2.04.2013

Dismal Days


Images from Liber Chronicarum, or Book of Chronicles, better known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in both Latin and German in 1493. It is one of the first early printed books to successfully integrate illustration and text and is the best "preserved": approximately 400 Latin and 300 German copies survive. 645 discrete woodcuts were created for the book. Albrecht Durer was an apprentice to the artisans at the time. See incredible scans of an entire colored copy from the Munich Digitization Center (MDZ)/ Bavarian State Library.

Throughout the Middle Ages— and up til the 19th century-- it was commonly thought that certain days of the year were unlucky. Popularly known as Dismal or Egyptian Days these were times one was to avoid undertaking important activities such as travel or marrying, and were ill omens for health as well (if you got sick on one of these days you'd not be likely to recover). These were quite different from calendar days considered pivotal, inauspicious or notable for reasons to do with agricultural stages, astronomical alignments or lunar phases. Those had self-evident reasons for being (whether or not they were based on correct fact is another matter). Unlucky days were unlucky-- but they were traditionally so, no one actually knew why.

I first came across the term Egyptian days in Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, a brilliant, sprawling study of magic and the medieval church*. Analyzing how magic and supernatural folk traditions existed side by side with religion, with the church often mirroring aspects of folkways (miracles? bell-ringing? relics? check, check, and check), the book shows how magic even survived the Reformation, adapting its form and intermingling with scientific inquiry. Both fascinating and not easily described Religion and Decline deserves a separate post.

Etymologically, dismal means “bad day,” coming, via Anglo-Norman or Old French dis mal, from Latin dies mali. The phrase literally means “evil days” and it's documented that the Romans recognized these as dies nefastus. There is speculation that the Romans thought the days to have been computed by Egyptian astrologers, and were possibly related to the Egyptian plagues. Dies nefastus were therefore also referred to as Egyptian days or dies Aegyptiaci. (Because Egypt = cryptic, occult, and ancient even to the ancient Romans). By the fifteenth century dismal, having been “unlucky”, came to mean “gloomy” or “miserable”  and eventually “depressing to the spirit, or showing a lack or failure of hope.”

The list of days seems to have varied according to which source you happened to check since they were sometimes not recorded as dates but rather as "the last Monday in April, the second Monday of August, and the third Monday of December" etc. Different days had different degrees of bad luck; some were equivocal, others totally disastrous. Here's a list I've come across, and today is a Dismal Day:  
January 1 and 25
February 4 and 26
March 1 and 28
April 10 and 20
May 3 and 25
June 10 and 16
July 13 and 22
August 1 and 30
September 3 and 21
October 3 and 22
November 5 and 28
December 7 and 22


*This drily humorous and peculiar book also introduced me to "planet-struck" (similar to "moonstruck" it means adversely affected mentally or physically by the planets and was sometimes listed as a cause of death), "cunning folk" (wizards, soothsayers and healers) and "elf-shot" (bedeviled by elves, gremlins and other spirits).

2 comments:

sam johnson said...

Religion and the Decline of Magic has been sitting on my bedside table for months. This is an excellent prompt.

angela said...

Are you serious?? Wild!

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