The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs
Library of Alexandria
Lammas Day seems to have been a great day of accounts in early British history; it is still a quarter day in Scotland. The origin of the word is much disputed. A writer in 1754 says:--"Our ancestors distributed the year into four quarters, Candlemas, Whitsuntide, Lammas, and Martinmas; and this was every whit as common as the present division of Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas, Lammas was the specific day whereon Peter's Pence, most rigorously collected, was paid. It was thus a day of accounts, and 'latter Lammas' means last day of accounts." The 1st of August was called Lammas because, some authorities say, the priests were then wont to gather their tithe lambs; others derive it from the Saxon word Leffmesse i.e. bread mass, it being kept as a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the corn. It is also called gule or yule of August in old almanacs. Mr G. L. Gomme in The Antiquary has thus summarised the available facts:--"Lammas Day is properly the 1st of August. The Act of George II., which established the new style in England, excepted the days for the commencement of Lammas nights from the operation of the Statute. Lammas Day under this operation is now the 13th of August. It is one of the four cross quarter days as they are now called. Whitsuntide was formerly the first of these quarters, Lammas the second, Martinmas the next, and Candlemas the last. Such partition of the year was once as common as the present divisions of Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and 'Xmas. Some rents are still payable on those ancient quarter days in England, and they were not long ago, even if they do not still continue, general in Scotland. It is a day on which many quaint customs were enacted; but the one great custom, which marks it as a link with a very remote past, is the removal of the fences from many lands throughout the country, and the throwing open to common pasturage of lands which, till this day from the end of last Lammastide, had been used as private property. In fact it is not too much to say that in this custom of Lammastide we have the key to the whole system of ancient agriculture. Wherever we find Lammas customs in England, we may take it for granted that it is the last remaining link of a whole group of customs which together make up the history of the primitive village community. It is curious to observe with what varying degrees of integrity customs have lived in various parts of the country. In some places, for instance, we may find only the bare mention of Lammastide, and the throwing down of fences and the consequent opening of land to common. In other places there is much more at the back of this Lammas customs--there is sufficient to enable us to open the great book of comparative politics and to take our studies to that ancient Aryan land, India, or even still further back in the history of primitive society, the native savages of Africa."