4 minutes reading time (890 words)

Saint Britta, whose story is lost

Someone in the Post Office (where I was spending a small fortune posting boxes and packets of pamphlets) referred to this lovely 'Indian Summer' -- that term we use to describe a period of warmth and sunshine, after 'summer' is officially over. It's been gorgeous this week, though in Scotland, this morning, it has given way to thick grey cloud again. Why Indian? I thought I'd look it up.

Immediately I discovered it wasn't a 'true' Indian summer this last week. True Indian summer has to be after the first proper frost, so we're talking October or November. And anyway, the term 'Indian' summer only began to be widely used in the UK, according to Wikipedia, in the twentieth century, when American influence became more potent than European, the 'Indian' deriving from Native American references.

Before that, it would have been a St Martin's Summer, named after the French Saint Martin of Tours, who died on November 8th in 397 AD. Rather a long time ago.

However, Saint Martin's death became a good story. Corpses of saints were valuable: people made pilgrimages to pray at their gravesides, get healed and even get relics (the original tourist and merchandise industry).

Martin died in Candes-sur-Loire, later named Candes-Saint-Martin in his honour. He had converted the pagans after all and knocked down their temple (they didn't do diversity in those days). Anyway, according to legend his body was snatched in unchristian manner by the people of Poitou, who popped him in a boat and floated him downriver to Tours, where they buried him (though not according to the website of Candes-Saint-Martin which suggests he is buried there. He was once, it seems, but he was definitely shifted).

Anyway, the 'St Martin's Summer' refers to the way, according to legend, the vegetation on the river bank flowered as the saint's stolen body floated past. It was November 8th and things definitely shouldn't have been flowering by then.

Saint Martin himself was actually Hungarian. According to the history of Catholic Saints, he was in the Roman Army, got converted, and once he was demobbed became a Catholic and, in due course, a Saint. It must have suited him because he lived to the age of 81, a ripe old age in those dark days.

He was a popular saint, so an Indian summer in Spain is Veranillo de San Miguel or Veranillo de San Martin, depending on which date it occurs (either September 29 or November 11th). In Galicia and Portugal they celebrate Saint Martin's day with bonfires, roasted chestnuts and wine.

In Russia, it's 'Old Women's Summer', in Bulgaria 'Gypsy Summer' or even 'Gypsy Christmas'. In Sweden, it's Brittsommar, which is linked by the name day for Saints Brigitta and Britta, celebrated by an open-air market on October 7th. Saint Brigitta was a medieval mystic with a complicated story; even her daughter became a saint. But poor Britta -- she was a fourth century virgin, martyred with Saint Maura - and her story is lost! Her relics were discovered by Saint Euphronius, Bishop of Tours, (where Saint Martin is buried).

In Germany, Austria and Hungary, it's 'Old Ladies Summer' (Altweibersommer) or 'Crone's Summer'. That is (allegedly) because of the white threads of the canopy spiders in autumn, in turn  associated with the white haired Norns, the demi-goddesses who live at the base of Yggdrasil and control our destiny.

In Scotland (but not in England, Ireland or Wales), the European Martinmas (November 11th) was one of the quarter days. That is to say the days when servants were hired and rents were due. That meant a holiday, and in religious terms an opportunity for feasting before fasting.

All of which brings me to the sorry conclusion that we have not had a St Martin's Summer, or an Old Wives Summer, or a Brittsommar. We haven't even had an Indian Summer. It's too soon. What we have had is a few lovely days in late summer, early autumn, and we should be jolly grateful and get on with it.

For me, it's been so beautiful in the garden that I found it hard to work at the desk, but nevertheless that has been necessary. Kate Scott's pamphlet, Escaping the Cage, is more or less complete though the cover's not done.  Three Samplers, from Isobel Montgomery-Campbell, Patrick Yarker and Tom Vaughan, are in the post in draft to their authors, who will provide a bonny signature for me to scan for the front. Parcels of the Hardy pamphlet have gone scurrying hither and thither. Two new PoemCards are ready, one by Maggie Butt for empty nesters; the other by Bruce James -- the comical but melancholy tale of the Woodworm. More will follow.

My next task is to organise a subscriber mailshot, which will have all sorts of interesting things in it. The new website is about to go live; some teething problems yesterday.

And then it's on to Martin Parker (redoubtable editor of Lighten-Up Online) and Graham Austin (two PoLites), Tim Love (pamphlet) and Alan Hill (tankas). I'm slightly behind schedule, and the accounts are also demanding my attention. A small prayer to Saint Martin about now might be useful, though I think I'll appeal to Saint Britta, whose story was lost. I can relate to that.

I'll plan a little chestnut roasting for next month. . . .

More on Indian Summers
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Saturday, 04 July 2020

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