Category Archives: Divining

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom demised: Love Divination on Midsummer

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imageMidsummer was one of the days in the year where the lovelorn could discover details of their future lovers. There were many widespread customs. One under the cover of midsummer moonlit was to throw hemp or fern seeds over the shoulder and hopefully see your future husband saying:

“Hemp seeds I sow, Hempseed I mow, And the man who is my husband to be, let him follow me and mow.”

and the other to form the dumb cake. A midsummer method being in Charles Dicks (1911). ‘Weather and Folk Lore of Peterborough and District.

Dumb Cake. On Midsummer Eve three girls are required to make a dumb cake. Two must make it, two bake it, two break it, and the third put a piece under each of their pillows. Strict silence must be preserved. The following are the directions given how to proceed: The two must go to the larder and jointly get the various ingredients. First they get a bowl, each holding it and wash and dry it together. Then each gets a spoonful of flour, a spoonful of water and a little salt. When making the cake they must stand on something they have never stood on before. They must mix it together and roll it. Then they draw a line across the middle of the cake and each girl cuts her initials each on opposite sides of the line. Then both put it into the oven and bake it. The two take it out of the oven, and break it across the line and the two pieces are given to the third girl who places a piece under each pillow and they will dream of their future. Not a word must be spoken and the two girls after giving the pieces to the third girl have to walk backwards to bed and get into bed backwards. One word or exclamation by either of the three girls will break the charm. Should a gale arise and the wind appear to be rustling in the room, during the baking or latter part of the preparation, if they look over their left shoulder they will see their future husbands. In some districts the pieces of cake are eaten in bed and not put under their pillows but nothing must be drank before breakfast next morning. Another variation is that two only make the cake and go through the same form as the preceding, only they divide it themselves, then each eats her portion and goes to bed backwards as in the first case and nothing must be drank or a word spoken. An uncooked dried salt fish eaten before going to bed in silence and walking backwards and getting into bed the same way, causes ones future husband to appear in a dream with a glass of water in his hand if a teetotaller, or a glass of beer if he is not one. Nothing must be drank before breakfast. An old woman said she had tried it over 40 years ago and her husband brought her a glass of beer and he was not an abstainer but rather the reverse.”

Often plants were used as noted in Devon:

“if a young woman, blind-folded, plucks a full-blown rose on Midsummer day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas, it will be found fresh as when gathered. Then if she places the rose on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away.”

The custom was widespread being recorded in Wiltshire, to Herefordshire using Orpines Sedum telephium. John Aubrey records a custom in Wiltshire in his Gentilisme and Judaiseme. He notes that:

“the maids, especially the cook maids and dairy maids would stick up in some chinks of the joists etc,. Midsummer men, which are slips of orpines. They placed them by pairs, one for such a man, the other for such a maid his sweetheart, and accordingly as the orpine did incline to, or recline from ye other, that there would be love, or aversion, if either did wither, death.”

Nowadays the love lorn peer into the horoscopes…little has changed

Custom demised: Porch Watching on St Mark’s Eve

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 “Tis now, replied the village belle,  St. Mark’s mysterious eve, And all that old traditions tell, I tremblingly believe; How, when the midnight signal tolls, Along the churchyard green, A mournful train of sentenced souls  In winding-sheets are seen. The ghosts of all whom death shall doom  Within the coming year, In pale procession walk the gloom,  Amid the silence drear.”

On this date curious people would wait up on the 24th of April, St. Mark’s Eve to see who would die in the Parish. The details varied a little according to location, but the basic idea was that you sat in a church porch and the spirits or wraiths of those who were to die that year ahead would be seen as ghosts. The watchers had to remain silent from when the church clock struck 11pm until the clock struck one, and a procession of the dead predicted that year would appear either leaving or entering the church.  In some places such as Yorkshire, the observer would have to be there for three days in a row and then only would be able to see it.

It was widespread custom, but particularly noted in north of England, although Briggs in their Folklore of the Cotswolds is wrong when they  note it was found no further south than Northamptonshire (it was recorded in Oxfordshire). In East Anglia those who would die stay in the church and those who would survive would be seen in other places it was the other way around. Ethel Rudkin (1936) in Lincolnshire folklore records:

“On St Mark’s Eve all those who are going to die, or to be married, can be seen by anyone who watches in the church porch at Midnight, as they come into the church in spirit on that night.”

Let us hope they could tell the difference! Another method recorded was according to Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days involved:

“ riddling out all the ashes on the hearth-stone over night, in the expectation of seeing impressed upon them, in the morning, the footstep of any one of the party who was to die during the ensuing year. In circles much given to superstition, great misery was sometimes created by a malicious or wanton person coming slily into the kitchen during the night, and marking the ashes with the shoe of one of the party.”

A colourful account translated by Steve Roud Book of Days (2008) from its broad Yorkshire is by Richard Blakeborough in 1898:

“I never watched myself, but one James How used to watch the dead go in and come out at Bon’inston church every St. Mark’s Eve as it came around. He had to; he was forced to it, he couldn’t help himself…ate, and he saw the spirits of all of them that were going to die that year, and all of them dressed in their natural clothes, or else how would he have known who they were? They passed close to him, but none of them gave him a nod, or anything of that sort.”

A noted account is given about a Liveman Rampaine, household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, Burton Lincolnshire to Gervase Hollis, a noted writer who records:

“In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark’s eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.

About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.

These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before. Then they conferred their notes, and both of them could very well remember the circumstances of every passage. Three of the apparitions they well knew to resemble three of their neighbours; but the fourth (which seemed an infant), and the fifth (like an old man), they could not conceive any resemblance of. After this they confidently reported to every one what they had done and seen; and in order designed to death those three of their neighbours, which came to pass accordingly.

Shortly after their deaths, a woman in the town was delivered of a child, which died likewise. So that now there wanted but one (the old man), to accomplish their predictions, which likewise came to pass after this manner. In that winter, about mid-January, began a sharp and long frost, during the continuance of which some of Sir John Munson’s friends in Cheshire, having some occasion of intercourse with him, despatched away a foot messenger (an ancient man), with letters to him. This man, tramling this bitter weather over the mountains in Derbyshire, was nearly perished with cold, yet at last he arrived at Burton with his letters, where within a day or two he died. And these men, as soon as ever they see him, said peremptorily that he was the man whose apparition they see, and that doubtless he would die before he returned, which accordingly he did.”

Of course waiting up late especially for many rural people who would have laboured all day would be tiring and so tales tell of people falling asleep are noted. This would be an unwise action as it is said that anyone who did would die as well! The practice would appear to have been frowned upon by the church, perhaps the tradition told in Yorkshire that anyone who did watch must do so every year of their life is a way of discouraging. As Blakeborough again notes this may have been to comfort the watcher:

“But them as does it once have to do it. They hold themselves back. They’re forced to go every time St. Mark’s Eve comes around. Man! It’s a desperate thing to have to do, because you have to go.”

Understandably, such a custom was also ripe for abuse. Kai Roberts in their Folklore of Yorkshire (2013) tells of a woman Old Peg Doo who every year used to watch at Bridlington Priory and charge her neighbours for the information. Of course finding out that you were one of these wraiths would have been quite disturbing so much that it must have caused the death of the person predicted a self fulfilling prophecy! As Chamber’s 1894 Book of Days notes:

“It may readily be presumed that this would prove a very pernicious superstition, as a malignant person, bearing an ill-will to any neighbour, had only to say or insinuate that he had seen him forming part of the visionary procession of St. Mark’s Eve, in order to visit him with. a serious affliction, if not with mortal disease.”

An account in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries by a  J. A. Penny in 1892-3

“As Martin by Timberland over the river, I was told that many years ago there was an old clerk who church watched and once when a farmer grumbled at the rates he said ‘you need not trouble for you’ll not have to pay them’ nor had he, for he went home and died within three months of the shock.”

Of course there was also a bizarre final realism for the observer as Richard Blakeborough once again notes:

“Whah! at last end you see yourself pass yourself and now you know your time’s come and you’ll be laid in the ground before that day twelvemonth.”

Sometimes as Chambers notes it would be common to scare people on the day, he notes:

A poem from Whittlesford Cambridgeshire in 1826, describing the tale of when in 1813, four or five villagers would watch at the church to see if the ghosts appeared. His friends played a joke on them by hiding in the church, ringing its bell and scaring them and sending their scattering and in one case causing one of them falling into an open grave.

The church became very strict on the custom and it is noted as early as in 1608, indeed the earliest record of the custom, when a woman was excommunicated at Walesby, Nottinghamshire for:

“watching upon Sainte Markes eve at nighte in the church porche by divelish demonstracion the deathe of somme neighnours within the yeere”

 The tradition appears to have died out by the 1800s across the country as rational thought sadly took over. However, there was at least one survival into the 20th century in Oxfordshire as a report in the Oxford Times recorded the event in the north of the county. So next St Mark’s eve perhaps…or perhaps not…you’ll want to watch.