Winters in the World by Eleanor Parker review – a dive into the Anglo-Saxon year | History books
If the airless, sultry, stuck summer left you longing for autumn or, indeed, for anything other than never-ending broil, you could do no better than plunge into the Anglo-Saxon year. Here, the seasons are properly seasonal, with wispy autumn smoke, blustery spring mornings and a summer that is lush, green and gently generative. Pride of place, though, goes to winter, a hoary-frosted, iron-earthed season of unyielding chill. Frankly, it is glorious.
Eleanor Parker conjures up this evocative magic from her careful reading of the wealth of weather literature left behind by the poets, sermonisers, scientists and historians of Anglo-Saxon Britain, a period that stretched from 410 to 1066. This means roughly 600 summers and winters to think and write about. Combing the texts of everyone from the anonymous author of Beowulf to the Christian chronicler Bede, Parker paints a glowing picture of an age when the revolving year not only filled up the senses, but intricately marked out time and meaning. Braces of scholars were engaged in computus, the science of deciding just when the new year should begin, and what happened to the solstice in a leap year.
To start where Parker does, in the bleak midwinter, is to be plunged into a landscape that is both desolate yet bracing. First, the desolation: in a poem called The Wanderer the speaker describes himself as wintercearig – “winter-sorrowful”. He is far from home and the frozen seas across which he journeys become a metaphor for his grief-locked heart. On one occasion he falls asleep and wakens to the cry of seabirds, which for a moment he mistakes for the cries of lost friends.
But winter is a time of magical mutability too. “Ice becomes an engineer, building bridges where none have been before,” Parker writes; her prose is as lyrical as the poetry that she so deftly translates. The Anglo-Saxon bards feel the same: they describe frozen water as wearing a new helmet. Helmet, Parker explains, can refer to a war helmet but it can also mean a crown. So, while this new version of winter water may imply a battle of some kind, it could also signal a moment of royal protection, with the stilled world in restful order.
Over these descriptions Parker lays a historical account of how the pagan, chilly Anglo-Saxons gradually came to accommodate the feast days of a religion that had its roots in the sweltering eastern Mediterranean. Not until the early decades of the 11th century did the Anglo-Saxon festival of middewinter start to cede to Cristesmæsse, while in the north of England and Scotland, where Scandinavian influence remained strong, the old Norse Jol or “Yule” lasted longer. The time-markers and calendar-makers were kept busy making sure that this patchworked world still hung together.
Parker’s larger point is to show how older ways of experiencing the seasons continue to run steadily through our lives, even if we don’t quite register the tug. This lovely book acts as a portal back to an older time, using the poetry of medieval England to unlock a world where the seasons, and the changing weather, are a subject of deep pleasure and renewing wonder.