While the above is still a legitimate reading of Bede, it is also possible to approach his account of the Anglo-Saxon months in a radically different way, one which takes account of an intriguing textual oddity that the ‘speculation’ approach does not.
The oddity I am referring to here is Bede’s habit of refusing to provide information that would have been obvious to him as a speaker of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, and which one would expect him to provide if he really did have a straightforward intent to explain the Anglo-Saxon months.
For example, he says of Blodmonath that it was the ‘month of immolations’, that is, sacrificial burnings. But the literal translation of Blodmonath is ‘blood month’. Bede mostly spoke and wrote Latin, but Anglo-Saxon was his mother tongue. He would have known perfectly well that Blodmonath meant ‘blood month’. Why, then, does he not say so?
Precisely the same thing happens with Solmonath, which Bede must have known meant ‘soil-month’. And yet he says that Solmonath ‘can be called “month of cakes”’. He doesn’t even bother to translate the word ‘Giuli’, choosing instead to focus discreetly on the way the two Giuli months fall on opposite sides of the Winter Solstice. This is characteristic of Bede’s whole approach to the Anglo-Saxon year. He is much more comfortable talking about embolismic months and purely calendrical calculations than about what his heathen forebears actually did.
The irresistible conclusion here is that Bede is embarrassed to write this section, and yet he feels he has to write it despite his discomfort. ‘It did not seem fitting to me that I should speak of other nations’ observance of the year and yet be silent about my own nation’s,’ he writes. Note the subtle double negative here: he not saying that his own people's past ways deserve to be recorded, he is saying that he shouldn't remain silent about them. Generally, things that you feel you mustn't keep silent about are in the nature of unpleasant or difficult admissions, such as confessions that weigh on the conscience until divulged.
I get the impression from the double negative that Bede would rather have remained silent. The chapter on Anglo-Saxon months has been left until last, and he includes the above text almost by way of apology, as if it were awkward and uncomfortable to be reminded of his ancestors’ heathenism.
Seen in this light, the passage on Modranecht seems to have made Bede cringe worst of all. Modranecht was the heathen antecedent of Christmas: ‘That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is “mother’s night” because (we suspect) of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.’
Why on earth does Bede choose to focus on the word ‘night’ here, rather than the word ‘mothers’? We know from archaeological evidence that the Mothers, or Martres, definitely existed as figures of worship and that animals were sacrificed to them. He points out that Hrethmonath was named after the Goddess Hretha and Eosturmonath after the Goddess Eostre; what could be stopping him from stating that his heathen ancestors sacrificed to the Mothers on Modranecht?
I see only two explanations. Either Bede did not know about the Martres, or he is choosing to remain silent about them. If he did not know about them, then the credibility of his whole account is thrown into question. We would also have to explain why the worship of the Martres, which was widespread in north-western Europe and for which we have prodigious evidence, somehow escaped his notice.
If he knows but is keeping silent, then we have an explanation for the peculiar incoherence of his statement. The second half of the sentence simply does not fit the first half. Look at it again. Bede is building up to a horrified contrast between old Anglo-Saxon ways and Christianity here:
‘That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word…’
What bombshell is Bede about to drop? What pagan event was so horrible that Bede has to emphasise its striking contrast with Christmas? ‘Gallons of blood night’? ‘Prisoner-roasting night’? ‘Devouring-the-livers-of-Christians night’?
‘… mothers’ night!’
Wow, Bede. ‘Mothers’ night’? THAT was what you were building up to?
It’s obvious that on the face of it, ‘mothers’ night’ is innocuous. There is nothing scandalously heathen about mothers in general that would warrant such an emphasis.
It is only when you know that the Martres were heathen deities, and that sacrifices were made to them, that Bede’s hyperbole over Modranecht makes any sense at all. In short, he must have known about the Martres.
This means that the blustering exegesis that follows, with its tautologous focus on the word ‘night’ rather than the more obvious word ‘mothers’, is nothing but dissimulation on Bede’s part. In speaking of the meaning of Modranecht, the interjection suspiciamur, ‘we suspect’, now looks like Bede distancing himself from the subject. It is not that he does not know what happened at Modranecht. He does know. But he does not want the reader to know that he knows. Hence, ‘suspiciamur’. He presents his observations as the detached suspicions of a learned Christian scholar, because the subject is acutely embarrassing to him.
Bede rounds off his account of the Anglo-Saxon year and its various heathen observances with a grateful (and relieved) address to Christ:
‘Good Jesu, thanks be to thee, who hast turned us away from these vanities and given us to offer to thee the sacrifice of praise.’
The chapter on the Anglo-Saxon year thus begins with a justification for tackling the subject at all, and ends with a pious statement of gratitude that those days are now over. This, I think, demonstrates that Bede would far rather have left the chapter out, but found the Anglo-Saxon measurement of time too pertinent to ignore. His discomfort is a tremendous boon to us.
This re-evaluation of the import of the key word ‘suspiciamur’, then, allows us to reappraise Bede’s entire account and treat it not as speculation, but as the guarded, reluctant testament of a scholar who - in the words of Jacob Grimm - tells us less of the heathen world than he knows.
Continue to Part 3: Meanwhile, Six Thousand Years Ago...