History Of Lammas
In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”, but the meaning of “gule” is unclear. Ronald Hutton suggests following the 18th-century Welsh clergyman antiquary John Pettingall that it is merely an Anglicisation of Gŵyl Awst, the Welsh name of the “feast of August”. OED and most etymological dictionaries give it a more circuitous origin similar to gullet; from O.Fr. goulet, dim. of goule, “throat, neck,” from L. gula “throat,”. A Welsh derivation would point to a pre-Christian origin for Lammas and a link to the Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh.
Several antiquaries beginning with John Brady offered a back-construction to its being originally known as Lamb-mass, under the undocumented supposition that tenants of the Cathedral of York, dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula, of which this is the feast, would have been required to bring a live lamb to the church,or, with John Skinner, “because Lambs then grew out of season.” This is a folk etymology, of which OED notes that it was “subsequently felt as if from LAMB + MASS“.
For many villeins, the wheat must have run low in the days before Lammas, and the new harvest began a season of plenty, of hard work and company in the fields, reaping in teams. Thus there was a spirit of celebratory play.
In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after Midsummer. At the end of hay-making a sheep would be loosed in the meadow among the mowers, for him to keep who could catch it.
In Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet (1.3.19) it is observed of Juliet, “Come Lammas Eve at night shall she [Juliet] be fourteen.” Since Juliet was born Lammas eve, she came before the harvest festival, which is significant since her life ended before she could reap what she had sown and enjoy the bounty of the harvest, in this case full consummation and enjoyment of her love with Romeo.
William Hone speaks in The Every-Day Book (1838) of a later festive Lammas day sport common among Scottish farmers near Edinburgh. He says that they “build towers…leaving a hole for a flag-pole in the centre so that they may raise their colours.” When the flags over the many peat-constructed towers were raised, farmers would go to others’ towers and attempt to “level them to the ground.” A successful attempt would bring great praise. However, people were allowed to defend their towers, and so everyone was provided with a “tooting-horn” to alert nearby country folk of the impending attack and the battle would turn into a “brawl.” According to Hone, more than four people had died at this festival and many more were injured. At the day’s end, races were held, with prizes given to the townspeople.