Posted by: kljolly | April 13, 2018

Æcerbot Ritual II: Timing

As noted in my previous post, I am endeavoring to re-create the Æcerbot Ritual from BL Cotton Caligula A.VII as a scripted performance for my Leeds paper this summer.  This post addresses the timing:  the season of the year, the number of days, and the time of day.  The next post will address issues of place:  region, type of estate, layout of the property.  That post, or a subsequent one if it gets too long like this one, will take up the materials and persons needed to carry out the ritual.  Eventually, I will present my script for performing the ritual.

Throughout, I refer to the Æcerbot Ritual as “the field remedy.”  It’s easier to type than pasting in the Æ. And, yes, I am using British plough not American plow, because of the books I read.


Much ink has been spilled trying to locate this field remedy in the agricultural or church calendar.  Two main candidates are Plough Monday in early January and Rogation Days in spring.  Elements in the field remedy resonate with both of these, but other elements mitigate against making a strong identification with either.

First, we need to establish the Anglo-Saxon agricultural cycle as it has been reconstructed from textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence.  For this, I am reliant on the work of Debby Banham, Rosamond Faith, Peter Fowler, and Fergus Kelly, among others.

Seasons for ploughing, sowing, and harvesting vary by crop and region.  But in general, for grain crops in late Anglo-Saxon England, we can posit the following:

  • Although ploughing is associated with January in the illustrated calendar, ploughing to keep the earth turned over might start soon after autumn harvest and continue through the winter as a means of keeping the earth tilled and weeds down (Banham and Faith, pp. 50-59).
  • Ploughing might also be used as part of  manuring, for example, to plough in bean stalks for nitrogen, or to turn up subsoil into the seed bed (Fowler, pp. 209-11). [I am not going to distinguish here between a plough, an ard, or a harrow, but see Banham and Faith, pp. 44-50.]
  • Wheat and rye, with a longer growing season, are winter-sown, while oats and barley are spring-sown.  The field remedy “Erce” prayer specifically names both “broad” barley (bradan berewæstma) and “white” wheat (hwitan hwætewæstma), and then all crops (ealra eorþan wæstma).

Also to be kept in mind is that the field remedy in this one version we possess is prefaced by a statement indicating its use for a field that is problematic in some way:  it has not produced well in the past, and might have been cursed through sorcery or poison.  Other references to witchcraft in the field remedy’s Old English prayers suggest a least those portions were designed specifically for remedial use against evil intentions.

In comparison to similar ritual remedies, the field remedy, existing in only one manuscript, is a bit mysterious.  The much more ubiquitous “John poison prayer” occurs in both prayer books and medical texts, with different prefaces indicating a variety of spiritual as well as physical applications (Jolly, “Cross-Referencing,” 221–28; Pettit, 2: 77–79). The Durham A.IV.19 field prayers against winged threats visible and invisible are quite specific, and probably reference a lunar date (Jolly, “Prayers from the Field” and Addenda and Corrigenda).

On the one hand, then, the field remedy seems very exacting in its prescriptions; but on the other hand, it is surprisingly silent on its calendrical date, unless something is missing from the manuscript.  Given how elaborate the ritual is, requiring a great deal of time and resources, it is tempting to identify it with a known ceremonial occasion.  At the very least, examining the two candidates of Plough Monday and Rogation Days may help us sort out what the field remedy is trying to accomplish.

Plough Monday

This ceremony of blessing the plough is known only from later medieval evidence, and is associated with January 6, Epiphany, with a preceding Plough Sunday celebration (Niles, pp. 47-48).  Although no evidence for a Plough Monday celebration exists in Anglo-Saxon evidence, it lines up nicely with the Anglo-Saxon calendar illustration for January of ploughing, and somewhat oddly, sowing. January does seem a bit early for sowing wheat or rye, so the illustration may be combining two different activities, a first ploughing and a later sowing.

Setting the field remedy in January and associating it with ploughing and sowing simultaneously works in some ways.  Tangentially, Epiphany’s celebration of the Magi bringing their gifts, including incense, resonates with some of the field remedy’s use of gifts and incense.   More importantly, the remedy specifies exchanging seed with beggars and the placement of seed on the plough.  This suggests the kind of ploughing done just prior to sowing–but it is questionable that wheat or rye would be sown in January.

Other elements in the remedy are also problematic for January.  For one, the remedy specifies milk from each animal on the land (presumably cows, sheep, or goats).  Unlike modern dairying, early medieval animals probably stopped producing over the winter (Banham and Faith, p. 113).  Nonetheless, early Irish evidence suggests methods to deliberately keep a cow in milk year-round (Kelly, p 41).  This would be unlikely with sheep or goats, though.

Rogation Days

Rogation Days are three days prior to Ascension dedicated to a penitential supplication for crops that goes back to a tangled set of origins in the sixth century (Bedingfield, 191–209; Jolly, “Prayers from the Field,”109-110).  Easter calculations fix the date:  Rogation Sunday is the fifth Sunday after Easter (which could fall between April 26 and May 30), with Rogation days the subsequent Monday through Wednesday, and Ascension on Thursday.  Rogation Days were practiced in late Anglo-Saxon England, evident for example in calendars, service books, and sermons (Hill, “Litaniae Maiores and Minores).

In favor of associating the field remedy with Rogation:

  • Rogation’s origins include a story of cursed fields for which a penitential procession around the fields is prescribed, matching the purpose described at the beginning of the field remedy;
  • three days set aside for penance might include the full day or two the field remedy performance might take;
  • the Rogation procession includes carrying relics, the cross, and saying litanies; the field remedy prescribes a litany with full ritual prostration, among other liturgical elements.

Elements against:

  • Other than the litany, little in the field remedy resonates with Rogation processions:  no mention of carrying a cross (although there are the quickbeam crosses placed in the sod divots), no relics, no mention of crowds moving around the property barefoot, no reference to three days.
  • April 26-May 30 is fairly late even for barley and oat sowing.  The field remedy seems designed specifically for the ploughing and sowing of seeds, while Rogation days may function to protect the crops after sowing is done, depending on the dates on which it falls relative to the climate and conditions locally.

My conclusion on the season: if Plough Monday seems a bit too early, Rogation Days may be too late.  We are looking for a Goldilocks time.  Tempting as it is to associate the field remedy with either of these dates, the ritual could have been used any time when ploughing and sowing took place:  in winter for wheat and rye, or in spring for barley and oats.  Given the justification offered at the beginning as a remedy for diseased or cursed fields, it may have been that the landowner or workers requested the services of the clergy when a field was problematic. The day for beginning the ritual, which had to be planned at least a day or more in advance, might have been set based on the readiness of the community to begin ploughing and sowing that field, when the temperature was just right.

EdenValley 005 Temple Sowerby

Temple Sowerby, Eden Valley, Cumbria. author photo August 2013



Linked to placing the field remedy into the calendar is the amount of time it would take to plan and carry out the rituals, including preparing the materials.  Several things are noteworthy in the remedy:

  • The remedy would take advance planning and preparation of materials, at least a day.  This includes the gathering of plants, milk from different animals, baking of bread, and the like.
  • It specifically says that the sods from the field need to be cut before sunrise and that they must be replaced in the field before sundown.  Everything in between would need to take place in one day.
  • Possibly that day of sod blessing could end with the litany and Latin prayers, and a new day start with the phrase ðonne þæt eall sie gedon þonne (when all that is done, then…) followed by the plough ceremony itself.  In my previous post, I suggested that þonne functions as a divider between sets of activities; this longer phrase of when…then suggests a longer break separating the sod blessing from the plough ceremonies.

So, this whole field remedy might have taken three days, vaguely reminiscent of Rogation days, but as noted above, not really lining up with the requirements for Rogation penitential processions.  In theory, the blessing of the sods could be a Sunday, with four masses said over them, and the plough ceremony on a Monday, suggestive of Plough Monday.

However, accomplishing all of the activities for the sods between dawn and dusk would be daunting in winter.  Using a 2018 sunrise and sunset calendar for London:   at the beginning of January, we have a daylight window of eight hours from 8:05 a.m. to 4:05 p.m.;  while at the end of April, that window of time would be more than fourteen hours, from 5:40 a.m. to 8:15 p.m.  We can also consider adding an amount of twilight extending 30 minutes either side.

The four Masses performed over the sods are presumably not done back to back, but occur between the Daily Office prayers and other activities (I will take up later why I think this is a church with multiple clergy and at least a secular Office performed daily).  It might look like this (see Hughes, pp. 14-18, and Palazzo, 124-25):

  • Nocturns (the night office, also called Vigils and later Matins) on the eve of the day:  go get sods.
  • Lauds (or Matins) at dawn:  7:30ish in January, 5:30ish in April.
  • Prime at the first hour of the day after sunrise: 8 a.m. in January, 6ish in April.
  • Chapter meeting:  busy with sod blessing?
  • Chapter Mass
  • blessing of salt and water done on Sundays: bless also some sapan, among other ingredients often noted as “hallowed” in remedies.
  • Terce (3rd hour): 10:30ish in January, 8:30ish in April?
  • Sunday Mass, usually after Terce
  • Sext (6th hour), noon
  • Mass, after Sext on ferias
  • None (9th hour): 2 or 3ish in January, 3ish in April.
  • Mass (after None on fasts–admittedly you wouldn’t have a ferial and a fasting mass on the same day, but work with me here to get four  masses into the day!).
  • Between None and Vespers is where it would be much easier in April to finish the sod ceremonies out in the field before sunset than it would be in January.
  • Vespers in the early evening:  4ish in January, 7:30ish in April.
  • Compline at bedtime

Even setting aside the plough ceremony for another day, I am guessing that you wouldn’t want to try and pull off this sod blessing in one day in January or even February.  I would aim for March.

Now you can also see why I am interested in how long it takes to perform the Mass, and whether one can just repeat the Canon of the Mass only.

Conclusions on Timing

Given this analysis of seasons and days, I think it is a mistake to lock the field remedy into either January 6 Plough Monday or to late April Rogation days.  Rather, it seems designed for use whenever the ground was ready and the community was prepared to plough and sow a field that they were worried about.  This might be late winter for wheat and rye or early spring for barley and oats.


Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith.  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Bedingfield, M. Bradford.  The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England.  Woodbridge:  Boydell, 2002.

Fowler, Peter.  Farming in the First Millennium:  British Agriculture Between Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hill, Joyce. “The Litaniae Maiores and Minores in Rome, Francia and Anglo-Saxon England: Terminology, Texts and Traditions.” Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000): 211–46.

Hooke, Della.  The Landscape of Anglo-Saxon England.  London:  Leicester University Press, 1998.

Hughes, Andrew.  Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office:  A Guide to their Organization and Terminology.  Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Jolly, Karen.  “Cross-Referencing Anglo-Saxon Liturgy and Remedies: The Sign of the Cross as Ritual Protection.” In Liturgy of the Late Anglo-Saxon Church, ed. Helen Gittos and M. Bradford Bedingfield.  HBS Subsidia 5.  Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005, 213-43.

Jolly, Karen. “Prayers from the Field: Practical Protection and Demonic Defense in Anglo-Saxon England.” Traditio 61 (2006): 95-147.

Kelly, Fergus.  Early Irish Farming.  Dublin:  Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997.

Niles, John D. “The Æcerbot Ritual in Context.” In Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays, edited by John D. Niles, pp. 44–56, 163–64. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Palazzo, Eric.  A History of Liturgical Books from the Beginning to the Thirteenth Century, trans. Madeleine Beaumont.  Collegeville, MN:  LIturgical Press, 1993.

Pettit, Edward, ed. and trans. Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001.


  1. […] as the “field remedy” found in BL Cotton Caligula A.VI cannot be tied to a particular season or days, it is also not specific to a place or region.   However, clues within the remedy itself suggest […]

  2. […] that the same people were involved in both the sod and the plough ceremonies, possibly over two days, the proceedings might normally involve a dozen or so people, clerical and […]

  3. Reblogged this on pmayhew53.

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