Martinmas Day – let the feasting commence!

Armistice Day is a relatively recent addition to our calendar of observances. An earlier tradition marked on November 11th is Martinmas Day, also know as St. Martin’s Day and Martlemas. It was a time to wind up outdoor work in the fields and start preparing for the long dark winter.

In Britain (and northern Europe) people couldn’t afford to winter over much stock besides the family milk cows and prized breeding animals. So in November “spare” animals were sent to market. In country areas, families would go in together on a cow to butcher and eat immediately. These markets eventually became known as “marts” after St. Martin’s day, when the markets took place. Martinmas was also an important day in the rural legal calendar. Hiring fairs were held at this time, with their opportunities for agricultural labourers to gain better employment and the chance of a holiday. It was also called Pack-Rag day, because they carried their possessions with them to their new homes. The hiring fair was also called a statute or mop fair, the latter because people for hire wore a mop or tassel as a badge – carters wore a piece of whip cord, grooms a piece of sponge, shepherds a lock of wool, and so on. Those wishing to be hired stood in rows for inspection by employers.

Quarter Days such as Martinmas (February 1, Lammas and Halloween were others) were also times in which feudal taxes were collected. Until the 1920s, Martinmas was the high point of the farm labourer’s year in the north of England and was also known as ‘Rive-kite’ or ‘Split-Stomach Day’ (or, Tear-Stomach Day), firstly because food was generally more plentiful than usual, and because labourers got their holidays at this time and might return home, often to a family welcoming feast. Animals were slaughtered for Martinmas feasts as well as for salting as food for the Winter. In an old Celtic custom, some of the blood from the slaughter was spilt upon the ground or on the threshold as a protection for the year ahead, and after the slaughter the feast began. On Martinmas nothing involving a wheel, spinning wool, carting, plowing, was to be undertaken before midday.

Since the offal was the most perishable, people quickly made blood puddings and sausages from the butchered animals. Some choice parts were sold to butchers, who then sold them on to wealthy townspeople. The rest of the beef was often salted and smoked, much like bacon. Mrs. Beeton (of the famous cookbook) has a recipe for salt-beef:

630. This is preserved by salting and drying, either with or without smoke. Hang up the beef 3 or 4 days, till it becomes tender, but take care it does not begin to spoil; then salt it in the usual way, either by dry-salting or by brine, with bay-salt, brown sugar, saltpetre, and a little pepper and allspice; afterwards roll it tight in a cloth, and hang it up in a warm, but not hot place, for a fortnight or more, till it is sufficiently hard. If required to have a little of the smoky flavour, it may be hung for some time in a chimney-corner, or smoked in any other way: it will keep a long time.

Salt beef was never at the top of anyone’s menu choice, but in the middle of winter, when nothing was fresh or plentiful, having any kind of meat was a bounty. One proverb of the time says:
When Easter comes, who knows not than
That veale and bacon is the man?
And Martilmass Beefe doth beare good tacke,
When countrey folke do dainties lacke.

The heathen calendar’s entry for November says: “The name of the eleventh month, Blotmonað (blood month), which means the Month of Sacrifice, arises from the fact that without modern methods of fodder storage it was not possible to keep more than a limited amount of livestock through the winter. The surplus animals were therefore killed and the flesh smoked or salted down. The keeping of this as a sacrificial occasion, and devoting the killed animals to the gods, was perhaps an economical way of making a virtue of necessity. “

There are a lot of parts of animals like organs, brains, feet, bones, that most people don’t eat today that our ancestors made full use of. The painting above is of a butcher’s stall from the 15th century.

Martinmas was also the kickoff of the winter feasting season. Farmwork was done, rents were paid, nothing much to do but make it through the winter without going stir crazy. Another proverb from Scotland says:
“Tween Martinmas and Yule
Water’s wine in every pool.”
Meaning pretty much people were partying from Martinmas (November 11th) through Yule (mid-January). Not a terrible way to get through the cold barren months of winter, provided you had the foresight to put up enough beef at Martinmas.
One last bit of Martinmas cheer comes from this verse of an old English ballad:
It is the day of Martilmasse
Cuppes of ale should freelie pass;
What though Wynter has begunne
To push downe the Summer sunne,
To our fire we can betake,
And enjoye the crackling brake,
Never heeding Wynter’s face
On the day of Martilmasse.

Read more about Martinmas here –


One thought on “Martinmas Day – let the feasting commence!”

  1. Reblogged this on Seven Trees Farm and commented:

    2014 is almost over! Our livestock are ready for winter, either hunkered down in the henhouse, or chillin’ in the freezers. Thanks to modern food storage methods, our feasting isn’t relegated to a few special days, but it looks like our ancestors found ways to extend the party season anyway – “Tween Martinmas and Yule, water’s wine in every pool.”

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