The First Day of Spring, Then and Now

Medieval literature and climate change

Today is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, a fact belied by snowfall in North America and western Europe earlier this month. More snow is predicted for the northeastern United States tomorrow. In cooler climates, spring is, at first, a state of mind.

But climate change is pushing spring earlier and earlier: last year, the eastern US saw new foliage up to a month earlier than normal. If the nations of the world do not achieve a significant decrease in carbon emissions soon, climate change will make spring a state of mind for a different reason.

The arrival of spring was a state of mind for residents of medieval England, too. Geoffrey Chaucer famously opened his Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) by invoking “April, with its gentle showers” that come to pierce “the drought of March” (“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” in the Riverside Chaucer). Springtime is when the crops (“croppes”) begin to grow, birds sing in harmony (“smale foweles maken melodye”), and — most importantly for Chaucer’s poetic project — people like to set out on pilgrimages (“longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”).

Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, written earlier in his career, employs a similar opening. In “the first morning of May” (“the firste morwe of May”), the narrator strikes out into the fields to see the daisy blossoming. There are “small birds” (“smale foules”) in this poem, too, and as in the Canterbury Tales they sing a jubilant song. This time there are lyrics: “We defy the fowler, / And all his skill” (“The foweler we deffye, / And al his craft”). Soon, the narrator encounters the God of Love and his queen Alceste, who accuse him of writing texts that contravene the laws of love.

Chaucer was not the first English poet to begin a long project by meditating on springtime. He would have encountered this kind of prologue in the work of his contemporary William Langland, author of the political/religious vision Piers Plowman. At the beginning of Piers Plowman, the narrator Will wanders out “on a May mornyng” in the Malvern Hills and falls asleep on a grassy clearing, where he receives a vision of the tower of Truth, the valley of Death, and, on a field between them, “all types of people, poor and rich” (“alle manere men, the mene and the riche” in Derek Pearsall’s edition of Piers Plowman) — in other words, the whole world. Langland’s “lovely field full of people” (“fair feld ful of folk”) probably inspired Chaucer’s socially diverse troupe of 29 Canterbury pilgrims (“nyne and twenty in a compaignye / Of sondry folk”).

the Malvern Hills in western England: the setting for the opening vision of Piers Plowman []

In these late medieval poems, and others, the advent of spring offers an occasion for reflection on one’s place in the world, for free time to explore nature, and for waking or dreaming adventures. This was a literary convention, not a direct representation of reality, but it does roughly correspond to the medieval and early modern English celebrations of May Day.

Chaucer and Langland both knew a 13th-century French visionary poem, also set in springtime. Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose was a greatest hit of medieval European literature. The poem opens “in May, in the lusty season” (“en mai […] / Ou tens amoreus” in Ernest Langlois’s edition). As in the later English poems, a first-person dreamer beholds nature flourishing and birds (“oisiaus”) singing sweet, poignant songs (“les douz chanz piteus”) on the branches (“sor la raime”). Langland certainly knew the Roman, and Chaucer translated it into English verse as a young man.

So the ‘May-morning’ prologue was a transnational and multilingual phenomenon. However, it became distinctive in passing into the English language. Notably, where Langland and Chaucer use springtime to frame a vision of humanity in all its complexity, Lorris proceeds directly from birdsong to personal allegorical questing.

A springtime state of mind characterizes one 14th-century English poem that only came to the attention of medievalists in 1980. A Bird in Bishopswood, as scholar Ruth Kennedy titled it, was discovered written on the back of a parchment roll recording in Latin the accounts of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, for 1395–1396. The author was likely John Tickhill, Collector of Rents for St. Paul’s.

Unlike the Roman de la Rose, Piers Plowman, or the Canterbury Tales, A Bird in Bishopswood is short (41 lines). Bishopswood is modern Bethnal Green, London, a public woodlands at the time. In “the merry month of May” (“the myry month of May” in Kennedy’s edition), the narrator finds himself out of tune with the season: he has spent Lent in melancholia, “in grief for my life, and all my joy gone” (“In vnlust of my lyf | and lost al my joye”). He walks out to Bishopswood and catches sight of a beautiful bird by itself who reflects back to him his own loneliness. He wants to capture her but has no birdlime, so he silently walks away so as not to disturb her. There is something deeply affecting about this alliterative lyric poem found among dry business documents.

Lorris, Langland, Chaucer, Tickhill, and other late medieval English and French writers represented spring as a space of exploration and wonder. They drew richly complex connections between people and the natural environment. These stylistic gestures proved foundational for the English literary canon: T. S. Eliot opens “The Wasteland” with an inversion of Chaucerian seasonality (“April is the cruellest month. . .”), and in Telling Tales, her modern adaptation of the Canterbury Tales, Patience Agbabi recasts April as the name of the host Harry Bailey’s girlfriend (“When my April showers me with kisses. . .”).

Like Eliot and Agbabi, today we cannot help but hear the medieval literature of spring in a different key. For one thing, for Anglophone readers in the southern hemisphere, spring arrives in late September. Medieval European writers didn’t anticipate a global reading public. For another, human-caused climate change is now shifting the annual thaw ever northward in the northern hemisphere and southward in the southern hemisphere, and spring comes ever earlier in the year. For Langland, Chaucer, and Tickhill, English was a regional language, less prestigious and less widely known than Latin or French. The story of the emergence of English as a world language is the story of the Industrial Revolution and the British empire, which (along with other European industrialism and colonialism) initiated climate change.

Taking our cue from the first-person narrators of Piers Plowman and the Canterbury Tales, who are avatars of their authors (“Will” and “Geoffrey”), we can approach the first day of spring as an occasion for introspection. The world is changing around us, reflecting back to us our own investments in corporate profiteering and industrialized life. If we don’t change in response, the first day of spring could become a distant memory.