Category Archives: Plough Monday

Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

BanksideTwelfth Night Traditioncustomandceremonies.wordpress.com (44)Keeping mum

The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Custom revived: The Whittlesea straw bear

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Whittesey Straw Bear (2)

Turning up on the second Saturday in January to the little known town of Whittlesea one will be greeted by a fantastic site – the Straw bear festival.
My one and only attendance was with my family and mother-in-law. Understandably it was freezing, a factor not appreciated by my Australian mother in law. I tended to agree, the wind blows hard and sharp across those fens…there’s nothing in the way until the Friesland (appropriately) on the European mainland. This wild and desolate landscape is befitting of such a weird and wonderful tradition.
Despite the weather we braved it and upon entering the town square we could see the assembled mass of the procession in the far distance. Soon they were upon us and the Straw bear could be seen, a strange otherworldly creature and quite frightening..well it was to be eldest, then two who upon seeing it come towards me screamed the loudest I have ever heard him. It’s obviously had an effect on him because in idle conversation he brought it up…more than the monsters of Doctor Who which haunted my nightmares but appear to have little effect on him. Reference to Doctor Who is certainly appropriate for this creature has much in common with the creations of that show. Its stomping gate a locomotion many a monster would be glad of, its lack of features a step perhaps too scary for the show’s producers to attempt.

The bear essentials – the history

Plough Monday as you know if you’ve been following this blog was an unofficial day off when farm workers travelled the parish begging. In the east midlands, mainly Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire these were plays, East Anglia celebrated with molly dancers and in some places the celebration was spread out to the next day Plough Tuesday. In the fens it would appear this was the day for the most curious and impressive of beasts, the Straw Bear.
No one appears to know the age of the tradition, a newspaper report in 1882 states:

“he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.”

It is clear that its antics and the combination of alcohol saw its demise in 1909 said to be the result of an over-zealous police inspector who banned them because they were begging.
The official website on the bear relates that it was made of:

“great lengths of tightly twisted bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen. Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw would around them to form a cone above the bear’s head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.”

This later fact would explain why he would be guided by a rope fastened around him by one of the farmers. He was made to dance outside houses and gifts of money, food and beer were given.

Bear bones of a theory

Bear traditions have been recorded in Ramsey Cambridgeshire (revived 2009) and associated with a plough Monday play in Holton-le-Clay, Lincolnshire (yet to revived!) Furthermore there are traditions in places as far apart as Andorra and Germany. Indeed, since 1999 a bear from Walldurn Frankfurt, slightly slimmer and associated with Shrove Tuesday joins in the Whittlesea fun (and unlike those well known pandas have yet to breed!)
The behaviour of the straw bear clearly indicates some relationship with the performing bears which were common in Europe from the 13th century onwards and indeed I remember seeing in the 1980s in Spain (incidentally it is now illegal in the EC but cases have been reported as late as 2007!). However, several aspects suggest trace memory of an older tradition: the selecting of the best straw, the date of course and the ritual burning.

An ex-straw-ordinary Morris meeting

If you had only one day in England and you wanted to get a flavour of English tradition and especially folk dance you could do no better that Whittlesea Straw Bear. Why? Because in this small rather non-descript town are gathered every type of folk dancer; from molly dancer to handkerchief bothering Morris, from cluttering clog dancers to stylish long sword dancers, and in such a small area one can experience it all!. Between 250-600 dancers can be seen on the main day and
What is amazing is this tradition was only revived in 1980 and yet it has all the vim and vigour of something which has continued forever, such is the tribute to its organisers

Whittesey Straw Bear (3)

Customs revived: Nottinghamshire plough Monday plays

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Folk plays are an interesting area for folklorists. They appear to instil within them traditions and actions from a dark distance part that has been a good source for academics to discover their meanings and origin.

Once it appeared in the early-mid 20th century that they would be a thing of the past as everywhere it appeared they were dying out. However, nothing could be further from the truth at the start of the 21st century as they appear to be in rude health, with at least six renditions across Nottinghamshire over the week of Plough Monday in 2012 by five different groups.

Playing around

I spent the second week of the new year experiencing three different Plough Monday plays in the area and I have detailed my thoughts on them as well as rough copies of the plays as according to traditionally recorded scripts(The scripts are copied from the excellent Mastermummers website in which far more information can be found)

All three plays are versions of what are called Recruiting sergeant play and follow a common theme. Generally a character called Tom Fool is the first in and introduces the play sometimes as in the case of the Calverton play to the sound of a fiddle or a drum. Then the scene moves to a discussion between the recruiting sergeant, a farmer’s man and a ‘female’ character (dressed in drag and called Lady bright and gay). In this scene the farmer leaves his sweet heart to join the army and so spurned the ‘female’ character marries the fool and often a dance ensues. In the next scene in comes another ‘female’ character (again in drag and this time called Dame Jane) who then argues with the Fool that he has a baby with her out of wedlock. They too and fro until Beelzebub turns up and has an altercation with Dame Jane to which she falls down to the ground dead. A doctor is called (usually the fool who is happy to see the character dead…less alimony, offers more money for the doctor to go away) who through various quackery brings the character back to life. A song basically wishing everyone good health and wealth is sung as a plea to then extract money from the audience. Traditionally this money was ‘begged’ after all being plough men they weren’t very busy in the winter, but now days goes to charity or beer money!

The Calverton Plough Play

The final play I watched was in the rather busy environs of the Admiral Rodney in Calverton. The Calverton Play enacted by the CRAPPPs since 1978 is the oldest of the revival plays with only a 20 year or so gap. It was excellently performed and the 13 piece team clearly enjoyed their roles. Their script followed the Cropwell play script with again some adlibs and for those that got involved in watching were thoroughly entertained. Sadly I was unable to follow the team as they went of their three night 19 venue tour but clearly they took their responsibility with great enjoyment and with it so does the often confused onlookers.

The script in 2012

I have transcripted the script of the Calverton Play as heard in the Admiral Rodney. It gives an idea of the nature of all the plays, although variations exist between them and later posts will have more details on these.

Tom Fool: In comes I, Bold Tom Good evening ladies, gentlemen all. We have just come to taste your beer and ale. That the tell me is so ripe and so mellow. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Plough Monday has just past which makes Tom Fool so bold as to call. But don’t take all I have to say, there’s plenty of more lads and lassies on the way. Some can dance, some can sing. So by your leave they shall come in Okum, Pokum, France and Spain, the Recruiting Sergeant just the same

Recruiting Sergeant: In comes I the Recruiting Sergeant. I have arrived here now. I have orders from the King. Enlist all jolly men that follow horses, cart, waggon or plough, Tinkers, tailors, peddlers, nailers. All the more to my advance. The more I hear the fiddle play. The better I can dance.

TOM FOOL and RECRUITING SERGEANT DANCE

Tom Fool: What, can you dance? I can either dance, sing or say. If you can either dance, sing or say. I shall swiftly march away.

Farmer’s man: Knock knock, in come I, that lost my mate, dripping tears are down my face. Try again. Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: Aside: Come on we do this every bloody year! I say pity my condition and you give me a bit more sympathy that that… Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: That’s sympathy. For I declare for a false young girl and I am in despair.

Lady: Behold the lady bright and gay. Good fortune and sweet charms.

Farmer’s man: Surely I have been tricked and broke PUSHES LADY TO THE GROUND THEN GETS UP

Lady: How scornfully I have been thrown from true love’s arms. He says as I won’t to him wed with him. He’ll let me understand. He will list all for a soldier. And go off t some foreign land.

Recruiting Sergeant: Come all you lads that have a mind for listening. List and do not be afraid. You shall have all kinds of liquors. Likewise kiss this fair pretty maid. If you’re not afraid and go with me you’ll go for we shall make a gallant show. Are you free hearted

Farmer’s Man: I am free hearted?

Others: Of he’s free hearted..

Recruiting Sergeant: Are you willing?

Farmer’s man: I am willing!

Recruiting Sergeant: In your hat I place a ribbon and in your hand a shilling.

Lady: No don’t take that shilling!

Farmer’s Man: Thank your sergeant for your offer before I stay longer…ASIDE where’s he gone! Oi! You’ve got my ribbon! If I stay longer I may fair worse, and dash you’re old wig (to Lady) ASIDE: Oh no my god it’s Paul Howard. If I stay long for this brown and saucy lady-boy

Lady: ASIDE Four years at Radar!

Lady: since my love has listed and entered volunteers. I neither mean to sigh for him or yet to shed one tear. CRIES. Aside to Tom Fool: come on!

Tom Fool: Do thou love me my pretty fair maid?

Lady: Oh Yes Tommy, to my sorrow

Tom Fool: And when shall be our wedding day

Lady: Tomorrow lad tomorrow

[All Four] And we’ll shake hands and we’ll make banns. And we’ll get wed tomorrow.

Threshing Blade: In come I old Threshing Blade. As all you people know. My old dad learnt me this trade some 90 years ago. I thrashed this part of the country and thrash that part too! And I will thrash you, Tommy lad, before I go

ASIDE: Cherry Tree drinker!

Sanky Benny: In come I. I can plough, sow, reap or go and I hope you masters will bestow all you can afford in my hopper-o. But not only that for I am Sanky Benny

ALL: Sanky .

Sanky Benny: And I have one and half yard of black and white tape that I will seeelllll you (to Tom Fool) for a penny

Tom Fool: Oh Sanky my old lad me old marrow. Now what have we got in the old line, anything soft and…hang on they’re sticking DRAWING UP SOME UNDERWEAR ON A STRING

ASIDE: That’s rude

Tom Fool: It’s only rude if someone’s in ‘em!These are hankies

Farmer’s man: In comes I, the Farmer’s Man,
Don’t you see my capping hand?
I go forth and plough the master’s land,
And turn it upside down.
How I straight I go from end to end.
I scarcely make a baulk or bend;
And to my horses I attend
As they go marching round the end.
Hov-ve, gee, wo! {cracks his whip.}

Dame Jane: In comes I, old Dame Jane, With a neck as long as a crane ; Dib-dab over the meadow. Once I was a blooming maid, Now I am a downright old widow. Long time I have sought thee, And now I have caught thee. Tommy, take the child.

Tom Fool: Jane!it’s none of mine. Who told you bring it here?

Dame Jane: Well the overseer of the parish told me to bring it to the biggest fool I could find, and I think you be him,for its eyes, nose, cheeks and chin, is as much like you as ever it can grin.

Tom Fool: Is it a boy or a girl?

Dame Jane: It is a girl.

Tom Fool: Ah ha well mine is all boys. Take it and swear it to the village pump, old rag-bag.

{Enter Beelzebub.}

Beelzebub: In comes I, Beelzebub, On my shoulder I carry my club,In my hand a wet leather frying pan ;Don’t you think I’m a funny old man? Is there any old woman that can stand afore me?

Dame Jane: I fear I can. My head is made of iron,My body made of steel,
My hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think nobody can make me feel.Crack one

Beelzebub: If your head is made of iron,Your body made of steel,
Your hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think I can make me feel, old girl! {knocks Dame Jane down.}

ASIDE: It’s like the cherry tree

Tom Fool: Oh, Beelzey! oh, Beelzey! what hast thou done? Thou hast kilt the old woman and limted [lamed] her son. Five pounds for a doctor, Ten to stop away, Fifteen to come in. {Enter Doctor.}

Doctor: I’m not coming in for less!

Tom Fool :You the doctor?

Doctor: Yes, me the doctor!

Tom Fool : How came you to be the doctor?

Doctor: By my travels.

Tom Fool: Where have you travelled?

Doctor: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; back again to doctor old England ;
fireside, bedside, by my old grandmother’s cupboard-side, where I have had many a pound of pork pie in my time. Makes me so stout and my face to shine

Tom Fool: Very impressive but what diseases can you cure?

Doctor: Ah ha I can cure the ipsy-pipsy, palsy, and the gout,
Aches within, aches without,
Draw a leg, set a tooth,
And almost raise the dead to life again.

Tom Fool: Oh You do seem a very clever young man,
Perhaps then you should try your skill.

Doctor: Eh Right then

Doctor: Thank you, kind sir, and so I will. But first I must a feel  of the young lady’s pulse Her pulse beats exceeding fast ;
nineteen times to the tick of my watch once.
She is in a very low way; she will not get a deal lower without there is a hole dug for her.

Tom Fool: It’s his only joke.

Doctor: Give some of my whiff whaff and a tap on the head with my tiff taff. And one of my pills. Would you like to take one madam. Big round white one She’s to take one in the morning, one in the evening and swallow the box at dinner time. This will do her the power of good, cleanse her bones and clean her blood. But wait she is not dead

ALL: Not dead

No merely in a trance

ALL: Merely in a trance

So raise her up and let her dance; If she can’t dance we can sing,
So raise her up and let’s begin.

All dance a country dance, and sing various solo songs; then all sing together -}

[All]

ALL: Good Master and good Mistress, As you sit round your fire, Remember us poor plough boys, That plough through mud and mire. The mire has been so very deep, We travel far and near, We thank you for a Christmas box,
And a pint of your best beer

Bleasby Plough Play

The Rattlejag Morris organised an excellent series of events associated with a Plough Sunday blessing at Morton church. Sadly I missed this part of the custom but arrived in time to see the celebrations at Bleasby where a number of sword dancers, clog dancers and even a rhythm band assembled in this pleasantly mellow Sunday afternoon. The play enacted by Rattlejag Morris was performed in the street outside the Waggon and Horses pub. It was based on the Farnsfield play with an introducer, who had been drafted in from the Sword dancers and had to read much of it from a script (however it did not detract from the spectacle). It is worth noting that the character wore a jersey based on that once preserved in Nottingham costume museum.

Tollerton Plough Play

Tollerton’s Plough Play was last performed in 1952 and it was not until 2002 that it was restored. The basic script for what is called the Tollerton Play is as follows, with characters, the fool, recruiting sergeant, farmer’s man, lady, Dame Jane, Belezebub, Doctor and nurse (who was the prompt)  It differs by having an introducer who quietens the crowd and was an obvious good idea in noisy pubs. However, here I felt was the best atmosphere and the closest perhaps to that which would have accompanied that when done in the dark distant past. Although the pub was packed, everyone was there to see the play! The script was resonant of local in-jokes including a comment on a fire which burnt one of the character’s barn leaving one chicken (a plastic chicken in the play) and the Lady’s attempt to grab any man ‘he’ could for maximum embarrassment.

Ploughing a familiar furrow – What are these plays about?

Obviously at one time all these plays would have had the same characters and script and it is possible that the script became separated from the actions in the Puritan when they may have forgotten the words but remembered the mime of it probably adding verses to it at a later date. Some antiquarians saw that the play with its scene of death and resurrection had clear pagan overtones and represented the triumph of spring over winter, although why the recruiting aspect is in it is unclear. More recently this view has been discarded due to lack of evidence. It is possible that the original ‘play’ was simply the death of Beelzebub and his resurrection as this does rather sit as a discrete scene within the scene of the fool and his mistress and recruitment. Perhaps these last two were later cemented onto it to add familiarity and bawdy humour perhaps post Commonwealth, the recruiting section aping the Civil War and the bawdiness as a relief from the puritan’s restriction of it. However this is mere supposition..in the end we may never really know…

Image and text copyright Pixyled publications

Customs survived: The Haxey Hood game

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Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

364 days a year, one imagines people passes through the quiet village of Haxey (more correctly Westwoodside and Haxey and hence the town) quite unaware of its great day of celebration; a day which puts itself apart from early other village in the land, a day which is full of the strange and wonderful features that this blog is all about: the Hood game. The great event always falls on the 6th January (unless this is a Sunday and then it falls on the Saturday)

<b>Hood wink!<b/>

The basic premise of the event is a scrum, Rugby like, for the hood, a two-foot length of stout leather, rather than a ball, with the goal one of the village’s pubs  As such, the Hood game can be seen as a type of ‘street football’ as seen in other villages but it is much more than that, especially in colour and ceremony. Unlike any other ‘street football’ game it has obvious ‘organisers’ The Lord of the Hood and his Boggins and the Fool with his face blackenedin their red jackets and jumper s and hats festooned with feathers they make a striking sight…especially on the drab and colourless landscape of the fens in January.

Arriving around midday, the village looks strangely deserted..but if you enter one of the village’s four pubs you will find this Lord of the Hood and his Boggins  accompanied by another figure called the Fool in full song and sway and it is an evocative scene. The pub is so full it is almost impossible to move and the group sway in unison singing traditional folk songs:, Farmers Boy, John Barleycorn and Drink Old England dry as they psych themselves up with a mixture of machismo, beer and patriotism. Often the songs would end with the chant:

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

Which means

“House against House, Town against Town, if you meet a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”

After feeling suitably fortified the group then proceed to an old stone, what appears to be the base of a cross or mounting block outside St Nicholas parish Church (called the Mowbray stone). Here is perhaps the strangest part of the ceremony and therefore the most evocative of the day perhaps. From the stone, from the stone Fool with his tassled custom and face blackened, makes a speech of welcome holding the Hood ahigh. He states that running and throwing with the hood are disallowed. Nothing unusual about that perhaps, but whilst giving this oration damp straw is placed beneath him and he is smoked! As the speech continues a considerable amount of smoke is generated and this  `Smoking the Fool’, is believed to be a safer version of an older ritual of  watered down version of suspending the fool over a bonfire of smoking straw. The ‘newer’ method is said to be safer, although the flames were very real in 2009 when I am sure I saw the fool burn! Clearly the fool is aware of the danger and traditionally runs away before the talk and ceremonially captured…although he still gets to kiss every girl on the way to his sacrifice.

Once the speech is over and the fool smoked the  crowd begins its chant of:

 “Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

This tells everyone that the game is about to begin and a field on Upperthorpe Hill is the destination. Here any crops in the field appeared to be trampled indiscriminately although I was careful to gingerly tread over it. One wonders why this hill is chosen as it has a fantastic view across the fens to the Humber and it may have had some earlier significance.

To begin with the Lord of the Hood and his boggins doing some practice, mainly for children where the sacking versions of the hood are thrown and caught in the field for £2.

Then the leather hood is thrown up and the scum or rather sway begins….like a giant amoeba, this sway moves one way and then another but ultimately in the direction of the village and its four pubs, either of which is a goal. Along the way,as darkness sets, the sway becomes a large mass of steaming humanity guarded by the Boggins whose purpose is to prevent any property such as parked cars being enveloped and damaged in the ensuing madness. As there is no teams as such, indeed anyone visiting can join in and frequently do, it is difficult to see the motivation to get it into a said pub, but perhaps the teams do exist as bar regulars or else the glory is in being the one which gets it to the front steps. This event after much pushing and shoving, a great clouds of steam , is the ending of the game and once the landlord takes the Hood they will proudly display it until the following year. .

But what is it all about?

There are two origins of the custom, indeed both may be true…..

The ‘official story’

The official story dates from the 14th Century, is that the John and his wife Lady de Mowbray ( the Mowbray family held lands here ) whilst riding across Upperthorpe Hill when a gust of wind hit her silk riding hood. Nearby, there were thirteen farm workers working nearby who rushed to catch the hat. However, the one who caught it apparently was too shy to hand it back directly and thus gave it to a braver co-worker. Lady de Mowbray remarked that by doing so the man who caught it was behaving like a fool and the man who returned it a Lord. She appeared to like the idea and gave thirteen acres to the parish with the only stipulation being that the chase for the hood was re-enacted each year.

The pagan origin theory…

This story may have some origin in the truth but it appears to be a too convenient back story to explain some of the aspects of the story. It clearly has an older origin. Indeed, folklorists recognise some pagan traditions. Taking certain aspects…

Smoking the fool….is perhaps a vestige of a sacrifice. Certainly the kissing of girls on the way and escape are indications of this.

The Hood itself is said to be the hide of a sacrificed bull…but surely it’s the skin of the sacrificed fool! Perhaps the blackened face either a remembrance of the burnt evidence or to disguise who was the victim

Roasting the hood…..Certainly the tradition of roasting the hood soaked in ale in a spit in the fire has also has indications of sacrifice. The fact the ale is drunk by the people there .

Thirteen Boggins…witches covens are comprised of thirteen!

Link with plough Monday

The character of the fool is interesting. He is a character seen in the Plough Monday plays enacted in the midlands, and was particularly well recorded from the Gainsborough area where they were called Plough jags. Of course the main theme of these plays is resurrection and although the fool is not the one to die in these plays, but it may be significant. It is possible that at some point the plough play perhaps got amalgamated with a shrove tide football game or perhaps all plough plays were distilled from sacrifices.

Whatever its origin if you happen to be around in this region come the 6th; the Haxey Hood game is a must.

Remember

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

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