Today's Saxon Date

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The purpose of the Saxon Date project is to create a calendar that approximates the native calendar used by the Anglo-Saxon peoples at the point in time where they become visible to history. I am not attempting to create precision, nor am I claiming that I have miraculously recovered the lost calendar of our ancestors. It is simply a way to represent time, which is tied to the seasons and rhythms of the natural world and that would have been familiar to my ancestors such that, if I told them that it was the third day of Ereyule, they would have a pretty good idea of what (when) I was talking about.

According to the Venerable Bede, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians (see here) marked time with a lunisolar calendar. In his book, De Temporum Ratione, published in 725, Bede gives us a general idea of how the ancient Anglo-Saxon calendar worked, along with the names of the months and a few references to holidays. Bede was not interested in reconstructing the pagan calendar of his ancestors, but was instead attempting to show that his ancestors were backward and uncivilized barbarians. This would allow him to give the impression that Christianity, and the universal culture that followed it, had brought progress and Truth to England. To the degree that he cared for the history of his own people, it was only as a tool to support the Church.

Nevertheless, using what information he gave, and supplementing it with what we know about the relatives of the Anglo-Saxons on the continent, we can arrive at a set of rules for a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon calendar, and then, using these rules, set about generating a Saxonish calendar date. This calendar, which I have rather unimaginatively called the Saxon Date, would then give us an approximation of what the date might have been, had the ancient Anglo-Saxon calendar survived in use among the Anglophonic peoples.

These rules are based on what we know about ancient Germanic calendars, and the bits that Bede has left us. Note that, for the purposes of this (or any other) lunisolar calendar, month and moon are interchangeable terms.

  • Rule 1
  • Each month begins at the new moon. There are 12 months in a regular year, and 13 in an intercalary year.

  • Rule 2
  • The year begins with the new moon following the winter solstice.

  • Rule 3
  • Although the beginning of the year is linked to the winter solstice, the rule governing intercalary months is governed by the summer solstice. If a new moon occurs within a fortnight following the summer solstice, the next new moon (i.e., the one that occurs 29.5 days later) is an intercalary month, which Bede informs us was known as “Trilitha.” This should occur every three to five years, the purpose of which is to keep the seasons aligned with the calendar. This was especially important for an agricultural society.

  • Rule 4
  • The months od the Saxon year were (are) as follows:
    Afteryule (the first month following the Winter Solstice), Solmonath, Hrethmonath, Eastermonath, Thrimilce, Erelitha, Afterlitha, Trilitha (the leap month), Weedmonath, Haligmonath, Winterfylleþ, Blotmonath, Ereyule,

    For the purpose of Saxon Date, I am using the Runic Era (RE) year. The RE is not a real thing. It basically adds 250 years to the current Gregorian year. I wanted to use a year/era that was older than the current Christian era in order to show that this traditional indigenous calendar, and the culture in which it originates, predates the Christianization of Europe. However, since the Germanic peoples were largely illiterate at that time, there does not seem to be an historical era that fits the bill. I believe that the Runic Era originates with the Odinic Rite in England.

    This brings up a larger question regarding the use of numbers. The Saxons may not have seen the use in having each year assigned a unique number. Perhaps they would have appreciated a cycle of nine years, or numbering the years since the current king came to power. But, for my purpose, a year number needs to be assigned, and the RE is as good as any. As with the entire Saxon Date project, I am open to suggestions.

    In addition, our way of citing the date, where we mention the name of the month, followed by the number of days that have elapsed since the month began, is a modern innovation. The Romans counted days before and after the middle of the month. Read about that here. The ancient English peoples may have preferred to note the moon phase, or count the number of weeks. The possibilities are endless. But, again, for my purposes, some amount of precision was desired. And, too, no matter how they cited the date in the 5th century, had the calendar survived, they would have, in all likelihood, begun to count days, because it is super-convenient. I’ll note here, which I have elaborated on in more detail elsewhere, that I used the same approach with the month names. For example, “Eostre” is now pronounced “Easter”. It makes sense that this would have happened to the celebration and the name of the month simultaneously. For “Hretha”, I dropped the initial “H”, as that seems to be the way English has developed. I also dropped the “month” suffix. I open to reasons why this was wrong. (After two years of using this system of naming the months, I have elected to return to more traditional month names as listed by Bede with minor modernizations. This was an entirely aesthetic decision).

    Note: For Rule 3, I initially read a source that the year was intercalary if a new moon occurred within 14 (or possibly 12) days following the summer solstice. In practice this produced too many intercalary years. Saxon Date now uses Metonic Tables, so this is no longer a consideration.

    Note #2: Saxon Date calculates the date of the last winter solstice, then, using math, approximates the date of the next new moon, which it labels "Afteryule". The months (new moons) then follow in order, as described by Bede. The program also calculates the date of the summer solstice, and, if a new moon follows within 14 days, adds an extra month in the middle of the sequence (Trilitha). There is a lot of room for error in these calculations. The new moon especially is subject to a non-cumulative error of a day or two each month. This unintentionally mimics the situation in a real observational calendar, where the dates could not be set until the new moon actually happened. Only after the introduction of writing could information be accurately recorded, and the 19-year Metonic (link) cycle discovered. That, I believe, allowed for an essentially perpetual calendar, giving our ancestors the ability to plan any dates for any time in the future, or the past, for that matter. (And, again, Saxon Date now uses Metonic tables.)

    Note #3: I may refactor this calendar using the Metonic cycle. (Done!)

    Update: As of 27 Erelitha 2271 (6 July 2021), I have replaced all of the complicated math with tables reflecting the 19-year Metonic Cycle. Hail Meton!