Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Kate Jewell to the Parish Room to share some of her extensive knowledge of rituals and festivals in the medieval Suffolk landscape with the more than 30 guests; everyone went home delighted as it was a quite superb talk from a woman passionate about her subject.
Dr Kate Jewell
Kate began by telling us just how important landscape was in medieval times; simply put, if the landscape failed them for whatever reason (drought, flood, fire, heat or cold etc), there simply was no backstop for the masses and starvation could, and often did, inevitably follow. It was quite natural therefore that people did everything possible to protect the landscape, including rituals throughout the year, in an effort to promote productivity and fruitfulness, including visiting shrines to the many saints where people could go to connect with their gods. From the 6th century onwards church hierarchy were unhappy about these ancient rituals, and as the church became increasingly important in the middle ages, the number of saints proliferated, many of whom seem to have had their heads chopped off - a sort of pre-sainthood ritual.
Saint Winifred (Winefride)
Legend has it that Winifred, daughter of a Welsh nobleman and niece to St. Beuno, was decapitated by her suitor Caradog when she decided to become a nun. Her head rolled downhill, and where it stopped, a healing spring - Holy Well or St. Winifred's Well - appeared; this became a great centre of pilgrimage where many cures were reported over the centuries. Legend also has it that St. Beuno rejoined her head to her body and restored Winifred to life. Seeing the murderer leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, St. Beuno then invoked the chastisement of heaven so that Caradog fell dead on the spot, popular belief suggesting the ground opened up and swallowed him. Before leaving Holywell Bueno also sat upon the stone now standing in the outer well pool and promised, in the name of God, that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride, would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul. Winifred later became a nun and then Abbess at Gwytherin in Denbighshire, and her feast day is on November 3.
St. Winifred stained glass window
Saint Juthwara was a virgin and martyr from Dorset who probably lived in the 6th century; her legend is known from John Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae (*), according to which she was a pious girl and victim of a jealous stepmother. She prayed and fasted often, frequently gave alms and on the death of her father, began to suffer chest pains. The source was ascribed to her sorrow and austerities, and as a remedy her stepmother recommended two soft cheeses be applied to her breasts, before telling her son Bana that Juthwara was pregnant. Bana felt her underclothes and finding them moist, immediately struck off her head (no one is quite sure why). Juthwara then miraculously picked up her head, carried it back to the church altar where a spring of water appeared at the spot. Bana later repented of his deed, became a monk and founded a monastery on a battlefield.
(*) An English historian, hagiographer and scholastic theologian (21 April 1393 - 12 August 1464), remembered chiefly for the "Nova Legenda Angliae", the first comprehensive collection of the lives of English saints. Note the time period that has elapsed since Juthwara’s tenure.
A virgin saint from the county of Devon, though her historical existence is not that well established.
The cultus (*) of Sidwell has been active at Exeter from early times. Pilgrims were visiting her shrine by the year 1,000 AD and their activity is mentioned both by John Leland (poet and antiquary) and William Worcestre (chronicler, topographer and antiquary). The Catalogus Sanctorum Pausantium in Anglia describes her as a native of Exeter beheaded by reapers who were incited to do so by her stepmother. The legend bears a striking similarity to that of both Saint Urith and Saint Juthwara, her supposed sister; she is said to have been buried outside the city where the sick could be healed at her grave.
(*) Cultus (Latin) is literally the care owed to deities, temples, shrines, or churches. It is embodied in ritual and ceremony and is made concrete in temples, shrines and churches, including cult images and votive offerings at votive sites.
The Church of St Sidwell outside the site of Exeter's east gate still exists, though was largely rebuilt after damage during the Second World War; the site also once had a well at which cures are believed to have been effected. In art Sidwell is represented with a scythe and a well at her side. Her feast day is variously given as 31 July, 1 August and 2 August, so three days of feasting then!
St. Sidwell, second from right
Lady Well, Woolpit
Woolpit church grew in importance throughout the Middle Ages, its reputation enhanced by the shrine of Our Lady of Woolpit. Pilgrims were also attracted by the miraculous properties of the Lady's Well nearby, whose water was held to be a cure for ailments of the eyes. Modern tests have shown that it has a high sulphur content which apparently can aid in the treatment of some eye conditions.
Woolpit Ladt Well
St Walstan’s Well
According to legend Walstan was born in Bawburgh of East Anglian Royal Blood around 970 AD. He was prone to visions which told him to give up his worldly possessions and work as a farm labourer. At the age of just 13 he journeyed from Bawburgh to Taverham, via Costessey, donating his noble garments to the poor he met on the way. He worked hard on the farm in Taverham, taking only enough money for his keep and giving away everything else to the needy. His employers worried about him, wanting him to become their heir but he refused, just accepting two white calves. Continuing to have visions, he found a priest to perform last rights after one showed his imminent death. Kneeling in prayer, allegedly a spring welled up on the dry farm land to allow the priest to perform the final sacrament.
After he died, and according to his instructions, his body was returned to Bawburgh on a cart drawn by the two white oxen. The oxen, left to their own devices, rested in Costessey where a second spring appeared in a place known as The Roundwell. At the final stop in Bawburgh a third spring also appeared. St Walstan’s body was placed in the Church, renamed after him many years later, which then became a site of pilgrimage for the next ten centuries. Miracle after miracle was reported there until the reformation, when the shrine was destroyed, his relics burned and the village fell into poverty. A nineteenth century revival of Walstan’s fortunes saw more miracles claimed, associated with the water in the well. In 1818 a Francis Bunn was said to have been cured of leg ulcers, and other stories survive, reported in both local and national newspapers; as late as 1913 the Eastern Daily Press dubbed it the Lourdes of Norfolk, reporting the cure of a London catholic who had suffered eye problems. Saint Walstan is now the patron saint of farms, farmers, farmhands, ranchers and husbandrymen.
Banner of St Walstan
Kate then told us something of the traditional rites associated with farming, particularly Plough Sunday, the traditional English celebration of the start of the agricultural year, and Plough Monday, the traditional start of the English agricultural year.
Plough Sunday celebrations usually involve bringing a ploughshare into a church, with prayers for the blessing of the land, traditionally held on the Sunday after Epiphany (12th day), the Sunday between 7 and 13 January. Plough Monday traditionally saw the resumption of work after the Christmas period, particularly in northern and East England. The customs observed vary by region, but a common feature was for a plough to be hauled from house to house in a procession, collecting money, else a furrow would be ploughed in front of the house! Often accompanied by musicians, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, and a man in the role of the fool. Plough Pudding from Norfolk is a boiled suet pudding containing meat and onions, eaten on Plough Monday.
Kate then told us of the Plough Gallery in St Agnes Church, Cawston in Norfolk - set into the tower arch is a little gallery which is quite unusual, with an inscription along the front which appears to read:
God spede the plow and send us ale corn
enow oor purpose for to make:
At crow of cok of the plowlete of Sygate:
Be mery and glade wat good ale yis work mad.
Ale corn is barley and a goodale was a fundraising celebration held by a guild, here the Plough Guild of Sygate. The Plough inn remained in use well into the 20th century, closing in the 1960s when the sign was given to the church.
St Agnes Cawston – plough gallery
May Day Festivities
The May Day festival, now a public holiday usually celebrated on 1 May, is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival which goes back beyond Christianity and celebrates the good arrival of Spring. Dances, singing and cake are usually part of the festivities. May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries, most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility of the soil, livestock, people, and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. Possibly the most significant tradition is the maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.
Kate then introduced us to Palamon and Arcite, part of Fables, Ancient and Modern written by John Dryden in 1700 - a translation of The Knight's Tale from The Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer (though Dryden expanded the original text with poetic embellishments). The original source was Giovanni Boccaccio's Teseida, a long epic poem of almost 10,000 lines, notionally about the career and rule of the ancient Greek hero Theseus, but mostly telling the story of the rivalry of Palemone and Arcita for the love of Emilia.
Two knights, Palamon and Arcite, are imprisoned by Theseus after a battle and held in a dungeon from which they can see into a courtyard garden. One day Palamon sees Emily and falls instantly in love; crying out, he causes Arcite to ask what is wrong. Palamon declares his newfound love for Emily, but as Arcite listens he too sees Emily. Turning to Palamon, Arcite claims that because he first recognized her as mortal and not a goddess, he has the right to woo Emily. Later, one of Arcite's friends persuades Theseus to free his prisoner, which he does, but banishes Arcite. The love-struck knight returns, disguised as one of Theseus's servants, and the story unfolds as each knight endures different challenges to prove his love for Emily.
Palamon and Arcite watch Emily
Next Kate read us an extract from An Anatomie of Abuses, which is about May Day festivities and written by Phillip Stubbs, a pamphleteer who rails against aspects of popular culture which he believes are immoral and in need of reform if his fellow countrymen and women are to escape punishment from God. He was clearly not at all impressed by the outcome of the May Day socialising - see underlined text below, and goodness knows what he would say today.
The maner of Maie-games in England
As many as in the other. The order of them is thus. Against Maie day, Whitsunday, or some other time of the yeare, euery Parish, Towne, and village, assemble themselues together, both men, women and children, olde and young, euen all indifferently: and either going all togither, or diuiding themselues into companies, they goe some to the woods, and groues, some to the hils and mountaines, some to one place, some to another, where they spende all the night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they retume bringing with them Birch boughes, and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall. And no maruell, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell: But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity, credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides, going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled. These be the fruites, which these cursed pastimes bring foorth.
Putting everything into its proper context, Kate advised that detailed analysis of birth records of the time show no increase in the birth rate nine months after May Day, whereas there was a noticeable increase in birth rate nine months after the August festivities, despite what Stubbs wrote - presumably the better weather and warmth of August were more conducive to the activities Stubbs disagreed with so vehemently than the cold and damp of May nights!
Bournville Maypole dancing
Rogation Day Festivities
In the Roman Catholic Church Rogation Days are festivals devoted to special prayers for crops - the Major Rogation on April 25 and Minor Rogations on the three days before Ascension Day (the 40th day after Easter). Rogation Days were marked by the recitation of the Litany of the Saints (*), which normally began in or at a church. After Saint Mary was invoked, the congregation would walk the boundaries of the parish, reciting the rest of the litany so that the entire parish would be blessed and the parish boundaries marked. The procession ended with a Rogation Mass which parishioners were expected to take part.
(*) One of the oldest prayers in continuous use in the Catholic Church
Beating the bounds is an old custom thought derived from the Roman Terminalia of marking church parish boundaries by marching round them and hitting the ground or certain boundary marks with long sticks; it is performed once a year, usually on Ascension Day or before Easter. It had a religious aspect, reflected in the rogation which originated in the 5th century, when Mamertus Archbishop of Vienne instituted special prayers, fasting and processions on these days. This clerical side of the parish bounds-beating was one of the religious functions prohibited by the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I in 1559, but it was then ordered that the perambulation should continue to be performed as a quasi-secular function, so that evidence of the boundaries of parishes might be preserved.
Beating the Bounds in Canterbury
Kate told us that the Long Melford rogation procession took three days to cover their 21 miles of boundary, with bells being rung to drive away the spirits that caused crop failure. ‘The State of Melford Church as I, Roger Martyn, did know it’ is now recognised as one of the most important and detailed sources on the experience of the pre-Reformation worshipper, with Martyn lovingly recalling the seasonal rituals, church decorations and devotional equipment lost from his parish church of Long Melford during the reformation
Feast of Saint John the Baptist
A mid-summer feast held on 24th June to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, whose life has long been interpreted by Christians as a preparation for the coming of Christ. All over Europe Saint John's fires are lit on mountains and hilltops on the eve of the feast. As the first day of summer, Saint John's Day is considered one of the great charmed festivals of the year in ancient folklore. Hidden treasures are said to lie open in lonely places waiting for a lucky finder. Divining rods should be cut on this day. Herbs are given unusual powers of healing, which they retain if they are plucked during the night of the feast. In Scandinavia and the Slavic countries ancient superstition is that on Saint John's Day witches and demons roam the earth; as at Halloween, children go the rounds and demand treats, straw figures are thrown into the flames and much noise is made to drive the demons away.
Mid summer rejoicing in Bishops Castle, Shropshire
We were then advised that the term bonfire arose from bone fires of old, where the obnoxious smells of burning fatty bones were thought necessary to drive evil spirits away. As Kate told us, all these rituals demonstrate the incredible importance of agricultural festivals, some containing pre-Christian ceremonies to bless crops; hence Bonfires and Bells were incredibly important to medieval society.
Midsummers eve – when dusk meets dawn
To conclude, Kate brought incredible passion, humour and warmth to a subject which most people have little knowledge of, and her brilliant talk was a riotous passage through agricultural festivals and rituals much enjoyed by everyone present.
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:
16th January: The Green Man - Our annual Member Only event
Roger Green, a real favourite of LWHS, will tell us about these symbols & motifs, which exist in cultures around the world though remain something of an enigma; together we will explore this fascinating subject through his talk, which will include many picture examples.
20th February: Simply Suffolk by John Goodhand
Inn signs are part of our history but which is the commonest, where can you find a gallows, which is the oldest and what is Elvis doing in Botesdale? John has been photographing Suffolk inns and their signs for over fifty years and will tell us all.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.
Andy Sheppard 16th December 2018