Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Dry Marches
"Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote..."

Okay, we all know about April showers, but what about the drought of March? March certainly isn't a month that feels particularly dry, and in recent decades Met Office data confirms that in London it has been, if anything, rather wetter than April.

Of course, poetic licence and all that, but surely the lines wouldn't have been so successful if Chaucer had been saying something palpably untrue?

Well, the climate was probably a bit different: Chaucer was living through the early years of the little ice age, after all, and perhaps dry Marches go with that territory - but I don't remember anyone else mentioning them, ever.

Your question has gotten me distracted with reading A. Stuart Dailey's 1970 article "Chaucer's Droghte of March in Medieval Farm Lore". Which quotes Spenser (Shepheardes Calendar) alluding to the same situation:
Or bene thine eyes attempred to the yeare,
Quenching the gasping furrowes thirst with rayne?
Like April shoure, so stremes the trickling teares
Adowne thy cheeke, to quenche thy thristye payne.
("Aprill," 5-8)
Although the countervailing theory appears to be (based on mere skimming here of other things) that the dry March in Chaucer at least may be a Mediterranean source import.

Now I feel lazy for not doing any research myself!

Well, I've certainly read the Shepheardes Calendar, but I'd forgotten that passage. Of course, Spenser was a self-proclaimed Chaucer fanboy, so even this may be a source import from the Canterbury Tales.

I hadn't considered that Chaucer might be channelling some other writer - though I should have done, since as an undergraduate I used to get annoyed at the keenness of the editors of my edition to find a source in Boccaccio, Macrobius, etc., for every line he wrote. (When they were occasionally unable to identify any they would harrumph and say that no source had yet been found, with the clear implication that it was only a matter of time.) Did the countervailing theorists mention what source they thought he was importing?

Rosemund Tuve (whose work I know better on personifications) apparently proposes a number of potential sources including the Secreta secretorum. So Pseudo-Aristotle. I'd have to read her argument to see if I find it any more convincing. But I'm quite willing to accept the argument that "droghte" mean "dry spell" rather than the modern sense of the drought.

As, I remember Rosemund Tuve as a fine Spenserian!

I'd assumed that "droghte" didn't mean drought in the severe modern sense: I doubt that Britain has ever suffered one of those in winter, at least in recorded history.

Great observation! :) Maybe the blustery winds dried things out?

I suppose that's possible!

You know, what this post got me thinking is that it had never occurred to me before that 'April showers bring May flowers' was probably a British idiom. Like, I had always just accepted it as true as a matter-of-fact about New York. Evidently, April is in fact the wettest month in the NYC area. So at least it fit my impressions of NY weather for a reason.

Edited at 2016-05-28 12:27 pm (UTC)

It's strange, isn't it, how our thoughts about seasons can be imported from different times and places? Few people in southern England (let alone Australia!) have seen a white Christmas, yet this remains a firm part of our iconography.

Yes, it is quite strange. Although I would at least hope that southern English do not assume that the idea of a white Christmas is naturally true of southern England! It certainly is a part of Singaporean iconography as well, but I at least get the sense there's a conscious irony to it.

In southern England it's highly unusual, but always tantalizingly possible, which makes it slightly excruciating. By 'possible' I mean that I've experienced exactly one white Christmas (in 1970).

Seattle seldom has an entirely snowless winter, but we don't generally get snow at Christmas either. My mother remembered having to make spring decorations (tulips and windmills all around the classroom blackboard) in March despite living in Wisconsin where it was seldom springlike at that time of the year (or if it was it was for a few days and then winter came back).

Well. . . I must also admit that after reading The Dark is Rising as a child I had a strong impression that Christmas in the UK typically involved amazing and extremely seasonally appropriate blizzards, and that I was quite disillusioned when I learned the truth. . . .

It's worth remembering that the winter when Susan Cooper was 11 was in 1946-7, an exceptionally cold and blizzardy one - albeit only from January.

I had not known that, but it does indeed seem informative. Thanks!

I always thought of it as American too, no doubt because it almost always brings, in its associative wake (so to speak), the riddle: And what do May flowers bring? Pilgrims! (Mayflowers.) Which of course brings us (by a commodius vicus, etc.) back to Chaucer, redy to wenden on his pilgrimage.

You know, I never thought of that. I think of March and April as possible snow, weak sun, lots of wind, and goopy mud season. I just always pictured Chaucer dealing with the same. Maybe he was shivering through the little ice age and writing wishfully about a sweet shower preceded by a draught!

Very strange to think of all the famous writers from Chaucer up through Dickens dealing with the same stupid weather system.

Yes - though I feel nostalgic for Frost Fairs...

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