Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The folk-lore of a country parish

2295605Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II — The folk-lore of a country parish1859-1860Cuthbert Bede


Our country parish is quite a stronghold for superstitions, and most certainly does its best to preserve “the fast-fading relics of the old mythologies.” It will not by any means get rid of its folk-lore fancies, but nourishes them with a tenderness that would be surprising to your fine men of the world and your sceptical dwellers in cities, who pooh-pooh our little idealities, and delight to amuse themselves with our marvels and mysteries. Let them do so, say I! It but little affects our parish, which goes on its way much as it did some scores of years ago—save that we have done with our witches, and no longer oblige our elderly females to sink or swim in the parish duck-pond.

But our country parish believes in many things that are not admitted into the creeds of the more enlightened towns. Permit me to divulge a few of the superstitious fancies that still abide with us: and believe me when I tell you that my tales are strictly true ones, and that their facts came within my own cognisance.

And first—which is beginning pretty nearly at the beginning—as to a baptismal superstition. It is not often that our parish church can produce more than one baptism at a time; but, the other Sunday afternoon, there was the unusual number of three christenings—two boys and a girl. The parents of one boy were in a very respectable class of life: the parents of the two other children were in humble circumstances. The parties at the font had been duly placed by the officiating clergyman (Mr. Milkinsop, our esteemed curate); and, as it happened, the girl and her sponsors were placed last in order.

When the first child—who was the boy of the poor parents—was about to be baptised, the woman who carried the little girl elbowed her way up to Mr. Milkinsop, in order that the child she carried might be the first to be baptised. To do this she had (very contrary to the usual custom of the poor, who—in all essential points at least—are generally as refined as their superiors) rudely to push past “her betters”—i.e., the sponsors of the second boy. As she did so, she whispered to one of the sponsors, by way of apology:—

“It’s a girl, so it must be christened first!”

And christened first it was. But the peculiar manner in which this was brought about, showed that the woman was influenced by some peculiar feeling; and, on the next day, an opportunity was taken to discover her motive.

This was her explanation.

“You see, sir, the parson baint a married man, and consequentially is disfamiliar with children, or he’d never a put the little girl to be christen’d after the little boys. And, though it sadley fluster’d me, sir, to put myself afore my betters in the way which I was fossed to do, yet, sir, it was a doing of a kindness to them two little boys in me a setting of my little girl afore’em.”

“Why so?” it was asked.

“Well, sir! I har astonished as you don’t know,” was the reply of this specimen of our country parish. “Why, sir, if them little boys had been christen’d afore the little girl, they’d have had her soft chin, and she’d have had their hairy beards—the poor little innocent! But, thank goodness! I’ve kep’ her from that misfortin’!”

And the woman really believed that she had done so; and, moreover, the generality of her neighbours shared her belief.

So let this fragment of folk-lore from our country parish prove a warning to clergymen—more especially to bachelors like Mr. Milkinsop—who would desire to stand well in the opinions of their poorer neighbours.

If twins are born in our country parish, it is believed that of the little bipeds—like the quadrupedal martin-heifers and free-martins—only one will prove the father (or mother) of a family.

If any of our women are seen abroad, and pursuing their ordinary out-of-door occupations, before they have been “churched,” they at once lose caste in the eyes of their neighbours.

On the subject of marriage we have also our little peculiarities. Not a maiden in our parish will attend church on the three Sundays on which her banns are proclaimed. And this, not from bashfulness or mock-modesty; but because they deem such a proceeding to be eminently unlucky. When Mr. Milkinsop once asked one of these damsels what was the particular kind of ill-luck that she expected would have resulted from her attendance at church on those three particular Sundays, she informed the reverend gentleman that the offspring of such marriages would be born deaf and dumb. And, to clench this statement, and prove its truth by a forcible example, she adduced the instance of a young woman of her acquaintance who would persist in going to church to hear her banns “asked out,” and whose six children were in consequence all born deaf and dumb. No wonder, then, that our village maidens stay away from church on those three interesting Sundays, when such sad results are known to follow a deviation from our country parish superstition.

Why or wherefore, when these young damsels present themselves before Mr. Milkinsop to be united in the bonds of wedlock to the husbands of their choice, they should carry a sprig of gone as a bridal bouquet is a mystery which I have been unable to solve. A young lady fresh from school, and therefore well versed in the mystical language of flowers, informs me that gorse is an emblem of “enduring affection.” I am also aware of the old adage (for do we not use it in our country parish, where the glorious gorse grows in such large tracts that, when covered with its golden bloom, it might induce a second Linnaeus to throw himself upon his knees and kiss the earth for producing flowers so beautiful)—I am aware, I say, of the old adage that says, “When the gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion;” by which is meant that kissing is popular all the year round. But, still, I confess that this adage and that emblem do not, as I believe, account for the appearance of the sprig of gorse in the bridal bouquet, and that some further meaning lurks behind, which the damsels are unwilling should be brought to prominent notice. I therefore am constrained to leave this popular custom where I found it.

The fine old church of our country parish has a pretty peal of bells, whose silvery tongues melodiously proclaim to the neighbourhood the various joyful events that break into pleasant ripples the still surface of our usual humdrum existence. The daughter of our chief farmer was married the other day, and, of course, the bells did their best to spread the tidings. The ringers rang when the bride and bridegroom left the church; and the ringers rang when the happy couple drove out of the parish in a chaise and pair for a honeymoon of four days in the great whirling world of London. And the ringers rang at divers times throughout the day, being filled with beer and friendly feeling. And, late in the evening, when the last peal had been rung, the ringers (according to the custom of our country parish) fore-tolled upon the great bell the number of children with which the marriage was to be blessed. This tintinnabular prophecy as to the “hostages to fortune” probably depends—like the gipsy predictions in similar cases—upon the largesse expected to be forth-coming. On this particular occasion, the clapper was made to smite the bell thrice three times. The bride and bridegroom, therefore, know the worst, and can betimes make the needful preparations for the advent of their tuneful nine.

All the young ladies in our country parish, in common with the young lady whom I have just mentioned, are imbued with the same superstitious spirit as their poorer neighbours. That leap-year empowers a young lady to “pop the question” to a young gentleman, is, I believe, a generally received fragment of folk-lore. But, it is the belief of young ladies in our country parish, that leap-year permits them to do something more. I am informed by one of my fair young friends in that romantic village, that if, in any leap-year, she should so far forget herself as to suggest an union between herself and a bachelor acquaintance, who should be uncivil enough to decline her polite proposals, she could, thereupon, demand from him the gift of a new silk dress: but that, to claim this dress with propriety, she must, at the time of asking, be the wearer of a scarlet petticoat; which, or the lower portion of which, she must forthwith exhibit to the gentleman; who thereupon, by the law of leap-year—which is as the law of the Medea and Persians—is compelled to present to the lady a new silk dress, to cover her scarlet petticoat, and assuage her displeasure at his rejection of her proposals.

When my fair young friend told me this bit of feminine folk-lore, I laid it to heart, thinking that it might prove exceedingly useful to me, in putting me on my guard during the forthcoming leap-year. For, I thought within myself, that it was not without a determined significancy, that this young lady, and others in our country parish, had followed the then prevailing fashions (received by us a full twelvemonth after they have been introduced in more civilised places), and had habited themselves in bright scarlet petticoats—which, on a snowy day, and from beneath a looped-up dress, and over a pair of good, sensible legs, shod with good, sensible boots,—made, I can assure you, a great figure in the landscape, and, gleaming warm and sunny, presented to the eye that positive bit of colour which is so valuable to the artist. And I thought it might be reasonably inferred, that the ladies’ law of leap-year was about to be inflicted upon the gentlemen of our country parish and its vicinity, in its most expensive silk-dress form, and that the assumption of these scarlet petticoats was merely the initiatory step to a sterner process.

And hence I thought that—from a careful consideration of the various dangers arising from this feminine folk-lore that would beset me, and all the other bachelors in our country parish, during the next twelvemonth,—I should be inclined to coincide with Mr. Meagles’ opinion of beadles[1], and to consider his advice with regard to those bipeds as worthy of all imitation; and so, when leap-year came, and when I caught sight of a young lady tripping along the road “in full fig,” and displaying a scarlet petticoat, I should consider that I showed the best discretion by turning and running away.

We are great on the subject of the weather in our country parish. In particular are we attached to prognostications of rain. If the salt is damp, we say that we shall soon have wet. If we see a snake gliding and wriggling across the road, we say “there will be rain before long.” If we see the glow-worms shining at night, we say, “we shall have wet ere morning.” If we hear the woodpeckers utter their peculiar, harsh cry, we say, “we shall have a shower soon.” We find our barometers in all these things, and many more; and, for us, the moon “takes up her wondrous tale” chiefly to tell us what sort of weather it will be. We say that “it will be a wet month, when there are two full moons in it.” Intending to burst into immortal verse, but failing at the threshold in our search after a rhyme, we say,

A Saturday’s change, and a Sunday’s full,
Once in seven years is once too soon.

But we are more successful in our rhymes, when we treat of the gardening operations for spring. Then we say,

When elm-leaves are as big as a shilling,
Plant kidney-beans, if to plant ’em you’re willing;
When elm-leaves are as big as a penny,
You must plant kidney-beans, if you mean to have any.

The energy infused into the last line, and the clearness of the advice contained in it, is a sufficient apology for its lengthened metre. In whatever quarter the wind may be on Candlemas-eve, our people say that it will “mainly” remain in that quarter for forty days. Concerning the unhealthiness of the spring season, we say,

March, search; April, try;
May will prove if you live or die.

In regard to the approach of spring, we are not to be deceived. For we have a pretty saying, that the gentle season has not come in its “ethereal mildness,” until we can plant our foot on twelve daisies. And when it is come, if you should chance to take violets or primroses into any of the houses in our country parish, I would warn you to be mindful to take not less than a handful of their blossoms; for, less than this would bring certain destruction to the farmer’s broods of young ducks and chickens.

Our fine old church keeps up the custom that was prevalent in the days of good George Herbert, and “at great festivals is strewed and stuck with boughs,” like as was the church of “the country parson,” or that of Mr. Spectator, where “the middle aisle was a very pretty shady walk, and the pews looked like so many arbours on each side of it.” At Christmas it is decorated with holly and ivy; and mistletoe would be slily added, if Mr. Milkinsop were not preternaturally vigilant. On Good Friday it is dressed with solemn yew; and this, on Easter Day, gives place to fresh boughs and primroses, and such spring flowers as may then have bloomed. Then, on Palm Sunday, we have palm-branches—that is, the nearest imitation thereto, in the shape of willow wands with their catkins and fluffy blanket-looking buds. And, on Whit-Sunday, we are brave with boughs and flowers.

There is no modern innovation in all this. The custom has been handed down to us from antiquity, and we take it as we found it. If any should class it among the “superstitions” of our country parish, surely it is a very simple and innocent one; it is one, at any rate, with which our people would not willingly part; and one which they recognise with pleasure (not abusing it), while they bear in mind the sentence, “O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord; praise Him, and magnify Him for ever.”

When any one dies in our country parish, the passing-bell is tolled. If you listen to its solemn tongue, you may know the sex of the departed. Three times three for a woman; three times two for a man. As the last toll dies away in faint vibrations, the labourer out in the fields who hears it, bares his head, and says, “God give him a good God-speed.” This word “God-speed” is one of our country parish sayings. It means “the leaving one’s house in order to remove to a new home;” and they use it when they change from one dwelling-place to another.

It is not the custom to toll the passing-bell for a child that dies unbaptised. Was there more of love, or superstition, in that young mother’s heart, who came to the parson of our country parish, beseeching him with earnest pleadings that the passing-bell might be tolled for her dead and unbaptised little one, and so give rest to its soul? For she fancied that until the church-bell had tolled, her child’s soul would be caged in unquiet rest in its dead body.

When a funeral approaches the church of our country parish, the solemn tolling is ceased, and a peal is rung. It has a melancholy sweetness that is very touching.

As a matter of course, the old superstition about the north side of the churchyard being under the dominions of evil spirits, has full sway in our country parish; and not a funeral ever takes place in that portion of our “God’s acre,” or has been known to take place within the memory of our oldest inhabitant. I must except, though, that story that he loves to tell, of having passed the churchyard in the dead of the night, once in the days of his youth, when he and poaching were more intimate than they ought to have been,—and being attracted by a light on the ghostly side of the churchyard,—and being overcome first by fear, and then by curiosity,—and then quietly stealing to the spot, and beholding by the flickering light of a lantern, a coffinless body being committed to the ground by two men,—and how he recognised them, and knew that the corpse was that of a woman who had been ruined and deserted, and in her despair had destroyed herself by poison. But this is an exceptional case; and the north side of our churchyard is, as yet, free from grassy mounds and hoary head-stones.

Yet does this remind me of another funeral of which the same person has told me. Our country parish is a favourite resort of the gipsies. There is plenty of grass in the green lanes for camping purposes; and the brooks are very convenient. Our hedges suffer from the intrusion; but, our hen-roosts and more valuable articles are safe; for our gipsies are grateful; and, after their own peculiar code of honour, thieve from our neighbours instead of from us. When a child is born to them, they bring it to Mr. Milkinsop to be baptised; and they themselves often come to church, and dazzle the eyes of our rustics, with handkerchiefs and waistcoats as gaily coloured as the stained-glass figures in the East window. In fact, a distant likeness might be traced between the two. Perhaps, the old parish-clerk may have reasoned this out for himself in his own peculiar fashion, and have come to associate those figures of Moses and Aaron in the painted window, with certain people whom he had both seen and known. For once, when a visitor to the church asked him if this particular window was not erected to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, the old man replied, as he pointed to the Moses and Aaron,—

“Yes, sir; but they don’t much fature the old couple!”

But I am digressing from my gipsy, and the narrative of his death and burial, as told me by our oldest inhabitant. This gipsy was an ordinary member of his tribe, and he lay ill of a pleurisy in the camp, in our country parish. They called in a surgeon from the neighbouring town; and, after much persuasion, the surgeon bled him. The man became worse; the surgeon’s assistant came to see him, and proposed to bleed him again. But the gipsies were much averse to blood-letting; so they sent the assistant about his business, paid the surgeon’s bill, and dispensed with his further services. The man then died. He had expressed a wish to be buried in his best clothes, which were a velveteen coat with half-crowns shanked for buttons, and a waist-coat with shillings similarly shanked. But, his wish could not be carried out, as these valuable garments were stolen by a woman with whom he had lived, who forthwith decamped with her pilferings, leaving the gipsy to be buried in his second-best, without a shroud, in the very best of coffins.

“At the funeral,” said my informant, “they had a hearse, and ostrich plumes: and about fifty gipsies, men and women, followed him; and when the church service was over, and the clergyman was gone, the gipsies staid behind in the churchyard, and had a service of their own. And, when a gipsy dies, you must know, sir, that they always burns everything belonging to him. First, they burnt his fiddle: a right-down good fiddler he was, and many’s the time I’ve danced to him at our wake. And then they burnt a lot of beautiful Witney blankets, as were as good as new. And then they burnt a sight o’ books, for he was quite a scholerd—very big books they wos, too! I specially minds one on ’em—the biggest o’ the hull lot! a book o’ jawgraphy, as ’ud tell you the history o’ the hull world, you understand, sir; and was chock full o’ queer, outlandish picters. And then, there was his grinstun, that he used to go about the country with, a grindin’ scissors and razors, and sich like: they couldn’t burn him! so they carried him two miles, and then hove him right into the river. That’s true, you may take my word for it, sir! for I was one as help’d ’em to carry it.”

But to return to our own peculiar folk-lore.

There is a sanitary superstition in our country parish, which Mr. Milkinsop denounces as one of the latest passages from the farce of Folly, and has dramatised thus:

SceneThe back premises of a Farm-house. Female domestic plucking the feathers from a half-killed hen, which is writhing with pain. Enter her Mistress, who expresses disgust at the foul proceeding.
Mrs. Good Gracious, girl! how can you be so cruel? Why, the hen isn’t dead!

Dom. No, mum! I’m very sorry, mum; but—(as though answering a question)—I was in a hurry to come down, and I didn’t wash my face this morning.

Mrs. (with rising doubts as to the girl’s sanity in reference to her sanitary proceedings). Wash your face? Whatever does the girl mean! I did not say anything about washing your face. I said—(shouting to her, on the sudden supposition that she might be deaf)—that you were very cruel to pluck a hen that you’ve only half killed.

Dom. (placidly). Yes, mum! I’ll go and wash my face directly.

Mrs. (bothered). Wash your face? Yes, you dirty slut! it wants washing. But first kill this poor thing, and put it out of its misery.

Dom. (confidentially). I can’t, mum, till I’ve washed my face.

Mrs. (repressing an inclination to use bad language). Why not?

Dom. (with the tone of an instructor). La, bless me, mum! Why, don’t you know as you can’t kill any living thing till you’ve washed your face first? I’m sure that I tried for full ten minutes to wring this ’En’s neck, and I couldn’t kill her nohow. And all because I hadn’t time to wash my face this morning.
[The mistress administers a homily to the domestic; the hen is put out of its misery, and the scene closes upon the domestic’s ablutions.]

Our country parish holds the same bit of folk-lore with regard to the killing of pigs; so that when we wish to slay our favourite porkers and Dorkings, the commonest feelings of humanity lead us first to ascertain if the executioner has washed his face.

When Christmas comes, we have some very pretty customs in our country parish; but, as I am here specially speaking of its folk-lore, I will, for the present, leave these customs to take care of themselves. For the customs that are retained in our old-world quarter, are quite as numerous as our scraps of folk-lore; and it would swell this paper to unreasonable dimensions, were I now to tell of our May-day customs, and our Curfew customs, and our Clemening customs, and our customs on Goody Tuesday and St. Thomas’s Day; and our Christmas customs, with the carols, and waits, and morris-dancers; and that curious masque, or “Mumming,” performed by some boys in our country parish, wherein King George, and Bold Bonaparte, and the Valiant Soldier, and the Turkish Knight, and Beelzebub, and Old Father Christmas, and the Doctor, and Little Devil-doubt, are the chief dramatis personæ. The mention, however, of Goody Tuesday reminds me of a piece of folk-lore connected with that day. We say, that if we eat pancakes on Goody Tuesday, and grey peas on Ash Wednesday, we shall have money in our purse all the year. It is Shrove Tuesday that we call by the name of Goody, or Goodish Tuesday; and Mr. Milkinsop inclines to the idea that this name is a rustic record of the shriving and confession customary to the day prior to the Reformation.

The letting-in of the New Year is an important matter in our country parish; though in our folk-lore regarding it, we are not quite so polite as usual: for we say, that if the first person who crosses your threshold on the New Year’s morning is a male, it will bring you good luck through the ensuing year; whereas, if a female is your first visitor, you will have bad luck. Our carol-singers are up on a New Year’s morning before it is light, and strive who shall be first at the various farm-houses. As soon as the inmates hear the song, they rise, and open the front door to admit the first lucky carol-singer into the house: they then conduct him through the house, and bow him out at the back door. You may be sure that he is not sent away empty; for, according to our folk-lore, he has brought good luck to that house for a whole twelvemonth. Of course, it is only the young gentlemen who are thus privileged to be the prognosticators of good luck.

Our farmers ought to be prosperous and well-to do; for, as you see, they can ensure their yearly success on very easy conditions: and if they want to bring special good luck to their dairy, they take down the bough of mistletoe, and give it to the cow that calves first after New Year’s Day. The cow devours it greedily, but sheep also do the same; and no wonder, if they like it. But the farmers ascribe the result to the mistletoe charm; and as their example sways those about them, it is not very wonderful that folk-lore should be found to flourish in our country parish.

Cuthbert Bede.

  1. See “Little Dorrit.”