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The Winter Blues in the Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

Winter got you feeling down? You’re not alone. The long, dark nights of winter have always been the cause for a little doom and gloom, especially before the age of electric lights and electric blankets. In the late Middle Ages, the world was experiencing the “Little Ice Age”, as well, with temperatures lower than in previous centuries. All of this added up to some winter blues for a lyricist whose words were recorded with various other songs in MS Harley 2253. This song is subtitled “A Winter Song” by Susanna Greer Fein in her TEAMS translation, which I’ll be using here.

The anonymous lyricist cuts straight to the chase with the words:

“Wynter wakeneth al my care” (“Winter awakens all my sorrow”), placing the blame squarely on the season. He cites the bare trees as reminders of the futility of life that often make him feel mournful. “Nou hit is, ant nou hit nys / Also hit ner nere, ywys!”, he says (“Now it is, and now it isn’t, / As if it had never been, indeed!”),

Echoing that timeless wonder at how what was so full of life and greenery is now so empty and bare.

Unsurprisingly, the lyricist uses this reflection on winter, life, and death to meditate on faith, and the will of God. Like the crops, man is destined to live and die, and (he hopes) live again. “Al goth bote Godes wille; / Alle we shule deye” (“All passes except God’s will; We all shall die”), he writes, with an attempt at acceptance, but in what sounds to me like a grumpy little end line (that makes me smile), he adds, “Thath us like ylle” (“Though we dislike it”). He then implores Jesus to “shild us from helle” (“shield us from hell”), because he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll live, or where he’ll end up afterwards.

While an invocation of Jesus is pretty common in song, as it is in so much medieval writing, ending this Winter Song on a note of uncertainty gets at what must have been a very familiar feeling towards winter.

In the Middle Ages, death was never far away, but in winter, this was especially true. Starvation was a real danger, as people relied on food stores from warmer months, as was disease, more easily spread in close quarters and low temperatures. With wool, furs, and wood – again, hopefully stockpiled in preparation – people could remain relatively warm, especially with their livestock huddled in the house with them or on the first floor of a two-story home.

A man sitting before a fire and warming his hands. British Library, MS Royal 14 E VI, f. 305v.

With fire, though, came the danger of smoke and spreading flames. Fighting the dangers of winter was enough of a challenge that enemy countries often suspended their hostilities until the season had passed. A medieval song about winter, then, is a natural invitation to consider a person’s possible death and the state of the soul.

With the winter came contemplation and the fasting of Lent, but people knew that if they could only hang on, they would be rewarded by the rebirth of spring, and the promise of eternal life that accompanied the celebration of Easter. Until then, it was natural – just as it is now – to experience a little bit of the winter blues.

The poem “Wynter wakeneth al my care” (“A Winter Song”) follows below in its original Middle English. For the full translation, check out the wonderful TEAMs online edition of MS Harley 2253, edited by Susanna Greer Fein.

Wynter wakeneth al my care;
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte Y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie:
Hou hit geth al to noht!

Nou hit is, ant nou hit nys,
Also hit ner nere, ywys!
That moni mon seith, soth hit ys:
Al goth bote Godes wille;
Alle we shule deye,
Thath us like ylle.

Al that gren me graveth grene;
Nou hit faleweth al bydene.
Jesu, help that hit be sene,
Ant shild us from helle,
For Y not whider Y shal,
Ne hou longe her duelle.

Danièle Cybulskie is the Lead Columnist on Medievalists.net and the host of The Medieval Podcast. You can follow her on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Miniature of three sinners standing in a hell-mouth, being tormented by devils throwing ice and snow. British Library MS Yates Thompson 31 f. 170v



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