Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Today is Armistice Day, of course. We call it Veteran's Day in America now, and it's Remembrance Day in the UK and its sphere.

But originally, of course, this day was better known as Martinmas, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who became a Christian. Legend says that he was riding on some mission when he met up with a shivering beggar along the road. Since he could not follow the Biblical injunction to give one of your cloaks to the man who has none, Martin promptly cut his great red military cloak in two with his sword, and gave one of the halves to the beggar. Later, Christ came to visit Martin -- wearing that half a cloak.

Sober fact records that Martin trained under St. Hilary of Poitiers, founded a monastery, and preached the gospel among the people. After the bishop of Tours died, Martin apparently became one of a long line of bishops who had to be dragged into accepting the job. (Legend says he was told that a woman in Tours was dying, and as soon as he unwarily stepped through the city gates, the ambushing people of Tours acclaimed him and started getting him consecrated.) Known both for charity and for organizing genius, St. Martin of Tours was one of the great forces holding back total chaos in Gaul as the Roman Empire drew back in upon itself. He was one of the most popular saints during the Middle Ages, and the French always attributed Charles Martel's victory against the Muslims at Poitiers to St. Martin's intercession.

Martinmas was also one of the great harvest festivals (and slaughtering time, since the grass was dying). It provided a convenient end to the All Saints'/All Souls' celebrations of those who have gone before us. Also, in the northern parts of England and in Scotland, it was the real beginning of winter cold. Martinmas was also the ending day for a Scottish hired man's summer employment by a farmer; the two hiring fairs were on Whitsunday and Martinmas. Thanks to the change to the Gregorian calendar, however, Martinmas picked up one more function. For those who stubbornly refused to change, Martinmas was a sort of Old Halloween, as Epiphany was Old Christmas.

Anyway, listen to what the ballads say:

"It fell aboot the Martinmas
When nichts are lang and mirk
That the wife's three sons cam hame
And their hats were o the birk."
-- "The Wife of Usher's Well"

"It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were a-falling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allen."
-- "Barbara Allen"

"It fell upon a Martinmas time,
When the nobles were a' drinking wine,
That Little Mushiegrove to the kirk he did go,
For to see the ladies come in."
-- one of the innumerable versions of "Matty Groves"

"O Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
And shake the green leaves off the tree!
O gentle Death, when wilt thou come?
For of my life I am wearie!"
-- "Waly, Waly"

"It fell about the Martinmas,
When the wind blew shrill and cauld,
Said Edom o' Gordon to his men,
We maun draw to a hald."
-- "Edom o' Gordon"

"It fell about the Martinmas tyde,
When our Border steeds get corn and hay,
The Captain of Bewcastle bound him to ryde,
And he ’s ower to Tividale to drive a prey."
-- "Jamie Telfer"

"It fell upon the Martinmas time,
When the snow lay on the border
There came a troop of soldiers here
To take up their winter quarters."
--- "Martinmas Time"

"It fell aboot the Martinmas time,
And a fine time it was then O.
That oor gudewife got puddens to mak'
And she boiled them in a pan O."
--- "Get Up and Bar the Door"

"T’was in the merry month of May
When flowers had clad the landscape gay
To Ellon Fair I bent my way
With hopes to find amusement.

"A scrankie chiel to me cam near
And quickly he began to spier
If I wid for the neist half year
Engage to be his servant.

"'I’ll need you as my orra loon
Four poun’ ten I will lay doon
To you, when Martinmas comes roon
To close out your engagement.'"
--- "Ellon Fair"

"Sae I fell tae my wark, an' I pleased richt weel,
A word or a wave and I plied hand and heel;
But my troubles cam" on, for the fences were bad,
An' the midsummer fleas made the cattle rin mad,
And in cauld blasty weather sair drenched wi' the rain,
Whiles wee thochts o' leavin' wad steal o'er my brain;
But with courage I dashed aye the tear fae my e'e
When I thocht o' my shoon an' my five shilling fee.

"An' Martinmas brought me my lang wished-for store,
And proudly I counted it twenty times o'er,
Noo years hae fled by in a joyful train,
But I never experienced sic raptures again.
The sailor just safe through the wild breakers steered,
Proud Waterloo's victor when Blucher appeared,
Ne'er felt as I felt when I placed on the knee
Of a fond-hearted mother my five shilling fee."
-- "The Five Shilling Fee"

Merry Martinmas, everybody!


  • At 12:44 PM, Blogger Enbrethiliel said…


    Thank you for the information on Martimas and the ballad excerpts. They're wonderful.


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