Spring’s Norman Roots
- April 24, 2023
- Eleanor Parker
- Themes: Culture, History
The Norman Conquest brought new kinds of poetry from France, with new stories, language, and themes - and one of those themes was spring.
Some time in the thirteenth century, English poets began to notice the spring. It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when spring – with all its natural beauties and its powerful link with renewal and returning warmth – wasn’t an obvious source of inspiration to any poet worthy of the name. For the first few centuries of recorded literature in English, though, poets don’t seem to have been especially interested. If Anglo-Saxon writers had a favourite season, it was winter; they loved to describe bleak landscapes and harsh weather, which spoke to them of life’s hardships and the suffering that leads to wisdom.
By the eleventh century, the traditional poetry of Anglo-Saxon England had dwindled into its own winter and withered away. The Norman Conquest brought new kinds of poetry from France, with new stories, language, and themes – and one of those themes was spring. Winter was out of fashion; spring’s reverdie, ‘re-greening’, was the song of the day. Soon the theme found its way into English too, and medieval English poets became as keen as their French counterparts on hymning the beauties of spring: blossom, cuckoos, daisies, nightingales, love.
There’s a cluster of short, but very charming, anonymous poems from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which revel in the praise of spring. Just running an eye over their opening lines offers a vivid picture: ‘Between March and April, when the spray begins to spring…’; ‘When the nightingale sings, the woods wax green…’; ‘In May it’s merry when it dawns…’ May was the month especially beloved, when ‘merry and hot is the day, and away be winter showers, and every field is full of flowers’.
The theme reached its fullest blossoming with Chaucer, who was a great lover of the spring. Many of his poems are set in April or May, most famously The Canterbury Tales, in which April’s ‘showers sweet’ inspire pilgrims with an irresistable longing to go travelling. But May was Chaucer’s favourite month: ‘green and lusty May’, as he calls it, ‘fair, fresh May’, ‘that mother is of months glad, [when] fresh flowers, blue and white and red, be quick again that winter dead made’. He’s keen on the idea that one ought to pay ‘observance’ to May, as if to a religious festival – to give honour to the season, perhaps by getting up early and going into the nearest meadow to admire the daisies.
Apart from Chaucer, the most familiar of these medieval spring poems is probably ‘Sumer is icumen in’, which is all about the new voices of spring: ewes and cows calling to their young and the singing of the cuckoo, entreated to sing loud and merrily and never to cease. Cuckoos had been calling in English woods for many springs; had no one thought to sing back to them before? The cuckoo does appear in Anglo-Saxon poetry as a herald of spring, but its voice isn’t a welcome one; it’s described as ‘mournful’, giving warning of sorrow. For earlier English poets, spring might have brought blossom and slightly more sunshine, but they also saw it as a turbulent season, still cold, and prone to blustery storms. It could be a time of hunger, when the last of the winter provisions were running low, before the earth started to produce food again. The few Anglo-Saxon poems which have much to say about spring are not necessarily positive about it. One poet, searching for a way to sum up the season in a single line, could only manage: ‘Spring is frostiest; it’s cold the longest’. Not very inviting.
It’s a long way from that to Chaucer’s lyrical praise of the month of May. By the later Middle Ages, it was agreed that May – and especially the first of May – was the most magical time of the year, an auspicious day for marvellous dreams, love-trysts, and encounters with fairies. Again, that’s the influence of French culture; there are no fairies or magical love-stories to be found in Anglo-Saxon literature. In marking the divisions of the seasons, the older English calendar gave most significance to the solstices and equinoxes, not the start of May; the Anglo-Saxons seem to have attached no special importance to May Day.
So all these spring songs really were something new and fresh. In Chaucer’s time, there wasn’t even an established English name for the spring; that word wasn’t fixed as the season’s name until the sixteenth century. Chaucer himself calls it ‘Veer’, related to the Latin and French names, as in vernal. Some people were still calling it ‘Lenten’, the Anglo-Saxon name for the season which gave us the word ‘Lent’, although their idea of it isn’t at all penitential (as in one poem, ‘Lenten is come with love to town’, which presents spring as a time for joy, love, and sex, when animals and birds seek their mates and even ‘worms are wooing underground’). Another name in common use was ‘sumer’, meaning the whole warm season of the year, including what we would call spring. ‘Sumer is icumen in’ clearly isn’t about what’s now considered summer; its cuckoos and lambs belong to April or May, not June or July.
There’s something nice about the thought that spring has a history, and that its name, its associations, its meaning have changed over time. It’s not timeless, not always the same. Every year, spring arrives with a feeling of novelty, as if it had never happened before; ‘fresh’ is one of the words Chaucer most associates with it, and that feels right. As we watch spring’s arrival, our perception of it is shaped by all the literary associations the season has acquired over the centuries since Chaucer’s time, all the poets who have found language for its beauties. The real spring we see may not be the same as the ideal spring of the poets, but that’s part of its charm as well. It’s always going to be something new and unexpected – a birth and a new beginning.