Saturday, 1 August 2009

Today is Lammas Day

This was one of the four great pagan festivals of Britain, the others being on the 1st November, 1st February, and 1st May. The festival of the Gule of August, as it was called, probably recognised the realisation of the first-fruits of the earth, and more particularly that of the grain-harvest. When Christianity was introduced, the day continued to be observed as a festival on these grounds, and, from a loaf being the usual offering at church, the service, and consequently the day, came to be called Hlaf-mass, subsequently shortened into Lammas, just as half-dig (bread-dispenser), applicable to the mistress of the house, came to be softened into the familiar and extensively used term, lady. This we would call the rational definition of Lammas. There is another, but in our opinion utterly inadmissible derivation, pointing to the custom of bringing a lamb on this day, as an offering to the cathedral church of York. Without doubt, this custom, which was purely local, would take its rise with reference to the term Lammas, after the true original signification of that word had been forgotten.

~ Chambers Book of Days (1864).

In Anglo-Saxon times, the bread consecrated at the service was believed to possess a special potency against evil forces. A charm that has survived from the era advises people to “take from the hallowed bread which is hallowed on Lammas Day, four pieces, and crumble them on the four corners of the barn.”

Later, Lammas was the day upon which the fences that had been erected around ‘Lammas Meadows’ at Candlemas (February 2nd) were taken down to permit common grazing. Lammas Fairs, which grew up around the re-opened hay meadows became a feature of English life for centuries. All kinds of livestock were sold, especially sheep, and every variety of entertainment and games were enjoyed.

Sadly, the observation of Lammas day and the festivities associated with it have declined greatly in the last two centuries. Harvest festivals have tended to be celebrated later in the year in September or October when all the crops are in, and few Lammas Fairs are still held in England.

In Exeter some of the traditions of the Lammas Fair continue unbroken, although moved to early July to allow the participation of local schools and inclusion in the larger Exeter Summer Festival.


From Dorothy Gladys Spicer, The Yearbook of English Festivals (H. W. Wilson, 1954):

Lammas Fair, Exeter, Devonshire

The Tuesday before the third Wednesday in July

Lammas Fair, now scarcely more than a formality, always opens at noon of the Tuesday before the third Wednesday in July. The ceremonies which accompany the opening predate the Norman conquest.

Two sergeants-at-mace, starting from the guildhall, proceed down High Street, accompanied by two men playing the fife and drum. The sergeants carry a long pole, from which is suspended a large stuffed white glove, decorated with flowers and ribbons. The sergeants proclaim the fair at the four ancient gates of the city, before returning to the guildhall, where the mayor announces the event. According to the words of the historic Proclamation, ". . . Lammas Fair taketh its beginning from Twelve of the clock of this present day and cloth continue until Friday next Twelve of the clock at noon of the same day (that is to say) two whole days and two half days, making in the whole three days."

The glove, ancient symbol of the Crown's protection of the peace, is hoisted up before the guildhall, where it remains for the fair's duration.

The Lammas Fair proclamation contains many quaint clauses regarding the rights and powers of persons who come to buy or sell. Such persons are guaranteed against ". . . any molestation, arrests, attachments or other troubles whatsoever within the City of Exeter," save for ". . . Treason, Murder, Felony, Routs, Riots . . . or any acts whatsoever against His Majesty's peace, Crown and dignity." Persons are prohibited from selling goods except within the Fair and its precincts, or from placing ". . . any wares open in their shops out of the said Fair within the length and reach of any man's arm upon pain of the forfeiture of all such goods, wares and merchandizes so sold or set to sale or hanging in any house or shop within the reach of any man's arm as aforesaid." Furthermore, a Court of Pie Powder originally was arranged at the guildhall. Both the mayor and the city officials were prohibited from dealing with any misdemeanors which could be handled by this court.

Once Exeter's Lammas Fair ranked as one of the West Country's most important fairs. Today it remains simply a historic link between the Exeter of Saxon and of modern times.


The Tuesday before the third Wednesday...? :)

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