Epiphany – the three kings or Magi

Three_kings.tifSeveral days after Christmas – the day which marks the birth of Christ – comes the Epiphany signifying the arrival of the three wise men at the stable.  Known in England as ‘Twelfth Night’ when players called ‘mummers’ would perform.  Up until the 19th century, Twelfth Night was as magical if not more so than Christmas Day itself.  But given that the reference to the three kings is a passing paragraph in the gospel of Matthew, how did it come to have such a powerful hold on medieval minds?

Well, like many biblical stories, it underwent a certain amount of embroidering at later hands that most Christians today are unaware of and had nothing to do with the original gospel account.  The casting of the three men as kings is largely the work of two early Christian scholars – Tertullian and Origen – whose writings were regarded as a bit suspect by the early church though they were hugely influential.  Tertullian was keen to prove that the Jews were no longer God’s chosen people and the act of obeisance by the kings to Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy thereby proving he was the Messiah.

The naming of the three kings is not recorded in any document prior to the sixth century AD and first crops up in Alexandria.  The kings were called:

Melchoir – King of Arabia – who brought gold – an old man

Balthasar – King of Ethiopia – who brought frankincense – a middle aged man

Caspar (or Jasper in England) – King of Tarsus – who brought myrrh – a young man

In medieval mystery plays, the story of the three kings got ever more convoluted. Words were put in to their mouths that had never existed in the bible. In the English city of Chester, the mystery plays depicted different parts of the bible and trades guilds would be assigned a particular story to tell.  The drapers and hosiers did the creation of the world, the goldsmiths and masons enacted the slaughter of the innocents and it fell to the mercers and spicers to depict the three kings.

Somehow in the Middle Ages, the story of the Magi became bound up with Saint Helena – the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity at the start of the fourth century – starting a process that would take the empire from paganism to a new religion.  Helena, in real life, was from Bithynia in modern Turkey and after her son took control of the empire, she bolstered his new found faith by miraculously discovering the true cross, the nails used in the crucifixion and the robe worn by Christ just before being put to death.

But in England, Helena’s story changed dramatically in the Middle Ages.  She became the daughter of Coel the Old or ‘King Cole’ – first king of the British.  He held court in Colchester where, the legend went, Helena was born….not in Bithynia.  Furthermore, not only did she discover the aforementioned relics, but this British born saint went all the way to India and dug up the bones of the three kings bringing them back to the royal court in Constantinople.  From there they went to Milan and eventually ended up in Cologne cathedral.

So convinced were the medieval English that Helena was a daughter of Colchester that she was venerated in the city with something of a cult developing around her.  The city townsfolk said she was the most beautiful woman who had ever lived and in a well, she found three ‘golden heads’ of the Magi and they told her to look after them.  In return they ensured that she was married to the greatest of kings.


Telling the time in the Middle Ages

Family Life in the Middle Ages (Germany)
Family Life in the Middle Ages (Germany) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine you had no watch, no mobile phone….basically, no way of telling the time.  Further imagine that you are in the middle of a field with your plough and oxen, working on the lord’s desmesne – then how do you know what time it is?  Yep, you’re in the Middle Ages and who knows whether it is 2.30pm or 4.15pm.  Who knows what day it is.  And frankly, who even knows what year it is!

Such were the vagaries of timekeeping for a medieval serf – so how they did do it? Well, two things to bear in mind. Religion and the seasons. Peasants knew when it was a holy day because….that’s where we get “holiday” from….and you know always know when your holidays are.  Then there were the seasons – a time to sow seeds and a time to harvest crops.  A time when animals breed and a time to slaughter them and salt the meat for winter storage.

How does this all translate in to practical timekeeping.  I’ve read some fun stuff online around this subject. I’m happy to be informed whether a lot of this is total garbage or true. This website claims peasants carved sundials in to the bottom of their clogs – which they took off and held up to the sun to tell the time. I have never heard of that before! This site says that the first mechanical clock was invented in the late 13th century – so within the Templar era.  But peasants would have had no access to clocks in our era – not as if you could take one in to the fields.

So let’s look at how peasants told the time. Winter stretched from Michaelmas in late September to Christmastide.  And you were out sowing at that time. November was known as the blood month because you slaughtered the animals to keep you in meat during the cold months ahead. Of course there were the 12 days of Christmas to cheer up the wintertime.

From the Epiphany to Easter Holy Week was the Spring when fields and gardens sprang back in to life and animals got down to some serious mating. Plough Monday was a strange ritual shortly after Epiphany where young lads dragged ploughs round the village asking for money. Candlemas in early February was when oats, barley and beans were sown.

Two weeks after Easter was Hocktide which stretched to Lammas in August. Hocktide was when the May Queen was crowned – undoubtedly a throwback to pre-Christian fertility rituals or worship of pagan goddesses that encouraged crops to grow.  Midsummer was marked by the feast of St John the Baptist and on St John’s Eve in June, a wheel of fire might be rolled down the hill – another pagan hangover. Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest time.

Monks – and Templars – had a more precise form of timekeeping based around prayer.  Lauds got you out of bed at the crack of dawn or before, Prime came in the early morn, Terce in mid-morning, Sext at midday, None in mid-afternoon, Vespers after dinner and Compline was just before bed, etc.