On Michaelmas

Friends, it was Michaelmas on Tuesday. (Yes I know I probably should have written about this on Tuesday then, but I am trying to prep to teach in the Germ Box™ soon, so I don’t need this kind of negativity in my life right now, thanks.) Anyway, I will forgive you for not necessarily knowing what that means. I know that it sounds like it might be a celebration of this blog’s patron saint George Michael, (Ore pro nobis, Sancte Georgi), but alas it is not. Yet.

Most people here in England when confronted with the word will probably react to it as one of the wankier ways of naming uni terms. For example at Oxbridge, or indeed my own LSE, we call our autumn term Michaelmas Term, as opposed to the spring term which is Lent term. This, you see, is a throwback to the medieval period when universities were invented and when Michaelmas was what we medievalists refer to as a Big Fucking Deal.

OK, so why is that? Well firstly, Michaelmas celebrates a real OG saint – St Michael the Archangel. My man is notable as one of the three Archangels along with Raphael and Gabriel. (The Anglicans also have Uriel, but this is a medieval blog so we are keeping it Catholic, and also I am not equipped to talk about the C of E.) Michael gets the “arch” part of Archangel for his serviced to God during the war with the fallen angels. Your boi went out and personally fought with Lucifer Morningstar, and sent him and his team to Hell where they would serve as the inspiration for all my fav medieval art. Nice one, Michael.

Michael fighting Satan, British Library Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r.

Because of all the Satan defeating, Michael is conceptualised as the military leader of the forces of heaven. So he can be seen, for example, leading the army of the faithful against the forces of Satan when the forces of Hell re-emerge during the Apocalypse. This is a conception of a very physical war to be undertaken in the future. Any faithful Christian then would be very interested in being on the side of the light here.

The Apocalypse War, British Library Add. MS 38842 f. 3v.

St Michael is also seen as a sort of spiritual warrior that people can call on for aid if they were feeling particularly challenged with keeping their own faith. Are you tempted by a deadly sin? Simply pray to St Michael and he will help you quench your urge to get down with your boss’s wife or whatever. Maybe.

Other than killing demons both physical and spiritual, Michael was also the dude who would come show up to judge your soul when you died. At the hour of death he would be like, “Oh hey, you dying? Did you repent? Tell me all your sins, my friend, and we’ll see if you’re coming to the party.” This was often shown in medieval art as a literal weighing of the soul in a set of golden scales. My fav bit of these depictions is that there are usually also demons attempting to weigh the “sinful” half down in order to damn otherwise worthy souls. If a soul is judged worthy, he would then fly it up to heaven. Lovely stuff. St Michael appears in this situation because this is seen as yet another field of spiritual war against Hell. Each soul is considered a battleground, and he is about to show up and restore some order.

St Michael being extremely over these demon antics. Morgan MS M.700 fol. 2r

Michael’s last important job is protecting the Church itself. He is theorised as a literal armed protector of the Church when it faced armed conflict, and the head of the Church militant. As a result whenever the Church did something with armies, Michael was the dude that you would call on. Because of this, he is particularly connected with the crusading orders like the Templars and Hospitallers.

Anyway, all of  this is the sort of stuff the medieval Catholics were extremely here for. Saints essentially function as intercessors between the faithful and God. They are someone who is in the presence of God already, and can bend his ear about specific issues that you might be having. Michael is at the top of the pack here because he was never mortal, and has been in heaven the entire time. That translated to being seen as particularly close to God.

The second very important thing about saints for medieval people is that they are also able to work miracles for the faithful, particularly if aid was needed in one of their areas of expertise. A bunch of people who saw themselves as engaged in a very real spiritual war for their own salvation therefore were very down for a guy who was able to kick the devil’s ass in a fight. Also basically anyone who ever went to war was big into him for fairly obvious reasons.  

You will be unsurprised to learn that because of all this Michael shows up a lot in medieval art. If you want to look out for him, Michael’s attributes (the things that help you tell who a saint is in medieval religious art) are wings, usually a sword or spear, and he is often spearing a dragon or demon looking guy. Top rule of thumb: if you see someone spearing a dragon in medieval art and aren’t sure who he is, double check whether he has wings or is on a horse. On a horse? That’s St George. Has wings? That’s Michael. Has the voice of an angel and is shaking his ass in a pair of tight blue jeans? That’s St George Michael. (Ore pro nobis, Sancte Georgi.)

Wings? Check. Spear? Check. Dragon? Check. That’s classic Michael J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig VIII 2, fol. 61v

All of this is to say that St Michael was a pretty big deal and the sort of guy that you would take the opportunity to celebrate when his feast day came around. St Michael’s feast day is 29 September, because a church dedicated to him in late antique Rome was opened on the 30th of September and everyone thought it would be cool to fix the day as the eve of that consecration. This was also a very fitting date for everyone in the northern hemisphere because it happens so close to the autumnal equinox. As the days become darker, celebrating the angel who intercedes on the side of the light is a very potent message. Especially in a world before electricity.

Everyone was so into celebrating this day that St Michael’s Mass, which we shorten to Michaelmas, then became a Holy Day of Obligation, AKA one of the days where faithful Christians absolutely had to go to Church or risk hella penance. So for medieval people Michaelmas was celebrated as being on par with, say, Christmas and Easter. That’s a big ol’ deal.

Much like Christmas and Easter it wasn’t just about going to mass on the day in question though – it was a celebration, bitches. And what a killer time to celebrate! The evenings are closing in. You’ve just finished bringing in the harvest, so there’s enough food to really go to town, and you’ve got the day off. Hell yes. In many regions that is traditionally celebrated by roasting a goose, to the point where calling Michaelmas “Goose Day” became a thing. Even if people were not holding it down with a goose they were extremely partying and having a giant meal, though.

I bring all this up because I think it is another opportunity to reflect on how the medieval world did a great job of being present with the natural world. When it’s really dark in the middle of winter? Have a twelve day festival. Spring time? Write some horny poetry! Autumn? Big. Old. Dinner. Party. If you roast a goose right now and then you’ll have a bunch of nice ass fat to roast all your veg in for the rest of the season! Hell yes.

This could be us, but you’re playing, BnF MS Français 343, folio 3r.

Full disclosure: I am a huge proponent of the celebration of Michaelmas probably because of the fact that I grew up in a family that celebrated it, goose and all. (There was never a chance that I would be anything other than a medievalist, in retrospect.) But I am here to tell you this could be you. You, in your infinite wisdom and ability to have a good time are free to start celebrating this festival right the fuck now. Since the Church (like a bunch of fun police) struck Michaelmas as a Holy Day of Obligation in the eighteenth century it is now a free agent. That means that we can pick it up as a free festival where there aren’t any, well, obligations, other than having a great time and eating some nice food. I mean, because it is unlikely that anyone you know actually celebrates it you could just invite your friends over and have a feast with them and not have to worry about snubbing anyone you don’t want to hang with. It’s a feast you could just celebrate with whoever the hell you want right here in autumn! The best season!

We are surrounded by terrible things right now. The world is really scary and opportunities to have a nice time are becoming fewer and fewer, but if you are somewhere where it is safe to meet up with other people you have an opportunity to do something nice for yourself and your friends. Make a nice communal meal. Have some nice drinks. Enjoy the year closing in around you. If you missed actual Micahelmas no one will blame you for shifting it to this weekend. Hell, tell someone right now that you are about to have them over for a big old roast on the weekend and I tell you that you will have made their day. I won’t even be mad if you don’t roast a goose. I will be slightly mad if you don’t let me play at least one George Michael song after I am wine drunk, though. (Probably, I Want Your Sex.) Whatever, I just gave you a new holiday, let me have this. Gimme the aux cord.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on seasonal enjoyment, see:
On the Lusty month of May
On the Medieval secret to a balling Christmas for once

For more on saints, see:
My fav Saints: St Procopius of Sázava, a spooky saint
On martyrdom and nationalism
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
My fav saints: St Wenceslas
On St Nicholas

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

12 thoughts on “On Michaelmas”

  1. In senior school the Medieval and Tudor periods were my thing, and I still eat that history every chance I get (Mary Beard? You can bet I’m recording that to watch later). I love it. I’m originally from Cheltenham, and so I could be found at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival every year (usually clanking with bagas full of Moniack Mead *hic*) – and here in Essex I live near Beaulieu, which was Henry VIII’s hunting grounds. It was also farmland before my house was built, so I doubt that the cow’s shinbone I unearthed in the garden had anything to do with Henry, but it would be nice!

    I love the utter irreverance of your blog; it’s what keeps history interesting and entertaining. Thanks to you (and Big Mike!) for making my afternoon 🙂


  2. A treat to see the vocative, which in my Latin classes (during the Late Pleistocene, they were) tended to be neglected.


  3. Dear Dr. Janega, may little wings grow on you for your lovely wit…
    Especially for the way you brought George Michael into the mix (may wings grow on him too).


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