Medieval Holidays


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



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment

35 responses to “Medieval Holidays

  1. Really interesting as always April. Imagine if we all had 12 days off for Christmas now? That would be marvellous if everything was shut.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I had no idea that there was no such thing as a weekend in the middle ages. It sounds like they often ended up having more days off in general back then than we do now, though, because of all of the religious holidays. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised to find how much of a weekend they had. I suspect there were still things they did that we would count as work on their leisure days, simply because they had to do so much just to grow enough food to keep alive.


  3. I actually wish it went back to people not working on Sundays not for religious reasons, I just think it’s better for family life and community life. Though I do understand it might have a detrimental effect on businesses.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. 115 holy days! Cripes, it’s a wonder they had time to gather the harvest! Guess when they worked it was dawn to dusk though.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Interesting as always, I’m guessing they didn’t do sunbathing or trips to the seaside!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Shaunn Munn

    Thank you! Always reading about events occurring on or around these festivals & holy days. Now I better understand where they fell in the modern calendar.

    Kind of understand the demense lords wanting to ignore some of them. Same as today’s managers needing things done before complications set in,
    a lord might see a field needing haying while the sun was shining. At the same time serfs would be expecting him to supply ale & meat at the church’s saint’s day. Just coincidence all fell at the same time!

    Wait too long & the rains may come to rot the crop! What to do? Since the hay would likely go to the castle animals, the serfs would hardly see a reason for haste! Hence, the mean ol’ lord cut in on the fun! Boo! Hiss!

    Bring on the next installment!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Package stores (alcohol) were only allowed to open on Sundays here in Connecticut within the past 5 years. The package store owners I know were against the change for the reason mentioned above. People don’t have any more money to spend. In fact, they may spend less. If they couldn’t easily buy alcohol on Sundays, they would buy a reserve amount on Saturday if they were entertaining. Now they don’t, since they can get more if they run out.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Juju

    Interesting article and great comments too! I also REALLY wish we had never gone down the path of Sunday opening here in UK. As for Christmas, what a joke, we all go mad at the shops as though laying in for a siege and then the shops open on Boxing Day Sad to think many families miss out on proper get togethers because so many have to work.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m fascinated by Hocktide. I might reintroduce it for our pub quiz team. Theoretically we’re all on the same side, but when there’s a debate about what the correct answer should be the collective male opinion tends to override a female one.

    Leaving us to say, “See, you should have listened to me/her/us.” Henceforth, in Hocktide, a woman’s answer will overrule. One small step…

    Liked by 2 people

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