The Joyce Hill Column

August 2017



Lammas, traditionally celebrated on 1 August, is one of those observances which is in the Book of Common Prayer but not in the modern Common Worship. Since it’s a feast-day which comes out of a predominantly agricultural society, it had strong appeal throughout the Middle Ages and Tudor times, but in the light of increasing urbanisation since then, it’s easy to see why it was omitted from Common Worship. It was not, in any case, a universal Christian feast-day and it probably reflects pre-Christian practices, which could be another factor in its omission today. But since the BCP is still a foundational text for the Church of England, let’s have a look at what Lammas is, and why appears there.

The word ‘Lammas’ is a simplification of the Anglo-Saxon ‘hlæfmæsse’, literally ‘loaf-mass’. It referred to a mass when the bread for the communion was made from the first-ripe corn, with the clear intention of giving thanks for the harvest. Customarily, this act of thanksgiving was held on 1 August. The fact that the mass did not have a Latin name, but only a native Anglo-Saxon one, points to it being a Christianisation of a native practice. It is easy to see how, in a rural society with precarious food supplies, the ripening of the grain would be an occasion for annual celebration; and it is equally easy to see how, once Christianity was established, the thanksgiving would be offered to God. It was, if you like, an early form of  Harvest Thanksgiving, although that, as we now know it, was instituted in the nineteenth century and focuses not on the joyous beginning of the harvest, but its completion: ‘All is safely gathered in…’.

There is a lot of evidence from our historical records that Lammas was observed throughout Anglo-Saxon England and subsequently, sometimes still retaining echoes of its pre-Christian heritage: an Anglo-Saxon book of charms caters for the practice of breaking off four pieces of the Lammas Bread and placing them in the four corners of the barn to protect the stored grain. Although Lammas was recognised and celebrated by the church in England, it was only ever a popular (as opposed to official) feast-day: it did not have a Latin name, as I’ve already noted, and it was not included in standard church calendars. Instead, what the Anglo-Saxon church calendars list for 1 August  is the Feast of St Peter in Chains, which celebrates St Peter being liberated by the angel from his imprisonment by Herod (Acts 12: 1-19). In this they were in line with the rest of western Christendom. However, in the very different world of the Reformation, when the Book of Common Prayer was drawn up, saints’ days were heavily culled, amongst which was St Peter in Chains, regarded as all the more ‘Roman’ no doubt because of the link between St Peter and the papacy. Yet special days were popular among the predominantly rural common people, and so for 1 August the Church of England included the well-established and much-loved Lammas Day in the calendar as a replacement for the Roman feast-day. And so, if you look in the list of special days at the beginning of a complete edition of the BCP, you will see Lammas listed, on its own, for 1 August, complete with its specified first and second readings for Morning and Evening Prayer. It had thus become ‘official’, after many centuries of popular (though always sanctioned) observance.


Joyce Hill


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