During the 16th and 17th century, Michaelmas (pronounced mich-al-mis) was an important day, not only in the liturgical calendar, but also as an English quarter day—one of four days in the year when financial matters were traditionally settled. On those days, tenants paid their rents, accounts were settled, debts were paid, and taxes collected. Quarter days were also important days for the legal system because on those days land leases began, magistrates were elected, and legal disputes were settled. A few traditions were specific to the Michaelmas quarter day. For example, if a town had a winter curfew, it began on Michaelmas, with a church bell ringing at 9pm to remind residents to go home. The 9:00 pm curfew would last until Shrove Tuesday or Lady Day, March 24th, whichever was earlier. Michaelmas also marked the end of harvest time and the beginning of the next cycle of planting, preparing the fields for next spring.
Michaelmas falls on September 29th which is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. St. Michael, an archangel, is known for having banished Lucifer from heaven. St. Michael is celebrated at the end of September when days begin to get shorter. People in Tudor England looked to St. Michael for protection against the evil forces which they believed were stronger in the long, dark nights of winter. September 29th also, conveniently, falls after the autumnal equinox, a date important for harvesting. All quarter days, March 25th, June 24th and December 25th, fell before or after important dates on the agricultural calendar. If one digs a little deeper into these quarter dates, it becomes obvious that they all fall near known celestial occurrences, quite helpful when calendars and time-tracking were not of great concern to most people. Holding important feast days and liturgical celebrations near known heavenly events also helped Christianity gain a foothold as converts were more likely to accept the new religion if it seemed to closely reflect the festivals and celebrations to which they were already accustomed.
Michaelmas had some interesting stories associated with it. Supposedly, Queen Elizabeth I was eating roast goose when she heard of the English navy’s victory over the Spanish Armada. As a result of this story, which may not even be true, eating roast goose on Michaelmas was thought to ensure good financial fortune for the next year. Similarly, tenants hoping for some leniency on their rent payment or for more favorable terms for the next lease, often brought a goose to the landlord while paying their rents. Legend had it that if the breast bones of the Michaelmas day goose were brown after roasting, the following winter would be mild, but if the bones were white or had a slightly blue hue, then the coming winter would be severe.
Eating small oatcakes, called St. Michael’s bannock, as well as apples and blackberries on Michaelmas was also believed to bring good fortune, although, eating blackberries harvested after Michaelmas was thought to bring bad luck because Satan, when he was banished from heaven, fell into a blackberry bush cursing the blackberry brambles as he fell. Consequently, it was believed that any blackberries picked and consumed after Michaelmas were cursed.
After the Reformation, Michaelmas traditions gave way to harvest festivals, but the name is still used today to denote the fall term at many English universities and schools. If you want a peek into the Tudor Michaelmas traditions, come to Agecroft before December to see the Great Hall all set for the tenants to come pay their rents. Take a self-guided tour to learn more about this important quarter day!