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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Happy Birthday Mary Shelley - author of Frankenstein

Few seaside towns can claim so many literary associations as Bournemouth. The remains of writer, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, author of one of the most famous of all Gothic horror novels - Frankenstein, is buried in the cemetery of St. Peters in the centre of the town.

Portrait of Mary Shelley,
painted by Richard Rothwell in 1840.
Mary Shelley was born on the 30th August 1797, in Somers Town, London. She was the second daughter of feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft and political journalist William Godwin (who are aso interred in her grave). Her mother died shortly after Mary's birth from a hemorrhage  sustained either during delivery or by the actions of the midwife. Unusual for girls at the time, Mary received an excellent education. She published her first poem at the age of ten.

Percy Bysshe Shelley and his first wife Harriet often visited Godwin's home and bookshop in London. At the age of 16 Mary eloped to France and then Switzerland with Shelley. During May of 1816, the couple travelled to Lake Geneva. Apparently inspired by a ghost tale contest among her friends, Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont Mary had what she called a waking dream that became the manuscript for her most famous work, entitled ‘Frankenstein' or 'The Modern Prometheus'.

It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who tries to create a living being for the good of humanity but instead produces a monster.  Frankenstein creates his monster by assembling parts of dead bodies and activating the creature with electricity.  The monster, which has no name in the book, is actually a gentle, intelligent creature.  However, everyone fears and mistreats him because of his hideous appearance.  Frankenstein rejects the monster and refuses to create a mate for him.  The monster's terrible loneliness drives him to seek revenge by murdering Frankenstein's wife, brother, and best friend.  Frankenstein dies while trying to track down and kill the monster, who disappears into the Arctic at the end of the novel. 

Film Posters for Universal Studios 1931
 version of 'Frankenstein'
Many films have been based on the character of Frankenstein's monster, the most iconic being played by Boris Karloff in the Universal Studios 1931 version of the novel.  Most are simply tales of horror and have little to do with the serious themes of Shelley's novel.  These themes include the possible dangers involved in scientific experimentation with life and the suffering caused by judging people by their appearance. 

Mary and Shelley married in 1816 after Shelley's first wife committed suicide by drowning. In 1818 the Shelleys left England for Italy. The Italian adventure was, however, blighted for Mary by the death of both her children Clara, in Venice and their son Will died from malaria in Rome.  Mary suffered a nervous breakdown after the death and almost died of a later miscarriage. It was followed by the birth of her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. In July 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed up the Italian coast and was caught in a storm on his return. He drowned on the 8th July along with his friend Edward Williams and a young boat attendant.

To support herself and her child, Mary wrote novels, including Valperga (1823), The Last Man (1826), and the autobiographical Lodore (1835).  She spent much of her life in promoting her late husband's work, including editing and annotating unpublished material. She returned to England, never to re-marry.

The Grave of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly
She died on 1st February 1851 in Chester Square, London of what some suspect to be a brain tumor, before her to move to live with her son Percy Florence Shelley at Boscombe Manor. Her last book, sometimes considered her best work, was ‘Maria', which was published posthumously.  Her son brought his mothers remains to be interred in St. Peter's Churchyard in Bournemouth, along with Percy's heart, which was not originally buried with his body. It was retrieved from his funeral pyre by his friend Trelawny and kept by Shelley's wife Mary, pressed flat, in a copy of the poet's "Adonais" and was interred for the first time in Mary's tomb.

Source: www.darkdorset.co.uk

Monday, 22 August 2016

Happy Birthday "Folklore" - On this day, the 22nd August 1846, the term Folk-Lore, was 'born'

William John Thoms

On this day, the 22nd August 1846, the term "Folklore", was coined, by English antiquarian, William John Thoms (1803-1885).
Thoms is credited with inventing the term under the pseudonym Ambrose Merton in a letter to the London literary magazine ‘Athenaeum’. 

He invented this composite word to replace the various other terms used at the time including (1803-1885)"popular antiquities" or "popular literature" to describe people’s traditional beliefs, ballads, proverbs, customs, popular superstitions and legends.

During the 1800's, scholars like Thoms, believed that folklore in ancient times had been shared by all members of a society. Most ancient peoples lived in rural communities. Over the centuries, large numbers of people moved to cities and gradually lost touch with so-called "authentic" folk uneducated peasants called ‘folk’, whose way of life had changed little for traditions. According to the scholars of the 1800’s, those traditions were preserved by hundreds of years.

The Brothers Grimm
Amongst the most notable leading folklore scholars were two German brothers, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. From 1807 to 1814, they collected folk tales from peasants who lived near Kassel, in Germany. The Grimms believed that by collecting the tales, they were preserving for all time the heritage of all Germans. The stories they collected became famous as Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But some versions of these tales are found throughout Europe, the Near East, and Asia. Today, scholars consider folk to be any group of people who share at least one common linking factor. This factor may be, Geography, as in folklore of the English Countryside, Religion, as in Jewish folklore, Occupation, as in Fisherman folklore, Ethnic background, as in French-Canadian folklore. Some scholars believe that even a family can be considered folk because many families have their own traditions and stories.

Characteristics of folklore

Folklore can be short and simple or long and complicated. Brief proverbs, such as "Time flies" and "Money talks," are famous examples of folklore. On the other hand, in other parts of the world, some folk plays begin at sundown and end at dawn. It is extremely difficult to make up folklore.

The songs, stories, and other material that became folklore were, of course, thought up by various people. But those individuals had the rare ability to create a subject and a style that appealed to others over the years. Folklore survives only if it retains that appeal.

People would not bother to retell tales or continue to follow customs that had no meaning for them. This is the reason people keep on using the same folklore over and over. To be considered authentic folklore, an item must have at least two versions.

For example, scholars have identified more than 1,000 versions of the fairy tale about Cinderella. These versions developed over hundreds of years in many countries, including China, France, Germany, and Turkey. Changes in folklore often occur as a story passes from person to person. These changes, called variations, are one of the surest indications that the item is true folklore. Variations frequently appear in both the words and music of folk songs. The same lyrics may be used with different tunes, or different words may be set to the same music. For example the nursery rhymes "Baa, Baa Black Sheep" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" have the same melody. 

Kinds of folklore:  

Myths are stories that explain how the world and humanity reached their present form. Myths differ from most types of folk stories because myths are considered to be true among the people who develop them. Many myths describe the creation of the earth. In some of these stories, a god creates the earth. In others, the earth emerges from a flood. A number of myths describe the creation of the human race and the origin of death.
Folk Tales
Folk tales are fictional stories about animals or human beings. Most of these tales are not set in any particular time or place, and they begin and end in a certain way. For example, many English folk tales begin with the phrase "Once upon a time" and end with "They lived happily ever after." Fables are one of the most popular types of folk tales. They are animal stories that try to teach people how to behave. One fable describes a race between a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise, though it is a far slower animal, wins because the hare foolishly stops to sleep. This story teaches the lesson that someone who works steadily can come out ahead of a person who is faster or has a head start. In many European fairy tales, the hero or heroine leaves home to seek some goal. After various adventures, he or she wins a prize or a marriage partner, in many cases a prince or princess. One popular kind of folk tale has a trickster as the hero. Each culture has its own trickster figure. Most tricksters are animals like the wolf, fox and the cunning hare who act like human beings.
Legends, like myths, are stories told as though they were true. But legends are set in the real world and in relatively recent times. Many legends tell about human beings who meet supernatural creatures, such as fairies, ghosts, vampires, and witches. A number of legends are associated with famous people who have died. Others tell of holy persons and religious leaders. Some legends describe how saints work miracles. The action in myths and folk tales ends at the conclusion of the story. But the action in many legends has not been completed by the story's end. For example, a legend about a buried treasure may end by saying that the treasure has not yet been found. A legend about a haunted house may suggest that the house is still haunted. A number of legends tell about the Loch Ness Monster, a lake monster in Scotland; and the Beast of Exmoor, a large cat that haunts the Somerset moors. Some people believe these creatures actually exist. From time to time, various expeditions have tried to find both of them.
 Folk songs
Folk songs have been created for almost every human activity. Some are associated with work. For example, sailors sing songs called ‘shanties’ while pulling in their lines. Folk songs may deal with birth, childhood, courtship, marriage, and death. Parents sing folk lullabies to babies. Children sing traditional songs as part of some games. Other folk songs are sung at weddings and funerals. Some folk songs are related to seasonal activities, such as planting and harvesting. Many are sung on certain holidays. The English Christmas folk song "I saw three ships " is a popular example. Some folk songs celebrate the deeds of real or imaginary heroes. But people sing many folk songs simply for enjoyment.
Superstitions and Customs

Cerne Abbas Giant
A large number of superstitions and customs supposedly help control or predict the future. The people of fishing communities may hold elaborate ceremonies that are designed to ensure a good catch as in the custom of the Abbostbury Garland. Many people try to foretell future events by analysing the relationships among the planets and stars.

Superstitions and customs are involved largely in marking a person's advancement from one stage of life to another. For example, one such superstition concerns the Cerne Abbas Giant's powers of fertility and the belief that childless couples who made love on a phallic part of the figure would soon be blessed with children. While young women wishing to keep their lovers faithful would walk around the hill figure three times.
Holidays are special occasions celebrated by a group, and almost all of them include some elements of folklore. Christmas is especially rich in folklore. A national group may celebrate this holiday with its own special foods and costumes. Many groups have variations of the same folk custom. In a number of countries, for example, children receive presents at Christmas. In Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Father Christmas or Santa Claus brings the presents. In Italy, an old woman named La Befana distributes the gifts. In some countries of Europe, the gifts come from the Christ child. In others, the Three Wise Men bring them.
 Folklore and the arts
Folklore has made a major contribution to the world's arts. Many folk stories and folk songs are beautiful works of art themselves. Folklore has also inspired masterpieces of literature, music, painting, and sculpture. The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used a number of folk tales in his famous Canterbury Tales. William Shakespeare based the plots of several of his plays on folk tales. These plays include King Lear, The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew.

Certain legends and myths have attracted artists, composers, and writers for centuries, most recent revival has been made by Seth Lakeman in his songs that have been inspired by legends and folk stories of the south west of England like Childe the Hunter, Kitty Jay, The White Hare and The Hurlers.

One legend tells about a medieval German scholar named Faust who sold his soul to the devil. This legend has been the basis of many novels, plays, operas, and orchestral works. Faust, a drama by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is perhaps the greatest work in German literature.
 Folklore and society
Folklore reflects the attitudes and ideals of a society. For example, much folklore reflects how a society regards the roles of males and females in real life. In many examples of Western folklore, women are depicted as passive and uncreative. A society that produces such folklore considers men superior to women.

This attitude appears in a 18th century Scottish proverb “A crooning cow, a crowing Hen and a whistling Maid boded never luck to a house”. According to the proverb, a girl who whistles like a boy and a hen that crows like a rooster are unnatural. The proverb implies that women should not try to take part in activities traditionally associated with men, an idea that has become outdated in modem society.

A common wedding custom calls for the groom to carry his bride over the threshold of their home. This custom suggests that the woman is weak and must be carried through the doorway - and presumably through life - by the strong male. In many Western fairy tales, a female is captured by a villain and waits quietly until a heroic male rescues her.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Crying the Neck, Corn Dollies and Fairy Folk: Customs and Traditions of Lammas

The 1st August is the ancient festival of ‘Lammas Tide’, which traditionally is the start of the harvest calendar: - a time of giving thanks to ‘Mother Nature’ for all her fruits and reaping what has been sown.

The Celts originally called it ‘Lugnasad’ and would celebrate by honouring ‘Lugh’, the sun god; however, the Saxons renamed the festival ‘hlaf-maesse’ meaning ‘loaf mass’, which later became ‘Lammas’, as we know it today. Traditionally it was the day when the first new grain was milled and baked into small loaves of bread, which were offered on the altar for a blessing and as thanks-giving for the first fruits of the harvest. Sometimes this service was reserved for ‘Garland Sunday’, the first Sunday after Lammas Day.

Music Barrows and Fairy Folk
Bincombe Bumps Music Barrows

The Dorset landscape would not be complete without its numerous ancient earthworks and barrows. In the past these burial mounds were believed to be inhabited by fairies, and at Lammas they are said to rise on pillars to reveal the revelling fairies dancing inside to the sweet sound of fairy music.

On Bincombe Hill, overlooking Weymouth, six such hillocks - which date back to the Bronze Age can be seen They were known locally as 'Music Barrows', for it was said if you put your ear to the top of one at noon, you would be able to hear the plaintive tones of music.

Corn Dollies

A traditional Corn Dolly
Corn dollies are a form of straw work made for, and associated with, harvest customs of Europe before mechanisation.
Before Christianisation, in traditional pagan European culture it was believed that the spirit of the "corn" (in modern American English, "corn" would be "grain") lived amongst the crop, and that the harvest made it effectively homeless.

Among the customs attached to the last sheaf of the harvest, hollow shapes were fashioned from the last sheaf of wheat or other cereal crops. The corn spirit would then spend the winter in their homes until the "corn dolly" was ploughed into the first furrow of the new season. "Dolly" may be a corruption of "idol" or may have come from the Greek word 'eidolon' (that which represents something else) as does the word 'idol'.

Crying the Neck

'Crying the Neck', ‘Crying the Nack’ or ‘Crying the Mare’, is a harvest festival tradition practiced in the West Country of England, in particular Cornwall, Devon, and parts of West Dorset.

In The Story of Cornwall, by Kenneth Hamilton Jenkin, the following explanation is given on the practice:
"In those days the whole of the reaping had to be done either with the hook or scythe. The harvest, in consequence, often lasted for many weeks. When the time came to cut the last handful of standing corn, one of the reapers would lift up the bunch high above his head and call out in a loud voice.....,

"We have it! We have it! We have it!"
The rest would then shout,

"What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee? What 'ave 'ee?"

and the reply would be:

"A neck! A neck! A neck!"

Everyone then joined in shouting:

"Hurrah! Hurrah for the neck! Hurrah for Mr. So-and-So"

(calling the farmer by name.)"
Although mostly discontinued the tradition is still practised by members of the Old Cornwall Society every year.

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days August 1st 1864, details the traditions of Lammas.

"LAMMAS - This was one of the four great pagan festivals of Britain, the others being on 1st November, 1st February, and 1st May. The festival of the Gule of August, as it was called, probably celebrated the realisation of the first-fruits of the earth, and more particularly that of the grain-harvest. When Christianity was introduced, the day continued to be observed as a festival on these grounds, and, from a loaf being the usual offering at church, the service, and consequently the day, came to be called Half-mass, subsequently shortened into Lammas, just as hlaf-dig (bread-dispenser), applicable to the mistress of a house, came to be softened into the familiar and extensively used term, lady. This we would call the rational definition of the word Lammas.
There is another, but in our opinion utterly inadmissible derivation, pointing to the custom of bringing a lamb on this day, as an offering to the cathedral church of York. Without doubt, this custom, which was purely local, would take its rise with reference to the term Lammas, after the true original signification of that word had been forgotten. It was once customary in England, in contravention of the proverb, that a cat in mittens catches no mice, to give money to servants on Lammas-day, to buy gloves; hence the term Glove-Silver. It is mentioned among the ancient customs of the abbey of St. Edmund's, in which the clerk of the cellarer had 2d.; the cellarer's squire, 11d.; the granger, 11d.; and the cowherd a penny. Anciently, too, it was customary for every family to give annually to the pope on this day one penny, which was thence called Denarius Sancti Petri, or Peter's Penny.'—Hampson's Medii AEvi Kalendarium.
What appears as a relic of the ancient pagan festival of the Gule of August, was practised in Lothian till about the middle of the eighteenth century. From the unenclosed state of the country, the tending of cattle then employed a great number of hands, and the cow-boys, being more than half idle, were much disposed to unite in seeking and creating amusement. In each little district, a group of them built, against Lammas-day, a tower of stones and sods in some conspicuous place.
On Lammas-morning, they assembled here, bearing flags, and blowing cow-horns—breakfasted together on bread and cheese, or other provisions—then set out on a march or procession, which usually ended in a foot-race for some trifling prize. The most remarkable feature of these rustic fetes was a practice of each party trying, before or on the day, to demolish the sod fortalice of some other party near by. This, of course, led to great fights and brawls, in which blood was occasionally spilt. But, on the whole, the Lammas Festival of Lothian was a pleasant affair, characteristic of an age which, with less to gain, had perhaps rather more to enjoy than the present"

Friday, 24 June 2016

Midsummer Madness - The Customs and Traditions of the Filly Loo at Ashmore

Ashmore is located in an area of chalk downland know as the Cranborne Chase.  One of the highest villages in the south of England and the highest in Dorset it lies 700 feet above sea level.

The Great Pond, Ashmore
One of the major problems for hilltop settlements like Ashmore was that of water supply.  The chalk drained the water away, so to preserve water the hilltop settlers dug holes in the chalk and lined them with clay to retain water.  These ‘Dew Ponds’ provide water for livestock grazing on the hills or on their way to markets where a natural supply of surface water may not be have been readily available. Few remain today and Ashmore village has grown up around one of the oldest and most famous ponds in the country. Even the villages very name is mentioned in the Domesday Book  as ‘Aisemere’ derived from the Old English ‘aesc and ‘mere’ meaning “pool where the ash trees grow’.

 Due to the villages height above sea level the relationship between evaporation and condensation was such that very little water was lost to evaporation.  It is seldom dry even in the hottest season.

However occasional there have been rare occurrences when the pond has dried out completely.  Edward William Watson, in his 1859 publication "Ashmore, Co. Dorset: a history of the parish with index to the registers, 1651 to 1820" writes an account of the time when this happened and the   traditional village custom associated with it. 

The Villagers celebrate the 'Filly Loo'
“The great pond, from which the village takes its name, (for Ashmore is a corruption of Ashmere, little more than three hundred years old ; Ashmeer occurs in a will of 1698) sixteen feet deep opposite the Rectory, has nothing to equal it among the chalk downs of the neighbourhood, nor indeed in all the down country of Wiltshire and Dorsetshire. In all probability, however it may have been enlarged, its beginnings are natural ; it must be a swallow-hole, like those in the Yorkshire limestone. It rarely fails, though it is only fed by rain water. Perhaps, on an average, it is dry once in twenty years; and then the villagers, by ancient custom, hold a feast. Cakes are baked, and eaten round the margin and in the bed of the pond ; and the farmers haul out the hundreds of cart-loads of mud which have accumulated on the bottom, and lay them on their land. By a curious coincidence, the pond happened to dry, and the feast was held, in 1887, the Jubilee Year."

'Steps in Time' perform
a traditional dance
In 1956, this old custom was revived by Peter Swann, as a folk dance festival called the 'Filly Loo'. With the cooperation of the Ashmore Folk Dance Club and guests from Warminster, Westbury and other villages in Dorset and Wiltshire the festival has been traditionally held on the Friday evening nearest to the Feast of St. John the Baptist or Midsummer's Day - 24th June.  This year (2016) the Filly Loo will take place on Friday 24th June from 7.00pm onwards.

The festivities begin when popular Folk and Celidh Band 'Hambledon Hopstep Band' begins to play, calling the villagers out to take part in the first dance, led by a Green Man. Dancing continues throughout the evening, with the North Dorset childrens dance group 'The Steps in Time' and the White Horse Morris from Wiltshire

By dusk, the celebrations reach their climax with the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. This is a torch lit procession with six antlered deer-men and four other colourful costumed characters: a Maid Marion, a bowman, a hobbyhorse and a fool.

The procession and dance is accompanied by a haunting solo melody in a minor key, which is very atmospheric. The celebration finishes with the torches in the ground around the pond and every reveller joins hands around the large village pond for a final dance.

The Woman in White

The origin of the name, ‘Filly Loo’, is an enigma, Some suggest that it is name after the one of the original instigators of the festival, a Louis Rideout, known as ‘Filbert Louis’. While others suggest it was originally held to celebrate the end of the cultivated hazelnut harvest in Ashmore. ‘Filbert’ being another name for hazelnut is derived from the name of St. Philibert, a Frankish abbot whose commemorative feast day falls on August 22, the date by which hazelnuts were supposed to start ripening.

Spirit of the Water
In folklore, water has a long history of supernatural belief and is often believed to be passageways for ghosts and spirits to enter the physical world.  Lakes and rivers are the dwellings places of host of water entities, gods, goddesses, monsters, nymphs and faeries, some of whom are guardians of the community's water supply, which usually consisting of a spring, stream-fed fountain, or well.  A common name associated to holy wells and springs is 'Lady Well', as wells once dedicated to pagan goddesses and their priestesses were rededicated and turned into to holy shrine the Virgin Mary under Christianity. Longstanding customs exist for propitiating the water spirits with offerings tossed into the waters.  Wishing wells and springs with healing properties derive from this belief and are often venerated around Midsummer or St John’s Day often marked by dressing their wells and springs with garlands of flowers (see related page - The Wishing Well).

Such water sources are often connected with sightings of a White Lady, a ghostly figure, perhaps of the displaced water spirit or goddess.  Hence ‘Filly Loo’ may be a corruption of the French ‘La Fille de l'Eau’, which means ‘Maiden of the Water’.   As near to Ashmore village there was once a well with an ash tree growing above it, called Washers Pit. Two stories are connected with it, one telling of a White Lady who haunts the well and the nearby road, and the other recounting how the cook from the big house had a prophetic dream and rode out to this spot, coming in time to save a lady dressed in white who was hanging from the ash tree. This story is recounted by Edward William Watson, in his 1859 publication "Ashmore, Co. Dorset: a history of the parish with index to the registers, 1651 to 1820"

"Though Robert Barber, the High Sheriff of 1670, made his home at Tollard, his son returned to Ashmore, which the family regarded as their chief seat. In Ashmore Church, in a vault under the chancel, almost all of them are buried. Soon after the place was purchased, the manor house must have been built. About half of it is now standing. Formerly a wing ran at right angles to the main building on the north-west side, and the south-east end was flanked by two octagonal towers, though there seems some doubt whether both of these were ever completed. There was another octagonal tower, or large stone summer-house, in the comer of the gardens nearest to the church ; and on the down, now ploughed, overhanging Washer's Pit, a building of the same kind called Barber's Folly, from which the field and down are still named.

With the hollow below the F
olly, where the road to Fontmel crosses the bottom, a legend is connected, well known in Ashmore, into which the name of the Barbers has been introduced, though the story must be far older than their time. It runs that a Squire Barber, or perhaps his daughter, for the tale is variously told, was warned in a dream on three successive nights, or else three times on the same night, that some one was in distress at Washer's Pit. The person warned woke the  household, and asked for a volunteer to go down to the place. No one would venture, except the cook. Her master gave her his best hunter for the ride, and she went forth to find a lady in white hanging by her hair from an ash tree over the well, now closed, at Washer's Pit. She released the victim, and carried her back on the horse to Ashmore(One version relates that she was pusued, but blew her hom and leaped the horse over Spinney's Gate, a feat which her pursuers could not perform).

For her courage she was rewarded with the little holding called Mullens', after her name. But the Mullens family had been settled in Ashmore long before the Barbers ; and another version tells that the daughter of the house, and not the cook, went on the quest. What became of the rescued lady, who she and her assailants were, is not recorded. And it is only fair to state that Dr. Chisholm, the younger, was in the habit of telling the story as of one of the servants at the manor farm being nearly murdered at this spot, and a fellow-servant being warned in a dream to help her. Perhaps Dr. Chisholm had rationalised the story; he told it as of his own or his father's time.

Folly Hanging Gate, Ashmore
Connected with the same ground as this legend and that about the barrow at Folly Hanging Gate, is another of a woman in white, who has been seen and felt brushing by them, within the last fifty years, by travellers between Spinney's Pond and Washer's Pit. I have heard it connected with the barrow, but the true form of that story is the Gappergennies (see related page - Gabbygamies) ; and the affair at Washer's Pit ended too happily to generate a ghost. This must be some third and independent legend. It is curious that in a parish full, as Ashmore is, of dark and lonely places, no other neighbourhood than these few yards on the road to Fontmel should have its story."

Chase Devil: The Traditions and Customs of the St. John's Day

St. John the Baptist
The 24th June is known as ‘Midsummer Day’, which is one of the quarter days of the year. This day was always associated with water and communities often marked it by dressing their wells. (See Rogation Tide - Upwey Well Dressing). Christians have dedicated this day to St John the Baptist, because it is believed that he was born about this time. It is one of the few saint days that celebrate the saint’s birth and not the saint’s death. The small golden flowers named after him, namely ‘St John’s Wort’ or ‘Chase Devil’ as it is sometimes called, was traditionally gathered on this day and placed over the entrance of the house to protect it from evil. Other flora like Mistletoe cut on Midsummer eve will cure all. Ashes from oak fires are magic aids to health and protection from storms and fire.

Below: Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days 24th June 1864, details the traditions of St. John's Day.
Midsummer Day - The Nativity of John the Baptist

Considering the part borne by the Baptist in the transactions on which Christianity is founded, it is not wonderful that the day set apart for the observance of his nativity should be, in all ages and most parts of Europe, one of the most popular of religious festivals. It enjoys the greater distinction that it is considered as Midsummer Day, and therefore has inherited a number of observances from heathen times. These are now curiously mixed with those springing from Christian feelings, insomuch that it is not easy to distinguish them from the other. It is only clear, from their superstitious character, that they have been originally pagan. To use the quaint phrase of an old translator of Scaliger, they 'form the footesteps of auncient gentility;' that is, gentilism or heathenism.
The observances connected with the Nativity of St. John commenced on the previous evening, called, as usual, the eve or vigil of the festival, or Midsummer eve. On that evening the people were accustomed to go into the woods and break down branches of trees, which they brought to their homes, and planted over their doors, amidst great demonstrations of joy, to make good the Scripture prophecy respecting the Baptist, that many should rejoice in his birth. This custom was universal in England till the recent change in manners. In Oxford there was a specialty in the observance, of a curious nature. Within the first court of Magdalen College, from a stone pulpit at one corner, a sermon was always preached on St. John's Day; at the same time the court was embowered with green boughs, 'that the preaching might resemble that of the Baptist in the wilderness.'
Towards night, materials for a fire were collected in a public place and kindled. To this the name of bonfire was given, a term of which the most rational explanation seems to be, that it was composed of contributions collected as boons, or gifts of social and charitable feeling. Around this fire the people danced with almost frantic mirth, the men and boys occasionally jumping through it, not to show their agility, but as a compliance with ancient custom. There can be no doubt that this leaping through the fire is one of the most ancient of all known superstitions, and is identical with that followed by Manasseh. We learn that, till a late period, the practice was followed in Ireland on St. John's Eve.
It was customary in towns to keep a watch walking about during the Midsummer Night, although no such practice might prevail at the place from motives of precaution. This was done at Nottingham till the reign of Charles I. Every citizen either went himself, or sent a substitute; and an oath for the preservation of peace was duly administered to the company at their first 'meeting at sunset. They paraded the town in parties during the night, every person wearing a garland of flowers upon his head, additionally embellished in some instances with ribbons and jewels. In London, during the middle ages, this watch, consisting of not less than two thousand men, paraded both on this night and on the eves of St. Paul's and St. Peter's days. The watchmen were provided with cressets, or torches, carried in barred pots on the tops of long poles, which, added to the bonfires on the streets, must have given the town a striking appearance in an age when there was no regular street-lighting. The great came to give their countenance to this marching watch, and made it quite a pageant. A London poet, looking back from 1616, thus alludes to the scene:
        The goodly buildings that till then did hide
        Their rich array, open'd their windows wide,
        Where kings, great peers, and many a noble dame,
        Whose bright pearl-glittering robes did mock the flame
        Of the night's burning lights, did sit to see
        How every senator in his degree,
        Adorn'd with shining gold and purple weeds,
        And stately mounted on rich-trapped steeds,
        Their guard attending, through the streets did ride,
        Before their foot-bands, graced with glittering pride
        Of rich-gilt arms, whose glory did present
        A sunshine to the eye, as if it meant,
        Among the cresset lights shot up on high,
        To chase dark night for over from the sky;
        While in the streets the sticklers to and fro,
        To keep decorum, still did come and go,
        Where tables set were plentifully spread,
        And at each door neighbour with neighbour fed.'
King Henry VIII, hearing of the marching watch, came privately, in 1510, to see it; and was so much pleased with what he saw, that he came with Queen Catherine and a noble train to attend openly that of St. Peter's Eve, a few nights after. But this king, in the latter part of his reign, thought proper to abolish the ancient custom, probably from a dread of so great a muster of armed citizens.
Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John's Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John's night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul's midnight ramble.
The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:
'We have passed St. John Baptist's night.' In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain 'fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John's evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto's servants.'
A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John's Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.
The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one's self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John's Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.
Our Elizabethan dramatists and poets, including Shakspeare and Jonson, have many allusions to the invisibility-conferring powers of fern seed. The people also gathered on this night the rose, St. John's wort, vervain, trefoil, and rue, all of which were thought to have magical properties. They set the orpine in clay upon pieces of slate or potsherd in their houses, calling it a Midsummer Man. As the stalk was found next morning to incline to the right or left, the anxious maiden knew whether her lover would prove true to her or not. Young women likewise sought for what they called pieces of coal, but in reality, certain hard, black, dead roots, often found under the living mugwort, designing to place these under their pillows, that they might dream of their lovers.
Some of these foolish fancies are pleasantly strung together in the Connoisseur, a periodical paper of the middle of the last century. 'I and my two sisters tried the dumb cake together; you must know two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put it under each of their pillows (but you must not speak a word all the time), and then you will dream of the man you are to have. This we did; and, to be sure, I did nothing all night but dream of Mr. Blossom. The same night, exactly at twelve o'clock, I sowed hemp-seed in our backyard, and said to myself—"Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I hoe, and he that is my true love come after me and mow.' Will you believe me? I looked back and saw him as plain as eyes could see him. After that I took a clean shift and wetted it, and turned it wrong side out, and hung it to the fire upon the back of a chair; and very likely my sweetheart would have come and turned it right again (for I heard his step), but I was frightened, and could not help speaking, which broke the charm. I likewise stuck up two Mid-summer Men, one for myself and one for him. Now, if his had died away, we should never have come together; but I assure you his bowed and turned to mine. Our maid Betty tells me, if I go backwards, without speaking a word, into the garden upon Midsummer Eve, and gather a rose, and keep it in a clean sheet of paper, without looking at it till Christmas Day, it will be as fresh as in June; and if I then stick it in my bosom, he that is to be my husband will come and take it out.' So also, in a poem entitled the Cottage Girl, published in 1786:
        The moss rose that, at fall of dew,
        Ere eve its duskier curtain drew,
        Was freshly gather'd from its stem,
        She values as the ruby gem;
        And, guarded from the piercing air,
        With all an anxious lover's care,
        She bids it, for her shepherd's sake,
        Await the new-year's frolic wake,
        When, faded in its alter'd hue,
        She reads—the rustic is untrue!
        But if its leaves the crimson paint,
        Her sickening hopes no longer faint;
        The rose upon her bosom worn,
        She meets him at the peep of morn,
        And lo! her lips with kisses prest,
        He plucks it from her panting breast.'

We may suppose, from the following version of a German poem, entitled The St. John's Wort, that precisely the same notions prevail amongst the peasant youth of that country:

        The young maid stole through the cottage door,
        And blushed as she sought the plant of power:
        "Thou silver glow-worm, oh, lend me thy light,
        I must gather the mystic St. John's wort tonight—
        The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide
        If the coining year shall make me a bride."
        And the glow-worm came
        With its silvery flame,
        And sparkled and shone
        Through the night of St. John.
        And soon has the young maid her love-knot tied.
        With noiseless tread,
        To her chamber she sped,
        Where the spectral moon her white beams shed:
        "Bloom here, bloom here, thou plant of power,
        To deck the young bride in her bridal hour!
        But it droop'd its head, that plant of power,
        And died the mute death of the voiceless flower;
        And a wither'd wreath on the ground it lay,
        More meet for a burial than bridal day.
        And when a year was past away,
        All pale on her bier the young maid lay;
        And the glow-worm came
        With its silvery flame,
        And sparkled and shone
        Through the Eight of St. John,
        As they closed the cold grave o'er the maid's cold day.'

Some years ago there was exhibited before the Society of Antiquaries a ring which had been found in a ploughed field near Cawood in Yorkshire, and which appeared, from the style of its inscriptions, to be of the fifteenth century. It bore for a device two orpine plants joined by a true love knot, with this motto above, Alec fiancee velt, that is, My sweetheart wills, or is desirous. The stalks of the plants were bent towards each other, in token, no doubt, that the parties represented by them were to come together in marriage. The motto under the ring was Joye l'amour feu. So universal, in time as in place, are these popular notions.
The observance of St. John's Day seems to have been, by a practical bull, confined mainly to the previous evening. On the day itself, we only find that the people kept their doors and beds embowered in the branches set up the night before, upon the understanding that these had a virtue in averting thunder, tempest, and all kinds of noxious physical agencies.
The Eve of St. John is a great day among the mason-lodges of Scotland. What happens with them at Melrose may be considered as a fair example of the whole. 'Immediately after the election of office-bearers for the year ensuing, the brethren walk in procession three times round the Cross, and afterwards dine together, under the presidency of the newly-elected Grand Master. About six in the evening, the members again turn out and form into line two abreast, each bearing a lighted flambeau, and decorated with their peculiar emblems and insignia. Headed by the heraldic banners of the lodge, the pro-cession follows the same route, three times round the Cross, and then proceeds to the Abbey. On these occasions, the crowded streets present a scene of the most animated description. The joyous strains of a well-conducted band, the waving torches, and incessant showers of fire-works, make the scene a carnival. But at this time the venerable Abbey is the chief point of attraction and resort, and as the mystic torch-bearers thread their way through its mouldering aisles, and round its massive pillars, the outlines of its gorgeous ruins become singularly illuminated and brought into bold and striking relief.
The whole extent of the Abbey is with "measured step and slow " gone three times round. But when near the finale, the whole masonic body gather to the chancel, and forming one grand semicircle around it, where the heart of King Robert Bruce lies deposited near the high altar, and the band strikes up the patriotic air, " Scots wha ha'e wi' Wallace bled," the effect produced is overpowering. Midst showers of rockets and the glare of blue lights the scene closes, the whole reminding one of some popular saturnalia held in a monkish town during the middle ages.'—Wade's Hist. Melrose, 1861, p. 146.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Midsummer Eve and the arrival of the Black Death to England

Midsummer Eve
by Edward Robert Hughe
Midsummer Eve’ or ‘St John’s Eve’ falls on 23rd June and like Hallowe’en and St Mark’s Eve this is a time when ghosts, phantoms and fairies are believed to be abroad and when one can foretell the future.

Midsummer's Fright Dream

If there was a full moon on Midsummer Eve night and a clear sky, a girl could use a mirror to discover how many years had to pass before she was to marry. The method used was for the girl to stand upon a stone on which she had never stood before with her back to the full moon and a looking glass in her hand. Gazing into the mirror she would see the moon's reflection and also a number of smaller moons. How many of these there were denoted how many years had to pass before she was to wed.

Flowers and plants feature heavily in such Midsummer Eve charms. The small yellow flower ‘St John’s Wort’ was considered to be very lucky, because it was believed to keep fairies, ghosts and evil from haunting the house. Unmarried girls would gather the flower very early on Midsummer Eve morning while the dew was still on its petals and place it under their pillows. If a girl did this in secret, it was believed that she would dream of her future husband that night.
St John's wort doth charm all witches away
if gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day
any devils and witches have no power to harm
those that gather the plant for a charm
rub the lintels with that red juicy flower
no thunder nor tempest will then have the power
to hurt or hinder your house; and bind
round your neck a charm of similar kind.
St. John's Wort
Sage leaves too were formerly used in love-divinations. This charm was believed to work for both females and males alike. To enable a person to see his or her future sweetheart, in either bodily form or in a vision, required the person to pluck twelve leaves off a sage bush at midnight; pulling one for each strike of the clock. With the last leaf pulled the destined wife or husband would appear behind them.

Rosemary is yet another herb used in Midsummer Eve charms. If a girl puts a plate of flour under a rosemary bush before retiring to bed, the next morning she should find her future husband's initials traced in the flour.

Roses are of special importance on Midsummer's Eve. It is said that any rose picked on Midsummer's Eve, or Midsummer's Day will keep fresh until Christmas. 

At midnight on Midsummer's Eve, young girls should scatter rose petals before them and say:
Rose leaves, rose leaves,
Rose leaves I strew.
He that will love me
Come after me now.
Then the next day, Midsummer's Day, their true love will visit them.

Those girls who had boyfriends already, but were perhaps unsure if he was the right partner for them would use the Orpine plant, which is often called "Mid Summer Men" to discover if he was their true-love. The enquiring girl would take two sprigs of Orpine, naming one after herself and the other after her boyfriend and place them upright in a lump of clay (Blue tac will do just as well today) and leave over night. If the next morning they were found bending towards each other, their love would prosper, but if they had turned away in opposite directions, their love affair was doomed. However, anyone trying this should be warned! If either of the two named sprigs had withered away, it was a sure sign that the said person was soon to die.

Watching in the church porch for those in the parish who were to die within the coming year was another universal Midsummer Eve custom. Anyone wishing to know would have to go to the church porch and wait there from 11pm until 1am (one hour either side of midnight) in complete silence. At some moment during the two-hour vigil, the fetches of those doomed to die would appear and pass one by one into the church.

Midsummer Fire Leaping
"Many of these ancient customs are still continued, and the fires are still lighted on St. John's Eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times back and forward will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while professional story-tellers narrate tales of f airy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all corners to the feast at the king's house. When the crowd at length separate, every one carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground. Many contests also arise amongst the young men; for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him."
Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 'The Baal Fires and Dances', 1887

Midsummer Eve Customs and Superstitions in Dorset

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Midsummer Eve (Eve of St. John the Baptist) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Dorsetshire does not appear to have followed the example of many other parts of England and of other European countries in the ceremonies which marked the advent of the summer solstice as recorded by Brand and other writers, such as, piling up and dancing round  or through bonfires, and other recognized festivities. It seems to have contented itself with those simple and domestic practices that are so  dear to the heart of the village maidens, who seek by " divination", or some form of " matrimonial oracle ", to learn what is to be their own fate or chance of happiness in the married state.
William Barnes, writing in Hone's Year Book in 1832, refers to one of the commonest or best known of these. After mentioning some of the various means and practices which were resorted to in his childhood in order to attain this object, and which required no particular day or season in order to be effective, he tells us (p. 588) :—

Hemp-seed throwing.—" Midsummer Eve, however, is the great time with girls for discovering who shall be their husbands ; why it is so, more than any other, I cannot tell, unless, indeed, the sign Gemini, which the sun then leaves, is symbolical of the wedding union. But, however that may be, a maiden will walk through the garden at midsummer, with a rake on her left shoulder and throw hemp-seed over her right, saying at the same time:—

'Hemp-seed I set, hemp-seed I sow,
The man that is my true-love come after me and mow.'
"It is said by many who have never tried it, and some who have without effect, that the future husband of the hemp-sowing girl will appear behind her with a scythe, and look as substantial as a brass image of Saturn on an old time-piece"

Barnes also weaves this superstition or charm into " Mrs. Mary's Tale " in Erwin and Linda, one of his Poems of Rural Life in National English " (1846), pp. 11 and 12 :—
"For once, when summer's shortest night
Came round, so slowly letting fall
Its sparkling dew below the light
The moon cast down upon the wall ;
The while the slowly-clanging bell
Struck twelve o'clock, and giggling maids
Stole out to try the well-known spell
That brings their unknown husbands' shades ;
Young Linda too was scatt'ring wide
Her hemp-seed, crying 'This I sow
'That he who takes me for his bride
'Should now come after me and mow.'
 And turning round her fair-neck'd head
With timid smile, and backward look,
She saw—and seeing, felt half dead—
A shape come slowly o'er the brook ;
And when she saw his scythe-blade's bow
Behind him gleaming by the moon,
She sank with one convulsive throe,
Against an elm-tree in a swoon."

Thomas Hardy gives a delightfully realistic account of the observance of this custom by the village maidens of the Hintocks in The Woodlanders (vol. ii, chapter iv), where, as they left their homes for the woods in which they were to try their fate, " a handful " (of hemp-seed) " was carried by each girl ".

Mr. Hardy — who is a keen observer of all that is archaic and quaint in the life of the Dorset peasantry—at the same time alludes incidentally to a somewhat similar species of divination by which girls were enabled to learn what were the trades of their future husbands, namely, by " hole-digging " at noon on the following day, St. John the Baptist's or Midsummer Day. No further details are given; and as I have not myself come across this particular form of divination I cannot give any information as to how it was actually carried out, beyond saying that it would seem to bear some kinship to that mentioned by Brand (i, 267), who cites Aubrey's Miscellanies (1696) for the statement that " on the day of St. John Baptist " as he was walking in the pasture at 12 o'clock he saw a group of young women on their knees " very busie, as if they had been weeding ".

"A young man told him that they were looking for a coal (or " cole " : an old, blackened root, often found under mugwort or plantains) under the root of a plantain, to put under their heads that night, and they should dream who would  be their husbands. It was to be that day and hour."

Crossed Shoes. — Barnes also gives another well-known " matrimonial oracle ", which consists in a. girl, on going to bed on Midsummer Eve, putting her shoes at right angles to each other in the shape of a T, and saying :—
"Hoping this night my true love to see,
I place my shoes in the form of a T."
When she will be sure to see her husband in a dream, and perhaps in reality, by her bed-side.

According to the Rev. Canon C. H. Mayo this couplet sometimes takes the form of a quotation :—

"I place my shoes in the form of a T,
Hoping this night my true-love to see,
In his apparel and in his array,
As he goes forth on every day."
Letters of Alphabet.—There is still another one mentioned by Barnes. " A girl, on going to bed, is to write the alphabet on small pieces of paper and put them into a bason of water with the letters downward ; and it is said that in the morning she will find the first letter of her husband's name turned up, and the others as they were left."

Death Omen. — Miss M, G. A. Summers, of Hazelbury Bryan, contributed to the " Folk-lore Column " of the Dorset County Chronicle in 1881 several interesting items relating to Midsummer Eve.

She stated that a curious old custom was still firmly believed in Dorsetshire, that if you sit in the church porch on Midsummer Eve you will see those who are to die during the ensuing year enter the church and not come out again ; whilst those who will have a serious illness will go in and return again. Also that she had been informed by a Dorset woman " with a most solemn face" that if you put some }^arrow gathered off a young man's grave under your pillow on Midsummer Eve you will surely see your future husband.

Miss Summers further remembered hearing a young woman in a neighbouring village say that she had laid out some bread and cheese and had sat up, as she had " heard tell how her young man's spirit would come and take some ".

This last is evidently that alluded to by Thomas Hardy in his Under the Greenwood Tree, where at the Christmas party given by the tranter Reuben Dewy, depicted in Part I, Chapter VIII, Mrs. Penny speaks of the occasion when one Midsummer Eve, when she was a young woman, she had sat up, accordin to the' time-honoured custom, to watch for the spirit of the man who was to be her future husband. She says : "I put the bread and cheese and cider quite ready as the witch's book ordered, and I opened the door and waited till the clock struck twelve. When the clock had struck, lo and behold I could see through a little small man in the lane wi' a shoemaker's apron on. In he walks and down he sits, and, O my goodness, didn't I flee upstairs, body and soul hardly hanging together! "

Though this was not the figure she approved or desired, as her conduct on this occasion showed, so effectual was the charm that she had prepared that she nevertheless in due course of time became his wife."
The Black Death enters Weymouth

It was also this time in the month over 600 years ago that the dreadful plague known as the Black Death swept into from Asia claiming a third of Europe's population in just two years. Its arrival to England through Weymouth on the 25th June 1348. Is documented in the Grey Friars Chronicle.
'In this year 1348 in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.'

A victim of the Black Death
Villages and hamlets on the outskirts of Weymouth soon fell victim to the plague causing the villagers to abandon their settlements and seek refuge in other parts of the county; this caused the infection to spread over a wide area, until it eventually reached the major cities. The Death took a heavy toll on the people of Portland, that the quarries and fields ceased to be worked and the coastal defences were left deserted. Edward III, in 1352 ordered the movement of the islanders to be restricted. The bubonic plague was transmitted to humans by the bite of a flea, the flea itself being infected by the black rat upon which it lived. Both rats and fleas thrived in unsanitised conditions of the time. One bite from a flea could cause the most horrifying symptoms. The first sign being a blackish rash followed by large swellings in the armpit, groin and neck area. Preceding death the victim would develop a fever and begin to hallucinate. The bubonic plague continued to affect Europe for centuries, its last manifestation in Britain being the Great Plague of the 1660's.
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