Peasants and birthdays

Discussion in 'General Writing Discussion' started by Brian Turner, Oct 19, 2011.

  1.  
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    Got a bit of a conundrum would like some advice on.

    In my mediaeval-fantasy novel there is a group of protagonists, some of whom are educated, and a couple of which are illiterate.

    It is made plain that Character U, a woodsman and hunter, is both illiterate and doesn't understand numbers properly, based on my reading of levels of education among mediaeval peasant classes.

    The problem is, in the current draft, Character U notes that the date is his birthday, which is a significant theme in some sections.

    It's a problem because while mediaeval peasants could celebrate birthdays, the dates could be recognised because every day was patronised by a different saint, whom the baby was usually named after. So every time the feast of St [name] came along, you know you were a year older - if you knew numbers.

    Presumably the local priest would inform of which feast day it was and advise accordingly on such issues as relevant.

    However, I don't have that system in my calendar, which is based more on the Roman form.

    Additionally, while an uneducated peasant may arguably recognise a date, I would not expect them to understand numbers enough to note their own age.

    It's an old draft I'm working with and I'm inclined to edit out all references and events relating to the birthday.

    However, despite research I'm still not fully sure of the context by which mediaeval peasants may or may not have measured and celebrated birthdays, if at all.

    So I just thought I'd ask for other people's opinions whether it's unrealistic to expect a peasant character with an understanding of writing or numbers to know their age, let alone celebrate a birthday (which I'm inclined to think was a perogative of the rich) - or whether I'm just being too critical. :)
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    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    Well I would at least expect there to be some form of celebration, no matter how humble. I believe peasants would celebrate marriages, with song and dancing and community, so I think it would be feasible for birthdays as well.

    Whether or not it would be the same with an uneducated, illiterate peasant, due to the fact that I don't think they WOULD really understand the dates of a Roman style calendar. And you also have to remember that education was mostly reserved for those wishing to enter the clergy, and the higher classes. I'm sure peasants that were actually able to be well enough off would be able to be educated, but I don't think most were. I suppose it all depended on how well they were being treated by the local lord(s).
  3.  
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    That's the question - where in the social strata does the celebration of birthdays stop? Am having difficulty answering that question. :)

    Originally thought it was a good idea for a character to have a birthday during a mediaeval fantasy novel, but raising too many potential objections to the realism of it now, for the character in question, anyway. :)

    Though I suspect age was rarely observed in the lower classes, hence focus on stages of physical development (ie, puberty) to determine manhood, rather than an arbitrary age, and old age defined by knowledge of the previous generations known, rather than a specific age.
  4.  
    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    I think you would be right about that. And doubly so for old age, Brian, in the eyes of the providers and community elders, in that they would not be as well able to perform strenuous physical tasks. I suspect that puberty was perhaps more important to individual families, though, in the worry of many parents of young adolescent girls. I suspect that exploration and curiosity was commonplace and that in many instances it would lead to either rape or consensual unwed sexual activity, resulting in bastard births. (I do apologize for such harsh language, but religion was strong in those times and Catholicism was the prevailing one, seeing as how it frowns upon unwed births and sexual activity.) Religion aside, births were often difficult in that time as medicine was not nearly so sophisticated as it is today and the areas certainly not as clean. I can't imagine how many girls and women had died in childbirth, or how many children might have been stillborn due to breached births or other possible conditions. Again, I think this would be something that might depend on how well a local lord would treat the people on his land, in that they might be kept well nourished enough to be healthy for such things, or trying to keep population under control, whether or not a war or a dispute with a rival would be going on, therefore keeping the number of healthy, able young men away in a call to arms away from the womenfolk...

    I'm sure you're getting the idea.
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    hopewrites

    hopewrites Happily Ever Aftering

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    I dont think you need to know letters and numbers to know your birthday. sure you might be off a day or two here or there but essentially you would celebrate it around the same time. probably tied to a phase of the moon in a certain season and in relation to planting/ harvesting of a crop.
    there are plenty of ways to mark the passage of time without having to know that there is a numeric system for it. birthdays are special to everyone who is glad they are alive, for me they have always been a way to get together with the people who are also glad your alive and just be thankful.
    Perhaps there is a flower that begins or ends its blooming around U's birthday, like for me the tulips are fading and the daffodils are rampant and the iris are just showing buds right around my birthday every year. its time to plant spring crops and the birds have already come through on their way to their nesting grounds.
    it might not always be April 10, but knowing all those things would keep me from missing it altogether.

    hope that helps
  6.  
    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    That's a very unreliable method, HW, as flowers go in late or early all the time due to weather and temperature conditions. I think it would be through certain religious days that would be recognized by the clergy.
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    hopewrites

    hopewrites Happily Ever Aftering

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    I wasn't clear. Farmers Almanac's are decently reliable I hear. From what I understand lunar calenders were used before solar calenders, or at least they were used by farming societies. So knowing that your birthday was at 3/4 moon after the first full thaw when the crocus are in bloom. is a decent enough way to get your birthday in roughly the same week every year.
    to be honest i wouldn't care how U knew it was his birthday, everyone remembers it differently. My mom remembers that hers is on the day after Halloween and i remember that its on Nov 1st.
    it could even be remembered in relation to someones birthday who does have a calender! i remember my boyfriends birthday as the same day as my sisters but in the same month as my brother and 6 days before my son.
    complicated? yes, but i remember it.
  8.  
    Karn Maeshalanadae

    Karn Maeshalanadae Why?

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    Well yes, the lunar calendar probably would have been used, but I doubt that alone would have been enough; it's hard to count out twelve full moons and the subsequent positions.
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    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    No one would know it was an unreliable number, Karn, if they didn't understand the calendar or read one if they did or had one (neither of which would be true), so the opening of the buds or the first full moon of spring or whatever it might be should be good enough for them.

    As I understand it, no man who worked another man's land was anything more than a serf. It wouldn't matter how kindly his lord was; he would be uneducated even in numbers. What would he do with an education? What would he use it for? If he needed to keep count of something he had tally sticks or some such method to use. The lord of the manor might not be able to do much more than sign his own name, so he'd certainly not see the value of education for serfs.

    If you need the birthday for your plot, Brian, something along the lines of what hope originally suggested, something like when the first crocus blooms would seem accurate enough to the people involved. It probably wouldn't matter if it was his birthday or not, if everyone thought it was his birthday.
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    The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    I agree that they would be pretty flexible as to when they celebrated -- they were used to doing things by the seasons and the rhythms of nature, and they wouldn't know if the day wasn't the actual day, or care if they did. However, it's always possible that an educated person in the village/town who understands the calendar might make a note of births, or at least baptisms or their equivalent, and other occasions (eg marriages and deaths), either because of an edict (like the equivalent in Elizabeth's time) or just personal quirk. That might then be used, because they would be told it's the ides of March or whatever.

    An alternative for a village might be a communal birthday, perhaps. So everyone born in the spring would celebrate at the equinox, everyone born in the summer at the solstice, and so on. That would then set up a tension with the educated group who would celebrate as individuals, a concept which the illiterate peasants would find difficult to grasp.


    EDIT: just re-read Brian's original question... I don't think it's unrealistic to have the peasants celebrate birthdays, particularly if it is done among the higher classes, since everyone always wants to ape his betters even if he shouldn't. It's perhaps less realistic to have him know his exact age if his knowledge of numbers is limited to "one, two, many" -- but he would have perhaps a grasp of events -- ie I came of age the year such-and-such happened which the intelligent around him can then translate into years.
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    Toby Frost

    Toby Frost Active Member

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    I must say that it sounds extremely unlikely, and to my mind instinctively smacks of that older sort of fantasy that doesn't really tell the difference between medieval and victorian countryside, so long as it's old and kind've English. But that's not to say that it couldn't be done. I wonder whether a peasant would regard the feast day of saint X as more important, though, and especially important since it was that day when he was born, rather than it being his birthday first and the feast-day second?

    For me, this would fall into the same place as painting the inside of cathedrals in jolly colours: it may be true, but given the feeling I have of the medieval times, would I want to use it?
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    springs

    springs Juggling life

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    I'd have to say no; the live of a medieval peasant was pretty grim, and opportunities to celebrate something as small as an individual birthday limited. Plus, most would have limited numeracy, so it may be possible for them to know a year had passed, or even have an idea of their own age in relation to this, but to know an individual date I dont' think possible. Even the biggest celebrations, lughnasa etc, often had their date set by the cycles of seasons and moons rather than a fixed date for a long time.
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    Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess Staff Member

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    Well, that's the problem in Brian's world, isn't it? He says they have no saint's feast days to measure these things by.

    I suppose there could be other things to dedicate each individual day to. If there is a large pantheon of gods there might be a way to work it out. Not days dedicated to 365 gods, which might be a bit much, but the day that X did this and the day that z did that. However they name the days, they could have rhymes of long epic poems for remembering which followed what, instead of calendars with numbers.
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    TheDustyZebra

    TheDustyZebra Ninja agent Staff Member

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    I agree with Hope and Teresa -- it seems likely that uneducated peasants would have an idea how long they had been around based on the seasons and crops. The young ones wouldn't likely know how old they were, but their relative ages would be known in accordance with others.

    And if there were feast days of any sort, regardless of religion, people would mark them in reference to their own personal days -- for instance, Easter has always been tracked in my family as "the first Sunday after the first full moon after Granny K's birthday", which birthday happened to be the 22nd of March, or just about the vernal equinox. :)
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    Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    I'm surprised no one's suggested this, but my guess is that there would be an oral tradition that "K" was born in the early summer, and so he would celebrate his birthday in the early summer. Whether there was any kind of special celebration would depend on the expense involved and the tradition of the place. Therefore if birthday are celebrated they would be celebrated by the time of the season, without regard to whether this is the 27th celebration or the 31st.
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    Glen

    Glen Who are you people?

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    Peasants don't have time for birthdays! They should be out tilling the fields and looking for decent bits of filth in the fields. Give them birthdays and before you know where you are they'll be setting up anarcho-syndicalist communes!
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    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham New Member

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    Hi Brian,

    I assume you are using a traditional medieval fantasy setting. In many ways, this means that it is up to you - it is fantasy, after all!

    If you are going for historical accuracy, it's worth bearing in mind that even in the 19th and very early 20th, some folk had a fairly imprecise idea of their age. The landless agricultural labourers and even some of the smaller farmers who lived in these parts seemed to build in a margin of error of anything up to five years either way when telling (official) people how old they were.

    But they may also have been deliberately trying to confuse the census men - different generations would carry exactly the same names so as to get out of death duties. The Old Maltster in Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is very aware of his age and talks about little else. And, of course, folk weren't daft. They knew when the rent was due, when the religious festivals were celebrated and when the markets were held. You don't need to understand a formal counting system to keep a fairly accurate track of your age, although whether you celebrate it is quite another thing.

    Also bear in mind that even illiterate farm hands could count to some level. In fact, I'd say it's virtually impossible to manage stock without being able to count. There is a wierd Cumbrian counting system which is clearly Old Norse in origin and which still survives today as a way of counting sheep.

    My guess is that any genuine failure to know precisely how old you were stemmed from a lack of interest rather than a lack of the ability to calculate it if you were so minded.

    Regards,

    Peter
  18.  
    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    Yes, I've read about this. :)

    I think overall the impression is that birthdays are probably not celebrated by smallfolk, because there was no need to.

    This kind of edges on another tradition I'd read about, which suggested infants were not named until they were at least two years old, somehow because of the huge risk of death. I'm therefore going to interpret this as "about two years have passed" rather than "two years old exactly".
  19.  
    Peter Graham

    Peter Graham New Member

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    Fashions might have changed at different times, but my understanding was that babies were named very quickly, precisely for this reason. God wouldn't let them into Heaven unless they were baptised and to be baptised, they had to have a name.

    Of course, naming was much easier in those days - Thomas, William or John for the boys and Elizabeth, Margaret or Edith for the girls.

    Regards,

    Peter
  20.  
    paranoid marvin

    paranoid marvin Run VT Erroll!

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    I would imagine that birthdays would have been celebrated around Saint's days, although I would have thought that they would have been celebrated far less.

    There were plenty of festivals around Saint's days , although as others have mentioned, the time of puberty , when girls and boys became men and women, was the major celebration; at a time when the mortality rate was so high, survivng to your teens was a cause for celebration.

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