Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Alexander Tille's Yule and Christmas; Chapters 1 and 2

I. The Germanic Year.

In the opening chapter Tille presents what is claimed as known about the native structuring of the Germanic year from Jacob Grimm, Karl Weinhold, Hermann Grotefend, and Heino Pfannenschmid contrasting these views with the actual known textual records from Tacitus through the close of the 18th century.

He concludes that one of the most common Germanic descriptions of the year through recorded history up to the Late Middle Ages is tripartite, with Tacitus,

“hence even the year itself is not divided by them into as many seasons as with us. Winter, spring, and summer have both a meaning and a name; the name and blessings of autumn are alike unknown.” http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0083%3Achapter%3D26

unde annum quoque ipsum non in totidem digerunt species: hiems et ver et aestas intellectum ac vocabula habent, autumni perinde nomen ac bona ignorantur.

Tacitus, Germania xxvi
Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.
Opera Minora. Cornelius Tacitus. Henry Furneaux. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1900.

Tille also shows that the other most common ancient Germanic expression about the year was bipartite: winter-summer.

The ancient Germanic peoples also commonly wrote of the year in terms of winter v. summer, or in terms of three legal/economic periods. Examples of both usages together from the same regions and same periods are found in what are termed as “three-score-day tides” fitting a theory of a six-fold division of the year. The Roman notion of months with their individual names was adopted slowly and at different times in different regions. Records showing Germanic concern for solstices and equinoxes come into existence only after the adoption of Roman calendrical forms and Church usage.

Primary arguments supporting this are:

1. Three annual non-ordered law courts held.

Louis the Pious in 817 codifies already existing practice “in anno tria solummodo generalia placida” [Sohm, 398], a practice living into the 15th century. The change in terminology to suit the adoption of the Christian Liturgical calendar as well as Julian names is evident and late.

2. Records of economic history: Three annual accountings rather than four or two.

Anglo-Saxon period wages were paid three times a year. Tille gives five example quotations from Thorpe’s Ancient Laws and Institutes of England.

3. Etymological

While there are words for the bipartite and tripartite divisions, there are no early month names that fit the Roman structure. There are also no known names for the “three-score-day” periods. However, both Germanic terms and Roman month names are used in ways that indicate 60-day periods, and sometimes 90 day periods. For example:

der erst herbst is September, and der ander herbst October ...likewise there are numerous examples of November being called der erst winter, and December being called der ander winter.”(13f)

Tille gives dozens of examples and sources from various regions and periods. He states:

“There is nothing whatever in the Roman calendar which can be said to have been suggestive of that strange custom [of dual-naming to allow for three-score-day tides], so that we have good reason for claiming it as a relic of a pre-Roman Germanic usage. If it was able to influence the Roman calendar so far as to force upon it the three-score-day tide, it must needs have been most deeply rooted and firmly established among the Germanic tribes in East and West, North and South. Not only is the six-fold division of the Germanic year a most important fact in itself, but it also furnishes us with the means of reconciling the seeming contradiction, according to which the Germanics at the same time had a dual division and a tri-partition of the year. The units of which their year consisted were sixths, and it is apparent that of these tides either two could each time be grouped together to form thirds, or three could be grouped together each time to form halves. At the same time the simple fact of sixths being the units constituent of the Germanic year excludes any quartering of the year, since a quarter would consist of one-sixth and a half, and would thus most seriously interfere with the unity of the three-score-day tide.” (15f)

The implication for us here is that the early textual evidence would show that the ancient Germanic peoples did not leave any record to suggest that they originally followed a solar year with the solar quarters as seasons. Rather, Tille argued, the record strongly suggests that their annual reckoning was based on the “economic and climatic conditions”(16) of the geography they inhabited.

II. The Beginning of the Anglo-German Year

In the second chapter Tille turns to the question of when the Germans considered the turning of one year to the next. First pointing out that the Germanic tribes counted their days from the evening before, citing documents from before the Christianization of the Germanic peoples: Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum VI:xvii; Tacitus Germanica xi; as well as examples after Christianity began its spread among them: Bede’s A.D. 725 De Temporum Ratione, ch. 5 de Dies cites Leviticus 22:32 showing this practice is consistent with Church practice, that of the Jews, and of ancient Israel; the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle giving many examples of the daily reckoning; and later Anglo usages such as fortnight, and the Twelve-nights of Christmas.

Tille shows that they also reckoned their years by the winter beginning them: a practice also common with other cultural groups as evidenced by A.D 1st century Roman authors, Manilius’ Astronomicon, and Martial. But this stands in contrast to the Julian practice of beginning the year at the Kalends of January (January 1); also evidenced in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

His argument is that the previously demonstrated bi- and tri-partite Germanic divisions of the year rule out the Roman solar quartering of the year.

The question then is when did the Germanic peoples consider the beginning of winter? Here the three groupings of evidence from the first chapter also come to bear. The general climates of the regions inhabited by the Germanic peoples from the Roman period and later strongly suggest early to mid-November as the beginning of winter. Gothic writings from the sixth century demonstrate that the beginning of their Iiuleis tide (beginning of winter) was nearly equal that of Roman November and December, with November being called fruma Iiuleis. A surviving Gothic calendar marks St. Andrew’s day as Fruma Iiuleis 31, in our reckoning: November 30th.

Tille states that this strongly suggests that the “the Goths of the sixth century had taken over the Roman calendar, naming the Roman months by the home-made names of those Germanic tides which approximately covered them. It by no means follows from this fact that each of the Germanic pre-Roman three-score-day tides exactly covered two Roman months.”(19) Variability between Germanic month names for their Roman near equivalent shows that the beginnings of Roman months were not the same as the Germanic beginnings of tides or months. They could be half a month out of sync. So, for example, while the Goths began Iiuleis at the beginning of Roman November, the Anglo-Saxons began Geola at the start of Roman December. Suggesting that mid-November was more appropriately the approximate time when this “Yule” tide began and extended over the three-score-day tide until about January 15th.

Tille reports that a century before his own studies the Icelandic scholar, Fin Magnusen had written that the start of the year for Germanic tribes was about Advent tide, which began the Sunday after Martinmas (November 11). This is supported by several other lines of evidence including some from the 14th century at the monastery of St. Viktor, Xanten, Rhineland. Rhymes from the Middle Ages might also be enlisted as Tille cites from Graesse:

“Sanct Märten Miss
Is der Winter wiss”

Karl Weinhold tries to maintain that Germans started the new year on St. Michael’s (September 29) which is close to the Roman solar quarter day. But Tille points out that Weinhold does this without listing any evidence. Tille resorts to a personal attack in response to Weinhold’s proposal: “Only a man who has never in his life left his study for fresh air can maintain that winter began at the close of September!” (21f) He follows this with a cutting, though not necessarily even-handed, analysis of Weinhold’s inconsistent reconstruction.

Tille then closes the chapter by postulating that an original bi- and tri-partite year would show itself “in legal institutions, in popular tradition, in folk-belief and rustic custom, in festivals and bonfires, and, last but not least, in ecclesiastical habits which, as far as they were created after the fifth century of our era, reflect an enormous amount of Germanic tradition and thought.”(23)


In particular he will focus on Martinmas and the traditions surrounding that date in order to demonstrate that Martinmas absorbed these traditions from the old Germanic new year.

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