An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 13


WHERE there is private property there must be a demarcation, showing its limits; and where there are crops on arable land, there, either one or other of two alternatives must be adopted, the crops must be protected by a hedge, dyke, or wall, from the incursions of the cattle, or the cattle must be kept in confinement, to prevent their straying. The former is the system adopted in England and in Westphalia, and the latter is that general throughout the rest of Germany and France. The term mark has a curious history. Originally it signified the forest, so called because of its gloom, whence our word murk. The mark or forest bounded the clearing. Thence it came to signify the limit of a claim made by a community to land held in common. Land bounding a state or principality was then called also a mark or the marches, and the official who watched it against incursions was the mark-graff, or margrave, in French marquis, hence our marquess.

As the limit of a territory or a village, or a private claim had to be given certain indications, when the wood had further retreated, stones or posts were set up, and signs were cut on these to show that they limited claims. The compound was in German entitled the Gemarkung, and over every Gemarkung there was a villicus, bailiff, or schultheiss, who regulated the affairs of the community.

In 1854 Dr. Konrad Maurer set all political economists agog by his Introduction to the History of the Mark, &c. The book was not intended as a hoax, but it succeeded in hoaxing pretty largely, and in provoking considerable excitement.

His thesis was that among the Teutonic races the Land belonged to the People, and that every householder had rights over the land, but that the invasion of Feudalism altered everything, the lords then seized on the land and converted the freeholders into serfs and villains. His assertions were accepted as gospel, till disputed by Professor Fustel de Coulanges in 1885 and 1889, who showed, by production of the original texts, that Maurer had little or no evidence to sustain his entire fabric. All the evidence goes the other way, to show that land, directly men settled, became private property, but that the landlord allowed his tenants to take wood from forests, turf from moors, and have certain commons for pasturage, not as a right, but as a favour.

Maurer had started from a false premise. The Mark or ager never meant common land, but the boundary of private estates.[1] In a word, as far as evidence goes, his theory was the erection of a Fools' Paradise for social and political reformers. Originally, when men were nomads, the land belonged to nobody—but when tillage began, then at once the marking out of fields became a necessity—and with the marking came proprietorship.

In France and Germany, where there are no hedges, there the properties are divided by an imaginary line drawn between two stone pegs; and as fields get divided and subdivided by inheritance, the number of these marks or pegs increases.

In order to distinguish his boundaries, a proprietor sometimes cut the outline of his foot on a slab, or took the further pains with a hammer and chisel to scoop it out.

In course of time the significance of these foot imprints in stone was completely forgotten, and as they are found all the world over, the vulgar began to regard them with awe, and create legends to account for their existence.

When Robinson Crusoe lit upon the footprint in the wet sand on the shore, he had no rest till he discovered who had left it there. And so, when the peasantry came on these marks in stone, long after such marks had ceased to have any practical significance, they cudgelled their brains to explain them, and, of course, hit on wrong explanations.

In Scotland there are several of these. So also in India and Ceylon. Buddha's footprint is venerated in five places. In the chapel of the Ascension on the top of the Mount of Olives is shown the mark of the footsteps of the Saviour. Arculf, who visited Palestine about the year 700, says, "Upon the ground in the midst of the church may be seen the last prints in the dust made by the feet of the Lord, and the roof is open above where He ascended." Now, however, the impress is shown cut in the rock.

At Poitiers, in the church of St. Radegund, is the footprint of the Saviour, impressed by Him when He appeared to this abbess saint.

At Bolsena is a slab on which are the footprints of St. Christina.

In Rome a chapel called "Domine quo vadis" is built over a similar slab. The story goes that St. Peter, afraid of perishing in the persecution of Nero, attempted to fly from Rome, when he met Christ at the spot where stands the chapel, and he asked Him, "Lord, whither goest Thou." "To be crucified again in Rome," was the answer. Peter, ashamed of his cowardice, returned and died a martyr's death.

In Poland as many as eighteen of these footprints have been registered.

Curiously enough, footprints outlined in the


marble have been found in the catacombs of Rome closing the graves of early Christians. In the Kircherian Museum in Rome is one of these. It is a square marble, slab with two pairs of footprints incised upon it, pointed in opposite directions, as if occasioned by a person going and returning, or by two persons passing each other. Another stone from the catacombs bears the name of Januaria, and has on it the print of a pair of feet in sandals carved on it.

The circumstance that all sorts of legendary matter attaches to these footprints, shows that their real significance has been lost. Yet they must have had a meaning and a purpose, and that all over the world. When the purpose for which executed no longer existed, or it was no longer necessary to express this purpose, then the purport of these marks was left to wild conjecture.

We cannot be very far wrong in saying that primarily these footprints were cut as boundary marks, or as marks indicating possession. When a settler took land and enclosed it, then he cut his mark at the corners of his enclosure; and the simplest and most natural mark was the impression of his foot.

Tin miners in old times were required annually to cut their marks in the turf of their claims. If they failed to do this, they forfeited their claims. Indeed, the very term possession is derived from the expression pedes posui—"I have set my feet down." Among the Roman lawyers the maxim held that what the foot struck that could be claimed as private property. The German word marke, marca, meant a limit, a boundary. Now we use the word mark as a sign, or token of possession. We have tradesmen's marks. And, as already said, the simplest of all marks was the footprint. If any dispute arose, the owner put his foot down on the tracing, and showed thereby a right of ownership.

We see in the footprints on tombslabs the same idea—of claiming proprietorship in a grave. The two pairs are for the husband and wife.

It has been argued that where horse hoofs have been cut in a slab, that indicates the wider limits of a domain, or a community-district, which was ridden round, but that the footprints of men thus graven betokened private lands belonging to individuals, or rather, to heads of households.

At Totnes, in Devon, in the High Street, is a slab of stone, on which is the now much worn impress of a foot. This from time immemorial has been said to have been the print of the foot of Brutus when he landed in Britain, and took possession of our Isle for himself and his descendants. As he did so he declared:

"Here I stand, and here I rest,
And this place shall be called Totnes!"

But now let us turn from boundaries indicated by marks to those artificially erected enclosing the entire claim.

Such are our hedges, dykes, and walls.

The hedge in many parts of England and in Scotland is a small privet or thorn division between fields, or dividing a field from the road. To a Northerner, to speak of a bank six or ten feet high with trees on the top as a hedge, is held to be a misappropriation of terms. A hedge, according to him, is only a line of quickset eighteen inches or two feet high; a bank of earth dividing fields is a dyke. But then in Ireland a dyke is both a bank and a ditch. In fact, hedge is derived from the same source as the Latin ager, and the Norse akr, and our acre; and signifies earth cast up, either by the plough or the spade, either in tilling or in banking. This is the meaning the Sanskrit akara has; and in Latin, ager has its double meaning, as a bank and as a field. So I contend that we in the South-West of England are quite right in using for the banks that enclose our fields the term hedge.

It is a great hardship to the poor cattle on the Continent to be stall-fed, and how poor is the meat from such beasts every Englishman knows who has travelled. If we glory in the Roast Beef of Old England, it is because our cattle are able to roam about the pastures, and are healthy and vigorous, and their flesh sound and juicy accordingly. And this is due to our hedges.

In certain parts of the Alpine chains, there are portions delivered over to the chamois as their own, in which no gun may be fired, where the beautiful creatures may be sure of rest and security, in which they may nurture their young, and to which, when hard pressed, they may flee, as to Cities of Refuge. In Tyrol such an asylum is called a Gämsenfreiheit.

Of late years it has become necessary for law in Switzerland to extend its protection to the Edelweiss. This peculiar and beautiful flower is much in request, both by lovers who present it to their sweethearts, and also for the formation of little mementoes for travellers.

The Edelweiss does not require an altitude so great that it is near the snow, nor a precipitous rock to crown; the poor plant has been driven higher and ever higher, and to inaccessible points as the only places where it can live unmolested. At Rosenheim, on the Bavarian plateau, at the roots of the mountains are fields of Edelweiss, where the plant is cultivated to satisfy the insatiable visitor who insists on going home from his holiday with a tuft in his hat, and on sending dried specimens to all his friends.

Well! what must England have been before it was cultivated in nearly every part? Verily, it must have been a land of flowers. Now the flowers are banished—that is to say, the vast majority of kinds, by the plough and harrow. Only those are left which can withstand both and such as take refuge in our hedges. The hedgerow is, in fact, to our English flowers, what the Gämsenfreiheit is to the Tyrolean chamois—their city of refuge, their asylum from utter eradication.

How infinitely dreary is the landscape in France without hedges. The eye ranges over a boundless plain of rolling land, that is divided into strips of various colours like a plaid, and no trees are visible except lines of trimmed poplars, or a scrubby wood kept for fuel. The eye ranges over belts of cabbage and colza, potatoes, beetroot, barley and lentils, wheat and sanfoin. There is not a single hedge anywhere—no harbour for such plants as have not the stubbornness to live on in spite of plough, and pick, and spade, and hoe. Flowers there are—for flowers are obstinate and persist in coming—grape hyacinths, star of Bethlehem, lungwort, scarlet anemones, tulips, blue-bottles, cornflowers, salvia, and so on—because they dive out of reach of the spade and share, or because they do not object to having their tubers cut up they—rather like it. They multiply from every portion. But this is not the case with all flowers. Some have too refined a nature, are too frail, modest, reserved, to endure rough treatment. They ask only to be let alone. They will die if incessantly worried—and for such there is no other place of refuge available except the hedgerow.

I was the other day on the battlefield of Poitiers. The chroniclers tell of the banks, the hedges and vineyard walls that stood in 1356, and afforded shelter for the English archers. Not one remains. Every hedge has been levelled, every mound spread, and with them have gone all those flowers that once made the battlefield like a garden.

Our old English hedges are the Poor Man's conservatory, are the playground of his children. How starred they are in spring with primroses! How they flush with red robin! How they mantle with bluebell! How they wave with foxglove! Talking of the latter, I was driving one day in Cornwall, when my coachman pointed to a range of foxgloves, and said: "Look there, sir! They are just like girls!"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Did you never notice," said he, "that the foxglove always turns its flowers towards the road—it never looks into the hedge?"

"Naturally, no flower exists that does not look to the light."

"'Tain't that," said the driver. "'Tis they know they've got pretty faces, and wants to show them."

Then, again, the ferns and the mosses! What a wealth of beauty in them! What a variety! Not to be discovered in the field; only in their own quarter, reserved for them—the hedgerow.

Our hedges are probably as ancient as our civilization. We know of a few only that have been erected within the memory of man; the majority have existed from the period when our land was first put into cultivation. And it is remarkable that in the north of Germany, in Westphalia, the Saxon region whence came our Teutonic ancestors, there the hedge with which we are familiar in England is to be met with as well, as an institution of the country, and a feature of the landscape.

Look at the size of some hedges—their width at the base, the height to which they rise, the traces they bear of venerable antiquity! This is not perhaps the case in all parts of England, but it is so in the west.

An agent of an earl, with large estates, told me that when first he took the agency five-and-twenty years ago, he waged war on the hedges, he had them swept away and replaced by low divisions with quickset over which any child might jump. But after long experience he had learned that our ancestors were not such fools as we suppose, in this matter. He learned that not only were the high hedges a protection to the cattle from wind and rain, but that they furnished a very necessary store of dry food for them at a time when their pastures are sodden. See bullocks in wet weather, how they scramble up the hedges, how they ravenously devour the dry grass in them. That is because the hedges supply them with something that they cannot get elsewhere.

In the West of England a hedge top is frequently finished off with slates that project, and this is to prevent rabbits, even sheep, from overleaping them. In Cornwall, on the bank top is a footpath beside the lane, a large deep cleft in the land, that converts itself into a torrent in wet weather. It is a common sight to see women, and children on their way to school, pencilled against the sky walking on the hedge tops. So when certain hedges have thus been converted into footways, then a rail is often put across them to prevent horsemen from using them in like manner.

Anent sheep jumping hedges, I may venture here to tell a tale of a certain old rogue who went by the name of Tup-Harry. This is how he got his nickname. Harry was a small farmer, and he had a neighbour with better means, and a better farm than his own. One very dry season Harry had come to the end of his grass for a flock of sheep he possessed. His neighbour had, however, got a fine field of mangel-wurzel. Harry looked over the hedge—a hedge furnished with outstanding slates—and greatly longed for these mangels for his sheep; but he did not relish running the risk of being caught taking them. So he went in the evening into his field that was bare of grass, put his head against the hedge, bent his back, and called "Tup! Tup! Tup! "whereupon up ran his old ram, jumped on his back, went on to the hedge, and over into the mangel field, and all the flock in Indian file scampered after him over the back of Harry. Very early in the morning the rogue went into the devastated mangel field, put his head against the hedge, bent his back, called "Tup! Tup! Tup!" and up came the ram, ran over his back on to the hedge, and returned to the barren quarter again, followed in Indian file by all the flock. That was done several times, and no signs appeared anywhere of the hedge being broken through, or of a padlocked gate having been opened. At last one night the farmer who was robbed hid himself, and saw the whole proceeding. Tup-Harry did not try that trick on again.

  1. "If a proprietor encroaches on a neighbouring proprietor, he shall pay fifteen solidi . . . The boundary between two estates is formed by distinct landmarks, such as little mounds of stones . . . If a man oversteps this boundary, marca, and enters the property of another, he shall pay the above mentioned fine." Laws of the Ripuarian Franks, Sect. 60. So the ancient Bavarian Laws spoke of a man who took a slave over the borders, extra terminos hoc est extra marcam. (xiii. 9). See The Origin of Property in Land, by F. de Coulanges, London, 1891.