Autumn is quickly approaching, and I can’t wait. Autumn means jeans and sweatshirts. Raking leaves, carving pumpkins, and baking. Lots and lots of baking. There are some downsides–the constant viewing of football in our house, for example–but still, a minor price to pay given that the extremes of winter and summer are not for me.
Having lived in Colorado for several years now, I must admit that autumn is not quite as lovely as it used to be when I lived in a Midwest state. Don’t get me wrong–Colorado has its autumnal moments. The aspens, for example, turn a lovely shade of gold (and hearing the elk bugle in Rocky Mountain National Park is fun!).
There’s still the crispness in the air–a nice change from the heat of summer–but I miss the sharper colors of fall in Eastern Kansas. Despite the massive efforts to irrigate land here in Colorado, the climate remains semi-arid, like that of a steppe, so there is not quite the contrast between summer and fall. We go from shades of brown to more shades of brown. I miss the green.
At my previous university, I drove through a neighborhood where trees provided a natural canopy to the surrounding streets, and in the fall, the sheer diversity of color–and the gentle undulations of leaves drifting down, down, down–only to be caught up and twirled around by a passing breeze before they finally settled upon the ground–etched itself upon my mind. Here, the shift from summer to winter seems to take a note from Monty Python.
Now that I think about it, I can’t recall any moments in medieval British literature that describe the fall season. There’s plenty of emphasis on the other seasons. The Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer, for example, details the harsh British winter, imagining a landscape fettered by ice: “hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð” (102). The trope of Spring is memorably presented by Geoffrey Chaucer in his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . . (1-4)
It may be that I’m just not reading the right texts to find descriptions of fall (after all, I primarily work on Middle English romance), but a quick search of the University of Michigan’s Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse doesn’t turn up much. Chaucer discusses fall in his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and Lydgate makes several mentions in his fifteenth-century Troy Book. Fall is also mentioned in scientific treatises (such as A Medieval English Anatomy or Treatises of Fistula). The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t much help, either; its earliest documentation of “Fall” to refer to the season is in 1545, and 1374 for “Autumn.” Neither entry has been updated since the late 1800s, though.
Perhaps, though, I’m being too narrow in my search terms. Neither “Fall” (a good Anglo-Saxon word) nor “Autumn” (a Latin borrowing) turn up much, but what about “harvest”?
Ah, there we go. Much more luck.
I’m particularly intrigued by the etymology–specifically, the relation between the Latin and Germanic cognates–I love finding examples of Grimm’s Law at work! Briefly, when the Germanic languages diverged from the rest of the Proto-Indo-European languages, a systemic sound change occurred. Wherever a /k/ sound appears in a Latinate word, for example, the corresponding Germanic word has an /h/. Thus, the word cardiac, with its Latin root, is related to the Germanic word heart; Latinate canine = Germanic hound, et cetera.
But enough linguistic nerding out.
The Middle English hervest (n.) appears quite frequently in Middle English texts, but as I scan the list of quotations provided by the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse, I don’t see anything in the way of romance. Why is that?
Given that the preferred word choice of harvest draws attention to the physical act of gathering crops, does the lack of attention to the fall season merely reflect the interests of the upper-class audiences of the medieval romances? Of course, this ignores the complex social changes that occurred in England post-Bubonic plague as social mobility became possible and a new sub-genre of romance–the gentry romances–emerged. But would an aristocratic audience be aware of and invested in the harvest season? Surely they must–at the very least, some of their income would be dependent on the success or failure of the annual harvest. For those with more leisure time, given the aesthetic appeal of fall, might some authors be inspired to muse on the mutability manifested by the falling leaves? Or perhaps since romances typically detail knights on quests, autumn falls by the wayside because it is not an ideal season for quests or military pursuits?
I’ll close with one of my favorite fall poems, by e.e. cummings: