Easter gives us an insight into the customs of ordinary Saxons, before the Norman Conquest changed the culture of England. Rowena Willard-Wright, Senior Curator of Collections and Interiors, explains how.
It seems reasonable to assume that the defeat of the Saxon King Harold by William the Conqueror in 1066 brought about the end of Saxon culture in England. But we can gain an understanding of the customs and folklore of our old English ancestors by looking at the Saxon areas of the Netherlands. The customs surrounding Easter and celebrating springtime are a particularly good example of this.
Clues in the language
The Christian season starts in the dark days of February on Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday) at the beginning of the period of fasting called Lent. The word ‘Lent’ is Anglo-Saxon in origin and refers to ‘the lengthening of days’ in spring. The word developed via lengten, lengte to the Dutch lente and English Lent.
This fast was a pre-Christian agricultural necessity, reflecting the need to make the winter’s food supplies last until the first crops and lambs were ready to eat.
Easter itself was originally a spring feast honouring a Saxon spring goddess. Bede’s 8th-century work De temporum ratione, identifies this season as Eosturmonath, the month of Saxon goddess Ēostre. Called Osterdag (Easter day) in the Netherlands and Ostern in German, the root of these names is the direction East, which refers to the fact the sun rises directly in the east at the spring equinox.
In the Tudor period in England, ancient lore still said that the sun danced with joy at the resurrection of Christ at Easter, linking the rising sun with Christ.
Surviving traditions in modern Saxon areas
There are similar folk traditions at this time of year in the Saxon areas of the Netherlands and England; for example the Furry dance of Helston in Cornwall, and the Vlöggeln in Ootmarsum in the Dutch province of Overijssel. In the Netherlands they are associated with Easter, but are usually linked to Mayday in Britain.
In both cases the whole town joins together in dancing and singing, travelling in and out of the houses and the streets to mark the beginning of summer. The origins of Vlöggeln are in the pre-Christian practices of the Teutonic tribes who, at this time of year, processed statues of their gods to hallowed places in the locality usually a holy wood or outdoor temple.
The procession in the Netherlands, now Christianised, continues into the homes as a form of blessing for the coming year, in particular the long line of townsfolk still circle around the decorated posts in the centre of doorways in older houses.
You can see physical evidence of Christianised Saxon communities in England before 1066 at monasteries and abbeys like Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island in Northumberland, or smaller churches like Odda’s Chapel in Gloucestershire. But is easy to imagine similar scenes to the Vlöggeln across England before the Norman Conquest.
In the Saxon Netherlands part of the Easter procession, or Palm Sunday procession, is the Paasstaak or Easter pole. This parallels the English custom of the Maypole, although in a much simpler and therefore ancient form to the be-ribboned poles danced round by our Victorian forebears.
The rough-hewn Dutch poles would have been much more familiar to our medieval ancestors which, as Ronald Hutton notes, we first have written evidence for in the mid fourteenth century but are “only recorded in areas of English and language,” again indicating a likely link to Anglo-Saxon culture.
Choosing the tree for the Paasstack is still a serious business, undertaken by a group of young men who are given the honour of being the Easter Earls or Poaskeärls for the year. This is similar to older traditions in England like choosing Lords of Misrule.
Once chosen, the tree is then cut down after its branches are removed. The Paastaak is then dragged through the town to the Paasskamp or Easter field, where it fixed into the ground with a vertical wheel attached at the top, known as the sun wheel.
The climax of the Dutch Easter celebrations comes with the setting fire to large bonfires, which can be seen burning into the night across Overijssel on Easter day. This tradition in England is also associated with Mayday and the much more ancient Beltane fires.
Rowena Willard-Wright is the Senior Curator of Collections and Interiors at English Heritage, working on the exhibition projects at Battle Abbey celebrating the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. As an art historian she specialised in seventeenth century Netherlandish art and edited the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of symbols in world art, religion and mythology, 1000 Symbols (2002). Her understanding of surviving Saxon folklore and culture in the Netherlands comes from editing a forthcoming English edition of Saksische tradities by the Dutch folklore historian, Dominiek Ten Holt.
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