The Menologium

I. Introduction

Early medieval service books—sacramentaries, collectars, psalters, etc.—often began with kalendars (the ‘k’ is a convention used to identify this particular genre). Various kinds of information are collected within these documents. They cover twelve pages—one for each month. At the top of each month is collected information. This can be as simple as the month’s name, but most kalendars give the name of the month in several languages, the signs of the Zodiac that fall within the month, and identify the number of days in the month. The number of hours contained in the day and night are often found either at the top or bottom of the page.

Below this introductory material, the days of the month are laid on in a single column following the Roman reckoning (counting days until the Nones, Ides, and Kalends of each month). Letters and/or numbers typically appear here for the sake of calculating the days of the week. There is an adequate space for notes after each day. Saint’s days or other fixed occasions appear here. Other seasonal information especially notes of an astronomical or astrological nature are noted here as well. Sometimes the deaths of local or national notables were entered into kalendars. An example may be found here, taken from the Leofric Missal, folio 39r.

The Menologium is an Old English poem written in heroic meter that summarizes the key points of the Kalendar, noting the beginning days of each month and the important liturgical observances that fall within it. Clearly, its author had a kalendar before him as he worked; the purpose of the composition is less clear. Perhaps it served as a method for teaching young monks the basics of the kalendar. Perhaps it served to instruct those destined to be parish priests in the feast-days that they must observe. Certainly in an age of limited clerical literacy a memorized form would have been a helpful pedagogical tool. Its original purpose notwithstanding, it gives us an important window onto the way that the Anglo-Saxon clergy constructed time.

II. Methodology

I have chosen to be extremely literal and wooden in this rendering into English—I hesitate to call it a translation. I opted to do this for a number of reasons. First, translating poetry into prose changes the entire shape of the document and how a reader approaches it. To alter the form is to change the text in ways that need not occur. Second, translating poetry into prose forcibly resolves certain ambiguities built into poetry. Part of the art of poetry is poetic multivalence—a disjunctive phrase can mean a couple of different things within a poem; to turn it into prose is to resolve the ambiguity, normally selecting one and only one of the many possible options. Third, by maintaining the line structure of the poem, someone with little or no knowledge of Old English can compare my rendering with the original (found here) and gain a sense of what the original text was like and—furthermore—cite line numbers that correspond to the standard modern edition (of course, the original was written without line-breaks; these are a modern editorial convention).

The work below will seem very stilted and choppy; that’s partly because it’s quick-and-dirty. It’s partly due, however, to the nature of OE verse. Thus, a quick intro to OE verse is necessary. First, OE poetry is distinguished by heightened diction and, pre-eminently, by patterns of alliteration. This will seem odd to our ears and eyes at first—OE poetry did not rhyme but instead shared a pattern of repeating initial sounds. Second, each line is split by a caesura—a pause—effectively dividing it into two half-lines. Alliteration links the two half-lines together. Each of these half-lines tends to be quite short ranges from two to five words. Furthermore, the OE heroic verse tradition will often break the narrative flow of a poem by inserting epithets (a descriptive term linked to a proper name), antinomasia (a distinctive term without a proper name), or kennings (descriptive poetic neologisms that are essentially one or two word riddles). (For more info, see the standard introductory work, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English or—better yet—the third book of Snorri Sturlson’s Prose Edda which contains the only treatise on Germanic poetics that survives from the Middle Ages).

Thus, here are the first four lines in OE with some markings. The alliterative sounds are bolded; antinomasia are in italics.

Crist wæs acynned, cyniga wuldor,
on midne winter, mære þeoden,
ece ælmihtig, on þy eahteoðan dæg
Hælend gehaten, heofenrices weard.

[æ= ‘a’ as in cat; þ= ‘th’ as in think; ð = ‘th’ as in this]

So, some of the odd English below is a result of keeping closely to the patterns and conventions established here. A few of the phrases I’m really unsure about–they’re set off with brackets.

III. Rendering into (Modern) English

Christ was born, the king of glory
in the midst of winter, sublime prince,
eternally almighty. On the eighth day
the Savior was named, the guardian of the heavenly kingdom.
So the same time a great company,
a countless people, have the new year,
because the month comes, we think,
on the same day to town:
the first month, which the great people
formerly called Ianuarius
and after the fifth night, that baptism-time
of the eternal Lord comes to us,
his famous twelfth-day,
the battle-brave hero, observed in Britain
here in this land. Likewise after four weeks
that Solmonath (Feb) comes to town
without two nights, as you count them,
fair Februarius, wise warrior,
old law-learned one. And after one night
we celebrate the mass for Mary,
mother of the King, because she Christ on that day,
the Son of the Ruler, brought to the temple.
Then after five nights, over is
winter in the camp. The warrior then
after seventeen numbered nights
suffered death, the thane of the Savior,
the glorious Matthias, as I have heard.
Then Spring has been brought to town,
to men in the camp. Likewise as is well known
after three and two (days), to men everywhere
comes the month to commoners and lords
(except when the extra day is announced properly
every fourth year; then it comes further
one night later to our town),
adorned with ice, it brings hailstorms
around the earth, cruel Martius
proud Hlyda (Mar). Then the saint
after eleven nights, the shining noble,
Gregory, in the faith of God,
glorious in Britain. Likewise Benedict
after nine nights thus sought the Savior,
hardy and brave, then praised well
in wise writings, servant of the Ruler,
by rule-fast men. Likewise also by counting-craft
in the same time the equinox is observed,
for the Lord God created at the beginning
on this same day the sun and moon.
Ho, after four nights the Father sent,
from when the equinox the lords observe,
his archangel, salvation was announced
to the great Mary, that she the Creator should
bear, the best of kings, as it is known
throughout the earth; it was a glorious event,
well-known to the people! Likewise after four and three
nights-counted, then the Savior sent
the month Aprelis, in which frequently comes
that glorious time, to the joy of men,
when the Lord arose; then rejoicing is fitting
everywhere wide abroad as the prophet sang:
“This is the day when the Lord for us
the Wise One acted, for the nations of men,
to all happy earth-dwellers with joy.”
We cannot this time calculate by counting
the number of days, nor the Ascension of the Lord
up into the heaven, because it ever changes
with the reckoning of the wise but shall the wise-with-winters
in the cycle find with skill the holy days.
We should nevertheless yet
the remembrance of the martyrs hereafter reckon,
Advancing forth with words, to sing the matter,
that after nineteen nights and five,
then in Eastermonath (Apr) comes to us
when men the relics of saints begin to lift up,
with holy adornment; that is an exalted day,
the famous Great Litany. Likewise in the city quickly
after six more nights, elegant in ornaments,
with trees and herbs, comes radiant to move
gloriously into town. Brings with benefit,
great Maius everywhere around the host.
On the same day, the coming of the nobles,
Philip and James, who gave up their lives,
the bold vassals, for the love of the Creator.
And after two nights then God showed
the more blessed Elena the most noble cross,
on which suffered the Lord of Angels
for love of men, the Creator on the gallows
by leave of the Father. Likewise after the first week
less one night then it brings to men
sun-bright days, summer to town.
with warm weather. Then the fields quickly
flower with blossoms, likewise happiness rises
around the earth among many classes
the living people, speaking praise
to the manifold King, honoring his excellence,
the Almighty. Then after eight and nine
days are counted, then the Lord received
into the other light Augustine
cheerful in heart, who when he was here in Britain
the lords obeyed him in following
the will of God, as the wise one commanded him—
Gregory. Nor have I ever heard of a man of old
any before, who ever brought
over the salty sea better teachings than
the famous bishop. Now in Britain he rests
in Canterbury near the throne,
in the famous minster. Then the month brings
after two and four, a long time
before Litha (Jun) to us to town
Iunius in former times, in which the jewel rises
up in the heavens, the highest in the year,
the brightest of the stars, and descend to its station,
going down to its seat. Then it will the wide 
earth behold and go about slower
over the earthen world the fairest light
of the creations of the world. Then the thane of glory
after thirteen, the favorite of the Lord,
John, in former days was born,
and ten nights also. We that time keep
in mid summer greatly with nobility.
Widely is honored, as is well-fitting
the time of the saints around the heroic men,
Peter and Paul. Lo, the apostles
faithful to their Lord, suffered in Rome
after mid-summer, as is greatly known,
five nights further, terrible tribulation,
a famous martyrdom; they had formerly many
wonders worked among the nations
such that they after accomplished countless
manifestations and signs through the Son of the Creator,
the chief retainers. Then at once comes
after two nights the time to us,
Julius month, in which Jamesa
fter four nights, giving his life,
and twenty, secure in his heart,
wise and steadfast teacher of the people
son of Zebedee. And then the feast comes
after seven nights when the summer brightens,
Weodmonath (Aug) to town everywhere comes
Augustus to the mighty people
Loaf-mass Day. So the harvest comes
after this time without any lack
beautiful, fruit-laden; prosperity is revealed
fair in the fields. Then forth is known
after three (?) nights, the people are strengthened
through the martyrdom of, famous deacon,
Laurence, had now life after
with the Glory-Father, from afflictions to a reward.
Likewise then after five days, the fairest maiden,
the wife of Glory, sought the Lord of Hosts
for the peace of her Son, a victorious home
in paradise; the Savior had then
a fair foster-reward, a recompense to the woman
forever and ever. Then indeed is,
after ten nights the time when honored
Bartholomew is, here in Britain,
an event well-honored. Likewise also widely
by lords is uttered the death of the noble one
after four nights, who the Fair One formerly
sprinkled with water, the royal child of glory,
the man fittingly. Concerning him the Ruler said
that no man greater upon earth
from a woman and man would be born.
And then after three nights among many men
then Haligmonth (Sep) appointed for men
comes to the people, as it by the prudent,
the ancient most wise, formerly was founded,
fair Septembres and that on the seventh day
then was born the greatest of queens
the mother of the Lord. Then a number of days
after thirteen, an honorable thane,
the wise evangelist, offered his spirit
Matthew to his decree of fate,in eternal joy.
Then altogether comes
after three nights thus to the people widely
the day of equinox, to the oldest men.
Lo, we honor widely around the earth
the archangel’s time at the harvest,
Michael so that many know
five nights after when to the people
by the lords announced the equinox.
And after two nights then the Teotha month (Oct)
comes to the people, to the wise in thought,
October into town to us in abundance,
Winter-filled, as they widely say
on the island of the Angles and Saxons,
men with wives. Likewise the time of warriors
after twenty, the two heroes,
and seven nights, namely together
in one day. We then of the nobles
of old learn, that the illustrious
Simon and Jude, are feasted,
dear to the Lord; because they obtained their doom,
the blessed ascent. And then speedily comes
after four nights to the abundance of the people
Blotmonath (Nov) to town, as men know,
Novembris, down to men
blessedness, as no other does
a month more of the mercy of the Lord.
And on the same day we all keep
the feast of the saints who in death or before it
worked in the world the will of the Lord.
Afterward the day of winter widely comes
on the sixth night, [sun-bright receives
a harvest with praise] of ice and snow
fettered with frost, by the command of the Master,
that we might not dwell in green lands,
adorned fields. Then after four nights
then Martin, the famous death-date,
a man without error sought the Ruler,
Lord of Angels. Then after eight nights
and four then went to God,
sunk into the sea-ground, a victorious man,
thrown into the sea, who formerly many men
upon Clement often called upon when in need.
And then after seven nights, dear to the victory-Lord,
noble Andrew up on a cross
gave up his ghost in the faith of God,
eager in the journey. Then is brought to the people
morning to men, a month to town,
Decembris, to the men of the armies,
formerly Yula (Dec). Likewise after eight and twelve
counted-nights then the Savior himself
with braveness gave Thomas
with hardships the eternal kingdom,
with boldness the hero-man his blessing.
Then after four nights then the Father of Angels
sent his Son into this vast creation
to comfort the people. Now you may find
the times of the saints which a man shall keep
as the command was commanded around the British kingdom
by the Saxon kings at this same time.

IIII. Brief Commentary

In a preliminary comparison between the Menologium and two early eleventh century kalendars from Winchester (BM Cotton Ms. Titus D. xxvii, ff. 3-8b and Cam. TC Ms. R. 15.32 pp. 15-26 [Wormald’s 9-10]) shows that the Menologium is correct except for a single odd error and that, in the main, it contains the feasts in the kalendars that have vigils appointed for them. (Important medieval feasts can be ascertained in two ways: 1) they have octaves—additional celebrations one week after the original date, and 2) they have vigils.) Of course, it must be noted that the two kalendars (the only ones I have on hand) are defective and have no vigils marked until The Nativity of St John the Baptist (June 24). Nevertheless, here are the observances of the Menologium in order. Feasts with vigils in these two kalendars are in bold:
Christmas (Dec 25)
Circumcision (Jan 1) [not listed but the vigil would have to be marked on Dec 31]
January 1
Epiphany (Jan 6)
February 1
Purification of the BVM (Feb 2)
Spring begins (Feb 7)
St Matthias (Feb 24)
March 1
St Gregory (Mar 12)
St Benedict (Mar 21)
Spring Equinox (Mar 21)
Annunciation of the BVM (Mar 25)
April 1
Easter (no date given)
Ascension (no date given)
Rogation Days/Letania Maior (Apr 25)
May 1
Sts Philip and James (May 1)
Invention of the Holy Cross (May 3)
Summer begins (May 9)
Augustine of Canterbury (May 26)
June 1
Nat. of John the Baptist (Jun 24)
Sts Peter and Paul (Jun 29)
July 1
St James (Jul 25)
Lammas Day (Aug 1)
Laurence (Aug 10)
The Assumption of the BVM (Aug 15)
St Bartholomew (Aug 25)
Decollation of John the Baptist (Aug 29)
September 1
Nat. of the BVM (Sep 8)
St Matthew (Sep 21)
Autumn Equinox (Sep 24) [Roman]
St Michael and All Angels (Sep 29)
October 1
Sts Simon and Jude (Oct 28)
November 1
All Saints (Nov 1)
Winter begins (Nov 7)
St Martin (Nov 11) [no vigil in these kalendars, but it does have an octave]
St Clement (Nov 23)
St Andrew (Nov 30)
December 1
St Thomas (Dec 20)
Christmas (Dec 25)

The odd error is the dating of the feast of St Laurence. The Menologium gives a space of three nights after Lammas; it ought to be nine instead. The three is certainly original in the text as the alliterative pattern depends upon the ‘þ’ in “þreo” and “þeodne” (l. 144). Either a “six” dropped out somewhere, there is a transcription error, or the text is defective here. The next feast—the Assumption of the BVM—is reckoned five nights later which is correct (Aug 15) based on the proper date for St Laurence.

V. Summary

In conclusion, this text gives us a valuable look at the English-language reception of the Latin liturgy. In connection with two other vernacular documents, Seasons for Fasting and Ælfric’s sermon for Trinity Sunday (Pope XIII), the Menologium represents both the importance attached to the kalendar and the means for its propagation among illiterate priests and laity alike.

12 thoughts on “The Menologium

  1. *Christopher


    This is great stuff. The OE poetry doesn’t seem odd reading German poetry. Stilted perhaps given we’ve Latinized in many ways.

    What I find most important in your “translation” is maintaining the multivalence of poetry especially for a liturgical document. Liturgy is more akin to poetry than prose as well, as we know–Cranmer’s poetic prose in the 1549 BCP is awesome even today.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Yeah, the single best translator of liturgical poetry–to my mind–is without a doubt John M. Neale. It’s really hard to know both the origianl language and your own language well enough to a) grasp the poetic, theological, and human elements in one language then to b) create true poetry that is c) a faithful expression of the original in your own langauge.

    While Neale’s translation of Greek and Syriac sources tended to be looser–more on the paraphrase side–he was so damn good that when translating Latin poetry he could maintain the same rhythms, keeping the same number of syllables in each line so that his translations could be sung to the original tune. Marvelous.

  3. Caelius

    Iunius in former times, in which jewels arise
    up in the heavens, the highest in the year,
    the brightest of the stars, and descend to their station,
    going down to their seat.

    As far as my officemate and I can hypothesize. These lines may refer to the appearance of the “summer cross” of the bright stars Deneb, Altair, and Vega on the horizon and their movement during the summer across the sky fairly near to the pole.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Very cool, Sky Guy! (Caelius from Lat. caelum “heavens” for those wondering) I was wondering exactly what they were referring to. I do remember seeing a note in one of the kalendars in–September?–about what looked like the end of the Dog Days and thus Sirus. I’ll post it when I get home…

  5. Annie

    That is all simply too kewl! I’ll have to take a bit longer to examine it later, but just wanted to thank you for posting this.


  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks, Annie.

    Caelius–On *July* 14 in one kalendar and 18 in another is the notation “Dies caniculares incipiunt” (The Dog Days begin). How does that fit with the “summer cross” theory? btw, if you have access to an academic library and some time on your hands, you might want to look at Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion which does have a Modern English translation; it’s the earliest English text on astronomy (and the rest of the liberal arts). I haven’t seen it yet but have heard of its existence and am trying to lay hands on a copy…

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Ok Caelius, here’s the real deal. It’s in nicely executed red rustic capitals half way down the page. A few days later is “Orius Caniculae” (Rising of the Dog Star). Hmmm–what would the difference be or does this look like the conflation of two different date traditions?

  8. Caelius


    Here’s my interpretation of the manuscript to which you have linked:

    II ante Idus Julii: It says Dies caniculares or “dog days.”

    From what I can tell (and the date shifts on the order of a day per century), this probably refers to the “heliacal rising” of the star “Beta Canis Major,” the first visible star in Canis Major. Heliacal rising refers to the first day the star becomes visible in the eastern sky around sunrise. The influence of the dog stars was thought to make the Earth and people in general hot and cranky. So the beginning of the dog days was a very important astrological event.

    XVI ante Kalendem Augusti: It says Orius Caniculae or “Rising of the Little Dog.” I suspect this is the approximate date of the heliacal rising of Sirius (the brightest star in the sky). The Athenians apparently began their calendar on this day, since it is a very obvious astronomical event for timekeeping. Sirius in Latin is known as Canicula.

    If heliacal risings were the significant astrological event for the Anglo-Saxons, it is possible that the “jewels” could refer to some heliacal rising event of multiple bright stars around the beginning of June. But all I see in the MS 579 kalendar is a reference to “initium ms. Desii secundum Grecos.” Does this mean the beginning of the month of Desius according to the Greeks?

    Looking at May, we see at IX ante Kalendem Iunii, there is a reference to aestas oritur “summer rises.” The language is the same as if summer was a star rising heliacally. What rises heliacally in late May (and thus marks the beginning of summer)? As far as I can tell, the Pleiades do, though I only could find tables for 21 degrees north.

    Moreover, I found this analysis online , which claims that the Romans marked the beginning of summer “initium aestatis” by the rising of the Pleiades. The Pleiades have been called “jewels” by several peoples. Thus the jewels in the Menologium look suspiciously like the Pleiades.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    Wow! this is fascinating. I wondered about the random (to astronomically unlearned me) beginnings of seasons in the various kalendars.

    Yes, the month of Decius is right.

    The date drift is something that makes an impact in certain places. The borning feasts of the Incarnation cycle: Christmas (Dec 25), Annunciation (March 25), Nativity of JB (June 25), and Conception of JB (Sept 25)were placed in relation to the equinoxes. Interestingly the logic of this is preserved in at least one Kalendar I can remember which notes the equinox on the 21, then on the 25 says: this was the *Roman* equinox…

    I had never heard of the jewels reference for the Pleiades although it makes a lot of sense.

    This really makes me think…I wonder if an OE scholars have sat down and gone over these kalendars with astronomer-types to really correlate some of these things…

  10. Alex

    Quite possibly this is something you’re no longer interested in, but I just wanted to offer my opinion on the line you’ve interpreted in the comments above as relating to the Pleiades.

    I think ‘gim’ (jewel) here should probably be regarded as singular and therefore actually refererring to the sun. Gim is a masculine noun, and so if plural would be ‘gimmas.’

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