The Corby Pole Fair

If nations could be patron saints, England would be the patron saint of weird-ass traditional festivals. Since it doesn’t work that way, it’s had to settle for holding them and glorying in its own oddity. 

Allow me to welcome you to today’s strange traditional festival, the Corby Pole Fair. 

What’s strange about it? It’s held once every twenty years.

Why’s that? Nobody knows.

Marginally relevant photo: A traditional British phone box, now converted into a second-hand bookstore that’s raising money to maintain a village defibrillator.

Anytime you write about one of these festivals, you’re pretty much required to use the phrase “nobody knows.” More than once. If I use it more than 15 times here, I owe you a drink. Of course, you’ll have to catch me first.

But before we go on, let me try to unbraid what’s English from what’s British–something I do regularly and usually get wrong. I’m not sure whether the other nations that make up Britain–or the UK, which isn’t quite the same thing but never mind that for now–are as strange about their festivals as England is. The spotlight falls most often on English weird-assery, so let’s go with that. I’m happy to hear arguments and corrections from anyone even remotely knowledgeable about these things. Or if not knowledgeable, funny. That’ll do at least as well. 

 

The Fair

The Corby Pole Fair dates back (according to one article) “to the 13th century, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town a charter in 1585.” Which is awkward, because Liz hadn’t been born in the 13th century, and neither had 1585.

Okay, it was a typo and we can all stop being so smug. It’s not like we haven’t written something at least as embarrassing.

Typo aside, though, an alternative explanation of the fair’s origins is easily available. One–or two, or three–almost always is. Or are. That same article tells us that some people say, “It’s after the monarch was rescued from a bog by villagers.”

Is the it in that quote the fair or the charter? 

Hard to say. 

Do we care? Yes, but only a little. Guesswork will do well enough, so let’s nod as if it all makes sense and move on. 

A more coherent attempt at explaining the fair’s origins comes from the BBC–working, I’m sure, from the same press release but reading it more carefully. It says, “Some say it [that’s the fair] goes back to the 13th Century, some to 1585 when Queen Elizabeth I was rescued from a bog by Corby villagers and others to the 17th Century when Charles II granted the town a charter.”

Yes, I checked. Liz was alive in 1585. I can’t verify that she was in a bog or, for that matter, anywhere near Corby but we have at least taken a step in the right direction. 

The fair could also date back to 1226, when Henry III granted Corby (or someone, anyway) the right to hold a fair.

Was Elizabeth I ever rescued from a bog, by Corby villagers or anyone else? Possibly, but I can’t verify it. I asked Lord Google and got referred to scholarly papers that opened with her wanting to build a stable, peaceful country, but nope, no bog.

Next I found something about Queen Elizabeth and a blog. 

Did Queen Elizabeth keep a blog? Well, she did try, but the technology of the time didn’t support it and she gave it up to devote her efforts to more era-appropriate occupations. 

Lord Google’s related questions included, “What is Elizabeth the First known for?” Related answers do not include being rescued from a bog. 

So no, I can’t find any evidence that she was rescued from a bog. Equally, I can’t find any evidence that she wasn’t.  

 

Fairs and Charters

Why did they need a charter to hold a fair? Because that’s how things worked. The National Archive says that  “Early markets and fairs were generally held in one of two ways. . . . If they were held: 

  • “by virtue of a specific royal grant, you are likely to find a charter recording it; 
  • “by prescriptive right, that is, based on immemorial custom, you may not find any charter evidence.”

Charters could be issued to an individual or to something like a town or church. One fair, in Stourbridge, ran for three weeks. In addition to giving everyone a chance to let off steam, they also made money for whoever held the charter. And for whoever came to trade. 

Does any of that still matter today? Oddly enough, yes. The Ilkeston Charter Fair has permission to run for four days, and for more or less 800 years that’s what it did. Then, in 2018, it decided to run for a fifth day and had to apply to the home secretary for permission. Which meant it had to figure out what the correct procedure was. It’s that unusual. And if it got the procedure wrong, it could lose the right to hold the fair at all. 

And that’s where I bailed out and scuttled back to our Corby Pole Fair.

Corby resident Paul Balmer has looked for Liz’s charter but found only a later one, which dates from “1670 or 1682 depending on who you listen to.”

I’d love to explain that phrase to you, but that’s all I know. 

You see why the phrase “nobody knows” comes up so often?

 

Historical accuracy

The fair includes what Balmer says is a Viking tradition of riding the stang. 

“If you didn’t pay your toll [that’s your admission to the fair] you were carried on the ‘stang’ to the stocks and had to pay a penny to get out, but the villagers, because of the charter, were exempt from the toll.”

Why Viking tradition? Corby started out as a Viking settlement.

“Then there’s the greasy pole, which is most probably associated with the ox roast. The lord of the manor often gives an ox to villagers when they are celebrating a fair or a big occasion, the grease from the ox is put on a pole with a ham on the top and if you climb the greasy pole you get to keep it.”

This year, there’ll be a pole but no one gets to climb it. They couldn’t get insurance. 

Then there’s that charter. Remember the charter? At 6 a.m. the bells ring a.m., calling everyone to come hear the charter read out loud at all the entrances to the village.

There’ll also be historical re-enactments, including some Viking-type stuff. You know, a little light looting and pillaging. Some jousting. Some road closures. What could be more historically accurate than road closures? 

In the interest of historical accuracy, the decision to hold this year’s fair was made after surveying the community, holding focus groups and workshops, and meeting with groups and individuals and businesses, not to mention filling out and filing grant applications and advertising the whole mess–and then putting a discussion of it up on the website, presumably to prove the fair has community support.

Decisions about the content of the fair were also influenced by what funding bodies would (and wouldn’t) be willing to pay for,” it says. I worked around nonprofits long enough to recognize a near-universal truth in that.

Town dignitaries get carried around in chairs. There’s a free breakfast for residents.

The fair also offers music. I haven’t seen any mention of morris dancers, so this may be the only safe festival in England for morris-haters.

 

The Details

When is it held? It was on June 3 this year, which means we’ve missed it and will have to wait until 2042. The date for that one hasn’t been set yet.

What? Do I look like a tourist site? You want to know about these things in advance, go someplace sensible.

There. I made it through without saying “nobody knows” more than twice. Or maybe that was three times. Either way, go buy your own drink.

What does freedom of the city mean?

Not long after Prince Andrew gave up on huffing and puffing until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.

This is significant because, um, why?

Well, it’s not, really. Or it is, but only if you take British traditions seriously, which I have some trouble doing but I’m sure Andy doesn’t. No one could run around dressed in those uniforms if they didn’t take it all seriously. 

Still, in the avalanche of bad publicity that’s fallen on him lately, York’s contribution is barely a pebble. But since it’s an intriguing pebble, let’s talk about what this freedom of the city business is.

Irrelevant photo: This was taken during either Storm Dudley or Eunice, although I’m damned if I remember which one. My partner swore they sounded like an aunt and uncle from Oklahoma–ones no one looked forward to seeing. All that white stuff? That’s foam. We had enough wind to whip the ocean into a meringue.

Starting at the beginning

Freedom of the city dates back to the middle ages, when lords were lords and serfs weren’t free and any sensible person would’ve told you this was the natural order of things. 

All that non-freedom is what made the freedom of the city matter.

According to a “purported law” of William the Conqueror’s–he’s the guy, remember, who won England as his very own plaything in 1066–“If serfs reside without challenge for a year and a day in our cities, or in our walled towns, or in our castles, from that day they will effectively be free men and forever free from their bonds of servitude.”

For a law that’s no more than purported, it seems to have had an impressive impact. It was repeated in various ways by various cities and rulers. Henry II gave Lincoln a charter saying, “Should anyone reside in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without being claimed by any claimant, and he is contributing towards the customary dues of the city, and the citizens can prove (by the customary legal process of the city) that a claimant was present in England but made no claim upon him, thereafter he may remain in my city of Lincoln, undisturbed as before, as my citizen, without legal challenge.”

For claimant, you can substitute lord–someone with a feudal right to claim this person as, effectively, his property.

Elsewhere, you’ll find specific statements about a villein (that’s what you and I would call a serf) being freed of villeinage if he lives “undisturbed for a year and a day in any privileged town, to the point that he is accepted into its community (that is, gild) he is thereby freed from villeinage.”

Gild? That’s what we’d call a guild. Hold onto that word, because we’ll come back to it.

 

Consulting the grownups about this

Notice that bit about privileged towns. This year-and-a-day stuff didn’t work in just any town. You couldn’t hide out for the required time in your local market town and hope to be free. The magic only worked if the spell was written into the town’s charter. 

But not every town or city was welcoming to fugitive serfs.

Do I have details about that? I do not. The best I can tell you is that historians aren’t in universal agreement over how common it was for villeins to free themselves this way, or how welcoming or unwelcoming towns were. And since historians are the grownups in this discussion, we’ll leave this for them to work out while we go upstairs and do whatever they told us not to.

It’s worth knowing that free men didn’t live only in cities. They also lived in the countryside, working the land more or less as serfs did. The difference was that they rented their land, didn’t owe the lord any service in kind, and were free to leave, although they couldn’t necessarily afford to. You could be free and as poor as the neighboring serf–or poorer. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

 

Two footnotes 

  1. Becoming a free man didn’t make you a freeman. That was a different category and we’ll get to it in a minute. What being a free man did do was make you not-a-serf, which was a major change in status,even if it wasn’t the solution to all your problems. 
  2. Almost everything I’ve found talks about free men. Only the Guild of Freemen of the City of London website acknowledges references to women having been guild members. Given the English language’s counterproductive tradition of sometimes insisting that men means both men and women and the rest of the time insisting that men means only men, figuring out what we’re talking about here isn’t easy, but the year-and-a-day thing does seem to have applied to women. As far as I can tell.

 

Guilds, freemen, and free men

It’s not just the men and women who are hard to tell apart. Several websites get woozy about the difference between free men and freemen. So when the city of Birmingham, by way of example, explains what freemen means, it’s hard to know if it applies to both free men and freemen.

Don’t you just love the English language?

What does the Brimingham website say? “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone . . . who had the right to earn money and own their own land. People who were protected by the charter (rules) of their town or city were often ‘free’, hence the term ‘Freedom of the City.’ ”

Are you confused yet? 

Good. Then you’re following the discussion. You could live in a city and be free, but not be a freeman, and therefore (at least as time went by) not someone who had the freedom of the city. To become a freeman of a city or town, you had to be accepted by one of its guilds, and they limited their membership. If too many people have the right to practice as, say, goldsmiths, prices will drop.

The medieval guilds were powerful organizations, made up of merchants or craftspeople (who weren’t always men). They had a monopoly on their corner of the economy and regulated trade, standards,  apprenticeships, and prices. Each one protected its interests, and they often controlled city or town governments.  

If you couldn’t become a member–and unless you had connections, you probably couldn’t–you might well be free and a man, but you were stuck working as a laborer. You weren’t a freeman of the city.

 

More about freemen

The Portsmouth City Council website skips over free men and goes straight for freemen:The institution of freemen or burgesses dates from the early beginnings of municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Freemen or burgesses enjoyed considerable political privileges, being entitled to elect the officers of the corporation and its representatives in Parliament, although they were not necessarily resident in the borough of which they were burgesses or freemen.”

In this context, the corporation was the city government.

“In choosing freemen or burgesses, boroughs found it convenient to admit men of national importance who might be able to secure greater economic or political privileges for the area. Prominent local landowners with interests in a borough would reward their supporters by securing their admission as freemen or burgesses–between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries a very high proportion of the known burgesses in Portsmouth were not resident in the borough.”

In other words, freemen were a select group of a city’s residents (or, just to confuse the picture, non-residents). They were people with power and money. That held until 1835, when the Municipal Corporations Act established city councils. After that, they might very well still have held power, but they had to exercise it differently.

 

Can we confuse the issue a bit more?

Of course we can. Let’s go to Texas, where a couple of Freedom of the City certificates are sitting in the Ransom Center, which led the center to write about them.

One certificate was issued in London in 1776 to Michael Dancer at the end of his apprenticeship. It was big–2 feet by 5 inches–and came with a tube so Mick could roll it up and carry it around with him. The Ransom Center swears that people would have carried these the way we might carry a passport or driver’s license today, to prove identity and citizenship. 

I offer you a grain of salt to go with that explanation. They might well have needed the document for one thing and another–only people who’d been granted freedom of the city could exercise a trade within London’t city limits, and that held true until 1835–but I’d guess it was too important to cart around the streets every day like a driver’s license. 

The Ransom Center tells us that along with a freedom of the city certificate, London also presented its new members with “a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.”

I’m not exercised about where I get buried–I hope to be past caring by then–but that silken rope might make freedom of the city worth pursuing. 

 

What does being a freeman of the city get you today?

Not much. Let’s limit ourselves to London: You can’t drive sheep across London Bridge anymore. Capital punishment’s been abolished, so if you want to be hung with a silken rope you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I’m not sure what the law is on drawn swords, but I‘d recommend doing some research before you try it. Folks get twitchy about swords these days, no matter what certificate you’re carrying.

That makes the freedom of the city something you can put on your resume, if you have one, but that’s about it. It’s just a bit of English tradition that you’re welcome to take seriously if you can.

A quick history of the English breakfast

Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.” 

Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is. 

Or possibly how odd any country is.

Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?

I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then. 

The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long. 

But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.

Irrelevant photo: a slightly battered rose, blooming in February.

Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”

I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that. 

So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.

 

First, who were the gentry?

To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.

The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.  

But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.

Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.

No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed. 

But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion. 

Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.

Cue a grand spread for breakfast.

Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.

 

The tale of the English breakfast, version two

In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale. 

Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.

By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can. 

By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.

If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended. 

By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance. 

 

The current components of an English breakfast

What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid. 

Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.

So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.

There’s no accounting for taste. 

As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.

And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.

Eventually  the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. 

Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.

I know. It’s tough.

Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.

During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.

But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.

*

If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.

You can find it at The Bookseller.

Strange British Festivals: The World Custard Pie Championship

To prove that the pandemic is nothing to mess around with, the 2020 World Custard Pie Championship–like so many other non-essential events–was canceled.

But was the contest truly non-essential or was that just the decision of some self-serving, soulless sort with a scrub brush for a brain? Did they consider its obvious cultural, political, and academic importance? 

Ah, well, let’s not be too hard on self-serving, soulless scrub brushes. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

And it doesn’t matter anymore, because barring a major step backward in the U.K.–that’s pandemically speaking, of course–the competition will take place in 2021, so let’s learn what we can about the details, quick before it’s too late to enter. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, I think. In fact, I’m reasonably sure. Of course it’s a camellia. What else would it be? A snowmobile?

The World Custard Pie Championships fits nicely into the category of strange traditional festivals that England (or maybe that’s Britain) is so good at, even though this particular tradition is no older than fifty or so years. That makes it modern, at least by British history standards, but it’s a good enough imitation to fool my filing system. 

And if someone would help me sort out whether these festivals are a particularly British thing or a particularly English one, I’d be grateful. I’m sure it would help me understand the country better. Are people this strange in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

 

Origins, rules, & important stuff

The origins of most truly traditional traditions have been lost by now, but since this one’s a newcomer–a nontraditional tradition–we can document it: Coxheath, Kent, needed to raise money for a village hall and came up with the idea of inventing a tradition. Or at least that’s my interpretation. I’m reasonably sure no one put it that way when they were sitting around the pub figuring out what to do.

The pub’s also my interpretation. I’m convinced that these traditions all started in the pub. Even before pubs were invented.

How does the championship raise money? It costs £60 for a team to compete and £40 to set up a stall. Unless you’re selling food and drink, in which case that’ll be £80, thanks. If a town can keep its festival going for a few years and get itself some publicity, it’ll raise enough to buy a bucket of paint or three. 

By now the custard festival’s had enough publicity for teams to fly in from around the world. Or so the website says. They manage not to say how many teams have flown in. Two’s enough to justify a plural.

The rules are simple. Each team’s made up of four people and they line up and throw pies at someone–I assume it’s another team. Using their left hands. I’ll go out on a twig and guess that if you’re left handed you throw with your right. If you’re ambidextrous, you’re disqualified. If you’re amphibious, you can throw from under water, but it won’t be an advantage–at least not in terms of scoring. You’ll be a hit with the crowd, though.

Scoring? Your points depend on where your pie hits your opponent–six points for a pie in the face, three if it hits from the shoulder up, and one for any other body part. 

If you miss three times, you lose a point. 

The judges’ decisions are final. 

Throwing pies at the judges when you don’t like their decision is frowned upon, but they don’t say that for fear of putting the idea in some suggestible person’s empty little head. And yes, having to throw with your nondominant arm is a perfect excuse for not being good at it.

Unlike dwile flonking, you don’t have to be drunk to do this, but this being England (or should I say, “This being Britain”?), you’re more than welcome to show up dressed in something silly. Or as they put it in British, in fancy dress. Don’t wear anything you’re attached to, though, because by the end of the day everyone’s wearing custard.

And now the bad news: They don’t use real custard–it’s not the right consistency–and the formula for whatever they do use is a closely guarded secret. Presumably, neighboring towns are just dying to poach the festival and that’s all that stops them. The only ingredients they’ll admit to are flour and water. The Calendar Customs website recommends not eating whatever it is.

The contest’s usually held in May or June, but this year, with the number of vaccinated people going up and the number of Covid cases (“so far,” she said nervously) staying low, it’s been rescheduled for September 21. 

They’re expecting 2,000 pies to be thrown. The day begins around noon with a wet sponge competition for kids, who as any fool knows can’t be trusted with pies.

*

Some time ago Autolycus suggested that I might want to write about another great British tradition, rhubarb thrashing, and I did try, but I couldn’t find enough information to go on. Besides, it’s a perfectly sensible game where two people stand inside trash cans and whack at each other with rhubarb  sticks, and where’s the laugh in that?

Why more isn’t written about it remains a mystery. It’s one of those rare subjects where Lord Google offered me no more than a single page of links, most of which were to a kids’ program, the BBC’s mysteriously named Blue Peter, which decided many and many a year ago that this was what the kiddies needed to know.

Those kiddies have now grown into adults. If you want to know what’s wrong with the world, look no further.

I am, as always, grateful for people’s topic suggestions, even when I don’t end up writing about them. Some–like rhubarb thrashing–just don’t lead anywhere, but you never know. Some are glorious.

Dwile flonking: another strange English tradition

If you ask the BBC about dwile flonking (and who doesn’t at some point?), you’ll find them asking a question of their own: 

Does dwile flonking really date back to the Suffolk harvests of 400 years ago or is it just a good excuse for getting drunk and celebrating Christmas in August?

They don’t answer the question and neither can I, but in my relentlessly shallow exploration of the topic I did find some faint linguistic evidence either that the game has a long history or that whoever invented it did their homework. Dwile comes from the Dutch word dweil, meaning floor cloth. Or it seems to, anyway. The word was probably introduced to England by Flemish weavers during the Middle Ages. Or, as Wikiwhatsia says (at the moment–it could change at any time), dwile is Dutch for a mop and the word worked its way into the Norfolk dialect. 

Irrelevant photo: The fields after a frost.

I try to avoid using Wikiwhatsia as a reference, but for dwile flonking? Why not? It’s right in the spirit of the game. It also says that flonk is “probably a corruption of flong, an old past tense of fling.”

Who knows. It might even be true. And when no one’s looking, sheep could just possibly type. If they had typewriters. 

The BBC agrees that flonk could be an archaic past tense of fling. If you squint hard. Meanwhile, Etymology Online gives us as a Middle English past tense flang with the past participle flungen. Which is no help at all but likely to be more reliable than anything else in the past few paragraphs. 

What is reliable is that Flonk is also a brand of ale, but that’s got to be recent than the rest of that mess. 

If you feel the need to watch dwiles being flonked (and if the pandemic ever ends), period costume is encouraged. I expect that’s in the spirit of imitation authenticity, although I’m not sure there’s any agreement on what period we’re talking about, so either pull one out of a hat (then wear the hat) or check out one of the videos on YouTube and do whatever you think best. After a few beers, no one will care and neither will you. 

Preliminaries

To play (did I say that dwile flonking’s a  sport?), you need two teams. Then you toss a sugar beet (which the BBC misspelled, she said without in the least betraying how smug she felt about catching that) to decide which team flonks first.

Then you choose a dull-witted person to serve as referee. That’s the jobanowl. He or she starts the game by shouting, “Here y’go t’gither!”

But wait. Before the match can start (and quite possibly before the jobanowl calls out his or her line), the teams have to sing “Here we ‘em be together.” It was written by Amos Thirkle, who was adopted as the patron saint of dwile flonking.

And why shouldn’t he be? Without even progressing past the letter A, I found patron saints of abdominal pains (Erasmus), for protection against mice (three, in fact: Gertrude, Servatus, and Ulric, and they were listed as “Against mice, protection against,” which is a double negative, but saints may be above grammatical quibbling) and of pain in the arms (Amalburga). 

You can make me the patron saint of pain in the ass if you like. Informally. Thirkle isn’t listed with the Church-approved saints either. 

I also found Amand, the patron said of bartenders, bar keepers, and bar staff in general. He’ll be busy during the match, and after. 

Rules

Here’s where it gets complicated and where I damn near decided to write about toadstools, or anything else that might turn out be less peculiar. But you can’t grasp the basic insanity of the game without slogging through the rules, so let us slog:

The team that isn’t flonking holds hands and dances in a circle (that’s called girting) while one person from the other team (that’s the flonker) stands in the middle with a driveller–a 2- to 3-foot pole made of hazel or yew. On the end of the driveller is the beer-soaked dwile. 

Remember the dwile? The floor rag/mop?

The flonker turns in the opposite direction from the girders and flonks the dwile at the opposing team, trying to hit someone. If the dwile hits a girter’s head, that’s three points. If it hits the body, it’s two points. A leg shot’s worth one.

If it misses, it’s called a swadger and the flonker takes a pot of ale and  has to drink it all while the girters form a line and pass the dwile from hand to hand, chanting, “pot, pot, pot.”

The pot? It’s what’s known as a gazunder–a chamber pot, called that because it goes under (goezunder–blame English spelling if you can’t make sense of the joke there) the bed. 

Well, what do you drink your ale out of?

When everyone’s had a chance to flonk, the game’s over and the points get counted up.

Teams lose a point for every person who’s sober at the end of the game. 

Dwile flonking is not recommended for people who go to AA meetings.

Want photos? Of course you do. These are from Beccles

And from Coventry, where the opposing team didn’t show up,

And more generally, from the BBC Suffolk, which describes the game as an adult version of All Fall Down.

And of course, you’ll want a video. YouTube is happy to oblige.

So now that you have this information, what do you do with it?

Well, once we get past the pandemic (nothing to it) you could always organize a dwile flonking competition where you live. Failing that, you could go down to the bar or pub and throw a beer-soaked rag at someone, then tell them they just participated in the ancient ritual of dwile flonking. 

One of two things will happen:

  1. They’ll stop in their tracks, wondering why they seem to have a beer-soaked rag on their heads when just a moment before they didn’t have a beer-soaked rag on their heads. (You’re not dancing around, so let’s assume you get a three-point hit. And you’ll have thrown the rag in the normal way, which will improve your aim. No magic two- to three-foot magic dwile flonking wands in the bar. ) If you’re in England when you do this, the other person will think, Dwile flonking. Of course. Because even if they’ve never heard of it–which is likely–England understands mysterious celebrations. Cheese rolling. Flaming tar barrels. Why not dwile flonking? Or,
  2. They’ll hit you so hard you’ll fall off your bar stool. 

Life’s a gamble. 

*

Endless thanks to Autolycus for suggesting that I write about this. I do worry about him. He also mentioned something about rhubarb thrashing. I’m saving that. It’s good to have something–however bizarre–to look forward to in these dark times.

Turning the Devil’s Stone: One of Those Strange English Traditions

Every November 5, when the rest of England is lighting bonfires and pretending to burn a long-dead Catholic rebel, at 8 p.m. the bellringers of Shebbear, in Devon, go to the village green and turn the Devil’s Stone. 

Because that’s what you do in Shebbear on November 5 if you’re a bellringer.

But first they ring a discordant peal of bells and listen to the minister either tell the tale of the Devil’s Stone or say a short prayer, depending on who you want to believe (or possibly who the minister is that year). 

Then they turn the stone. 

Some time before all that, someone lets the morris dancers loose, although they’re not part of the ceremony. They’re–oh, think of them as the frosting instead of the cake. They’re decorative but not essential.

Irrelevant photo: We’ve forgotten what these are, but they have berries at this time of year. I’m running low of flowers.

Actually, only one website mentions morris dancers. That could be because they’ve gone invisible to everybody else. Hold a festival and the odds of morris dancers showing up are high. Hold an odd one and the odds rise to 106-odd %. After a while, people just stop seeing them.

But that’s fine. You can tell you’re deep into folklore when every source contradicts some other source. In fact, in The English Year Steve Roud says that local people also call the stone the Shebbear Stone. He could be right, but the village website calls it the Devil’s Stone and says it’s also called the Devil’s Boulder. It doesn’t mention the Shebbear Stone.

Be happy with this. Everything is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds. 

And I am the queen of Romania. **

Why do they do it?

Because if they don’t, bad things will happen. During World War I and again during World War II, when people had other things on their minds and the village’s hefty young guys were running around in other countries carrying guns, the village let the date pass without turning the stone and bad things happened.

What bad things? No one I’ve found is specific about World War I, but during World War II one source says the war news got so bad that after a few days of bad news some people flipped the stone anyway. They were late, but at least they got the job done, the Allies won the war, and the world has continued on its erratic and weary course. Thank you, Shebbear, for saving us all.

According to another explanation of the ritual, they do it to keep the devil away. Maybe that’s the same thing as keeping bad things from happening. A biblical scholar I’m not. On the Calendar Customs website, someone named Sam left a comment to say, “Your all blooming mad none of this is in the bible….. your all off your trolley.”

Sam is probably not the ritual’s target audience. 

Methodists, alcohol, and folk traditions

As far as I can tell–and remember, I’m an immigrant here, so I’m bound to (almost obliged to) get a lot of this stuff wrong–this is the only ancient festival in Britain that doesn’t involve heavy drinking, although I did find a comment involving rain diluting a spectator’s pint, so you can be assured that (a) it rains a fair percentage of the time, as it should, and (b) drinking is accepted as a peripheral activity. Still, even though the stone is between the church and the pub, and even though the pub is called the Devil’s Stone, nothing I’ve read about the event mentions it either starting or ending at the pub. The closest I’ve found is a mention of the pub selling refreshments, but it does that every day of the year, unless a pandemic gets in the way.

Carrying on like that could get a festival kicked out of the Folkloric Society.

It might be relevant that John Wesley–the founder of Methodism–came through Shebbear and that Methodists don’t drink. Or it might not be relevant. The church the bellringers belong to isn’t Methodist, it’s Church of England. 

For whatever it’s worth, though, the village had the second oldest Methodist school in the country, founded in 1829 to train boys as ministers. It’s possible that before John Wesley showed up, turning the stone involved getting pie-eyed, but that’s pure speculation. It doesn’t seem to now. 

Roud mentions a website that called this the “oldest folk custom in Europe” but he says there’s no evidence of it earlier than the twentieth century. That’s not proof that it doesn’t go back many centuries, it just says there’s no record of it. But he does speculate that it could have started as a prank by bellringers, “or even that it was the result of a drunken conversation in the pub.”

If he’s right, Shebbear can hold its head up at the next meeting of the nonexistent Folkloric Society. The pub will have elbowed its way into the tale.

If you ask Lord Google, he’ll tell you that a Folklore Society does exist, and that it’s a learned society. But since I made up the Folkloric Society, I can assure you that it’s not learned. It involves heavy drinking, some morris dancing, obscure traditions, and disagreements about almost everything.

 

Why this particular stone?

The stone is notable because it doesn’t match the local stone. Depending on who you want to believe:

  • The devil dropped it out of his pocket when he fell from Heaven to Hell.
  • The devil dropped it when he was fighting with god and it fell on him and flattened him. 
  • The devil’s imprisoned underneath it. If you actually believe in the devil, that might make you think twice about turning it, but what do I know? 
  • St. Michael dropped the stone on the devil.
  • The stone was an altar stone belonging to a pre-Christian religion.
  • The stone was quarried for the foundation stone of Hanscott Church, which is nearby, and the Devil moved it to Shebbear. Every time someone moved it back to the church, it turned up at Shebbear again.
  • The devil threw the stone and the church and missed.
  • The stone’s a glacial erratic–something the glaciers picked up in one place and dropped in another. Glaciers were known for their sense of humor. The one carrying the stone said to another glacier, “Watch this. I’m going to set this thing down right here, then we’ll check back in thousands of years. I bet those annoying little hairless creatures will be worshiping it.”

According to various edges of the internet run by people who I suspect know as much about stones  as I do, the stone is granite, the stone is quartz, and the stone is “of a composition unknown anywhere in Europe.” 

No one claims that it’s of a composition unknown anywhere on this planet and everyone agrees that it weighs about a ton. 

 

Important information

Shebbear is pronounced SHEBBeer. I mention that because with English place names you can’t take anything for granted. They’re all glacial erratics–they got picked up in one place and dropped someplace else, and there’s no explaining why they’re either pronounced or spelled the way they are.

My thanks to Bear Humphries for reminding me of the Devil’s Stone, which is more or less local to us both.

 

** Adapted–or stolen–from a poem by Dorothy Parker:

Comment

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Strange British Customs: The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

Can any country without a straw bear festival claim to have a culture? 

Well, possibly. I hesitate to throw whole cultures into history’s extensive trash can. Especially since, no matter how much I try, they never do stay thrown. 

But either way, let’s talk about the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. Because it exists. Because it takes place (when the country isn’t in lockdown) in January and this is June, and that makes it an obvious topic right now. And because I thought a quick break from the serious stuff might do us all good.

The festival started before Whittlesea’s collective memory kicked in, so no one knows how far back it goes. Britain’s full of events like that. This one involves what an 1882 newspaper called the confraternity of the plough. That sounds like an organized group but the writer was probably just trying for a cute and condescending way of talking about farm workers.

Irrelevant photo: No flower this time, just sunlight and leaves.

What does seem to be known–and remember to take everything with a teaspoon or two of salt because of that problem with collective memory–is that each year they’d pick a man or boy to be the bear. Then on Plough Monday (British spelling because what the hell it’s their holiday) they’d drag a plow (American spelling because I can only be well behaved for just so long) through town and lead the bear around, with lots of singing and dancing. 

And drinking.

We’ll get around to the Plough Monday part later. 

The newspaper article describes the straw bear dancing in front of  “the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.” So basically, the well-to-do got entertainment and the badly-off got roaring drunk and went away with their bellies (and lungs) filled, and a good time was had by most.

Until the next morning. But there’s me spoiling the fun again.

As a counterbalance to that above-it-all description, let’s quote a book by Sybil Marshall about life in the fens in the 1890s. This isn’t specifically about the straw bear, but it’s close enough to be useful.

“Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o’ the ordinary, and we looked for’ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I’m surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all. . . . The Molly Dancers ‘ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o’ course the dancers cou’n’t be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They’d go from pub to pub, and when they’d finished there, they’d go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o’ getting anything. If we ha’n’t got any money to give ’em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.”

Whittlesea’s straw bear tradition lapsed in the early twentieth century, when a police inspector (speaking of spoiling the fun) decided the whole festival was a form of begging. Then it was revived in 1980, by (I’m taking a wild guess at this) either a group of guys who’d had too many beers or a group of promoters who decided it would bring the tourists in. 

Or a group of promoters who’d had too many beers. Why have two groups when one will do?

These days the festival involves a procession with the bear and a team pulling a plow (or a plough, which with all those extra vowels has got to be heavier) through the streets, and of course music, dancing, and (I’m guessing, since I haven’t been to the festival) a lot of drinking. The festival website’s FAQs includes the question, “Can I drink on the streets?” 

Answer: No. The cops are watching. Drink in the pub. Drink outside the pub but use a plastic glass. Play more or less nice.

The bear’s led around the town to dance in front of pubs, which is no mean trick because the costume weighs 5 stone.

A stone? It’s one of those insane, traditional British measures and it equals 14 pounds. Because who doesn’t like to multiply by 14? So 5 stone is–

Will you give me a minute here? I’m working on it.

It’s 70 pounds. Or 31.7515 kilos, give or take a gram. In other words, heavy enough that we should all be impressed by someone wearing it for long, never mind dancing in it. 

At the end of the festival, the bear costume is burned.

And of course, the festival includes morris dancers. Love ‘em or hate ‘me, you can’t hold a traditional festival in England without morris dancers. 

It also involves molly dancers, and I thought we’d get to take a break from anything serious, but I never do know where a topic will lead me, so buckle up, kids, ‘cause it’s about to get serious.

According to the Morris Ring website, molly dancing traditionally involved white men blacking their faces and dressing in women’s clothes. The blackface may have been to disguise themselves or it may be good old-fashioned racism. It could easily have been one twisted around the other. At this point, I doubt anyone can unpick the threads. 

The winds are blowing hard against blackface these days, and some molly dancing groups have dropped it. Others defend it on the grounds–and this is an argument I’ve never heard outside of Britain–that it isn’t (or wasn’t) meant to be racist, and so it isn’t racist. I’ve argued that through with more than one person and have yet to change a single mind.

The website of a molly dancing group called Pig Dyke explains its decision to drop blackface: They don’t want to be linked to the minstrel show tradition, where whites blacked their faces and played out a grotesque image of black people. It says, “Molly dancers in the past blacked their faces for disguise, weirdness, and loss of personal identity: we achieve that” without blackface. 

I looked through the Whittlesea website photos hoping to find that all the groups had dropped blackface. They hadn’t. If I was around to ask the dancers why they still do it, I’m sure they’d tell me it’s not racist because it was never meant to be racist. And because they’re not racists. And I’d try to convince them that their intent (or the originators’ intent–take your pick) isn’t the center around which the universe pivots–that our intent doesn’t control our impact. 

I’d leave wondering why I bothered. 

I won’t take a guess at what they’d be thinking. I don’t expect it’d be flattering. So let’s leave them to be unflattering and talk about the dressing in women’s clothes part. 

Pig Dyke connects the word molly to London’s molly houses, which were eighteenth-century gay and transvestite brothels. Whether they’re right to make that connection is anyone’s guess. There’s a strong British tradition of straight, non-transvestite men cross-dressing, and it’s widespread enough to make me think it was independent of the molly houses, although they may share a common root. But that’s guesswork. Let’s just chalk it up to another one of those collective memory blank spots.

I promised we’d get back to Plough Monday. The Molly Dancing website says it fell on ”the first Monday after Epiphany (or twelfth night) and was the first day after Christmas that farm-workers were meant to return to work, so they didn’t! Instead they decorated a plough and pushed it round the village, calling at the houses of the well-off villagers to beg for money. If the householders weren’t forthcoming with donations then they threatened to plough up the garden, or if there wasn’t a garden, the doorstep.”

That accounts for why the Morris Ring website says molly dancers ”could be destructive, drunk and disreputable.” 

These days, no one plows up gardens or doorsteps, drinking on the streets is only allowed outside the pubs, and storytelling groups gather the kids around so that they can take home something wholesome–something full of mental fiber and emotional green vegetables.

Strange British Traditions: The Tichborne Dole

March 25 is Tichborne Dole day, although if you get too far from the village of Tichborne not many people will have heard of it.

The tradition started in the thirteenth century with what we can pretty safely assume was a miserable marriage between the unfortunate Mabella and the insufferable Roger Tichborne. 

Am I biased? Of course not. I’m just telling you how it was. But we should probably call the unhappy couple Lady Mabella and Sir Roger at least once, because that’s what other people would’ve called them. 

Good. Now that we’ve done that, we’ll go back to plain ol’ Mabella and Roger. But as long as we’re correcting my carelessness, let’s add that the tale may start in the twelfth century, not the thirteenth. From this distance, it doesn’t much matter, but it should remind us to take the story with something between a grain of salt and a cup of it. Good storytellers are seldom to be trusted with the truth, and this story was good enough that it stuck around. Let’s tell it as if we trusted every last detail:

Irrelevant photo stolen from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

Mabella was dying of a wasting disease, and she worried what would happen to the poor of Tichborne village without her charity, so she asked her husband to give them food every year. He pulled a piece of wood out of the fire and said he’d hand out the grain from as much land as she could crawl around before the chunk of wood stopped burning.

Why did she have to crawl? The disease had left her crippled. Although in another version of the tale, she walked. Like I said, storytellers.

Either way, she made the circuit of a twenty-three acre field, now known as the Crawls. But she knew her husband, so she laid on a curse on top of the request. If the dole was ever stopped–even after his death–first the family would have seven sons, then in the next generation it would have seven daughters and the Tichbourn name would die out. Plus the house would fall into ruins.

Take that, Roger. 

It’s worth noting that rogering is British slang for having penetratiive sex. No one claims this story as the origin of the word–it probably comes from the name’s link to spears and lances–but all the same we could say that Roger got rogered.

Anyway, Sir R. was intimidated into keeping his end of the bargain. He had bread handed out every Lady Day–March 25. And that went on until 1796, when local magistrates decided that vagabonds and vagrants were taking advantage of the situation. How? By not being local. This was a time when the deeply settled in place distrusted vagrants–people desperate enough to take to the road. Think of vagrants as the era’s equivalent of refugees: the folks no country wants to take in. No one knew them, no one trusted them, and if they’d had any decency they’d have stayed where they were born, even if it meant dying there.

So rather than waste good bread on them, the dole was ended. Because you know what its like when you give good food to the desperate: They’ll only go and eat it. And desperation’s such a disturbing sight.

Or that–without my editorial comments, of course–is the Historic UK version. The link’s above. In the Alresford Memories’ telling of the tale (that link’s also above), the dole had become rowdy, attracting the dissolute, the dishonest, the (horrors!) Gypsies.

How much distance lies between those two versions? It’s hard to say. A third version  involves vagabonds and paupers from neighboring villages instead of Tichborne. What stays the same in all versions is the distinction between the local poor who the great and good knew and felt (once every a year) good about feeding and the undeserving poor who they didn’t know and don’t like and were afraid they’d be overwhelmed by.

In fairness, the number of poor really could be overwhelming. From 1791 house accounts, it looks like 1,700 loaves of bread were handed out, and the tradition was that if it ran out people got two pence instead. One year, that came to £8–equal to £1,214 in 2020 by one estimate. By another, it was the price of one cow (probably with some left over), or 53 days’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Not, you’d think, an overwhelming amount for an aristocratic family, but the dole’s end followed two bad harvests. The family may have been–or felt, which isn’t necessarily the same thing–hard up. Travelers did record that the house looked like it wasn’t being kept up, and in 1803 part of it collapsed. 

It was rebuilt on a smaller scale. The definition of hard up is relative.

The bad harvests also meant more people and needing bread, so that just when the need was greatest, help stopped being available.

As usual, you can chase up alternative explanations of why the dole ended. It wasn’t that the family was hard it, it was because magistrates demanded that it end. (There’s no record of it, however.) It was because local landowners demanded etc. (There’s no record of that either, but there’s no reason why there would be.)  

Whatever the reason, the dole stopped and a generation of seven sons was followed by a generation of seven daughters, which is convenient enough to make this old cynic wonder if the story wasn’t edited after the fact. 

In the absence of a son (don’t be silly: of course a daughter couldn’t take on such a heavy responsibility), the estate went to a nephew, but he was from a branch of the family that had changed its last name to Doughty. They re-started dole in 1835, but it was restricted to residents of three parishes–Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End.

At some point they started handing out flour (a gallon to each person, and recipients had to bring something to carry it in) instead of bread. 

The house is now owned by a family name Loudon–yes, they’re related; the aristocracy keeps its possessions close–and they’re continuing the tradition, but since it is now, they say “a fairly affluent part of the country, we would do something more in keeping with the nature of Lady Mabella’s cause. We decided to ask for a voluntary donation from the villagers for charity, usually collecting about £100.”

I can’t find a date for that quote, but it’s from a 2016 post, so I’m guessing it’s recent. And Lord Google flags Tichborne’s county, Hampshire, as above average in education and income. That’s as close as I could come to data on Tichborne itself, but even so I doubt raising £100 is enough to keep Lady Mabella happy. Especially since the family buys the flour in bulk and says it’s not that expensive, and since the event now involves tourists, who could be persuaded out of a coin or three by a determined fundraiser.

The minute I figure out how, I’m letting Mabella know. 

British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

Lammas is a quiet British church festival that was traditionally celebrated on the first of August, although these days it suffers from moments of inattention and wanders off to whatever Sunday’s closest to the original date. We’re too late for either the right date or the closest Sunday, but we’re not fussy here at Notes and we’re not celebrating anyway, just marveling at the intricacies (that’s a nice word for oddities) of British tradition.

Those of us who aren’t British, if we’ve heard of Lammas at all, never bothered to learn what it is. We saw it mentioned in some novel or other and our eyes hopped over the word, sending our brains a signal that we don’t need to know about this.

Our mine did anyway. I don’t really know about you lot. I only pretend to when I’m writing. For what it’s worth, though, Word Press’s spell check thinks I made the word up. Or that I’m spelling it lamas wrong. 

No one has mentioned Lammas to me in the thirteen years that  I’ve lived in Britain. That’s how quiet a festival it is.

Irrelevant photo: Poppies. They used to grow wild in fields of grain. Here they’ve had considerable encouragement.

But however quiet it may be, it happens in August and this is August. so let’s find out about Lammas. Because that’s what we do here at notes: learn about things we never thought we wanted to know. 

Lammas is an inheritance from the Anglo-Saxons. The word comes from the Early English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you like; same thing, different name) for loaf mass–a church celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested. Or as the British insist on calling the stuff, corn. What I and my fellow Amurricans call corn, they call maize. I’m still need a crib sheet to keep it all straight.

But what Lammas isn’t is at least as important as what it is: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not the harvest festival: That comes at the end of September. It’s also not a lamb mass, although it sounds enough like one that in the nineteenth century some churches misunderstood their own traditions and, in an effort to go back to their roots, introduced one. In York, farmers who rented their land from the cathedral had to bring a lamb in to be blessed. 

That’s how it was back then. If the landlord said you had to haul a sweet little lamby, all baa-ing and terrified, out of its fields, away from its mama and its flock, and into the cathedral, you brought the poor beast. Your tenancy depended on it.

Yeah, those were the good old days. If the landlord had told you to dress it in a pink tutu, you’d have stayed up all night, trying to get a signal on your phone so you could find a tutu pattern that just might remotely fit a lamb. 

Whoever cleaned the floors after the blessing would have done some blessing of their own–a literal shitload of it. You can be sure that the idea for a lamb mass didn’t come from them.

Then in 1945, a minister started a campaign to revive the loaf mass, along with several other Anglo-Saxon festivals that had dropped out of use. He became the patron saint of all church cleaners.

But Lammas wasn’t just a religious date. British religious and secular life twined around each other for such long time that it’s sometimes hard to separate them. So Lammas was also a day for doing all sorts of secular stuff: paying rent, settling debts, changing jobs and houses. The rents make an intuitive kind of sense: If you harvest your grain and owe part of it to the landlord, everybody involved will want to set a date that falls after the harvest. And if you owe the landlord money, you’re most likely to have some after you’ve sold your grain. Everything else that fell on Lammas, I expect, trotted meekly behind that. 

What do people do on Lammas if they don’t have debts to settle and don’t have to bring a little lamby into the cathedral? Observation says most of them don’t do anything they wouldn’t do on some other day. The tradition’s obscure enough that the link I gave you back at the start of the post is to a newspaper article explaining it to the clueless people whose ancestors (genetic or cultural) once took the date seriously. When a tradition’s in working order, news outlets don’t feel the need to do that.

What people used to do was take a loaf of bread into church to be blessed. It’s nowhere near as messy–or as complicated–as taking a lamb in.

In some parts of the country, people then broke the loaf into four pieces and left one piece in each corner of the barn to protect the harvest. 

From here on, we may be slithering from traditional traditions to modern (or, if you like, made up) traditions: If you feel the need to mark the occasion next year, you can make a bundle of twigs (what could be more fun?) called a besom, or make a doll out of, um, something grainish. If you were in the Americas, you’d use corn husks, but for this you’ll want to use what the British call corn, which has narrower leaves and strikes me as harder to work with, so I can’t give you any guidance. 

You can also bake bread dough into a kind of plaque that that looks like a bundle of grain, an owl, or the–hang on a minute: the corn god? When did Christianity acquire a corn god?

I don’t make this stuff up. The article I linked to mentions one, and if the corn god’s wandered in, it means one of two things: 1, Lammas derives from a much older, pre-Christian celebration, or 2, the modern-day pagans have been busy reclaiming a heritage that, since it was pretty thoroughly erased, they make up as they go along, connecting Lammas with Lugh, a Celtic god whose festival was celebrated around the same time of year. 

Or possibly both 1 and 2. I can’t tell. They may be onto some real connection and they may be mixing up a loaf-mass and a lamb-mass.

The article has a couple of photos of gorgeous bread, along with a couple of recipes in case you have a gift for fancy baking.

Eastborne, Sussex, has a Lammas festival, and you didn’t miss it because it took a break this year. It’ll be back in 2020, with music, drumming, morris dancers (everything comes back to morris dancing sooner or later), and booths selling stuff. Selling stuff is as an essential part of any festival as morris dancing. 

What other traditions does Britain have in August? 

Why the Staithes Nightgown Parade. This year, it’s on August 16, which means you missed it, but  it’s been going on for as long as anyone in the village can remember so you should be able to catch it next year. 

In spite of the name, participants can also wear pajamas, and even bathrobes, but the men will probably be wearing nightgowns. It’s a British thing, straight non-(otherwise)transvestite men wearing what they think are women’s clothes, although I’m prepared to testify that I’m a woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the things they wear. Never mind. They’re happy thinking that they’re dressed like us and none of them have been tempted to raid my closet, so I’m happy too. 

If anyone can explain the whole British cross-dressing thing to me, please do. A reader here once linked it to the time when women weren’t allowed on stage and young men and boys played the women’s roles. It’s a good start at an explanation, but it doesn’t stretch as far as telling us why the tradition escaped the stage, went free range, and is still wandering loose in someone else’s nightgown.

Staithes is a fishing village and the event raises money for the lifeboats, and no one can object to raising money for the lifeboats.

The Moffat Sheep Races were canceled in 2017 after 80,000 people signed a petition saying it was cruel to the animals. 

Where were all those people when those lambs were being hauled into church? They hadn’t been born yet, that’s where they were, so they get a pass on this one.

The sheep raced with knitted jockeys fastened on their backs, and in the video I watched they were being chased by a boy with a checked shirt on his. I can’t be sure, but the boy seemed to be having more fun than the sheep.

Guy Fawkes Night: Who, what, when, where, and why

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.

The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)

All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.

James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. And what’s worse, I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. It’s a wildflower, and I should know it.

Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.

The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.

Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.

So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.

Three cheers for freedom of religion.

Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.

Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.

In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.

Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.

In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).

After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.

What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.

They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.

Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.

And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?

Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.

But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.

In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.

In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.

According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.

The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.

Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.

In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.

Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.

She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.

When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.

I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.