In the Bleak Midwinter

Snow on the carvings of St Salvators Quad., University of St Andrews.

News agencies across Europe have become enthralled by the recent cold-snap that has engulfed the continent and come, in the past day or so, to the UK. According to official statistics, the British mortality rate rises 19% in the winter months (and even higher during severe years). This astonishing fact calls our attention to our continued vulnerability to the seasons even in an era of paved roads, insulated houses, and central heating, and prompts a question. What must winter have been like in the Middle Ages, when people had none of these things?

A glimpse at a few surviving Welsh poems, probably written around the 12th century, suggests a world of beauty, danger, and melancholy. The first stanza of the anonymous poem ‘The Snow’, for example, echoes many of the complaints over the snow-bound landscape that we hear today:

“I don’t sleep, don’t leave the house:
Because of this, I’m in anguish.
There’s no world or ford or hillside,
Nowhere clear, no ground today.
No girl’s promise will lure me
Outside my house into snow.
It’s a plague, flakes on the gown
Stay as if one played dragon.
My clothing is my excuse
That looks much like a miller’s.
Isn’t it true, after New Years’s
Everyone’s wearing fur garments?
January, first of the flock,
God’s at work creating hermits.”

(ed. and trans. Joseph P. Clancy, Mediaeval Welsh Poems, (Dublin, 2003), pp.267-268.)

The attitude of another anonymous writer, in the poem ‘Mountain Snow’, is more ambiguous. The seasons has its charms, as can be seen in the following stanza:

“Mountain snow, stag bounding:
Wind whistling over high white wall.
Common, stillness in beauty.”

yet the snow presents dangers too:

“Mountain snow, day has come.
Sick are the heavy-hearted; half-naked the needy.
Common, every harm to the foolish.”
(Clancy, pp.112,114.)

The Castle ruins, St Andrews

In mediaeval Wales, winter was a time of retreat. Lords and their retinues would spend their time indoors, feasting and telling stories, and agriculture would come to a halt. With so many people gathered together, disputes, even lethal ones, were common. The poem ‘Winter and Warfare’, which laments the death of a nobleman on the winter campaign, remarks:

“Snow is falling, white the mountainside.
Ship’s masts bare at sea.
A coward breeds many a scheme.”
(Clancy, p.105)

Their words remind us that whether we live in times mediaeval or modern, we have yet to find a solution to the seasons.


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