Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lammas Eve: Anglo-Saxon celebrations and wheat

A seed head or ear of einkorn wheat. Photo by Wyrt Wizard.
 Tonight we celebrate the eve of Lammas, which marks the earliest harvests of the traditional English planting season. The word Lammas is derived from the Old English hlafmæsse, meaning loaf-Mass. According to tradition, a loaf of bread would be baked from the first wheat to be harvested, and this Lammas loaf would be consecrated at a Mass on August 1. The word Lammas is documented several times in the modern English translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the original Old English is given as hlafmaesse, hlammæsse, lam mæsse, hla mæsse dæg (Lammas Day), or inflected forms of these words (see Earle and Plummer edition and Thorpe edition). All of these entries simply use Lammas as a reference point for dating other events in the Chronicle; no indication is given of what was actually done to celebrate Lammas Day. For example, an entry for 913 (Giles translation) states that “This year, by the help of God, Ethelfled lady of the Mercians went with all the Mercians to Tamworth, and there built the fortress early in the summer; and after this before Lammas, that at Stafford.” This passage made me think I really must find and read a biography of Ethelfled, but it doesn’t offer any information on the activities of Lammas Day. We can begin to get some clues of how Lammas was celebrated in the Latin translation of hlafmaessan in MS version F, where it is rendered as festum primitiarum, or Feast of First Fruits (see entries for 913 and 921, for example).

The Red Book of Derby, an 11th-century missal with supplementary material written in Old English and Latin, also uses the term hlafmæsse-dæg in reference to Lammas Day. The Red Book reference has been included in many old and more recent publications (for example, a 1799 article in The Gentleman’s Magazine, volume 85, page 33 and more than two hundred years later in the 2001 edition of Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton), but I found no source that quoted the actual text or discussed the content of the passage in which the word is used or even provided the relevant manuscript page numbers. The manuscript pages are shown on the Parker Library on the Web website, but the low-resolution images are not easy to read. The word hlafmaesse for Lammas also occurs in a few other places in the Old English literature, usually as a time reference point (see Bosworth and Toller, 1898, p 540). Bosworth and Toller also document (p. 541) one use of a related word hlafsenung (bread blessing) that provides some additional clues to the blessing of the Lammas bread: “On ðam ylcan dæge [Aug. 1] æt hlafsenunga” (from The Shrine: A Collection of Occasional Papers on Dry Subjects, collected by Cockayne), which Marion from A Heathen Thing Blog translates as ”on that same day [August 1st] at the bread-blessing”. I don’t have the Shrine text available now to see if any further details are provided.

In the manuscript Cotton Vitellius E, xviii, folios 15v-16r (see chapter by Karen Jolly in The Place of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England, 2006), a charm to protect the grain harvest uses the bread blessed on hlafmæssedæg. A Clerk of Oxford provides a beautiful translation:
[Take two] long pieces of wood with four sides, and on each piece write a Pater Noster, on each side down to the end. Lay one on the floor of the barn, and then lay the other across it, so that they form the sign of the cross. And take four pieces of the hallowed bread which is blessed on Lammas day, and crumble them at the four corners of the barn. This is the blessing [you should say] for that: "So that mice do not harm these sheaves, say prayers over the sheaves and do not say [something about the city of Jerusalem which I can't translate]; where mice do not live they cannot have power, and cannot gather the grain, nor rejoice with the harvest."
This is the second blessing: “Lord God Almighty, who made heaven and earth, bless these fruits in the name of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen. And [then say] a Pater Noster."

Lammas Day is not widely known in North America, though small Lammas events can be found in a few places. One might ask whether an ancient celebration of the wheat harvest still has relevance in modern times, when many are at least a generation or two removed from living on a farm. The health-conscious are often reducing or eliminating their wheat consumption due to concerns about gluten, starchy carbohydrates, and other issues. I think Lammas Day still has meaning, as a means of connection with the agricultural seasons and with our past. Even if you celebrate the blueberry harvest rather than the wheat harvest, it is wonderful to experience this connection to the seasonal cycles in which our local food is grown. This time of year is extremely hot in my part of Texas, meaning that the pickings are slim from the garden. The best producers right now are hot peppers (chiles) and hot-weather specialty greens such as amaranth and molokhiya. Lammas is a reminder to enjoy what we can harvest now, at this time when the shorter day lengths are starting to become noticeable.

Gluten is a complex protein with gliadins and glutenins as the main components. Gluten is the substance that gives elasticity to dough; it allows the cook at the local pizza shop to stretch and spin the dough in amazing ways to produce a thin and chewy crust. You just can’t spin gluten-free rice-millet dough! Modern varieties of wheat often contain the Glia-α9 amino acid sequence as part of their gliadin structure and celiac patients usually have a strong negative reaction to this component of gluten. Older wheat varieties often lack the problematic Glia-α9 sequence.  Certain primitive varieties of wheat don’t even have the chromosome that can contain the Glia-α9 sequence. Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) has 14 chromosomes (set A), while emmer wheat (T. dicoccum) has 28 chromosomes (sets A and B). Bread wheats (T. aestivum) have 42 chromosomes (sets A, B, and D); the chromosome that sometimes includes the Glia-α9 sequence is on set D. For more details, the Wheat Belly Cookbook by William Davis provides a very readable introduction to the history and basic genetics of wheat breeding.

Although some sources report that einkorn was grown during Anglo-Saxon times, a review suggests that einkorn and emmer wheat were being phased out in favor of bread wheats. Einkorn had largely disappeared from the archaeological record and pollen sequence data by Anglo-Saxon times (see Tomlinson and Hall 1996; Fowler 1981, Farming in the Anglo-Saxon landscape: an archaeologist's review, in Anglo-Saxon England 9:263-280; Godwin 1956, The History of the British Flora). Lacking hulls, the bread wheats were much easier to thresh. Early Anglo-Saxon farmers chose to grow wheat varieties that were easier to process into food. It was a rational decision, just as it was rational for wheat breeders and growers in the 1960s and 1970s to choose the high-yield, semi-dwarf varieties that produced far more food per acre and were resistant to lodging. Other genetic changes such as the increase in the prevalence of the Glia-α9 sequence were unanticipated consequences of a perfectly rational decision.

This year I experimented with growing einkorn, the most primitive variety of wheat. Although the Texas climate does not bear much resemblance to that of past or present England, I did harvest my einkorn wheat last week, so I was able to celebrate at least that much of Lammas. Einkorn seeds are somewhat scarce; I ordered two packets of 13 seeds each from Bountiful Gardens. During the early spring planting season of 2013, I planted 12 einkorn seeds inside on February 7 and transplanted them to a raised bed on February 18. I planted another 7 seeds outside on March 19. Einkorn production was not exactly overwhelming in my first attempt to grow it. Others have reported up to 90 seed heads or ears of einkorn per plant, but I only harvested about 55 ears total, all resulting from the 12 seeds planted at the earlier time. 

My einkorn harvest of July 2013. There are about 55 seed heads or ears. Photo by Wyrt Wizard.

 I didn't notice ears forming until about July 4 - perhaps it simply got too hot too soon for the einkorn to produce more ears. The harvest is not enough to bake a Lammas loaf this year, but now I have enough seeds to plant a larger patch. Because the seeds are from plants that managed to produce despite the heat, I am in effect selecting for heat tolerance, so perhaps I will have better production next year. Though einkorn is regarded as a spring wheat, I will try planting some in the fall (September or October) to see if that might work better in my climate. I will also plant more in early spring next year. In the meantime, I can make some molokhiya greens with hot peppers to celebrate my local harvest season at Lammas!

Wyrt Wizard - the blog begins

I will be blogging here about plant lore and uses in both modern and historical times. My interests include gardening and cooking, as well as exploring medicinal and household uses of herbs. I am especially interested in Anglo-Saxon times, which had some of the earliest known instances of medical herbal writings in the vernacular language, but I will be considering medieval times generally and occasionally venturing into other historical times.

The name of the blog was inspired by wyrtgælstre, an Old English compound word. Wyrt has the meaning plant or herb; it survives in modern English as wort, found in plant names such as St. John’s Wort and mugwort. Gælstre comes from the Old English words for singing and performing incantations. The word appears to be documented only once in the Old English written record. In a lunarium or lunar prognostics calendar (MS Cotton Tiberius, A. iii), the writer ominously predicts the fate that will befall the child born on the fifth day of the lunar month (original Latin, Old English gloss, and modern English translation as provided by Roy Liuzza in Anglo-Saxon Prognostics: Studies and Texts from London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius A.III, 2010); italics added for emphasis):

puer natus uix euadit. post quinque annos sepe inutilis moritur. puella pessima moritur. quia malefica & herbaria qui recumbit moritur.

cild acenned uneaðe ætwint æfter fif gear oft unnytt swylt. mæden wyrst swelt for þi yfeldæda 7 wyrtgælstre se þe gelið he swelt.

A boy born will scarcely survive past five years; he will often die useless. A girl will die the worst death because [she will be] a sorceress and maker of potions.

 Fifth day of the lunar month. The new moon in July 2013 was on July 8 at 07:14 Universal Time ( The crescent was first visible to the naked eye around July 10, which is taken as Day 1 of the lunar month. Day 5 would then be on July 14. This picture was captured from the U.S. Naval Observatory  What the moon looks like now page on July 14, 02:50 UTC.
Thomas Oswald Cockayne (Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, Volume 3, 1886, p. 18) translates wyrtgælstre simply as “herborist.” Gratten and Singer provide a more sinister translation of wyrtgælstre as “restraineress with herbs” or “spell binderess” (p. 38 of Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine). In their Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Bosworth and Toller define the term as “A woman who uses herbs for charms”, and Stephen Pollington offers “wort charmer” as a translation (Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, p. 54).

The 11th century writer of the lunarium made it clear that it was a poor fate to be a wyrtgælstre. I wondered whether the word may have had a more favorable connotation before the re-introduction of Christianity to England, when singing to the herbs to produce the desired medicinal or other effect may have been a sought-after skill. Unfortunately, we have no written record to answer this question one way or another. I considered calling the blog Wyrtgælstre to rehabilitate the term in modern times, but the word’s meaning and pronunciation are unfamiliar today. I compromised by retaining the first part (wyrt), which has at least some familiarity today in its wort form, and changing the second part to something more modern. I chose wizard as a replacement for gælstre, in part for the alliteration and in part because wizard has a more general meaning than other possibilities. The term is used not just for sorcerers and magicians with pointy hats, but also to indicate skill in some field, such as a math wizard. By exploring plant lore and uses, we may all become more like plant wizards or wyrt wizards.