Can The Moon Tell Your Fortune?

There are often surprises hidden among the pages of plain-looking medieval manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library. Manuscript Q.61 is described in the catalogue as a Manuale Sacerdotum, which means A Handbook for Priests. As you might expect, it is almost all in Latin and it includes instructions on hearing confession, a list of saints’ days, a sermon given by the Archbishop, and parts of the Old Testament. But starting on the reverse side of Folio 42 is a poem written in medieval French, or more exactly, Anglo-Norman, which means French as still spoken and written in England in the thirteenth century! It fills a little more than five manuscript sides, and unlike the surrounding weighty theological texts, it is a popular Lunary or Moon Book, a way of predicting the future similar to astrology.


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


This is what Folio 42 verso looks like – a plain-enough manuscript page, neatly done in two columns with paragraphs divided by rubricated capitals. Many of the lines are quite short which is a clue to it being a poem. And it rhymes! Traditional Anglo-Saxon poetry used alliteration, and rarely rhymed. The Normans brought not only their language, stone castles, churches and the feudal system of government but also a taste for poetry that rhymed! And here are the first four lines enlarged for easier reading:


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The rather strange-looking French is shown in the first column below. In the second column the Anglo-Norman words have mainly been replaced with spellings that have evolved from those words that should be more understandable to a reader today. They do not read like modern French. The third column is an English translation.



Although quite similar to astrology, a Lunary depends on the Moon and not the stars for its predictions. The prime lune or first moon means the first day of the new moon. Readers can then work out if any day is good or bad for bloodletting, buying and selling, travelling, finding lost possessions, or just for being born. You may have heard that it is twenty-eight days from new moon to new moon. But there are thirty verses in the poem, one for each day as new moons are perceived from the Earth.

Many days begin with a biblical reference: Eve was created on the second day, Cain on the third, Abel on the fourth, and on the fifth Abel sacrificed a lamb. Methuselah was born on the eighth, Noah planted vines on the thirteenth, and the Tower of Babel was built on the fifteenth. The references are all from the Old Testament and some of them are pretty grim. Lot is on day sixteen, Sodom and Gomorrah seventeen, and Pharoah on day twenty-five. These bad days may produce some bad fortune: the child born on Pharoah’s day will have pain and hard labour, the thief will very soon be caught, and illness will be hard to bear.

And what about the Norman French? It can seem very peculiar in its thirteenth-century spelling. But when you get used to the spelling it can be easier:


There are some changes that apply to lots of modern French words. An example is the change from coste to côte, where the letter s has disappeared and the circumflex accent is in place instead. There are many modern French words where this has happened. The words second and labeur perhaps seem a little unusual. Deuxième and travail might spring to mind as modern equivalents. But the earlier versions were indeed from Norman French, and in fact the English words we use today descend from them – they are borrowed from French! In the penultimate line the poet has used the Latin word mulier for wife, and also the Latin accusative case for Evam to make the line rhyme!

It is fortunate that in 1907, Mr H. J. Chaytor copied out the whole of the poem and published it in a academic journal.[1] Since then it has been adopted by the high-status Dictionnaire Étymologique de l’Ancien Français, and also by the more recent Anglo-Norman Dictionary on the Internet.[2] On several occasions forms recorded in this text are the only examples found. An example is the word amaladira which is seen in the seventh line of the poem and refers to things that happen to people born on the first day:



Tim O’Mara



[1] ‘An Anglo-Norman Calendar’ Modern Language Review 1907 (2) H. J. Chaytor



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