Michaelmas

Colyford Goose Fayre, Devon. Photo: seatonbay.com

Today, the 29th September, is Michaelmas Day, the feast of St Michael the Archangel, and historically in England one of the four “Quarter Days” that marked the beginning or ending of legal contracts (between landlord and tenant, or between employer and employee). As such, it often witnessed Hiring Fairs, which started in the reign of Edward III and lasted up until the Second World War in some places, where employers would look for new apprentices, and would-be employees would wear a badge or carry a tool to denote their skill (for example, a crook for a shepherd, or a milking-pail for a dairymaid). Once agreement had been reached regarding rates of pay, etc., the employer would give their new worker a shilling (also known as earnest money, fest, God’s penny or arles) to seal the bargain. These fairs became important festivals, and would, like many similar events, often descend into drunken revelry.

Traditionally, a fattened goose was roasted and eaten on Michaelmas Day, and tenants would often give one to their landlord as part of their rent (which would have been due at Michaelmas, as a Quarter Day). There are still goose fairs held at some places in England today, the largest and most famous of which is Nottingham Goose Fair, which dates from the Thirteenth Century, and two smaller ones in Devon – the Goosey Fair in Tavistock, and the Colyford Goose Fayre in Seaton Bay (see photo above). When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in Britain in 1752, many people continued to celebrate important feasts on their old dates, several days later (for example, Old Twelfth Night on January 17th), and so the Nottingham and Tavistock goose fairs are now held in early October, and it is no longer legal in the UK to sell live poultry at markets, so the fairs today are more about rides and (cooked) food.

But Colyford’s tiny fayre is perhaps closest in spirit to those earlier fairs, with villagers dressing in medieval costume, local produce for sale, a demonstration of traditional skills such as archery, and a mummers’ play.

Horticulturally speaking, there are at least a couple of flora with connections to Michaelmas – the aster, or “Michaelmas daisy”, is so-called because it blooms late in the year. And then of course there is the legend that, when St Michael cast Satan out of Heaven, he fell into a blackberry bush and cursed, spat or urinated on it (take your pick). According to tradition, that is why blackberries go sour after Michaelmas.

Michaelmas daisies.

 

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Valentine’s Day! It’s got absolutely nothing to do with St Valentine…

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine - History in the Headlines

Photo: history.com

Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.

It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.

In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.

What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).

There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.

In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:

Good morrow, Valentine,

First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,

Please to give me a Valentine.

They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.

By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.

By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.

 

The Elements – Air (Birds)

I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:

Wrens

Steve Round snapped this Jenny Wren out and about in Cheshire.

Photo: bbc.co.uk

In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.

Owls

Barn Owl - Facts, Pictures, Diet, Breeding, Habitat, Behaviour ...

Photo: animalsadda.com

The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.

Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.

Robin

Robin (Clive Timmons)

Photo: birdwatchireland.ie

Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).

To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.

The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

Watchet (St. Decuman)

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: westcountrychurches.co.uk)

Sources:

The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)

 

Looking into the dark

St John the Baptist, Carhampton

Hello again.

This time last week I’d just arrived in Somerset for some well-earned r’n’r, and the chance to catch up with some dear friends I see all too rarely these days. Two of them very kindly let me have the use of their converted barn for a few days, and so I spent a happy time shuttling backwards and forwards on the bus, and a few cadged lifts, to see as many folk as I could in the time available.

The clocks went back here in the UK last Sunday, and so the evenings, already getting darker, are now creeping in well before 5 o’clock. As I lay awake listening to the wind rattling the casements of the barn, and to the chimes of the church clock, I started thinking about the history of the local area.

One of the places I visited was the small village of Carhampton, a few miles east of Minehead. Today it is home to around 800 or so people, and is a lovely place to live but no longer of great importance. Historically, however, it gave its name to the local hundred – an administrative division of roughly a hundred hides, or households (a hide being the amount of land needed to sustain a household), dating from the Anglo-Saxon period. It was the site of two major battles against the Vikings, in 833 and 840, both of which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings won (“…great slaughter was made there, and the Danish had possession of the place of slaughter”), and, as a royal estate, was later left by Alfred the Great to his son Edward in his will.

It also plays a small role in the Arthurian legends – when St Carantoc came to Somerset from Wales, so the story goes, he lost a magical altar which had been sent to him from Heaven, and asked Arthur if it had been found washed ashore. It had, but to reclaim it he first had to defeat a dangerous serpent (or possibly dragon – the two are often interchangeable in folklore) living on Ker Moor, between Carhampton and Dunster. This he achieved by placing his stole (the scarf-like vestment worn by priests) around its neck, thus rendering it harmless. He was rewarded by the return of his altar, and built a chapel in Carhampton to house it, though, if such a place ever existed, it has long since disappeared – the present parish church (see photo above) has no connection with either the saint or the story associated with him.

A custom that is still continued in the village today, however, is that of apple-wassailing, which happens every January 17th (Old Twelfth Night), and involves placing toast or cake soaked in cider into the branches of the best tree (for the robins), and pouring cider around its roots. Then, when the assembled company have drunk a toast to the tree and sung the wassailing song, in hopes of a healthy crop for the next autumn, shotguns are fired into the air, to ward off evil spirits.

Apple tree, apple tree we wassail thee,

To bear and to bow,

This year and another year,

Hatsfuls, capsfuls and three corner sacksful

And a little heap under the stairs.

So holler boys, holler boys,

Hip hip hooray!

St Swithin’s Day

Tomorrow, July 15th, is St Swithin’s Day.

I first heard about it through the Billy Bragg song of the same name. I later discovered that St Swithin – or Swithun – was Bishop of Winchester in the Ninth Century, and, being a modest man, asked at his death, in 862, that he be buried outside his cathedral, where the rain and the people’s feet could fall upon his grave.

Folk soon ascribed miraculous healing powers to him, and he became honoured as a saint, and on the 15th July 971, his body was moved to a new shrine inside the cathedral. But this led to a terrible rainstorm, and ever since, it has been said that if it rains on St Swithin’s Day, it will continue to do so for the next forty days…