Thursday, September 19, 2013

Angels and Geese for Michaelmas

Last year, I blogged about the feast of Harvest Home, a celebration of the end of the agricultural season. It tended to fall close to another celebration, this one of both ecclesiastical and bureaucratic significance: Michaelmas.

Guido Reni's 1635 "The Archangel Michael Defeating Satan" shows the angel expelling the rebellious Lucifer from Heaven.

Though Harvest Home was a movable feast, coinciding with the full moon, Michaelmas (pronounced MICK-el-mas) always falls on September 29. In the Anglican calendar, it's the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel.

Michael, the patron saint of soldiers and the sick and suffering, is the most powerful of all the angels, one of only two archangels (along with Gabriel) in Anglican theology. Michael is a warrior-angel, the leader of God's army; in painting and sculpture, he's nearly always depicted wearing armor and carrying a sword, and sometimes bearing a shield with the Latin inscription Quis ut Deus--Latin for Who is like God?, the Hebrew meaning of his name. He often stands with either a dragon or Satan beneath his foot. This is because in Revelation, "Michael and his angels" are said to have "cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12:7-9).

But historically, the significance of St. Michael's day in British life has more to do with practical matters than sacred ones. In addition to lending its name to the autumn academic term at Cambridge and Oxford, Michaelmas was also one of the four quarter-days, dates on which accounts were settled--rents paid, servants hired or let go, leases renewed, allowances handed out and debts collected. (The other three quarter days also fall near the end of the calendar seasons: Lady Day on March 25, Midsummer Day on June 24, and Christmas on December 25.)

Servants were often hired on Michaelmas, and many villages held "Mop Fairs," hiring fairs in which those looking for work would present themselves with the tools of their trade. Michaelmas was also a day when local officials such as council members and reeves were elected. The righteous influence of St. Michael was thought to make it an auspicious day to fill such positions.

In "Michaelmas" by Victorian painter Philip Richard Morris, a goose girl drives a gaggle of stubble geese before her.

As with most holidays, certain foods were associated with the day. It was traditional to serve a "stubble goose" on Michaelmas, since geese were in prime condition after having fed among the stubble of the harvested fields. Typically, the goose was a gift from the tenant to his landlord, presented along with his rent payment as a means of currying favor. Dining on goose was thought to ensure prosperity in the coming year. A poem of 1709 includes these lines:
Yet my wife would persuade me (as I am a sinner)
To have a fat goose on St. Michael for dinner:
And then all the year round, I pray you would mind it,
I shall not want money--oh, grant I may find it!
While visiting their brother Edward, Jane Austen even wrote to her sister Cassandra, "I dined upon goose yesterday--which I hope will secure a good sale of my second edition."

It was the last day of the year on which to eat blackberries, owing to the legend that when Satan fell from Heaven, he landed on a blackberry bramble and spit on it, turning the berries bad. Bannock, a type of flat bread, was also traditional in parts of Great Britain, particularly Ireland.

So remember Michaelmas on September 29, and eat goose for good luck. I may just try to roast one myself.

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance, A Tryst With Trouble, will be released on September 23. It's the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It will join her current release, Lord of Secrets, and her debut regency, Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

History Porn

I give you...four thousand years of world history in one image. Isn't she beauiful? Courtesy of John B. Sparks via Rand McNally. The first version appeared in 1931. For those visual learners out there, this is priceless. My late FIL worked fo Rand McNally, so I was hoping to find one of the bad boys squirreled away somewhere, but no luck. Yet!

Monday, September 09, 2013

Stolen and Found

Recently in Amsterdam the Swedish museum recovered a rare 1590 astrolabe. An astrolabes is a devise used by astronomers, navigators and astrologers to locate the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars to determine local time, for surveying, and casting horoscopes. Astrolabes were used as early as the 150 B.C. until about 1650 A.D.

The brass-and-silver astrolabe, made in 1590 and worth about $750,000 has been missing from the Swedish Museum for almost fifteen years. It turned up when an Italian collector discovered that the piece was listed as missing and came forward to return it.

The astrolabe is a very ancient astronomical computer for solving problems relating to time and the position of the sun and stars in the sky. Several types of astrolabes have been made. By far the most popular type is the planispheric (a map of a sphere) astrolabe, on which a map of the stars and planets are shown. A typical old astrolabe was made of brass and was about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter, although much larger and smaller ones were made.

Astrolabes are used to show how the sky looks at a specific place at a given time. Made up of several disks engraved with critical information, the disks are adjusted to a specific time and date. Once set, much of the sky is represented on the face of the instrument. The back of the instrument was engraved with a wide variety of scales for measuring angles and determining the sun’s longitude for any date. Some astrolabes included a scale for solving trigonometry problems (shadow square). A cotangent scale was added to many
Islamic instruments to determine prayer times as well as the true direction to Mecca.

The Swedish Museum (Skokloster Castle) in Stockholm, is glad to get the piece back. The astrolabe was stolen in 1999, one of a string of unexplained thefts of books and objects at the castle. Other precious items, dozens of manuscripts were noted as missing from the Royal Library in 2004.
This newly found astrolabe is in outstanding condition and could still be used today. It is an intricate mix of astronomical knowledge and metal craftsmanship, the piece is about the size of a pancake, and engraved with the name of its builder, Martinus Weiler.

German scholar Petra Schmidl of Bonn University, who studies astrolabes, described astrolabes as a “two-dimensional model of the three-dimensional world.” She goes on to say that modern clocks, while precise, tend to leave our understanding of time “stripped from its astronomical origins. Before telescopes, the astrolabe was the way you could say: ‘What time does the sun rise? When will it set?” Today fewer than 2,000 astrolabes survive.
For more information see the full article from the Washington Post.