romans celebrated the festival, during which men used februa strips of goat skin to whip women. The ritual was apparently designed to “purify the city and promote fertility,” writes Davenport.
So February, for centuries, was a time of spring. Perhaps we could still see it that way—though our perception will unfortunately do little to stop the polar vortex and wintry weather conditions.