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A Custumal Countdown to Christmas

A Custumal Countdown to Christmas

The Fordwich Custumal
Canterbury Cathedral Archives U4/26

This month’s image is a manuscript calendar page for December taken from the 15th-century Fordwich Custumal, and while not containing either pictures or chocolates behind little doors, ‘Picture this…’ would like to propose this as a ‘medieval Advent calendar’ as we count down to Christmas. You will notice that as well as marking Christmas Day and the Feast of Stephen, there are the festive feasts of St Nicholas and St Lucy also named for celebration. Before you read on, let me take the opportunity to wish you a very merry Christmas and to give my thanks to all those who have contributed to ‘Picture this…’ in 2013. With good cheer, Jayne Wackett.

For the final Picture this… image of 2013, we will return to the same type of document as we used for the start of the year, namely a calendar page. This particular December calendar page is part of the Fordwich Custumal (U4/26), a type of manuscript owned by each of the Cinque Ports and some of their dependent ‘limbs’. To this end, it contains a large collection of material intended to aid local government. The first 40 leaves of the book are a collection of oaths to be taken by the Mayor and jurors, assorted memoranda, extracts from the Gospels and the calendar. Other than the calendar, these are of a variety of late medieval and early modern hands, of changeable quality. The remainder of the manuscript is the custumal, a gathering of the royal charters pertaining to Fordwich, the procedure for electing new officials, laws and customs of the town, and the means by which one could become a freeman of Fordwich.

The calendar was written in black, red and blue inks and dates to the late 15th century, when the rest of the custumal proper was also produced. The calendar is largely undecorated, with only the first two letters, the abbreviation ‘KL’, Kalends, at the top of the page embellished through the use of larger, blue, letters and some inked flourishes in red ink. Close observation of the two inks suggests that the more elaborate red ink decoration was added prior to the blue letters, as in places the blue ink overlaps the red. The days of the week are noted in the second column. They are here abstracted to the letters A-G, beginning with a capital ‘A’ in blue ink and subsequent days (written in lower case) in black. The abstraction of days in this way allows for the calendar to be used over multiple years. The first seven days of January for a particular year, once associated with one of letters, means that any day of the year can be easily and quickly determined.

The third and fourth columns contain the means by which the date is determined. The calendar is laid out according to the Roman calendar. Under this system the month is marked by three key days that originally represented phases of the moon – Kalends, the new moon, Nones, the first quarter moon, and Ides, the full moon. Although no longer tied to the phases of the moon, these three dates were retained and together were the way in which the date was determined. Kalends fell on the first day of the month, Ides on either the 13th or 15th, depending on the length of the month, and Nones nine days before Ides. Using this calendar, the date is described by reference to the number of days until the next of these milestones. To use a suitably festive example, Christmas Day under this calendar would be referred to as a.d. viii. Kalendae Ianuarii (that is, the eighth day before the Kalends of January). To the right of the calendar, in a later hand, the numbers 1 to 31 have been added – showing the continued usage of the calendar and manuscript for a prolonged period.

IMG_3377The single largest column is the fifth, in which are the feasts for the month. As might be expected, the liturgical peak of the month occurs at the end of December. The most important day of the month, 25th December, is denoted by being written in blue ink with the initial capital letter in red: Natalis domini nostri Iesu Christi, the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Following that are four days of feasts: St Stephen on the 26th, St John the Apostle on the 27th, the Massacre of the Innocents on the 28th, and the feast of St Thomas Becket on the 29th.

Although originally commemorating Thomas Becket, the entry has been crudely and incompletely erased. This was part of a widespread and almost comprehensive attempt by Henry VIII to suppress Becket’s cult in 1538. Motivated by a desire to undermine the authority of a religious figure who had defied royal authority, Henry attempted to both physically and morally remove any trace of Becket. His shrine within the cathedral was dismantled, the site of which is now marked by a lit candle, and his bones were removed and possibly burned. Henry also issued a Royal Proclamation that denied Becket’s death was that of a martyr, but instead came about as a result of his own ‘opprobrious words’ and ‘stubbornness’;  that he was not a saint but should instead be considered a ‘rebel and traitor to his prince’.

Although lacking in illumination, there is still much that can be learned from a close examination of a manuscript calendar. From looking at this page we can see that the calendar remained in use for a prolonged period. The book remained in use through the Reformation, and the calendar itself was repurposed when the Roman method of observing time was no longer desirable.

Josef Reinbold: Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies

Editor: Jayne Wackett

Further reading

  • Higham, R, ‘The Fordwich Custumal’, in Fordwich: the Lost Port, ed. K. H. McIntosh, (1975)
  • Biggs, S J, ‘Erasing Becket’, on the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog, Link
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