Neither holidays nor weekends as we know them existed in the fourteenth century, although the biography of Edward II that I’m reading at the moment does talk about a holiday he took in the Fens in the autumn of 1315 much to the bemusement of his barons.
Despite this, there was leisure time and quite a lot of it. The longest period was the twelve days of Christmas. This started on Christmas day and ended on the feast of the Epiphany – 6th January. It was very handy that the longest holiday coincided with the shortest days of the year when very little work could be done anyway. Houses and churches were decorated with holly, ivy, and bay leaves.
Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, was also a holiday. It was the last time for 46 days people could eat meat, if they had any. During Lent there was fasting from many types of food, so Shrove Tuesday was a day for eating up what was left of any of these ‘forbidden’ foods.
Easter brought another holiday: seven days without work. The second Monday and Tuesday after Easter were known as Hocktide. This holiday was celebrated by contests between men and women. The women always won.
Whitsun (Pentecost) at the end of May was followed by another week of holiday. This was when people went to watch the mystery plays if they were being performed nearby.
All of these long holidays took place during the slack period of the agricultural year, although things were starting to pick up by Whitsun.
The feast day of the patron saint of a church was also a holiday for the parish.
Most people didn’t work on Sundays and some didn’t work on Saturdays or the vigils of feasts.
A local fair was also the occasion for a day off to see the travelling entertainers and to buy things which might not be available locally. A fair was usually held once a year.
When all these days are added together, there could be up to 115 holy days a year, in theory. On those holy days only essential work would be done, such as making sure animals had enough to eat drink and milking cows. Even during harvest most people wanted to observe holy days and cease work. If you were a servant, however, you would still have to work for many of the holy days.
In practice, many people were denied some of their holidays. It wasn’t unknown for lords of the manor to be taken to court by their villeins for allowing them only two or three days for Christmas and Easter, and correspondingly fewer holidays during the rest of the year.
Next week we’ll have a look at what people did with their leisure time.
Edward II: The Unconventional King – Kathryn Warner
Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod