St.Barnabas and Old Midsummer

Updated on June 11, 2016
The Martyrdom of Saint Barnabas.
The Martyrdom of Saint Barnabas. | Source

The Feast of Saint Barnabas is celebrated on 11th June. Patron saint of Cyprus, Antioch, protector against hailstorms, and one to be invoked as peacemaker, this saint was associated with Midsummer by early Christians, and whilst not greatly observed by the Church of England, is still noted by Catholics, and Orthodox churches.

It is believed that he was martyred in AD 61, and depending on what sources you look at, was either stoned, or burned to death.

His feast day was one of many which helped remind the common folk of England of specific days of importance in the agricultural calendar.

"Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night." ~ Traditional English saying

Saint Barnabas's Day was the signal to start cutting and drying hay, which was cut in the meadows, raked up and left to dry out. An important food staple for livestock, it would ensure that animals would not go hungry in winter months.

Hail is known to be devastating to hay and grain crops, so it is easy to see how this saint received prayers to protect the fields from this icy precipitation.

Due to the links with hay-making and Saint Barnabas, it was not uncommon to find depictions of this saint holding a hay-rake.

Anglo-Saxons mowing the hay meadow.
Anglo-Saxons mowing the hay meadow. | Source

Mowing and Merry-Making

After the solemn matter of Mass was dealt with, the community would gather to begin the hay harvest. Of course it would be hard work, especially in the blistering heat of mid-summer, but such gatherings would also include music, feasting, and merriment once the hard work was out of the way.

Party time!
Party time! | Source

According to Chambers Book of Days, it was customary on this day for priests and clerks in English churches to wear garlands of rose and woodruff. Lavender was also included in some parts of the country.

Woodruff is naturally sweet-smelling, much like a hay-meadow. When dried, it was used in pomanders and mattresses to help reduce the pungent smells of summertime. You can imagine that after a day in the fields, the folk would be less than fresh!

Interestingly, woodruff is also considered to have stimulating aphrodisiac properties, with Culpeper describing that "The Woodruffe is accounted nourishing and restorative, and good for weakly consumptive people; it opens obstructions of the liver and spleen, and is said to be a provocative to venery".

Woodruff (Galium odoratum) growing in woodland.
Woodruff (Galium odoratum) growing in woodland. | Source

The Magic Walnut Tree

Specific folklore around Saint Barnabas's Day tells how there was once a miraculous walnut tree at Glastonbury in the abbey churchyard which would only bud on this feast day. Brand's Popular Antiquities, Volume 1, describes it in further detail from an earlier source:

"Collinson, in his History of Somersetshire, vol. ii. p. 265, speaking of Glastonbury, tells us, that, "besides the holy Thorn, there grew' in the Abbey Church-yard, on the North side of St. Joseph's Chapel, a miraculous Walnut Tree, which never budded forth before the feast of St. Barnabas, viz. the eleventh of June, and on that very day shot forth leaves, and" flourished like its usual species. This tree is gone, and in the place there of stands a very fine Walnut-tree of the common sort. It is strange to say how much this tree was sought after by the credulous; and, though not an uncommon Walnut, Queen Anne, King James, and many of the nobility of the realm, even when the times of monkish superstition had ceased, gave large sums of money for small cuttings from the original.""

Glastonbury Abbey, circa 1900.
Glastonbury Abbey, circa 1900. | Source

Hang on a Minute...

We all know that 11th June isn't the summer solstice. The Royal Greenwich Observatory describes winter and summer solstices as being the points when the Sun is at its furthest from the celestial equator. The world 'solstice' comes from the Latin "solstitium" meaning 'Sun stands still' because the apparent movement of the Sun's path north or south stops before changing direction. They go on to say:

"The Earth takes approximately 365¼ days to go around the Sun. This is the reason we have a leap year every four years, to add another day to our calendar so that there is not a gradual drift of date through the seasons. For the same reason the precise time of the equinoxes (and solstices) are not the same each year, and generally will occur about six hours later each year, with a jump of a day (backwards) on leap years."

So whilst most summer solstices occur on 21st June, during a leap year they fall on 20th June.

But this doesn't explain why the people of Medieval England celebrated the longest day of summer on 11th June.

"The Veteran in a New Field" by Winslow Homer.
"The Veteran in a New Field" by Winslow Homer.

Julian to Gregorian

If you think changing your clock each spring or autumn is a pain, you should think of the poor folk of the 18th Century who had to change their whole calendar.

Up to this point in time, Britain was using the Julian Calendar. This was completely out of sync with the rest of Europe who had been using the Gregorian Calendar since 1582. Each year in England and Wales would start on 25th March, and our listed dates did not match those of the continent.

Parliament was fed up of the Julian Calendar. It caused much confusion in legal and legislative works, and it was felt that it was highly detrimental to the nation.

“...attended with divers inconveniences, not only as it differs from the usage of neighbouring nations, but also from the legal method of computation in Scotland, and from the common usage throughout the whole kingdom, and thereby frequent mistakes are occasioned in the dates of deeds and other writings, and disputes arise therefrom"

Seeing these changes in action resulted in the legal year of 1751 being a short year of only 282 days, running from 25th March to 31st December. 1st January became the new New Year's Day seeing in 1752. To align the calendar in use in England to that on the continent, Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September 1752 which caused 1752 to also be a short year of just 355 days. By the time that 1753 came around, we were adjusted to the time-keeping of the rest of the "modern world" of the day.

As you can imagine, this was not popular, and there were many protests and riots!

This pushed the accurate astrological observed days forward, leaving traditional feast days such as that of Saint Barnabas behind. Whilst the religious feast was still celebrated, it slowly lost its link with the summer solstice.

William Hogarth, "Give us Back our Eleven Days".
William Hogarth, "Give us Back our Eleven Days".

Chambers Book of Days lists many more festivals that have suffered from displacement by the alterations of the English calendar, and has been the best overall source of information on these for me when researching. Further details are to be found in this helpful tome for those wishing to study the events in more depth. I have included details of this book below for any of you who may be interested.

© 2016 Pollyanna Jones


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    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks James. It's crackers, isn't it? Makes me wonder if other events, i.e. anniversaries of battles and coronations, etc, are out too now? Were they on the "old date" or "new date"?

      Thanks Anne!

    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 

      4 years ago from Australia

      Great hub - I never knew St Barnabas was the patron saint of hail storms!

    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 

      4 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Wonderful! Loved the whole thing, but the dating system really spoke to my inner mathematician.


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