Thursday, February 26, 2009

Early Modern English Groundhog Day

The elderly and pious Thomas Gataker (who had changed his name from ‘Gatacre’ to minimize his opponent, the astrologer William Lilly, squibbing on his name and ‘Wiseacre’) unbends a little in his lengthy attack on Judicial Astrology, Thomas Gataker B.D. his vindication of the annotations by him published upon these words, Thus saith the Lord, learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signes of heaven (1653):

“And here, I hope I shall not much displease my Reader, unless he be over austere, if I shall fall sometime into a fit of that infirmity, that is so incident to men of my years, to entertain him with a tale. They say Herodotus made his History somewhat the more delightful, by stepping aside to tell a tale or two now and then.

Not long before my leaving of Lincolns Inn

(~ which Gataker did in 1611, so he is reminiscing back more than forty years to this little triumph)

… in the reading time, one that had brought Mr. Reader venison, being an ancient man and one of some fashion, was entertained with some other at Mr. Reader’s board; where some table talk falling in about Candlemas day, & a word or 2 cast out by occasion thereof concerning the vanity of such observations, their old guest very sagely told them, that he was a Keeper himself, as also had his Father been before him, and he had constantly observed so far as he was able to remember ought, that on Candlemas day, if the Sun shone out, and it were a faire day, the Deer (contrary to their ordinary usage) would keep close in the covert; whereas if it were a close and gloomy day, they would come abroad and be frisking upon the lawn; as presaging that winter was in a manner gone, and little hard weather behind, and that this had also been observed by his Father before him, as also by other Keepers as well as himself.”

~ So here’s a local, English, variant on the reverse predictions made by Punxatawny Phil and all the other groundhogs: if the animal involved sees the sun on the designated day, then this sign, which might casually be thought a hopeful one, actually indicates that the winter will last much longer (normally, six weeks more, right up till the vernal equinox).

Gataker, though, is not prepared to let this harmless yarn pass unchallenged, which he does indirectly by questioning with mock erudition whether observing the behaviour of the deer on Candlemas day according to the Julian calendar (the English February 2nd), or 10 days later, at what would be Candlemas according to the Catholic Gregorian calendar, and then correlating the two predictions with the actual meteorological conditions that followed, might not be a way of inferring the right timing for Candlemas (and hence, the Spring equinox, Easter, etc):

“Now when I perceived this his relation to take with some of the company, and one among the rest had past his verdict, that there might be somewhat in it: conceiving it no fit course to debate any further by way of argumentation in the business, I thought better as Socrates sometime dealing with the Sophisters of his time, to move a question only to the Keeper (though Mr. Lilly tax me for that course, and would have puzzling questions debarred from these disputes.) I demanded therefore of him, which Candlemas it was, the Popish or ours which are ten days asunder, on which the Deer were so disposed. and he answering ours; for he knew no other; I inferred thereupon, that that would then afford a good argument, to prove not theirs, but ours, to be the right Candlemas day: for that the Deer went not by any Calendar, but by instinct. It was soon perceived what the Demand and Inference aimed at; and the business was instantly at an end…”

~ They can all see that Gataker has knocked a hole in the Candlemas day observation of animals by referring to the Gregorian reforms of the calendar in 1582: how can animals know that Candlemas day shifted ten days anyway?

Gataker has a bit of a weakness for these moments when his common sense triumphed, as when he tells those apprehensive about an eclipse that a far longer eclipse will follow it, which he then explains as nighttime, with the earth interposing between them and the sun’s light, in the same unmysterious way that the moon had done in the eclipse (as normally understood).

From what I learn elsewhere, it seems as though the February 2nd traditions of observing animals – bears or badgers, originally – on Candlemas Day is largely German in origin, and traveled to America with German colonists in Pennsylvania, where the local groundhog was co-opted.

Sir Thomas Browne, in his Pseudodoxia epidemica, refers to the general tradition of a weather forecasting by tradition, without any animals: if the sun shines on the feast of the purification of the Virgin, wintry cold will last as long after the festival as it had before:

“There are also certain popular prognostics drawn from festivals in the Calendar, and conceived opinions of certain days in months, so is there a general tradition in most parts of Europe, that inferreth the coldness of succeeding winter from the shining of the Sun upon Candlemas day, according to the proverbial distich.---

Si Sol splendescat Maria purificante,
Major erit glacies post festum quam fuit ante.

So is it usual amongst us to qualify and conditionate the twelve months of the year, answerably unto the temper of the twelve days in Christmas, and to ascribe unto March certain borrowed days from April; all which men seem to believe upon annual experience of their own, and the received traditions of their forefathers.”

(My vernal image is some daffodils photographed today with a kaleidoscope held up in front of the camera lens.)

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