Thursday, December 08, 2016

Alexander Tille's Yule and Christmas; Chapter 3

III. The Feast of Martinmas

This chapter begins Tille’s efforts to give what he believes to be evidence that there are traditions from an ancient Germanic mid-November New Year feast that have become absorbed by the later but proximate Church festival of Martinmas.

Before looking at Tille’s presentation we should note that he has already briefly demonstrated the following from surviving evidence:
  1. that Germanics termed the year with respect to either three seasonal divisions or two main divisions.
  2. that Germanics observed the three seasonal divisions with respect to their economic and legal activities.
  3. that none of the evidence shows that ancient Germanics were concerned with single lunar/month divisions of the year.
  4. that Germanics modified the use of Roman month names to fit a pattern that is more neatly described as a three-score-day period.
  5. that Germanic month/three-score-day periods did not line up neatly with the beginnings of the Julian months.
  6. that there is no evidence of yearly festivals synchronized with solar events such as solstices or equinoctes.
  7. that there is no evidence of a mid-winter festival at all.
  8. that in general the period that was called by words relating to “Yule” or “winter” mainly began mid-November.

All this is to highlight the fact that there is no surviving documentary evidence of an ancient Germanic twelve day long midwinter festival beginning at the solstice and which included the burning of a large log for the duration.

This is not to say that ancient Germanics did not observe a festival in the period of “Yule” or the beginning of “winter” prior to or even concurrent with the spread of Christianity. It is also not to say that there could be no possible traditions or rituals of such a festival enduring after the Christianization of these peoples.

Tille draws from Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum and Tacitus Annales that the Germanic peoples held a festival in mid-November, consistent with the conclusions of the first three chapters.

The bit from Caesar is to show how the seasonal terminology and weather relates troop movements in the region of the Rhine. 56 B.C, going after the Morini and the Menapii, Caesar, having finished clearing a forest area for an encampment, returns the troops early to winter housing because extensive end of summer rains prevented quartering the army in tents. (BG 3:27-29)

The bit from Tacitus (Annales 1:44-51) is a specific mention of a German feast at the beginning of winter as the occasion of Germanicus’ 14 B.C. punishment of mutineering Germans in the Marsi villages (the area of modern Düsseldorf). Their winter camp was 60 miles away north at Castra Vetera (modern Xanten in Wesel, where the St. Viktor monastery and cathedral would be established in the 13th century). The seasonal references (1:44, 45, 47) match those of Caesar for time just preceding winter.  

The description from 1:50 is as follows:

there were two routes, he deliberated whether he should pursue the short and ordinary route, or that which was more difficult unexplored, and consequently unguarded by the enemy. He chose the longer way, [no mention of snow] and hurried on every remaining preparation, for his scouts had brought word that among the Germans it was a night of festivity, with games, and one of their grand banquets. [festam eam Germanis noctem ac sollemnibus epulis ludicram.] Caecina had orders to advance with some light cohorts, and to clear away any obstructions from the woods. The legions followed at a moderate interval. They were helped by a night of bright starlight [no mention of moonlight as in 1:28], reached the villages of the Marsi, and threw their pickets round the enemy, who even then were stretched on beds or at their tables, without the least fear, or any sentries before their camp, so complete was their carelessness and disorder; and of war indeed there was no apprehension. Peace it certainly was not - merely the languid and heedless ease of half-intoxicated people.

So let us understand Tacitus as relating that the Germans of the Rhine valley in the time of Germanicus had customarily (if not annually)[sollemnibus]  held a feast just at the general time that winter is beginning. The word sollemnis is in some contexts used with the meaning annual. In this context the meaning of solemnity/reverence would seem a bit ironic (which might be the intent). But perhaps the meaning of customary fits well.

Tille points out that this night feast sollemnibus epulis ludicram “is the oldest Germanic festival on historical record.” (25)

There is, however, no real description of the religion or ritual involved beyond it being a drunken festival.

The next surviving historical mention of western Germans feasting in mid-November comes in the 6th century. By this time St. Martin’s Day (November 11th) had become a popular Church festival.

Tille’s argument is that several aspects of western Germanic feasting at St. Martins are vestigial of the festival mentioned by Tacitus.