Merrie England’s Folklore Calendar: Through the Year in Custom and Song
by Dr Richard Churchley
Thursday 3rd December 2015
The Society’s final talk before Christmas took place on and was a festive affair in which Dr Churchley spoke about the folklore and customs pertaining to the various seasons, and performed some of the songs and morris tunes associated with them.
Two themes became apparent as the talk unfolded. The first of these concerned the collection of cash and the consumption of beer or cider! Customs such as mumming, wassailing and pace-egging (“pace” from the French Pâques, for Easter) involve a certain amount of dressing up, collecting money from one’s neighbours and drinking copious amounts of alcohol. The second concerned the number of days in the calendar when the natural order of things was overthrown and tricks were played on neighbours. On Plough Monday, for example, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, tricks were played by village lads and lasses on their employers and social superiors ( a farmer might wake up to find his gates had vanished). A girl’s proposing marriage to her boyfriend on Leap Year Day is an example of the reversal of the customary procedure, and there are records as far back as the 17th century of people playing tricks on one another on the morning of April 1st.
Not all of the customs Dr Churchley described were pleasant and harmless. For example, on Shrove Tuesday there used to be a tradition of pelting cockerels with missiles until they died (goodness knows why), and it was also a day for cockfighting up until the early 19th century, when the sport became illegal. Rogation days call for the ceremony of beating the bounds, when processions visit the boundaries of the parish to ensure that they are known to everyone. Nowadays this usually involves ceremonies where fields, woods and streams are visited and blessed, but in olden times parishes were extremely serious about their boundaries, not least because paupers had to be supported by their home parish. The ceremony usually involved selecting a boy of about 10 or 11 years of age and beating or otherwise tormenting him at each station on the way round the parish so that he would remember where the boundaries were. Apparently it was an honour to be selected for this treatment, and resolution of disputes in the 17th and 18th centuries sometimes relied on the testimony of elderly men who had been through this rather daunting experience.
The talk was followed by a very lively discussion, with members of the audience speaking of current practices in their native parts of the country, and the evening wound up with the consumption of mince pies and coffee, but not (alas!) of intoxicating drink!