Monthly Archives: May 2017

Ophelia’s Maiden Strewments in an English church

In Hamlet the priest says of the burial of Ophelia –

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Samuel Johnson in his Notes to Shakespeare (1765) wrote: “I have been informed by an anonymous correspondent, that crants is the German word for garlands, and I suppose it was retained by us from the Saxons. To carry garlands before the bier of a maiden, and to hang them over her grave, is still the practice in rural parishes.”

I had no idea that such things might survive, but I recently visited the church of St Stephen in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire and found some there, hanging ghostly in a glass enclosure. (Photographs above and below. Unfortunately the glass enclosure made it impossible to avoid some reflections.)

A maiden garland was made by the friends of a virgin and carried at her funeral procession, or placed on the bier. It was then hung in the church over her usual seat until it finally disintegrated. The frame was made of willow and it was covered in yards of ribbon – one of the Fylingdales examples contains over 100 feet (30.5 metres). Strips of dress fabric were also used – perhaps from the deceased’s best gowns. In 1747 the Gentleman’s Magazine described how The lower rim, or circlet, was a broad hoop of wood, whereunto were fix’d, at the sides thereof, part of two other hoops, crossing each other at the top at right angles, which formed the upper part, being about one third longer than the width; these hoops were wholly covered with artificial flowers of paper, dy’d horn, or silk, and more or less beauteous, according to the skill or ingenuity of the performer. In the vacancy of the inside, from the top, hung white paper, cut in the form of gloves, whereon was wrote the deceased’s name, age, etc. together with long slips of various-colour’d paper, or ribbons. These were many times intermix’d with gilded or painted empty shells of blown eggs, as farther ornaments; or, it may be, as emblems of the bubbles or bitterness of this life; whilst other garlands had only a solitary hour-glass hanging therein, as a more significant symbol of mortality.’

 The oldest surviving garland is at St Mary’s church in Beverley, Yorkshire and dates to 1680. The Fylingdales examples are all early-mid 19th century – the last one is for Jane Levitt who died  aged 20 in 1859.

In June 1790 John Byng, Viscount Torrington, a great traveller on horseback, called at the church in Tideswell, Derbyshire. After dinner, I enter’d the church, which, without, is beautiful; (quite a model); and within, of excellent architecture… They here continue to hang up maiden garlands, which, however laudable, as of tendency to virtue, will soon be laugh’d out of practice.’ Certainly many clerics disapproved of the garland as unfitting  – possibly suspecting pagan survivals or ‘Popish’ practices – and forbade or discouraged them. In some cases they were removed for practical reasons. In 1749 the parish register of Hope in the Peak District records that the church wardens were paid to clear away all the garlands from the beams of the church because they were blocking the daylight from the clerestory windows.

However, they continued to be made and the custom still survives in one parish – St Mary the Virgin, Abbots Ann, Hampshire. Not only does that church have the largest surviving collection but, in theory, they can still be awarded to people of either sex who die unmarried – provided the recipient was born, baptised and confirmed in the parish, continued to live there and was of unblemished reputation. Their earliest example dates from 1740 and the most recent 1973.

Old St Stephen’s church in Fylingdales is still consecrated but was replaced in 1870 by a new church. It is preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust and is open to the public.

This modern example of a maiden garland made for demonstration purposes at Fylingdales shows how the colours might have looked on an original.

 

 

 

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Blackballed?

No, not a painful disease of gentlemanly parts, but the result of an election, usually to a private club, when the candidate is rejected.

I was lucky enough to visit the Jockey Club’s Rooms in Newmarket the other day and not only do they have a very large collection of the boxes that secret voting on membership  requires, but also the book where successful elections by this method were recorded.

The members who are voting take a black or white ball, holding it concealed in their hand, and then drop it into a bag or box. Rather easier to manage, without the need to conceal the ball in your hand, is with a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ box like this one from the Jockey Club.

You put your hand into the hole and then drop the ball to either left or right into the appropriate drawer – the ‘sleeve’ is long enough to conceal any movement of your arm which might give away which option you are taking. Once all the members have dropped in their ballots it was simply a case of pulling out the drawers and seeing the result.

In most clubs the presence of one ‘no’ ball or one black ball was enough to cause the candidate to be rejected – or blackballed. Here is the Jockey Club register of members ‘Elected by Ballot’ for the early years of the 19th century – May 1800 to April 1806. In some cases the date is accompanied by which race meeting the members were gathered for “First Spring Meeting 1806” and so forth. (Sorry about the reflections but the case was under powerful spotlights!)

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The Agonies of Gout

Another cartoon I acquired with some sheets of a 19thc scrapbook was this one of an unrepentant port drinker ignoring advice from the vicar about his gout.

“My dear Friend don’t drink that filthy stuff, its yr greatest enemy,” says the cleric.

“But you know we are commanded to love our enemies, so here goes!” retorts his parishioner, watched by the bust of the Duke of Wellington on the mantelpiece.

Gout was a painful problem in the 18th and 19th century and is still just as painful today, although less common. We now know that it is caused by a build-up of uric acid crystals in the joints leading to inflammation and swelling and severe pain. It used to be thought a result of drinking too much port, but the NHS website is less clear about causes, or why, with people with similar diets, some are affected and some are not. Certainly heavy consumption of red meats and offal and alcohol are implicated, and that fits the diet of most well-off Georgian males!

The print shows the sufferer’s heavily bandaged foot propped up on a simple gout stool which is constructed from two pieces of wood, often padded. It protects the foot and the angle adjusts automatically as the sufferer shifts in his chair.

I turned to The House Book; or, Family Chronicle of Useful Knowledge, and Cottage Physician (1826), of which I have a disintegrating and obviously heavily-used copy, to see what remedies might be used at the time.

To be honest, it is no help at all on the causes and even less on cures. It quotes Theophrastus who believed that music cured the disease, the professor of mathematics at Bologna who turned to geometry on the advice of Galileo as a diversion from the pain, and cheers up its readers who may be suffering by observing that, “The torture of the gout must be dreadful, as it has often driven its victims to terminate their miseries by a violent death.” Dogs do not come out of this well – having a dog licking the afflicted part “is said to assuage the pain” or you can take your dog to bed with you in the hope the symptoms will transfer to the unfortunate animal. The author does observe that gout afflicts the rich far more than the poor, which “is not difficult to explain.” He then fails to explain it, although we can deduce that it is because of a diet richer in meat and strong alcohol.

The book does give the ingredients of a number of patent medicines, including Wilson’s Gout Tincture which “is merely an infusion of colchicum, or meadow saffron, as satisfactorily proved by Dr. Williams of Ipswich.” Colchicum is still used in homeopathic remedies for gout.

 

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May Day

May DayHappy May Day! This is such a lovely image that I am reposting a 2015 blog. Above is one of Cruickshank’s great monthly images of London streets showing a May Day procession, led by a clown and followed by a couple – he is carrying a sword, she appears to have a large wooden spoon. Behind them comes an extraordinary character, disguised as a pile of greenery shaped into a crown at the top, and followed by a motley crowd led by a drummer and fife player. Suitably they are passing the shop of Budd, Florist.

To try and make some sense of the picture I turned to Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities…Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions.” (1813) He records that, “It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a Maying early on the first of May…both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight on the morning of that day, and walk to some neighbouring wood, accompanied with musick (sic) and the blowing of horns, where they broke down branches from trees and adorned them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. This done, they returned home with the booty, about the time of sunrise, and made their doors and windows triumph in the flowery spoil.”

He records, “In the Morning Post, Monday, May 2nd, 1791, it was mentioned, ‘that yesterday, being the first of May, according to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.’ I remember too, that in walking that same morning between Hounslow and Brentford, I was met by two distinct parties of girls with garlands of flowers, who begged money of me, saying, ‘Pray, Sir, remember the Garland.'”

The strange foliage figure in the print is presumably a walking May Day garland of branches and greenery and perhaps the procession is on its way to dance around a Maypole. He quotes a Mr Strutt: “The Mayings are in some sort yet kept up by the milk-maids at London, who go about the streets with their garlands and musick, dancing; but this tracing is a very imperfect shadow of the original sports; for May-poles were set up in the streets, with various martial shows, morris-dancing and other devices, with which, and revelling, and good cheer, the day was passed away.”

I wonder whether the wooden spoon the young lady is holding is some kind of dairy implement – a cream skimmer, perhaps – symbolic of the milk maids? The small boy just behind her may be a chimney sweep’s boy, holding his brush and dust pan. Brand records that, “The young chimney-sweepers, some of whom are fantastically dressed in girls’ clothes, with a great profusion of brick dust by way of paint, gilt paper etc, making a noise with their shovels and brushes, are now the most striking objects in the celebration of May Day in the streets of London.” This lad’s hat certainly seems to be decorated.

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