The Farmer’s New Year in Medieval England

Happy New Year and welcome to 2016!

From a farming perspective, January has always seemed a strange month to consider as the beginning of a new year. We so often associate this time in the calendar with new beginnings – indeed, the word January originates from the name of the Roman God, Janus; God of Doorways and Beginnings. Janus was depicted as a two-faced deity with one visage looking back into the past whilst the second face focused forwards into the future. The feast of Janus, a Roman tradition, is believed to be the inspiration for our celebration of New Year’s Day in modern times.

But what new beginnings can occur on the farm in wet and cold January? Certainly, back in the days when we used to have proper winters (?!), the ground would be too hard to turn and prepare for the sowing of crops. In fact, in medieval England, many country folk marked March the 25th, Lady’s Day, as the New Year. By this time, the soil would be soft enough to turn easily, and the ploughing of the field and sowing of spring crops would commence in earnest.

The month of January was better spent repairing tools. Fences and baskets were weaved and any necessary maintenance work carried out. Dung was also stockpiled at this time of year, ready to spread on the fields for fertilisation.

One positive aspect of this normally cold and dismal month is the fact that the days are getting longer after December’s winter solstice; welcome news to communities whose work was once governed by the seasons and daylight hours. Hard to imagine, really, in today’s modern world, with our fridges and freezers stocked full of food, regardless of the seasons, and our centrally heated homes and electricity enabling us to work all hours.

But despite all of our advances in engineering and technology, we are still at nature’s peril when it comes to the weather. Record-breaking rainfall last month meant December 2015 was among the top ten wettest years on records since 1910, with temperatures more akin to the months of March and April.

Our thoughts go out to the farming families across the UK whose livelihoods have been devastated by the recent floods.