Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders/Chapter 1
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LIFE AND DEATH OF MAN.
Day of birth—Hour of birth—Border customs at the Birth of a child—Unchristened ground—Unbaptized children at the mercy of fairies—Safeguards for the child—Folk-lore connected with baptism—Cutting of nails—The toom cradle—The child’s first visit—The Ash-tree—Weeds and onfas’—Beads of peony root—The caul and veil—Folk-lore of childhood:—Rain charms—Rainbow charms—Crow, snail, and nettle charms—Folk-lore of boyhood:—School-rites and customs—The riding of the stang—Confirmation—Days for marriage—Seasons for marriage—Marriage portents—Marriage customs:—On the borders—In Yorkshire—Throwing the shoe—Kissing the bride—The petting stone—Hot pots—Rubbing with pease-straw—Race for a ribbon—Portents of death—Whistling woman and crowing hen—Border presage—The wraith or waff—St. Mark’s eve—Cauffriddling—Saining a corpse—Death with the tide—Discovery of the drowned—Use of pigeons’ or game-fowl feathers—Carrying the dead with the sun—The passing bell
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
It is remarkable that these verses, which are still current in Stockton and its neighbourhood, should be found also in the west of England. Mrs. Bray records them in her Traditions of Devonshire (vol. ii. p. 287), substituting “Christmas Day” for the “Sabbath Day,” and “fair and wise” for “blithe and bonny,” and says that they are in common use at Tavistock.
They do not correspond with the birth auguries in the Universal Fortune-teller, a book which has had, and indeed still has, a wide circulation among the lower orders of our countrymen.
Sunday—Great riches, long life, and happiness.
Monday—Unsuccessful, irresolute, easily imposed on, yet good-natured and obliging.
Wednesday—Studious, will excel in literature.
Thursday—Will attain riches and honour.
Friday—Of a strong constitution.
Saturday—An unlucky day but the child may come to good.
“Sunday children” are in Yorkshire deemed secure from the malice of evil spirits. In Germany, too, they are held to be privileged beings, but I am not aware that their immunities are so clearly defined as they are in Sussex, where they are warranted against hanging and drowning.
“Sunday children” in Denmark have prerogatives by no means to be coveted. Witness the following narration from Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 203: “In Fyen there was a woman who was born on a Sunday, and, like other Sunday’s children, had the faculty of seeing much that was hidden from others. But, because of this property, she could not pass by the church at night without seeing a hearse or a spectre—the gift became a perfect burden to her. She therefore sought the advice of a man skilled in such matters, who directed her, whenever she saw a spectre, to say, ‘Go to Heaven;’ but when she met a hearse, ‘Hang on.’ Happening some time after to meet a hearse, she, through lapse of memory, cried out, ‘Go to Heaven,’ and straightway the hearse rose in the air, and vanished. Afterwards, meeting a spectre, she said to it, ‘Hang on,’ when the spectre clung round her neck, hung on her back, and drove her down into the earth before it. For three days her shrieks were heard before the spectre would put an end to her wretched life.”
The hour of birth is also important, for children born during the hour after midnight have the power through life of seeing the spirits of the departed. Mrs. L——, a Yorkshire lady, informs me that she was very near being thus distinguished, but the clock had not struck twelve when she was born. When a child she mentioned this circumstance to an old servant, adding that mamma was sure her birthday was the 23rd, not the 24th, for she had inquired at the time. “Ay, ay,” said the old woman, turning to the child’s nurse, “mistress would be very anxious about that, for bairns born after midnight see more things than other folk.”
The Wilkie MS. tells us that throughout the Border-land the birth of an infant is the signal for plenty of eating and drinking. Tea, duly qualified with brandy or whisky, and a profusion of shortbread and buns, are provided for all visitors, and it is very unlucky to allow anyone to leave the house without his share of these good things. But most important of all is the “shooten” or groaning cheese, from which the happy father must cut a “whang-o’luck” for the lassies of the company, taking care not to cut his own finger while so doing, since in that case the child would die before reaching manhood. The whang must be taken from the edge of the cheese, and divided into portions, one for each maiden. Should there be any to spare they may be distributed among the spinster friends of the family, but if the number should fall short the mistake cannot be rectified; there is no virtue in a second slice. The girls put these bits of cheese under their pillows, and ascribe to them the virtues of bridecake similarly treated.
Now it is plain that cake and a new cheese were formerly provided against the birth of a child both in England and Scotland, and the custom still extends as far south as the Humber. In the north of England, as soon as the happy event is over, the doctor cuts the cake and cheese, and all present partake of both, on pain of the poor baby growing up without personal charms. The cake which is in use on these occasions in Yorkshire is called pepper-cake, and somewhat resembles thick gingerbread. It is eaten with cheese and rich caudle, and all visitors to the house up to the baptism are invited to partake of it. In Sweden the cake and cheese are got ready in good time; they are placed beside the bride in the bridal bed, in preparation for her first confinement. In Oxfordshire the cake used to be cut first in the middle and gradually shaped to a ring, through which the child was passed on its christening-day. The Durham nurse reserves some cake and cheese, and when the infant is taken out to its christening she bestows them on the first person she meets of opposite sex to that of the child. I remember the perplexed face of a young undergraduate when at the baptism of one of my daughters the dole of cake and cheese was bestowed on him, and the late Canon Humble wrote thus on the subject: “I was once fortunate enough when a boy to receive the cake and cheese from a christening party going to St. Giles’s church. I did not at once perceive what was meant when a great ‘hunch’ of cake and some cheese were thrust in my hand, so I drew back. The nurse, however, insisted on my taking them, and I did so, bestowing them afterwards on the first poor boy I met.” A similar custom has I know but just died out in the Devonshire villages round Dartmoor, and in Choice Notes, Folk-Lore, we read of such a gift of bread and cheese in Somersetshire, and of a cake in Cornwall (page 147).
It is said in Yorkshire that a new-born infant should be laid first in the arms of a maiden before any one else touches it. Is this an outgrowth of the medieval belief that the Blessed Virgin was present at the birth of St. John the Baptist, and received him first in her arms?
It is thought unlucky on the Borders to tread on the graves of unbaptlzed children, or “unchristened ground” as they term it. The Wilkie MS. informs us of the special risk that is run. He who steps on the grave of a stillborn or unbaptized child, or of one who has been overlaid by its nurse, subjects himself to the fatal disease of the grave-merels, or grave-scab. This complaint comes on with trembling of the limbs and hard breathing, and at last the skin burns as if touched with hot iron. The following old verses elucidate this superstition:—
Woe to the babie that ne’er saw the sun,
His grave must be dug at the foot o’ the wall,
And it ne’er will be cured by doctor on earth,
Powerless, however, as the faculty may be, there is a remedy for the grave-merels, though not of easy attainment. It lies in the wearing a sark, thus prepared. The lint must be grown in a field which shall be manured from a farmyard heap that has not been disturbed for forty years. It must be spun by old Habbitrot, that queen of spinsters, of whom more hereafter; it must be bleached by an honest bleacher, in an honest miller’s milldam, and sewed by an honest tailor. On donning this mysterious vestment, the sufferer will at once regain his health and strength.
It is curious to observe what a different feeling, with regard to stillborn children, may be met with in the South. We read in Choice Notes (p. 172) that one of the Commissioners of Devonport, after complaining of the charge made upon the parish for the interment of such children, said: “When I was a young man it was thought lucky to have a stillborn child put into any open grave, as it was considered a sure passport to heaven for the next person buried there.” The late Canon Humble’s experience is as follows: “When I was curate at Newburn, in Northumberland, the custom was to bring the coffin of an unbaptized babe with that of a full-grown person. The child’s coffin was always laid on the other coffin towards the feet, and so rested while the service was said. There was generally a receptacle for it in the grave towards the feet, made by widening the grave at that point.” The same custom prevailed some years ago in the parish of Edmonton, near London. Possibly it has been very general.
In the southern counties of Scotland children are considered before baptism at the mercy of the fairies, who may carry them off at pleasure or inflict injury upon them. Hence, of course, it is unlucky to take unbaptized children on a journey—a belief which prevails throughout Northumberland, and indeed in many other parts of the country. Brand mentions this danger, and says the Danish women guard their children during this period against evil spirits by placing in the cradle, or over the door, garlic, salt, bread, and steel in the form of some sharp instrument. “Something like this,” he adds, “obtained in England;” and accordingly I am told that in the West Hiding of Yorkshire “a child was kept safe while sleeping by hanging a carving knife from the head of the cradle with the point suspended near the infant’s face.” In Germany, the proper things to lay in the cradle are “orant” (which is translated into either horehound or snap-dragon), blue marjoram, black cumin, a right shirt-sleeve, and a left stocking. The “Nickert” cannot then harm the child. The modern Greeks dread witchcraft at this period of their children’s lives, and are careful not to leave them alone during their first eight days, within which period the Greek Church refuses to baptize them.
In Scotland the little one’s safeguard is held to lie in the juxtaposition of some article of dress belonging to its father. This was experienced by the wife of a shepherd near Selkirk. Soon after the birth of her first child, a fine boy, she was lying in bed with her baby by her side, when suddenly she became aware of a confused noise of talking and merry laughter in the “spence,” or room. This, in fact, proceeded from the fairies, who were forming a child of wax as a substitute for the baby, which they were planning to steal away. The poor mother suspected as much, so in great alarm she seized her husband’s waistcoat, which chanced to be lying at the foot of the bed, and flung it over herself and the child. The fairies set up a loud scream, calling out “Auld Luckie has cheated us o’ our bairnie!” Soon afterwards the woman heard something fall down the lum (or chimney), and looking out she saw a waxen image of her baby, stuck full of pins, lying on the hearth. When her husband came home he made up a large fire and threw the fairy lump upon it; but, instead of burning, the thing flew up the chimney, and the house instantly resounded with shouts of joy and peals of laughter. Family affection must have been very strong when any trifle closely connected with the father was deemed a safeguard for the child, a safeguard needed till its baptism shielded it from every evil or malicious sprite.
Our northern Folk-Lore is unanimous in bearing witness to the power of baptism. A clerical friend of mine, who once held a cure in Northumberland, tells me that it is there considered to affect a child physically as well as spiritually a notion which I think prevails more or less through the whole country. I have heard old people in many places say of sickly infants, “Ah, there will be a change when he has been taken to church! Children never thrive till they have been christened.” Another informs me that about five years ago an instance came under his notice of the healing power supposed to be wrought by baptism as regards the body. The infant child of a chimney-sweeper at Thorne, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was in a very weak state of health, and appeared to be pining away. A neighbour looked in, and inquired if the child had been baptized. On an answer being given in the negative she gravely said, “I would try having it christened.” The counsel was taken, and I believe with success. It is the custom in Northumberland to make the chrisom-child sleep the first night in the cap he wore at baptism. “Loud murmurs,” says my friend, “arose against me early in my ministerial life for applying so much water that the cap had to be taken off and dried, whereas it should be left on till the next morning. I threw the blame on the modern caps, with their expanse of frilling, on which the good woman said that I was quite right; she had an old christening cap, the heirloom of a friend, which she could show me, of a very different make. Accordingly I examined the cap, which was evidently very old, and made with reference to affusion in baptism. It excluded forehead, ears, and chin, and apparently never had strings. I said that if a mother would bring her baby in such a cap I would undertake not to wet it.”
In the North as in the South of England, nurses think it lucky for the child to cry at its baptism; they say that otherwise the baby shows that it is too good to live. Some, however, declare that this cry betokens the pangs of the new birth; some that it is the voice of the evil spirit as he is driven out by the baptismal water. As to the mother’s churching, it is very “uncannie” for her to enter any other house before she goes to church; to do so would be to carry ill-luck with her. It is believed also that if she appears out-of-doors under these circumstances, and receives any insult or blows from her neighbours, she has no remedy at law. I am informed that old custom enjoins Irish women to stay at home till after their churching as rigidly as their English sisters. They have, however, their own way of evading it. They will pull a little thatch from their roof, or take a splinter of slate or tile off it, fasten this at the top of the bonnet, and go where they please, stoutly averring afterwards to the priest, or anyone else, that they had not gone from under their own roof.
A pleasant little custom is mentioned in the Wilkie MS.: the first child baptized by a minister after his appointment to a parish is to receive his Christian name. Through the North of England, if a boy and girl are brought together to the font, care must be taken that the former be christened first; else he is condemned to bear through life a smooth and beardless face, and, still worse, the young lady will surely be endowed with the ornament he lacks. This belief holds its ground in Durham, and extends as far north as the Orkney Islands.
One curious nursery practice exists both in the North and in the extreme West of England, that of leaving an infant’s right hand unwashed; and the reason alleged is the same that he may gather riches. The baby’s nails must not be cut till he is a year old, for fear that he should grow up a thief, or, as they quaintly express it in Cleveland, “light-fingered.” The mother must bite them off, if need be; and in the West of Northumberland it is believed that if the first parings are buried under an ash tree the child will turn out a “top singer.” The mention of the ash is curious, for has it not been from very ancient times a sacred tree, supplying in its sap the first nourishment, to the Grecian hero, as now to the Celtic Highlander? Nay, according to Hesiod, Zeus made a third or brazen race of hard ash-wood—pugnacious and terrible; as Yggdrasil, the cloud-tree of the Norseman, out of which he believed the first man was made, was an ash. Spenser speaks of this tree as being “for nothing ill,” yet it has always been regarded as a special attractor of lightning, and mothers teach their children thus:—
Beware of an oak,
The Norman peasant shows his confidence in the virtue of the thorn by constantly wearing a sprig of it in his cap, alleging as his reason that the Saviour’s crown was woven of it. The maple, though “seldom inward sound itself,” is thought in some parts of England to confer longevity on children if they are passed through its branches. In West Grinstead Park, Sussex, was an old maple much used for this purpose, and when a few years ago a rumour spread through the parish that it was about to be cut down, many petitions were made that it might be spared.
But to return. When the year of infancy is past, and baby’s nails may safely be given up to the scissors, care must be taken not to cut them on a Sunday or Friday. Friday, of course, is an unlucky day, and as for Sunday the old rhyme says:—
Better a child had ne’er been born
Another variation of the verse runs thus—
Friday hair, Sunday horn,
And yet another—
Sunday shaven, Sunday shorn,
Or, at greater length—
Cut them on Monday, cut them for health,
In Sussex they simply say “Cut your nails on Sunday morning, and you’ll come to grief before Saturday night.”
Again, the Cleveland nurses aver that it is very important for an infant to go up in the world before it goes down. Thus, if a child should be born in the top story of a house, for want of a flight of stairs, one of the gossips will take it in her arms, and mount a table, chair, or chest of drawers before she carries it down stairs. I have heard of a similar belief in the Channel Islands at the present day, and imagine it to have been formerly prevalent in every part of England.
The Wilkie MS. contains a caution against rocking a cradle when it is “toom,” or empty, and cites on the subject the following fragment:
The Toom Cradle.
Oh! rock not the cradle when the babie’s not in,
Such rocking maun bring on the babie disease,
Its heart flutters fast, it breathes hard, then is gone,
The belief thus expressed holds its ground in the southern counties of Scotland, particularly in Selkirkshire. It crops out too in Holland, where rocking an empty cradle is affirmed to be injurious to the infant, and a prognostic of his death; and in Sweden, where they say it makes the child noisy and given to crying. Rocking the toom cradle is often deprecated in the counties of Durham and Yorkshire on another ground; it is said there to be ominous of another claimant for that place of rest.
In Sussex they express this notion in the couplet—
If you rock the cradle empty,
And I am told of a village schoolmistress of that county who used to rate her scholars soundly if they ever touched her cradle. “There, leave the cradle alone,” she would exclaim, “I’ve children enough already.”
The proverb, “Soon teeth, soon toes,” shows another portent of such an event. If baby’s teeth come early there will soon be fresh toes, i. e. another baby. This belief extends to Sweden. “Leave off its caps on Sunday and it will not take cold,” is a saying which will soon die out now babies have left off wearing caps at all.
Perhaps I may mention here a kindly northern custom, that in all sales, either under distraint for rent or common debt, the cradle should be left unsold, and remain the property of its original owner. The late Canon Humble informed me that formerly a similar immunity attached to the corner cupboard, the place where the bread for the family was kept; at least it was the last thing sold under distraint. If a Northumbrian wishes to give you the idea of a man utterly and hopelessly ruined, he will say, “They have sold him up, corner cupboard and all.” Are you curious to know the sex of the coming stranger? You must notice whether the old baby says papa or mamma first; in the former case it will be a boy, in the latter a girl. If a child tooths first in its upper jaw, it is considered ominous of death in infancy.
Much importance attaches to the baby’s first visit to another house, on which occasion it is expected that he should receive three things an egg, salt, and white bread or cake; the egg a sacred emblem from the remotest antiquity, and the cake and salt things used alike in Jewish and in pagan sacrifices. Somewhat grotesquely they add in the East Riding of Yorkshire a fourth thing—a few matches to light the child on the way to heaven. These votive offerings must be pinned in the baby’s clothes, and so brought home. I have heard an old woman in Durham speak of this as the child receiving alms. “He could not claim them before he was baptized,” she said, “but now he is a Christian he has a right to go and ask alms of his fellow-Christians.” Near Leeds this ceremony is called “puddening.”
Scotch nurses note with which hand a child first takes up a spoon to sup. If it be the left you may be sure that he will be an unlucky fellow all his life. So says the author of the Wilkie MS. He adds, that the women who live on the banks of the Ale and Teviot have a singular custom, of wearing round their necks blue woollen threads or small cords till they wean their children. They do this for the purpose of averting ephemeral fevers, or, as they call them, “weeds and onfas.” These threads are handed down from mother to daughter, and esteemed in proportion to their antiquity. “I possess,” he says, “one of these myself, which was given me by a woman in the farm of Caverse, near Melrose, and I remarked that all the nursing mothers in that district wore a similar thread.” Possibly these threads had originally received some blessing or charm. In Dundee people are accustomed to wear round the loins for the cure of lumbago a hank of yarn which has been charmed by a wise woman; and girls may be seen with single threads of the same round the head and temples as an infallible specific for tic-douloureux. I have not been able to learn the form of incantation. It is practised by Highlanders. I am told that in Sussex a necklace of beads turned from the root of the peony is worn by children to prevent convulsions and assist the cutting of teeth. My informant adds: “This piece of superstition is probably of very ancient date, for the peony is known to have been held in such high repute of old as to be accounted of divine origin, an emanation from the moon, endowed with the property of shining in the night, of chasing away evil spirits, and protecting the houses near which it grows. I know not whether there is association between this plant and the physician Peon, who healed the wounded gods.”
In Durham when the first teeth come out, or indeed on the extraction of teeth subsequently, the cavity must be filled with salt, and the tooth burned while these words are repeated—
Fire, fire, burn bone,
My Sussex correspondent tells me of a young woman of that county who remonstrated against throwing away children’s cast-teeth, declaring that, should they be found and gnawed by any animal, the child’s new tooth would be like one of that animal. In proof of her assertion, she used to cite a certain old Master Simmons, who had a very large pig’s tooth in his upper jaw, the sad consequence of his mother having by accident thrown one of his cast-teeth into the hog trough.
I do not know whether superstition ever interferes with the grown-up maiden’s peeps in the looking-glass. Perhaps it would be as well if she did, but in Durham she strictly forbids boy or girl under a year old to look in one. Swedish maidens dare not look in the glass after dark, or by candlelight, lest they forfeit the goodwill of the other sex. Several pieces of Swedish nursery folk-lore are recorded in this place, e.g., a book must be placed under the head of a new-born child, that he may be quick at reading; so long as an infant is unnamed the fire must not be extinguished; nor must anyone pass between the fire and a
sucking babe; nor, again, must anyone entering the house take a child in his hands, without previously having touched fire. Also a child must not be allowed to creep through a window, nor may anyone step over a child, or walk round a child that is sitting on the floor, or is in a carriage; for then it is believed that the little one will never grow bigger than it is.
The Wilkie MS. tells us that children born with a hallihoo (holy or fortunate hood) or caul around their heads are deemed lucky, but the caul must be preserved carefully; for should it be lost or thrown away the child will pine away, or even die. This superstition however is world-wide, and of such antiquity as to be reproved by St. Chrysostom, in several of his homilies. It still prevails in France, where its universality is attested by a proverbial expression: “Etre né coiffé” means to be prosperous and fortunate in everything. In our own country, seamen used to purchase cauls to save them from drowning; advocates, that they might thereby be endued with eloquence. Twenty guineas were asked for one in 1779, twelve pounds in 1813, six guineas in 1848. In this last case the caul was of some antiquity, and fifteen pounds had originally been given for it by a seaman who had carried it about with him for thirty years. That this head-gear formed any link of affection between the child born with it and the mother I was quite unaware till I saw the following letter addressed to Dr. Paterson, of the Bridge of Allan, and by him kindly placed in my hands:
Sir,—You will remember attending to my wife professionally at——, in the month of April, 1851, when my wife gave birth to a daughter, who was born with a very unusual accompaniment on her head resembling a crown, which you took away out of my house, I may here mention that I did not know of it for at least two months after, when I observed the mother’s indifference and coolness towards the child which has continued ever since. Now I am not superstitious or led by any unnatural ideas, but why did you, a member and elder in the Free Church of Scotland, break the tenth commandment by coveting and carrying away out of your neighbour’s house what did not belong to you? I know not what the consequences may be in your case (only I say may God forgive you), but I say it has been very serious in my case, and until you send back the said crown which you took off the girl’s head back to me you shall get no peace from me. You may suppose this foolishness, but then the question arises, why did you covet and take it? Trusting you will give this document your serious consideration, and that I may hear from you soon enclosing my demand, I remain,
Brand quotes from Willis’s Mount Tabor (A.D. 1639) an account concerning “an extraordinary veile that covered my body at my coming into the world,” which veil the author considered a sign of exceeding good fortune, “there being,” he proudly adds, “not one child among many hundreds that are so born.”
One other instance has however come to my own knowledge, and here, too, the happy mortal prided herself not a little on the distinction accorded to her. Within the last five years, in one of our northern cities, a servant was found by her mistress in a state of dejection, for which at first there seemed no assignable cause. After much questioning the lady elicited that her servant had been born with a veil over her head, which was now pre-saging evil to her. The veil, she said, had been carefully preserved by her mother, who had entrusted it to her on coming to woman’s estate. It had been stretched and dried, and so had remained for many years. The girl kept it locked in her chest of drawers, and regularly consulted it as her oracle and adviser. If danger threatened her, the veil shrivelled up; if sickness, the veil became damp. When good fortune was at hand, the veil laid itself smoothly out; and if people at a distance were telling lies about her, the veil would rustle in its paper. Again the veil did not like her to cut her hair. If she did so it changed colour and became uneasy. The owner firmly believed that when she died the veil would disappear. She regarded it with mysterious awe, and only allowed her most intimate friends to know of its existence.
I am not aware that in the North of England popular superstition concerns itself with the birth of animals. In Sussex, however, it certainly does. Mr. T. C. Thompson, of East Grinstead, in that county, informs me that on hearing lately from one of his farm labourers that a favourite sow had just brought into the world a litter of stillborn pigs, the man added it was only what he had looked for. “Why so?” inquired the master. “Well, Sir,” said the man, “you see this be the year the lions breed. They breeds every seven years, and when the lions breed the young pigs be still-born.”
Childhood has its own Folk-lore all England over—its traditional beliefs and practices, couched most commonly in verses which attune the infant ear, and charm the infant imagination. The young northern is peculiarly favoured in these respects. Does he want to make a butterfly alight, he has only to repeat the following lines—
Le, la, let,
and, if only he say them often enough, the charm never fails. Does rain threaten to spoil a holiday, let him chant out—
Rain, rain, go away,
Rain, rain go away,
or, more quaintly yet—
Rain, rain, go to Spain;
and, sooner or later, the rain will depart. If there be a rainbow the juvenile devotee must look at it all the time. The Sunderland version runs thus—
Rain, rain, pour down
Such rhymes are in use, I believe, in every nursery in England; but the following verse, though said to be popular in Berwickshire, is unknown elsewhere:
Rainbow, rainbow, haud awa’ hame,
The Druinaw is a high hill skirting the sea in the east of Berwickshire. It was a bold flight of fancy to personify the rainbow, and endow him with a family of bairns; and the contrast is curious between the young Celt searching by the grey stone for the rainbow’s bairn, with “the tear-drop in his e’e,” and the Saxon boy running to catch the rainbow for the sake of the pot of gold at its foot.
The late Mr. Denham, a very careful collector of old sayings and old usages, says that he well remembers how he and his school-companions used, on the appearance of a rainbow, to place a couple of straws or twigs across on the ground, and, as they said, cross out the rainbow. The West Riding recipe for driving away a rainbow is, “Make a cross of two sticks and lay four pebbles on it, one at each end.”
The crow-charm is perhaps universal in our island:—
Crow, crow, get out of my sight,
as well as the snail-charm—
Snail, snail, put out your horn,
though the latter more commonly runs in the South—
Snail, snail, come out of your hole,
Our northern version is—
Snail, snail, put out your horn
In Devonshire they have it—
Snail, snail, shoot out your horn,
and in the South of Italy,
Snail, snail, put out your horn,
The ladybird is roused to activity by the cry of—
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
And during the nursery application of dock-leaves for a nettle-sting one of the following rhymes is sung:—
Nettle out, dock in,
In dock, out nettle,
Nettle in, dock out,
Docken in and nettle out,
In the North of England children call, or used to call, thunder Rattley-bags, and to sing this couplet during a storm—
Rowley, Rowley, Rattley-bags,
Another quaint verse is connected with a game I have often played in my childhood—
Four-and-twenty tailors went to kill a snail,
The game of Sally Walker, in which song and dance are combined, is still played in the North of England. The following words were taken from the lips of some juvenile singers at Morpeth by Mr. Joseph Crawhall:—
Sally Walker, Sally Walker,
It is curious to discover that the village children of Devonshire find amusement in the same game. I transcribe the words sung at the school-feast of Chudleigh Knighton in that county, A.D. 1878, when “Sally Walker” seemed very popular. The first line is remarkable as apparently referring to some form of incantation
Sally, Sally Walker, sprinkle water in the pan,
The following verses which accompany another game were communicated to me by Mr. Joseph Crawhall, but I well remember singing them with my young companions in my childhood. They are said to have been very popular on the Borders.
Dissy, dissy green grass,
You shall have a duck, my dear,
If this young man should chance to die
(Ending with a clapping of hands.)
Schools, too, have their superstitions and their legendary rites. One odd school-boy notion is that if the master’s cane is nicked at the upper end, and a hair inserted, it will on its first use split to the very tip. In my own day, and perhaps at the present time, no boy would commit himself to the Wear without the precaution of an eel-skin tied round his left leg to save him from cramp. Well do I remember thus fortifying myself against danger before plunging into the stream. Another of our little superstitions was, that a horsehair kept in water would in due time turn into an eel; and many a time have we tried the experiment, ever attributing its failure to some adventitious circumstance, not to a fallacy in our belief. I am told that this mistake may be traced to the sudden appearance, after rain, of long hair-like worms in the deep holes left in clayey ground by horses’ hoofs. There was no trace of such creatures before the holes were filled with rain-water; and, wondering how they could have arrived there, boys imagined them to be hairs, dropped from the horse’s mane and tail, in course of transition into eels.
An odd expression was connected with the lending a knife among boys for the cutting up of a cake or other dainty. The borrower was asked to give it back laughing, i. e. with some of the good thing it was used to cut.
We had at our school an institution called “cobbing,” which tells of rougher times than ours. A friend and schoolfellow of mine thus describes it:—
“When a cobbing match was called, all the boys rushed forward, and seized the unfortunate object of the match by the hair, repeating these lines:—
All manner of men, under threescore and ten,
I spare you the details of the tortures named salt-fish and regnum; buck was a rap on the scull with the closed hand—doe a tug at the hair, dragging out many a lock. Those who bore no part in cobbing the victim were liable to be cobbed themselves; so were those who were so unlucky as not to be able to touch the hair of the victim, or who while repeating the verses neglected the prescribed rites, i. e. the standing on one leg, closing one eye, elevating the left thumb, and concealing the teeth.”
The riding of the stang was not an act of such sheer barbarity, expressing as it did a sense of offended justice, and reserved as it was for occasions when the recognised code of honour was broken. But it was a horrible ordeal. I myself have more than once witnessed the ceremony in the cathedral churchyard of Durham, when, after a clamorous recitation of the culprit’s misdeeds and a sound thrashing, the poor boy was finally bumped against a tombstone specially devoted to the purpose. But the riding of the stang is no mere piece of schoolboy Folk-Lore. It has been and still is widely practised among men. In old times, when law was less powerful than it now is for the repression of evil, the moral sense of the poorer classes, if outraged by witnessing some flagrant wrong, did not fail to find some way, coarse and rough perhaps, of expressing its instinctive feeling. Such was the riding of the stang, which set forth the public reprobation of certain disgraceful actions, e. g. sins against the seventh commandment, cruelty to women, especially the beating of wives by their husbands, unfaithfulness of workmen to their fellows when on strike, and dishonest tricks in trade. Originally the offender was himself compelled to ride, but, as law became stronger and the liberty of the subject was more respected, some young fellow of powerful lungs and obtuse sensibilities was selected as his deputy.
The custom is very ancient. LongstafFe, in his History of Darlington, says: “Eric, King of Norway, had to fly from the hatred of his people for inflicting this stigma on a celebrated Icelandic bard. It was then of a most tremendous character. The Goths erected a nidstaens, or pole of infamy, with the most dire imprecations against the guilty party, who was called niddering, or ‘the infamous,’ and was disqualified from giving evidence.”
The riding of the stang has been practised from time immemorial in the towns and villages of the North of England, and is still resorted to on occasion of notorious scandal. A boy or young man is selected, placed on a ladder or pole, and carried shoulder height round the town, the people who accompany him having armed themselves with every homely instrument whence noise can be extracted poker and tongs, kettles and frying-pans, old tin pots, and so forth. Amid the discordant sounds thus produced, and the yells, cheers, and derisive laughter of the mob, the procession moves to the house of him whose misdeeds evoked it. At his door the rider recites in doggrel verse the cause of the disturbance, beginning—
Hey derry! Hey deny! Hey deny dan!
I tinkle, O tinkle, O tang,
The indictment is, of course, made as ludicrous as possible, and intermixed with coarse jests and mockery.
Recent instances of this mode of popular trial and punishment have come to my knowledge at Thirsk and Darlington. One such took place at Rawtenstall, near Preston, in August, 1870, on the beating of a woman by her husband, and was recorded in The Preston Guardian. Not many years ago the bride of a medical man at H——, in Yorkshire, being jealous of an old servant of her husband’s, ran away to her father’s house. Popular feeling was on her side. For several nights there was much excitement, and the stang was ridden thrice consecutively with a great deal of noise and confusion. The end of it was that the servant was dismissed, the bride returned, and the young couple settled down amicably at last. It may be added, that during the Napoleonic wars the riding of the stang was practised on crimps, those designing villains by whose treachery unfortunate sailors were betrayed to the press-gang.
It is interesting to compare the rough justice of our northern riding of the stang with the Haberfield Treiben of Upper Bavaria, a secret society dating from medieval times, for the denouncing and discouragement of sins of unchastity. The proceedings of the Haberfield Treiben somewhat resemble those of the Sacred Vehme, which, however, it has long survived. Its members are sworn to secrecy. They are numerous, and so distributed through every part of the country that nothing escapes their notice. At the close of autumn, when the nights are cold and dark, vague rumours may be heard in some Bavarian village of an approaching visit from the Haberfield Treiben. After a few days of anticipation the reality appears. A little before midnight, when all seemed quiet or asleep, a dreadful clang is suddenly heard of trumpets blowing, pottery broken, kettles and pans beaten together, mixed with irregular discharge of firearms. On rushing into the streets the frightened inhabitants find their village occupied by a band of men with blackened faces, all egress or ingress prevented by a regular chain of videttes round the place. The invaders promptly erect a platform in the market-place, chiefly of materials they have brought with them; then at a given signal torches are lighted, firearms discharged, horns blown, kettles beaten, and the opening of the tribunal proclaimed through a large speaking-trumpet. All this is done with astonishing rapidity, and such order and arrangement as to defy resistance.
The “act of accusation” is then read aloud by some peasant gifted with a powerful voice. It is written in verse, and makes mention of all the ill-doings of the inhabitants. They are handled pretty severely, with a mixture of broad humour.
The Haberfield Treiben has long been obnoxious both to the ecclesiastical and civil authorities. Indeed, the present Archbishop of Munich has at various periods issued pastoral letters threatening excommunication, but to little purpose. It is not easy to write down a long-cherished institution. So lately as October 20, 1866, preparation was made for performing the Haberfield Treiben at the town of Porenheim, between Munich and Innspruck. The Government, however, received information of it, and placed a body of gendarmerie in the town, who with the aid of the local militia attacked the “drivers” on their first appearance. A desperate fight ensued, which lasted an hour and a-half. One driver was killed, several wounded, and seven taken prisoners, on which the band dispersed and fled.
On November 2, the Archbishop pronounced the ban of the Church against all persons favouring or taking part in the Haberfield Treiben. What the effect of this severe measure may be we cannot guess.
Before returning to Durham and its boys I will just mention that near Preston, in Yorkshire, popular displeasure against a wife-beater is shown by scattering chaff or straw in front of his house amid groans and cries of indignation.
I remember well that we schoolboys used to spit our faith when required to make asseveration on any matters we deemed important; and many a time have I given or received a challenge according to the following formula: “I say, Bill, will you fight Jack?”—“Yes,” “Jack, will you fight Bill?”—“Yes.” “Best cock, spit over my little finger.” Jack and Bill both do so, and a pledge thus sealed is considered so sacred that no schoolboy would dare hang back from its fulfilment. Thus, fishwomen and hucksters generally spit upon the handsel, i.e. the first money they receive.
One schoolboy belief I remember attempting to verify, with a daring worthy of a better cause. It was a bold venture, and we laid our plans well and secretly, so that none but the actors knew anything about it. Providing ourselves with a black cat, from whose fur every white hair had been carefully abstracted, we assembled on a dark winter night in the cathedral churchyard, and grouped ourselves within a circle, marked on the grass. We were bent on raising the evil spirit, and meant instantly to present him with poor pussy as an offering. The senior of the party read the Lord’s Prayer backwards, and repeated some cabalistic verses; but the adjuration was not responded to, which perhaps was something of a relief to the actors. It may be that this divination has prevailed among boys; is it hence that they are sometimes called young dare-devils?
May I be allowed to close the Folk-lore of boyhood with a couplet, which certainly crops up from the farmhouse—
All hands to work—then I’m but a boy.
In the Folk-lore of Presbyterian Scotland we find, of course, no mention of confirmation. Throughout England a preference is, I believe, universally felt for the touch of the bishop’s right hand over the left. Thus, not long ago in Exeter a poor woman presented herself as a candidate for that rite to one of the clergy of that city, who remembered her having been confirmed three years before. On his taxing her with this she could not deny it, but pleaded that she had had the bishop’s left hand then, and had been so uneasy ever since that she did want to try her luck again! In the North of England, however, this evil is more defined; the unfortunate recipients of the left hand are doomed on the spot to a life of single blessedness. A friend tells me of an old Yorkshire woman who came for confirmation a second, if not a third time, from a different motive. She had heard, she said, “it was good for the rheumatiz!”
To pass on to marriage, the nucleus of a vast store of Folk-Lore The following rhymes show the importance of choosing an auspicious day for the ceremony; they express the popular belief of the county of Durham:—
Monday for wealth,
This attribute of Thursday is curiously opposite to that which distinguishes it in Scandinavia, where, as Thor’s day, it is regarded as an auspicious day for marrying. The English tradition coincides, however, with the German, where it is held unlucky to marry on Thursday, probably because Thor is partly identified there with the devil.
As to Friday, a couple married on that day are doomed to lead a cat-and-dog life. But, indeed, a feeling is almost universal of the inauspiciousness of beginning any kind of work on this day, whether as the day of our Lord’s crucifixion or that on which traditionally our first parents are said to have fallen.
The unsuitableness of Lent for marrying and giving in marriage is bitterly expressed in the verse—
If you many in Lent
But I fear that in point of fact the month of May is more avoided in Scotland than the season of Lent. The prejudice against marrying in May, which Lockhart calls a classical as well as a Scottish one, coming as it does direct from pagan Rome, was respected in his own marriage, Sir Walter Scott hurrying away from London that his daughter Sophia’s wedding might take place before that inauspicious month commenced.
It is remarkable as showing the prevalence of this feeling to observe that during the year 1874 in the city of Glasgow the marriages in May were only 204, against 703 in June, the average of the eleven months, excluding May, being 441. The ancient proverb still lives on the lips of the people of Scotland and the Borders—
Marry in May
The portents for good or evil which surround Border marriages are, as given in the Wilkie MS., numerous indeed. It is unlucky for swine to cross the path in front of a wedding party. Hence the old adage, “The swine’s run through it.” I believe this encounter is of ill omen to others beside marriage parties, especially before twelve o’clock. The presence of the bride’s mother is inauspicious too. A wet day is also deemed unlucky, while a fine one is auspicious. Here, in fact, as all Christendom over—
Blest is the bride that the sun shines on!
Green, ever an ominous colour in the Lowlands of Scotland, must on no account be worn there at a wedding. The fairies, whose chosen colour it is, would resent the insult, and destroy the wearer. Whether on this account or any other I know not, but the notion of ill-luck in connection with it is wide-spread. I have heard of mothers in the South of England who absolutely forbade their daughters to wear anything of this colour, and who avoided it even in the furniture of their houses. Certainly the old couplets do run—
Those dressed in blue
I dare say, too, in after days, Peter Bell’s sixth wife thought her wedding dress inauspicious enough. And did she not
put on her gown of green,
At any rate nothing green must make its appearance at a Scotch marriage; kale and all other green vegetables are excluded from the wedding-dinner. With this exception, any good things in season may grace the board, and a pair of fowls must on no account be omitted. It is very important that the bride should receive the little bone called “hug-ma-close” (anglice “sides-man,” or side-bone), for she who gets it on her wedding-day is sure to be happy in her husband.
To rub shoulders with the bride or bridegroom is deemed an augury of speedy marriage; and, again, she who receives from the bride a piece of cheese, cut by her before leaving the table, will be the next bride among the company.
Dinner over, the bride sticks her knife into the cheese, and all at table endeavour to seize it. He who succeeds without cutting his fingers in the struggle thereby ensures happiness in his married life. The knife is called “the best man’s prize,” since commonly the “best man” secures it. Should he fail to do so, he will indeed be unfortunate in his matrimonial views. The knife is, at any rate, a prize for male hands only; the maidens try to possess themselves of a “shaping” of the wedding-dress, for use in certain divinations regarding their future husbands. And the bride herself should wear something borrowed—for what reason I am not informed.
It should perhaps have been mentioned sooner, that, as the newly-married wife enters her new home on returning from kirk, one of the oldest inhabitants of the neighbourhood, who has been stationed on the threshold, throws a plateful of short-bread over her head, so that it falls outside. A scramble ensues, for it is deemed very fortunate to get a piece of the short-bread, and dreams of sweethearts attend its being placed under the pillow. A variation of this custom extends as far south as the East Riding of Yorkshire, where, on the bride’s arrival at her father’s door, a plate of cake is flung from an upper window upon the crowd below. An augury is then drawn from the fate which attends the plate; the more pieces it breaks into the better; if it reach the ground unbroken the omen is very unfavourable.
On this matter a clerical friend writes thus: “In my own case, on bringing my wife to her home in Scotland, the short-bread was thrown over her head, and a scramble ensued on the new carpet, which was thereby ruined. A soup ladle was put into my hands, together with the door-key, to imply that I was to be at once the master of the house and the bread-winner. My wife was required to hold the kitchen tongs and a bunch of keys, to indicate that her proper sphere was the fireside and her duties within doors.
The custom of passing bridecake through the wedding-ring, and placing it under the pillow, to dream upon, and that of throwing a shoe after the bride and bridegroom, are sometimes claimed as peculiarly northern. If so, they have travelled southwards very steadily, for they now prevail in every county in England. This last observance is usually said to be “for luck,” but a writer in Notes and Queries (vol. vii. p. 411) suggests that it is rather a symbol of renunciation of all right in the bride by her father or guardian, and the transference of it to her husband. He quotes Ps. lx. 8, “Over Edom have I cast out my shoe,” as meaning, “I have wholly cast it off;” and further illustrates the idea by a reference to Ruth iv. 7, 8. Ruth’s kinsman, it will be remembered, refused to marry her, and to redeem her inheritance; therefore, “as it was the custom in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing that a man plucked off his shoe and delivered it to his neighbour,” the kinsman plucked off his shoe, as a public renunciation of Ruth and of his own claim of pre-marriage. It may be inquired, however, whether there is any connexion between this custom and the usage of Swedish brides, to let a shoe slip off or drop a handkerchief, in the hope that the bridegroom, from politeness, will stoop to pick it up. If he does so it will be his lot to submit, i.e. to bend his back all through his married life. A good deal of Swedish bridal Folk-Lore points to the desire for mastery, e.g. the bride must endeavour to see her bridegroom before he sees her, to place her foot before his during the marriage ceremony, to sit down first in the bridal chair, and all that she may bear sway.
The northern counties of England have, however, their own exclusively local wedding customs. I am informed by the Rev. J. Barmby, that a wedding in the Dales of Yorkshire is indeed a thing to see; that nothing can be imagined comparable to it in wildness and obstreperous mirth. The bride and bridegroom may possibly be a little subdued, but his friends are like men bereft of reason. They career round the bridal party like Arabs of the desert, galloping over ground on which, in cooler moments, they would hesitate even to walk a horse—shouting all the time, and firing volleys from the guns they carry with them. Next they will dash along the road in advance of the party, carrying the whisky-bottle, and compelling everyone they meet to pledge the newly-married pair. “One can guess,” he adds, “what the Border mosstroopers were by seeing the Dalesmen at a wedding.” In the higher parts of Northumberland as well as on the other side of the Border the scene I am informed is, if possible, still more wild. In Northumberland the men of the party all start off from the church-door on horse-back, galloping like madmen through moss and over moor, till they reach the place where the wedding breakfast is to be held, and he who arrives first may claim a kiss of the bride. Such a wedding is called “a riding wedding,” and the race to the young couple’s new home after the marriage “running the braize, or brooze.” In rural parts, too, of the county of Durham, the bridal party is escorted to church by men armed with guns, which they fire again and again close to the ears of bride and bridesmaids, terrifying them sometimes not a little. At Guisborough, in Cleveland, I am told that these guns are fired over the heads of the newly-married couple all the way from church. There, too, it has been customary for the bridegroom to offer a handful of money together with the ring to the clergyman; out of this the fees were taken and the overplus returned.
A singular custom prevails at the village of Belford, in Northumberland, of making the bridal pair with their attendants leap over a stone placed in their path at the outside of the church porch. This is called the louping stone, or petting stone, and it is said on the spot that the bride must leave all her pets and humours behind her when she crosses it. At the neighbouring village of Embleton two stout young lads place a wooden bench across the door of the church porch, assist the bride and bride-groom and their friends to surmount the obstacle, and then look out for a donation from the bridegroom. Some think they see a symbol here of the obstacles that beset married life; but the Vicar of Embleton, who has kindly furnished me with this information, considers it to be connected with some superstition as to touching the threshold of the building or stumbling upon it. I am told, on the authority of no less a person than one of the bridesmaids, that in the year 1868, at a wedding in a High-Coquetdale family, “it was proposed to have a petted stone. A stick was therefore held by two groomsmen at the church door for the bride to jump over. Had she fallen or stumbled the worst auguries as to her temper would have been drawn.” While Mr. Joseph Crawhall informs me that on June 5, 1873, entering the church of Bamburgh during a wedding, he witnessed the following scene: “The ceremony ended, on leaving the church, a three-legged stool, about a foot high, was placed at the churchyard gate, and covered with about two yards of carpet. The whole of the bridal party had separately to hop or jump over this stool, assisted on either side by a stalwart villager. I inquired the name of the custom, its reason, and so on. The reply was, ‘It is the parting-stool, and is always used here;’ but nothing appeared to be known about the origin or meaning of the ceremony.”
Throughout Cleveland, he who gives the bride away claims the first kiss in right of his temporary paternity. One clerical friend of mine, however, declares that it is the privilege of the parson who ties the knot; and, though he will not aver that he has ever availed himself of it, he knows an old north-country clergyman who was reported so to do. Another tells me that a brother-priest, a stranger in the neighbourhood, after performing a marriage in a Yorkshire village, was surprised to see the party keep together as if expecting something more. “What are you waiting for?” he asked, at last. “Please, Sir,” was the bride-groom’s answer, “ye’ve no kissed Molly.” And my old friend, the late Dr. Raine, used to relate how the Rev. Thomas Ebdon, Sacrist of the Cathedral and Vicar of Merrington, invariably kept up the custom when he performed the marriage ceremony, and this plainly as a matter of obligation, for he was one of the most shy and retiring of men. Nay, I can testify that within the last ten years, a fair lady from the county of Durham, who was married in the South of England, so undoubtedly reckoned upon the clerical salute, that, after waiting for it in vain, she boldly took the initiative and bestowed a kiss on the much-amazed South-country vicar.
In a certain old song, the bridegroom thus addresses the minister—
It’s no very decent for you to be kissing,
The custom has, however, been very general, and it may possibly be a dim memorial of the osculum pacis, or the presentation of the Pax to the newly-married pair. I am informed that in Ireland, some years back, it was customary for the clergyman to conclude the ceremony with the words, “kiss your wife,” and occasionally the bridegroom was hard put-to to prevent one or other of his companions from intercepting the salute designed for himself.
A singular local custom still exists in the village of Whitburn, near Sunderland—that of sending what are called hot pots to church, to meet the bride and bridegroom on coming out. A gentleman of that place thus describes what took place at his own marriage last year: “After the vestry scene, the bridal party having formed in procession for leaving the church, we were stopped in the porch by a row of five or six women, ranged to our left hand, each holding a large mug with a cloth over it. These were in turn presented to me, and handed by me to my wife, who, after taking a sip, returned it to me. It was then passed to the next couple, and so on in the same form to all the party. The composition in these mugs was mostly, I am sorry to say, simply horrible; one or two were very fair, one very good. They are sent to the church by all classes, and are considered a great compliment. I have never heard of this custom elsewhere. Here it has existed beyond the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and an aged fisherwoman, who has been married some sixty-five years, tells me that at her wedding there were seventy hot pots.”
Another old wedding usage seems confined to Yorkshire. In remote parts of that county it is the custom to pour a kettlefull of boiling water over the doorstep, just after the bride has left her old home; and they say that before it dries up another marriage is sure to be agreed on.
At Newcastle-on-Tyne sand is strewn on the pavement before a bridal party tread on it. Thus, the other day a friend of mine seeing a crowd at the corner of a street in that town, expressed his opinion that the volunteers were out. “No,” said a by-stander, “it’s a wedding. Don’t you see the sand on the pavement?” And, throughout the county, when a bride’s “furnishings” are carried to her new home, ribbons arc tied on the cart, and must be given to the first person who comes forward to meet the cart on its arrival at its destination.
In many of the rural parts of Cumberland the following curious practice exists. When the lover of a Cumbrian maiden proves unfaithful to her, she is, by way of consolation, rubbed with pease-straw by the neighbouring lads; and should a Cumbrian youth lose his sweetheart, through her marriage with his rival, the same sort of comfort is administered to him by the lasses of the village. This is illustrated by the following verse from an old Cumbrian ballad:—
For Jock the young laird was new wedded,
This reminds me of a custom very common among the schoolboys in the neighbouring county of Durham, when, if a boy is so unlucky as to fall into trouble, and so weak as to show it by crying, he is quickly beset by his companions, who rub him down with their coat-sleeves, and that in such rough style as to make him forget past troubles in present discomfort.
It is unlucky for a woman to marry a man whose surname begins with the same letter as her own, for—
If you change the name and not the letter,
When a younger daughter marries before her elder sisters, it is said that they must dance at her wedding without shoes.
A Yorkshire wedding is, by rights, wound up by a race for a ribbon. In Cleveland this ribbon is given by the bridegroom as he leaves the church, and all who choose run for it, in sight of the house where the wedding-feast is held. All the racers, winner and losers alike, are entitled to a glass of spirits each; and accordingly, as soon as the race is over, they present themselves at the house, and ask for their ’lowance without any particular invitation. At the village of Melsonby, near Darlington, and in the adjoining district, the bride was placed as winning-post, holding the ribbon in her hand, and the winner claimed a kiss on receiving it. I am told that on one occasion the bride, being a Methodist, refused, from conscientious scruples, to give the ribbon. There was much dissatisfaction through the place, and the youths revenged themselves after the traditional manner of punishing stingy brides. They fired the stithy at her; that is, they placed a charge of gunpowder in the stith, or anvil of the blacksmith’s shop, and fired it as she passed on her way from church.
In the neighbourhood of Leeds, and I believe in the North of England generally, it is counted unlucky for a young woman to attend church when her banns are published; her children run the risk of being deaf and dumb. But there is no chance at all of a family unless, when she retires on the wedding-night, her bridesmaids lay her stockings across. Again, when a woman’s hair grows in a low point on the forehead, it is supposed to presage widowhood, and is called a “widow’s peak.”
I may close our collection of bridal Folk-Lore by two little sayings rife in the county of Durham. The first of the bridal pair to go to sleep on the wedding-night will be the first to die; and the wife who loses her wedding ring incurs the loss of her husband’s affection. The breaking of the ring forebodes death. This belief holds ground as far south as Essex, where, in 1857, a farmer’s widow, on being visited after her husband’s death, exclaimed, ”Ah! I thought I should soon lose him, for I broke my ring the other day; and my sister, too, lost her husband after breaking her ring—it is a sure sign.” An old woman of Barnoldby-la-Beck, Lincolnshire, whose husband died on the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding-day, told her vicar that she had known he would die before her. “Why so?” asked he. “Because when we were married at church he knelt down first at the altar, and they always say the one that kneels down first at the marriage will die first.” At a Basque wedding the husband is bound to kneel down on a fold of his wife’s dress.
The portents of death related in the Wilkie MS. are numerous indeed. Thus, he who meets a Border funeral is certain soon to die, unless he bares his head, turns, and accompanies the procession some distance. If the coffin is carried by bearers he must take a lift. This done, if he bows to the company, he may turn and go on his way without fear. Perhaps this belief was once more widely spread. I have been told of an old Sussex gentleman who would, at any inconvenience, avoid meeting a funeral. He has often been known, whether on foot or on horseback, to turn round and go straight home rather than pass one. As to following the funeral, I may be allowed to mention how rigidly it is enjoined in the Talmud. An Israelite is there commanded to follow every dead body that is carried out for burial among his people, the least allowable distance prescribed being four yards.
Again, if at a funeral the sun shines brightly on the face of one among the attendants, it marks him for the next to be laid in that churchyard; or if the sound of the “mools” falling on the coffin be heard by any person at a considerable distance from the spot it presages a death in that person’s family.
A crowing hen is looked upon with fear and suspicion far and wide, I suppose as an intruder into the province of her mate. Old Francis Quarles makes her the type of wives who bear rule over their husbands:—
Ill thrives the hapless family that shows
According to the Northamptonshire proverb,
A whistling woman and crowing hen,
In Normandy they say, “Une poule qui chante le coq et une fille qui siffle, portent malheur dans la maison;” and in Cornwall, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen are the two unluckiest things under the sun.”
The former delinquent is much dreaded on the coast of Yorkshire by the seafaring part of the population. A few years ago, when a party of friends were going on board a vessel at Scarborough, the captain astonished them by declining to allow one of them to enter it. “Not that young lady,” he said, “she whistles.” Curiously enough the vessel was lost on her next voyage; so, had the poor girl set foot on it, the misfortune would certainly have been ascribed to her. It is remarkable that no miner in Devonshire or Cornwall whistles underground, or allows others to do so. I have conversed with them about it, and do not gather that they think it unlucky, but unseemly and irreverent. All assure me that it is never done in a mine even by the youngest boy.
A crowing hen is counted on the Borders a forerunner of death. Thus, a few years ago, we are told, an old woman in the parish of East Kilbride heard one of her hens crow loudly on the top of a dyke before her house. She mentioned the circumstance to a neighbour, saying that no good would come of it, and accordingly her husband soon died. About a month afterwards she heard the creature again, and within a few days tidings reached her of the death of her only son. A week later the hen crowed once more, and the eldest daughter died. On this the old woman was roused to desperation; she seized the warning bird, wrung its neck, and burned it.
Mr. Wilkie records the following singular portent of death, which took place about seven years before it was related to him: “A farmer’s wife, who resided on the banks of the Ale, near St. Boswell’s, looking out at window, thought she saw a funeral approaching; and at once mentioned the circumstance to some neighbours, then with her in the house. They ran out to look, but came back and sat down again, saying she must be mistaken, for there was nothing of the kind to be seen; the woman felt restless, however, and out of spirits; she could not help going to the window again, and again she saw the funeral moving on. Her friends ran out-of-doors and looked along the road, but still could perceive nothing; a third time she went to the window, and exclaimed, ‘It is fast coming on, and will soon be at the door.’ No other person could discern anything; but within half an hour a confused noise was heard outside, and the farm-servants entered, bearing her husband’s lifeless body. He had died suddenly, by a fall from his cart.”
The presages of death on the Border are very numerous, e.g. the sound of bells in the night, the chirping of crickets, lights of circular form seen in the air, when there is no fire or candle, the dead chack or death-watch, a call by night or day in the voice of some absent person, a gripe of the arm or leg by an invisible clay-cold hand, the howling of dogs before your house-door, hens bringing off a brood all hen-birds, or laying eggs with double yolks, the birth of lambs deformed or with superfluous limbs, the chirping of fish long after they have been taken out of the water, sounds as though the house were falling down, magpies flying round the house or preceding you on the way to church, ravens croaking on or near it, swords falling out of their scabbards all these are tokens of approaching death; but the most fatal of all is for a man to see his own wraith walking to or from him at noon or before sunset.
Compare with the third of these death omens, “lights of a circular form seen in the air,” the following account from Sussex: “They believe in that county that the death of sick persons is shown by the prognostic of ‘shell-fire.’ This is a sort of lambent flame, which seems to rise from the bodies of those who are ill, and to envelop the bed. A distant connexion of mine asserts that she saw this phenomenon in the case of two of her sisters who died of typhus fever, and gives, in attestation, the remark of one of the sufferers herself, who asked what the light was.”
In Lancashire it is believed that to build, or even to rebuild, a house, is always fatal to some member of the family—generally to the one who may chiefly have advised or wished for the building or alteration. But to return to the most fatal of Border portents.
The wraith is an apparition exactly like a living person, and its appearance, whether to that person or to another, is commonly thought an omen of death. These apparitions are called “fetches” throughout the sister island, in Cumberland “swarths,” and in Yorkshire “waffs.” Of waff I have two examples from the East Riding of Yorkshire. The first was narrated to the clergyman from whom I received it by an old man of Danby, in Cleveland, eighty-two years of age, and highly respectable as to character. Some years before, he was passing one evening by an uncle’s house, and, seeing the glow of firelight streaming through the window, looked in. To his great surprise he saw his uncle, who had long been “bed-fast” in the room above, seated in his former place in the “neukin.” He was astonished—still there could be no mistake; the form and features were those of his relation, and he further assured himself of the fact by a second look. He entered the house to obtain an explanation; but the room was dark, the seat empty, and the old man lying upstairs in his bed. But his uncle’s death took place before long.
A second case of this kind is said to have happened, at Whitby, to a tradesman suffering from stone, and ordered to the hospital at York for an operation. Before he set out, the patient said it was in vain, he should not return alive; he had seen his own waff, and knew he should die during the operation, or after it. His belief was verified: the operation was performed, but he did not long survive it. Either he was ignorant how to avert the ill-consequences of the apparition or he lacked courage at the moment. Had he spoken to it all would have been well. Thus a native of Guisborough, on going into a shop at Whitby, saw his own “waff,” and boldly addressed it thus: “What’s thou doin’ here? What’s thou doin’ here? Thou’s after no good, I’ll go bail! Get thy ways yom wi’ thee. Get thy ways yom!” The result of his thus taking the initiative was perfectly satisfactory.
The Vicar of Stamfordham has kindly communicated to me two cases of “wraiths,” or apparitions, from his parish. The first is of a poor woman, called Esther Morton, of Black Heddon, who went out gathering sticks on the ground of a neighbouring farmer. Looking up, she saw him before her, and turned quickly to get out of his way. Then she remembered he was ill in bed and could not possibly be there, so she went home much alarmed, and found he had just died.
Again, one William Elliott, of the same place, saw his neighbour Mary Brown cross the fold-yard and disappear in a straw-house. Knowing her to be very ill, he made instant inquiries, and discovered that she had died at the moment of his seeing her.
Mr. Robinson, of Hill House, Reeth, writes thus on the subject: “We have in Wensleydale frequent instances of second sight, the people so gifted foretelling the deaths of their neighbours. For instance, some years back a man told me that he had met Mr. —— (a respectable inhabitant of the next village, and then in perfect health) walking on the road; ‘but,’ added he ‘it was nobbut his shadow, and I don’t think he’ll live long.’ He died within a short time. This is only one instance of many.”
These Yorkshire stories recall to my memory an incident in which the “waff” was no prophet of death, but an instrument for saving life. The musician Gluck, Piccini’s rival in Paris about 100 years ago, made some stay in one of the Belgian cities—Ghent, I believe. While there he was accustomed to spend the evening with friends, and, returning late to his lodging, to let himself in with a key. One moonlight evening, while going home as usual, he observed before him a figure resembling himself. It took every turn through the streets which he was accustomed to take, and finally, on reaching the door, drew out a key, opened it, and entered. On this the musician turned round in some perturbation, went back to his friends, and begged to be taken in for the night. The next morning they accompanied him to his lodging, and found that the heavy wooden roof of Gluck’s sleeping-room had fallen down in the night and covered the floor. It was plain that had he passed the night there he must have been killed.
My own county furnishes a story of a similar character, which was thus related by the late Canon Humble: “I have heard a Durham story of a farmer going home at night after having sold his corn, with a considerable sum of money in his pocket. After leaving the town—Darlington, I believe—he saw a person emerge from a lane and walk behind him at the distance of five or six paces. He stopped, so did the other. He walked on, and the double did the like, still keeping at the same distance as before. He came to a very lonely part of the road, the double joined him, and soon a whisper was distinctly heard from the hedge as of a man speaking to a companion. ‘It’s nae use, there’s twa o’ them.’ The double continued with the farmer till the road became open and then disappeared. But for this intervention the latter would have been robbed, perhaps even murdered.”
But to return to the omens in the Wilkie MS. Some of them are more or less remarked in every part of our island—such as the death-watch, the croaking raven, or the solitary magpie; nor is it matter of astonishment that when the mind is impressed by the awe of sickness and impending death in our household we are prone to notice and brood over sounds and sights which seem to connect themselves with our anxieties and sorrows. The howling of dogs is a widely-known death omen. We find it in every part of our island, in France and Germany, and even in Constantinople. A close observer, who has seen the omen given, and noted its fulfilment, describes the dog as very uneasy till it can get under the death-chamber. If the house stands within an inclosure, and it cannot get in, it will run round the premises, or pace up and down before them. If it succeeds in forcing an entry, it will stop under the window, howl horribly, finish with three tremendous barks, and hurry away. Mr. Kelly, who relates this, adds that the dog is an attendant on the dead in the German as in the Aryan mythology, that dogs see ghosts, and that when Hela, the goddess of death, walks abroad, invisible to human eyes, she is seen by the dogs. Again, in the North of England the flight of jackdaws or swallows down the chimney is held to presage death, as well as the appearance of a trio of butterflies flying together. So does a winding-sheet, or piece of curled tallow in the candle, called in Scotland a “dead spale.” Three raps given by no human hand are said also to give warning of death. Such were heard a few years ago, at Windy Walls, near Stamfordham, in Northumberland, on the outside of a window-shutter, and the same night a man belonging to the house fell accidentally off a cart and was killed. An Albino mole presages the demise of the farmer on whose land it is found, and again, if thirteen persons sit down to eat together one of them will shortly die. This belief is widely spread, and doubtless originated in the remembrance of the thirteen who sat down at the last Paschal Supper, and of the fate of Judas.
Another death-omen is the crowing of a cock at dead of night. A lady in the East Riding of Yorkshire tells me that a few years ago, a cook, who had recently come to her from the north of that county, told her one morning, with tears in her eyes, that she should not be able to stay long in her place, for her sister was dead or dying. The mistress naturally concluded that the tidings had come by post that morning, but it turned out that such was not the case. The cock had crowed at midnight on two following nights, and as she had not heard from her sister for some time she was doubtless ill, if not already dead. Happily the good woman’s fears were groundless, and she lived some time in my informant’s service.
Again, the flying or hovering of birds around a house, and their resting on the window-sill, or tapping against the pane, portends death. This last belief is widely spread, and I cannot divest myself of the notion that there is a sympathy between us and the animal creation, which comes to view in times of sorrow. I am permitted to mention that the recent death of a clergyman of some eminence in the town of Hull was preceded by the flight of a pure white pigeon around the house, and its resting again and again on his window-sill. And the Vicar of Fishlake, in the West Riding, informs me that one of his parishioners mentioned the same portent to him; telling him, as an illustration, of a Primitive Methodist preacher, a very worthy man, who had fallen down dead in the pulpit soon after giving out his text. “And not many hours before,” she went on, “I had seen a white pigeon light on a tree hard by, and I said to a neighbour I was sure summat were going to happen.”
I have heard of the same belief in Suffolk, where an old woman expressed her dismay at having a robin come “weeping, weeping,” as she called it, at her door, and related two instances in her own family in which it had been a warning of death.
The following list of death omens has been communicated to me from Sussex. It is interesting to compare them with our north-country portents. An unusual rattling of the church door, a heavy sound in a funeral bell, or the appearance of the ignis-fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp, the cry of the screech-owl or three caws of a carrion crow, are thought in that county to presage death. So is the breaking of a looking-glass, which they say in Denmark is a sign of utter ruin to the family in which it takes place. Again, if a dead body continues limp, and does not stiffen, another death will soon take place. And it is accounted unlucky to take the first snowdrop or primrose into a house, or blackthorn blossom, or broom in the month of May. My informant heard a Sussex cottager scold her child for taking a single snowdrop into the house, and, asking the reason, was told it was a death token, and looked “for all the world like a corpse in its shroud,” and “that it kept itself quite close to the ground, seeming to belong more to the dead than the living.” As for primroses, they used to be sought for to strew on graves and dress up corpses, and the black-thorn was thought to represent a strange commingling of life and death in its white flowers on the bare twigs unclothed with leaves. On a lady (the wife of the clergyman) entering a Sussex cottage with a branch of it in blossom, the poor woman snatched it out of her hand and flung it out of doors, saying, “How could you think, Ma’am, of bringing that death token into my house?” This belief extends to Germany, where the blackthorn is said to spring from the corpse of a heathen slain in battle. The broom was especially baleful if used for sweeping. I am told of an old Sussex gentleman who strictly forbade the use of green brooms during the month of May, and justified himself by repeating the adage—
If you sweep the house with broom in May,
The following form of divination seems purely Northumbrian. After a death has taken place in a family, the straw or chaff from the bed of the departed is taken into an open place and burned. Among its ashes the survivors look for a footprint, and that member of the family whose foot fits the impression will be the next to die.
Yorkshire, too, has its own manner of inquiring who will be taken from this world. Those who are curious to know about the death of their fellow-parishioners must keep watch in the church-porch on St. Mark’s Eve for an hour on each side of midnight for three successive years. On the third year they will see the forms of those doomed to die within the twelvemonth passing one by one into the church. If the watcher fall asleep during his vigil he will die himself during the year. I have heard, however, of one case in which the intimation was given by the sight of the watcher’s own form and features. It is that of an old woman at Scarborough, who kept St. Mark’s vigil in the porch of St. Mary’s in that town about eighty years ago. Figure after figure glided into the church, turning round to her as they went in, so that she recognised their familiar faces. At last a figure turned and gazed at her; she knew herself, screamed, and fell senseless to the ground. Her neighbours found her there in the morning, and carried her home, but she did not long survive the shock. An old man who recently died at Fishlake, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was in the habit of keeping these vigils, and was in consequence an object of some dread to his neighbours. The old sexton at —— did so too, in order, it was said, to count the gains of the coming year. At the gates of Bramley church, Yorkshire, lived, some years ago, a man named Askew, son of a Baptist minister, who was reported always to keep St. Mark’s watch. One year he let it transpire that he had seen the spirit of a neighbour called Lester, who, in consequence, would die during the twelvemonth. Mr. Lester, who was not in good health at the time, was much affected. He was then building a house, and he now arranged it with double doors, so that his widow might conveniently let half of it in case of his decease. He used to say that if he lived over the year he would shoot Askew; but he died before St. Mark’s day came round again.
I have received a very remarkable story of an apparition on St. Mark’s Eve, at Ford, Northumberland, which I give in the words of my informant, M. T. Culiey, Esq. Coupland Castle: “Two men, both of whom my wife has seen, were ascending the hill at Ford alongside of the churchyard, having been surveying land. They had just turned into the Ford Road from, I think, Kimmerston Lane, when they saw the chancel door of the church open, and the rector, the Rev.—— Marsh, walk out in his surplice. It was the dusk of the evening, but there was a light around the figure, which enabled the men to see his features distinctly, and they afterwards asserted positively that there could be no doubt as to his identity. The figure advanced to a certain point in the churchyard and vanished. That night the rector was taken ill at Ford Castle, where he was dining, was carried home, died the following day, and was buried just were the figure had been observed to disappear.”
I have heard of the rite in Cleveland too, and at Teesdale; at Sedbergh, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the local belief is somewhat different. It is said there that the forms of those who will die during the year, preceded by the parish clerk, parade the churchyard on All Saints Eve. The clerk’s daughter, named Barbara Butterwith, narrated this to my informant, the Rev. W. Delancey Lawson, and declared that she was going out to see the procession, but he dissuaded her from it, thinking that she might in some way get a panic.
Another mode of divining into futurity has also been resorted to in Yorkshire, called cauff-riddling, and was thus practised. The barn-doors must be set wide open, a riddle and some chaff must be procured, and those who wish to pry into the future must go into the barn at midnight, and in turn commence the process of riddling. Should the riddler be doomed to die during the year two persons will be seen passing by the open barn-doors carrying a coffin; in the other case nothing will be visible.
Not many years ago two men and a woman went to a barn near Malton, in Yorkshire, on St. Mark’s Eve, to riddle cauff. All the requisite observances were attended to; the men took their turns, but nothing was seen; then the woman began to riddle. Scarcely had the chaff begun to fall on the floor when all saw the ominous pair of coffin-bearers passing by. There was a moment’s pause; the men rushed out to look, but all had dis- appeared; there was no living creature in sight. The woman died within the year. This story was related to my informant by one who knew the persons concerned, and spoke of them by name.
The rites accompanying the saining or blessing of a corpse in the Scottish Lowlands are given at some length in the Wilkie MS. They are as follows:
When a body has been washed and laid out, one of the oldest women present must light a candle, and wave it three times around the corpse. Then she must measure three handfuls of common salt into an earthenware plate, and lay it on the breast. Lastly, she arranges three “toom” or empty dishes on the hearth, as near as possible to the fire; and all the attendants going out of the room return into it backwards, repeating this “rhyme of saining:”
Thrice the torchie, thrice the saltie,
This rite is called Dishaloof. Sometimes, as is named in the verses, a sieve is placed between the dishes, and she who is so fortunate as to place her hand in it is held to do most for the soul. If all miss the sieve, it augurs ill for the departed. Mean- while all the windows in the house are opened, in order to give the soul free egress. The dishes are placed near the fire, from a notion that the soul resembles a flame, and hovers round the hearth for a certain period after death.
In some of the western counties, however, the dishes are set upon a table or “bunker” (as they call a long chest) close to the deathbed; and it is actually said that while the attendants sit with their hands in the dishes they “spae” or tell fortunes, sing songs, or repeat rhymes, in the middle of which the corpse, it is averred, has been known to rise frowning, and place its cold hand in one of the dishes, thus presaging death to her whose hand was in that dish already.
The Dishaloof so far over, the company join hands and dance round the dishes, singing this burden, “A dis, a dis, a dis, a green griss, a dis, a dis, a dis.” Bread, cheese, and spirits are then placed on the table, and, when the company have partaken of them, they are at liberty to go home.
The candle for “saining” should be procured from a suspected witch or wizard, a seer or Elleree, or from a person with “schloof,” or flat feet, “ringlit-eyed,” that is with a great portion of white in the eye, or “lang-lipit,” that is, with thick projecting lips; for all these persons are unlucky, and, in this affair, unlucky really means fortunate in the extreme. Unless the old mosstroopers are belied, they preferred for saining a torch made from the fat of a slaughtered enemy, or at least of a murdered man. The saining candle must be kept burning through the night, and the table covered with a cloth so long as the dead body remains in the house. Some people also make a point of turning the cat out-of doors all the time.
The corpse must be watched till its burial by one of its kindred and a stranger, who may be relieved, when weary, by another relation and another stranger. In point of fact, however, they are seldom left to themselves. Neighbours assemble from a great distance to join them, and keep what is called “a sitting” while the sun is above the horizon, or after dark “a lykewake.” These gatherings are common in North Wales also, but, whereas the Welsh pass the night in reading the Scriptures and singing Psalms, a strange sort of merriment seems to have characterised the Scotch “lykewake.” Songs were sung and games played—Blind Harrie, for example, according to the old song of the “Humble Beggar:”
It happened ill, it happened worse,
Some were blithe and some were sad,
No doubt the custom of assembling neighbours and friends to keep watch in the house of death is ancient and wide-spread. The following injunction of Bishop Voysey (A.D. 1538) shows that it prevailed in the West of England: “Also that every curate . . . . especially within the archdeaconry of Cornwall, exhort effectuously their parishioners, that at the death of their friends they have no solemn nightwatches or drinkings.”
On the Borders games at cards are actually played on these occasions, the coffin, incredible as it may appear, being the card-table, while the round table on which the candle is placed may on no account be used. It is imperative that every watcher at a lykewake should touch the corpse with his hand, to keep him from dreaming of the dead, or brooding over any evil occurrence which may have taken place during the watch. For things do not always go right on these occasions. Thus tradition tells how once the corpse arose, sat upon the bed, and frowned dreadfully, though without speaking, an unseen hand having previously moved the plate of salt to the rack of the bed. It was plain that something essential had been omitted in the saining, or that the attendants had been performing some unhallowed rites. An old woman, eminent for her piety, was hastily summoned in this emergency. She came and found the room empty, the attendants having all fled in terror. Drawing her Bible from her pocket, the woman began to read it aloud, on which the corpse ceased to frown, and fell slowly back upon the bed. Closing her book, she prayed aloud; then covered the corpse, replaced the plate of salt upon its breast, and prayed again. All continuing still, she fetched water, washed her hands, and brought in the terrified attendants, who were huddled together round the door of the house, assuring them that if they abstained from evil amusements the devil would not molest them any more.
On another occasion it was reported, that, while hide-and-seek was going on at a lykewake, some young men took the dead body out of the coffin, and laid one of their number in its place to hide. Search being made for the youth, he was discovered in the coffin quite dead, but the corpse they had come to watch could nowhere be found. It was believed in the neighbourhood that it had been carried off by the fairies, and that the young man had been slain by the evil spirit.
A paper in Richardson’s Local Historian’s Table Book (vol. iii. p. 66) confirms and illustrates this account of a lykewake on the Borders. It adds a few particulars, the shrouding of the looking-glass, to intimate that all vanity, all care for earthly beauty, are over with the deceased, and the stopping and shrouding of the clock, to show that with him time is over; and it painfully evinces that the solemnity of the occasion did not preclude practical jokes, which appear to us profane and sacrilegious in the highest degree.
Some traces of these Scottish rites may be found in widely-separated parts of our island. I have seen the plate of salt on the breast of the dead in the North of England, and heard of its use in the Isle of Man, as well as in Wales, Hertfordshire, and Somersetshire. Probably its use has been very general, and this as an emblem of incorruption and eternity.
Sir Walter Scott considered that the word “sleete” in the chorus of the lykewake dirge was a corruption of “selt” or “salt:”
This ae night, this ae night,
The custom of opening the door at the time of death is also widespread. I have heard of it as far south as Spain, and also in Germany. My readers cannot forget how, at the smuggler’s death in the Kaim of Derncleugh, Meg Merrilies unbars the door, and lifts the latch, saying:
Open lock, end strife,
As to the touching of the corpse by those who come to look at it, this is still expected by the poor of Durham on the part of those who come to their house while a dead body is lying in it, in token that they wished no ill to the departed, and were in peace and amity with him.
No doubt this custom grew out of the belief, once universal among northern nations, that a corpse would bleed at the touch of the murderer. In King James the First’s Dæmonology we read: “In a secret murder, if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the murderer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were crying to Heaven for revenge of the murderer.” And it is mentioned in a note to chap. v. of the Fair Maid of Perth, that this bleeding of a corpse was urged as an evidence of guilt in the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburgh as late as 1668.
The practice of covering or removing the looking-glass from the chamber of death extends into the northern counties of England, and this not only for the cause assigned above. The invisible world trenches closely upon the visible one in the chamber of death; and I believe that a dread is felt of some spiritual being imaging himself forth in the blank service of the mirror.
I may here mention that in Denmark it is forbidden to bury a corpse in the clothes of a living person, lest as the clothes rot that person wastes away and perishes. It is said there, too, that one must not weep over the dying, still less allow tears to fall on them; it will hinder their resting in the grave.
Throughout Northumberland when a married woman dies her head should be bound round with a black ribbon; for a spinster white is used.
It is a common belief along the east coast of England, from Northumberland to Kent, that deaths mostly occur during the falling of the tide. As Mr. Peggotty explained to David Copperfield by poor Barkis’s bedside, “People can’t die along the coast except when the tide’s pretty nigh out. They can’t be born unless it’s pretty nigh in—not properly born till flood. He’s agoing out with the tide—he’s agoing out with the tide. It’s ebb at half arter three, slack- water half-an-hour. If he lives till it turns he’ll hold his own till past the flood, and go out with the next tide.” And after many hours’ watching, ”it being low water, he went out with the tide.” In some extracts which I have seen of old date from the parish register of Heslidon, near Hartlepool, the state of the tide at the time of death is named: “The xith daye of Maye, A.D. 1595, at vi. of ye clocke in the morninge, being full water, Mr. Henrye Mitford, of Hoolam, died at Newcastel, and was buried the xvi. daie, being Sondaie, at evening prayer; the hired preacher maid ye sermon.” “The xvii. daie of Maie, at xii. of ye clock at noon, being lowe water, Mrs. Barbara Mitford died, and was buried the xviii. daie of Maie, at ix. of the clocke. Mr. Holsworth maid ye sermon.” Indeed, the belief must be of some antiquity, and must have found its way inland, since Sir John Falstaff is recorded to have “parted even just between twelve and one, e’en at turning o’ the tide.” I cannot hear of it on the south or west coast of England. A friend suggests to me that there may be some slight foundation for this belief in the change of temperature, which undoubtedly does take place on the change of tide, and which may act on the flickering spark of life, extinguishing it as the ebbing sea recedes.
The obtuseness of feeling with regard to death shown in the Border Lykewake certainly extends southward. A friend tells me of two instances in Yorkshire where persons have had their coffins made some years before their death, and have used them to keep bread and cheese in. Such was certainly the custom of an old brother at Sherburn Hospital, who was well known to many of the inhabitants of Durham. I myself saw the coffin set up against the wall, and witnessed the old man opening it to take out a jug of milk, which he offered to the young lad who accompanied me. The Master of Sherburn Hospital informs me that this old brother was in his way a luxurious man, with a due regard for creature comforts; and that, having a decidedly Roman nose, he had caused a corresponding cavity to be made in the inside of the coffin-lid, for fear the projecting member should be inconvenienced. An old Yorkshire woman was, I am told, very explicit in the directions she gave about her coffin. She ordered two holes to be made in its lid, that when the devil came in at one hole to catch her she might slip out at the other.
A very singular belief prevails along the Borders, of which I find no mention in any book of Folk-Lore, though there is a passing allusion to it in Pennant’s Tour in Scotland: “All fire is extinguished where a corpse is kept, and it is reckoned so ominous for a dog or cat to pass over it that the poor animal is killed without mercy.” Two instances of this slaughter were recently related to the Rev. J. F. Bigge by an old Northumbrian hind. In one case, just as a funeral was about to leave the house, the cat jumped over the coffin, and no one would move till the cat was destroyed. In the other, as a funeral party were coming from a lonely house on a fell, carrying the coffin, because they could not procure a cart, they set it down to rest themselves, and a collie dog jumped over it. It was felt by all that the dog must be killed, without hesitation, before they proceeded further, and killed it was.
It is said, in the county of Durham, that the bodies of the drowned will float on the ninth day; and again, that if a gun be fired over a dead body lying at the bottom of the sea or river, the concussion will break the gall-bladder and cause the body to float. A friend informs me that he has seen this done twice at Stockton, but without success. He also tells me that a loaf weighted with quicksilver, if allowed to float on the water, is said to swim towards and stand over the place where the body lies. This is a very widely-spread belief. I have heard of it not only in several parts of England but in Ireland, and among the North American Indians. To its firm hold in the city of Durham I can myself bear witness. When a boy I have seen persons endeavouring to discover the corpses of the drowned in this manner in the River Wear, near to Stoker’s Wall; and ten years ago the friends of one Christopher Lumley sought for his body in the Smallhope, near Lanchester, in the county of Durham, by the aid of a loaf of bread with a lighted candle in it. Indeed, the same means were practised in the autumn of the year 1860, within two miles of the city of Durham. A little child named Charles Colling fell into the Wear at Shincliffe, on the 21st of October in that year, and was drowned. His friends, after vainly trying the usual methods of finding the body, charged a loaf of bread with quicksilver, and floated it on the stream. Long and earnestly was its course watched, but all in vain; it floated onwards without pausing to mark the resting-place of the little child, and, though the body was ultimately recovered, it was by other means.
The old superstition, that no one can die in a bed containing the feathers of pigeons or game-fowl, can scarcely be called local, for we hear of it in many different parts of England. A Sussex Mrs. Gamp lately told the wife of her clergyman that never did she see any one die so hard as old Master Short, and at last she thought (though his daughter said there were none) that there must be game feathers in the bed. So she tried to pull it from under him, but he was a heavy man and she could not manage it alone, and there was no one with him but herself, and so she got a rope and tied it round him and pulled him by it off the bed, and he went off in a minute quite comfortable, just like a lamb. This old woman’s belief holds its ground in the North, and in Yorkshire the same is said of cock’s feathers. The Russian peasantry have a strong feeling, too, against using pigeon’s feathers in beds. They consider it sacrilegious, the dove being the emblem of the Holy Spirit. Some Yorkshire people declare that no one can die easy on any bed, and will lay a dying man on the floor, to facilitate the departure of the soul. It is remarkable that this is also a Hindoo and Mohamedan custom. In India the dying are always taken from their beds and laid on the ground, it being held that no one can die peaceably except when laid on “mother earth.”
A singular circumstance has been related to me as having occurred a few years ago at a funeral, in the village of Stranton, near West Hartlepool.
The vicar was standing at the churchyard gate awaiting the arrival of the funeral party, when to his surprise the whole group, who had arrived within a few yards of him, suddenly wheeled round and made the circuit of the churchyard wall, thus traversing its west, north, and east boundaries, and making the distance some five or six times greater than was necessary. The vicar, astonished at the proceeding, asked the sexton the reason of so extraordinary a movement. The reply was as follows: “Why, ye wad no hae them carry the dead again the sun; the dead maun ay go wi’ the sun.”
This custom is doubtless an ancient British or Celtic one, and corresponds with the Highland usage of making the deazil, or walking three times round a person according to the course of the sun. Old Highlanders will still make the deazil around those to whom they wish well. To go round the person in the opposite direction, or “withershins,” is an evil incantation, and brings ill fortune.
It is curious to compare this Yorkshire custom of carrying the dead with the sun to the Welsh usage mentioned by Pennant. Speaking of Skir’og, in North Wales, he says: “When a corpse is carried to church from any part of the town the bearers take care to carry it so that the corpse may be on the right hand through the way, be it nearer, or be it less trouble to go on the other side, nor will they bring it through any other way than the north gate.”
It is a Northumbrian belief that three funerals constantly follow one another in quick succession, an opinion to which we may find a parallel in Durham, where it is a matter of common remark that if the cathedral bell tolls once it tolls thrice with little intermission, and in Sussex, where they say that if death enters a house he will not take leave of it till he has carried off three of its inmates. On this point a kind contributor writes: “It is believed in Rome that three cardinals always die in quick succession. On the death of one ‘Eminentissimo’ it is usual to hear discussions as to which of the Sacred College will be the second and the third. Reference to the Annuaria Pontifico will show that the deaths of the cardinals have so occurred in threes up to the latest time. Three thus died in the winter of 1866-7.” A Buckinghamshire variation is to this effect: If the clock strikes while the bell is tolling there will be another death within the week. A friend from that county informs me also, that, whereas it was a rule in her parish that the bell should only be tolled in the daytime, it was once heard by the clergyman at five o’clock on a winter’s morning, and he accordingly sent to the church to have it stopped for two hours. The deceased person was a wealthy farmer, and his widow complained bitterly over the delay in the tolling. “It was so cruel in Mr. Y.” she said, “to keep the poor soul those hours a-waiting!” Now the “passing bell” was supposed in former times to serve two pur- poses: it called on all good Christians within hearing to pray for the departing spirit, and it scared away the evil spirits, who were watching to seize it, or at least to scare and terrify it. Evidently the widow thought that for want of these helps the progress of her husband’s soul to its rest was impeded.
There is, I am informed, among old-fashioned families in Northumberland, a feeling that the death of an inmate is a token of the Divine wrath, and that this wrath rests on the house until after the visit of the parish clergyman, which is therefore anxiously looked for and much valued. A friend of mine well remembers, when a curate in Northumberland some twenty- four years ago, being told by a clergyman of that county that he had been frequently asked to “bless the house” after death had taken place in it.
- Brand’s Pop. Ant. ed. 1854, vol. ii. p. 71.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 109.
- In Sweden, if a person afflicted with an open sore walks over any grave, it will heal slowly or never.—Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 110.
- Pop. Ant. vol. ii. p. 73.
- Wright’s Literature of the Middle Ages, vol. i. p. 291.
- A part of the father’s clothes should be laid over a female child, and the mother’s petticoat on a male child, to find favour with the opposite sex.—Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 109.
- Grote’s History of Greece, vol. i. chap. 2.
- Choice Notes, p. 6.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 110.
- In the year 1848 the family house of the Nevilles, in the city of Durham, called the Bull’s Head, from their cognizance probably, was pulled down to make way for the present Town Hall. In a garret of the mansion was discovered a highly ornamented cradle, in which, doubtless, the great barons of the North had been rocked in infancy. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by the workmen on the spot. There is something touching in the thought that the last relic in this city of a family so famed for deeds and for sufferings should be of such a domestic character. Probably the strong feeling alluded to in the text caused the cradle to be hidden when all the other furniture of this ancient house was dispersed.
- Compare this with the Swedish saying, “You must not take an unbaptized child into anyone’s house; it would bring misfortune there.”
- Mrs. Latham, formerly of Fittleworth, Sussex, who kindly placed in my hands her record of West Suffolk Folk-lore some time before it was published in vol. i. of the records of the Folk-Lore Society.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 108.
- Brand’s Pop. Ant. vol. iii. p. 114.
- See Kelly’s Indo-European Tradition, p. 293.
- Napier’s Folk-Lore of the West of Scotland, p. 44.
- Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii. p. 108.
- Napier’s Folk-Lore of West Scotland, p. 48.
- With this Border portent compare the following narration: “Dr. Ahraham Vander Meer, an upright and zealous Reformer, relates in his Memorabilia that his grandmother while residing at the Hague, being one summer night unable to sleep, placed herself about four o’clock in the morning at the window, and there saw a coffin coming up the Spui Straab, but without anyone else seeming to notice it. It moved on until it stood up erect before a house, where it vanished in an open window. Before six weeks had expired every inmate of that house had died of the plague.”—Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. iii. p. 211.
- Indo-European Tradition and Folk-Lore, p. 110.
- Wilkins, vol. iii. p. 845.
- I suspect that the true reason for shrouding the looking-glass before a funeral is that given me in Warwickshire, that if you look into a mirror in the death chamber you will see the corpse looking over your shoulder. I have heard the same superstition in Devonshire. In the West Riding of Yorkshire there is a strong feeling against burying a woman with her rings or jewellery. A gentleman told me that when his mother died he was desirous of leaving on her hand her wedding-ring, but was reproved for the wish by the women who laid her out. “Ye mun no send her to God wi’ her trinkets about her,” they said.—S. B. G.
- Brand’s Pop. Ant. vol. ii. p. 285.
- This prejudice existed very strongly in Iceland in ancient times. According to the Vatnsdæela saga, a woman, by going against the sun round a house and waving a cloth, brought down a landslip against the house (Vatnsdæla, s. c. 363; Laudnama, iii. and p. 181). The date of this event was about A.D. 990. So a magical storm was laid (Vatsn. c. 47; and also Thorfin’s S. Karlsefnis, c. 9, p. 11; Droplaxgar Sonar, s. p. 10): “The hag did not lie down to sleep that night, she was so restless. The weather was cold without, a keen frost, and the sky clear. She went several times against the sun and round the house, set her face in all directions, and turned her nose up. And as she thus went about the weather began to change. There rose a dense fog, and after that an icy blast, and an avalanche broke off on the mountain-side, and the snow shot down, on the farm of Berg, and twelve men died of it. The signs of the fall are visible now.”—(Gisla S. Surssonar, p. 33.) Again: “The hag took her knife, and cut on the log runes, and smeared them with her blood, and chanted charms over them. Then she went many times against the sun round the log, and muttered many troll-like sayings. After that she had the log rolled down to the sea, and she said that it would be washed to Drangey, where it would work mischief to Grettir.”—(Gretla, c. 81.) To go against the sun is “andsælis” in Icelandic. I have heard in Yorkshire that if you walk three times round the room against the sun at midnight, and in perfect darkness, and then look into the glass, you will see the devil’s face leering out of it at you. Again, on All Souls Day (I believe), if two people walk round the room at midnight, and in darkness, going contrary ways, they will never meet; one of the two will have been spirited away—S. B. G.