Folk-Lore/Volume 30/Customary Restraints on Celibacy

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
726510Folk-Lore Volume XXX (1919) — Customary Restraints on CelibacyH. A. Rose


In Hamlet (Act iv. Scene 5) Ophelia sings:


To-morrow is St. Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your valentine."

This song, possibly a folk-song or an adaptation of one, calls to mind a motif very common in Indian pictures and folk-tales of the woman visiting her lover, instead of being visited by him. The chivalry of the Oriental does not preclude his saying, "The woman tempted me," indeed such a phrase does not necessarily involve any disparagement of her conduct, and in Indian writings on art "she who goes out to seek her lover (Sanskr. abhisārika) is one of the recognised standard types of womanhood. Apparently then Ophelia's song records a well-recognised custom which privileged a maid to visit a bachelor.

How this usage came to attach itself to St. Valentine's day is not at present explicable, but the maid's privilege suggests a survival of the power possessed by women of the Valentian gens whose presence brought health to a sick person. Ex hypothesi such women must have been unmarried, as on marriage they would cease to belong to that gens, unless indeed it was also acquired on marriage by women of other gentes married by a Valens. Against this suggestion there is however the fact that so far no evidence has come to light to connect the Saint with the Valentian gens. It is ingeniously suggested by Mr. G. W. Marshall that galantin is derived from Valentin, but the Oxford Dictionary (s.v. gallant) lends no support to this theory.[1]

Ophelia's song tells us nothing of the object of the maid's visit or appearance at the window, and it may have been simply to bring luck to the bachelor chosen by her. But this is unlikely. It seems more probable that on St. Valentine's day unmarried maidens possessed a privilege similar to that allowed them in Leap-year of demanding a bachelor's hand in lawful marriage. In primitive societies matrimony is a duty which society will enforce, if necessary, by drastic methods. But such a custom as Ophelia describes might, it is obvious, degenerate into license, and so if a maid permitted this to occur she appears to have lost her title to demand lawful wedlock. If this theory is tenable it would explain why a bachelor having been accused of seducing a maid under promise of marriage could apparently plead his own act as a defence to his breach of promise. Ophelia's song concludes with these lines:

"Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed."

He answers:[2]

"So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed."

A somewhat similar rule governed the usages on February 24th or 29th in Leap-year. As early as 1606 a bachelor receiving a proposal from a ladye at any time apparently during the bissextile year was bound to marry her or accept her advances[3] under pain of losing benefit of clergy. Thus the obligation was taken very seriously, and subsequently a belief grew up in Scotland that the obligation was based upon an Act of 1228, passed in the reign of Queen Margaret,[4] and imposing a maximum penalty of £100 on a bachelor who refused to be so bespoken. No such Act was ever passed, it seems, but as 'a few years later' a like law was passed in France, and in the fifteenth century the custom was legalised in Genoa and Florence,[5] it may be safely conjectured that some ancient and wide-spread usage was codified at those periods in the countries mentioned, and that in Scotland it was either judicially recognised or confirmed by royal ordinance.

In Scotland Leap-year appears to be ill-omened. Thus it is unlucky for beasts and bodies and a heap o' witchcraft is about in Leap-year—Country Folk Lore, vii., 1912, F.-L.S., Fife, p. 158. On the other hand, in Yorkshire Leap-year is lucky for marriage:

"Happy they'll be that wed and wive
Within leap-year; they're sure to thrive."[6]

For divination of the destined spouse in ashes on St. Valentine's day, see Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisnie, by Aubrey, F.-L.S. edition, 1880, p. 24. Elsewhere on 'Old Candlemass Day,' the 14th February, the first man you meet is your Valentine—because birds choose their mates on that day.

Certain other points may be noted. Hone[7] reproduces an account of St. Valentine's day as observed in Hartfordshire. There children used to visit houses early in the morning and sing:

"Good morrow to you, Valentine;
Curl your locks as I do mine.
Two before and three behind,
Good morrow to you, Valentine."

Apparently the second line referred to a custom whereby the girls of the party dressed up a boy as a girl. "Two or three of the girls," says this account, "select one of the youngest amongst them (generally a boy), whom they deck out more gaily than the rest, and place at their head." The third line is perhaps readily explicable. The boy's hair is to be curled like a girl's, as a taunt to the bachelors of the family visited, and a hint that they should face the responsibilities of matrimony,[8] If this theory is correct, it supplies further evidence that St. Valentine's day resembled Leap-year.

But in other parts of England the rhymes sung have no explicable meaning. Thus in Northamptonshire and Rutlandshire children used to go 'valentining' from house to house, singing:

"Morrow, morrow, Valentine,
First 'tis yours and then 'tis mine;
So please to give a Valentine,
Holly and ivy tickle my toe,
Give me red apple and let me go."

And in Berkshire the rhyme runs:

"Knock the kittle agin the pan,
Gie us a penny if 'e can;
We be ragged and you be vine,
Please to gie us a Valentine.
Up wi' the kittle, down wi' the spout,
Gie us a penny an' we'll gie out (cease)."

In the north parts of Northants godparents used to give their godchildren sweet currant buns called Valentine buns on the Sundays before and after St. Valentine's day. In Rutlandshire lozenge-shaped buns called 'shittles' were given to children and old people on Valentine's day[9]—obviously to compliment the latter and impart their longevity to the young.

Another taunt comes from Ireland, where "in Connaught, the colleens there have a quaint custom on Shrove Tuesday night. They take hold of all the young bachelors and rub salt on their faces. The object of this surprising custom is, I understand, to preserve the men until the following Shrove!"[10]

An account of the "black" Mass of St. Sécaire will be found in The Magic Art (i., pp. 232-3), but St Sécaire was not wholly bad, since his mass was resorted to in Gascony to bring a recalcitrant lover up to the scratch, especially one who had seduced the girl.[11] Who this saint really was it is difficult to say, and the Gis or Cis and St. Charity of Ophelia's lines seem to be equally unknown.

Usages which aim at compelling women of marriageable age to find husbands are probably more commonly to be found than those described above. For example, in the Freiamt and Kelleramt parts of German Switzerland: "it occurred in the Fastnacht that boys dressed themselves as disagreeable or ill-favoured maids (hässliche Jungfrauen) and then sneaked into houses where nubile maidens of ancient date dwelt, so as to lurk there in kitchen or passage until dragged out by accomplices, loaded on waggons, they were carried through the village and put up to public auction as 'objects of matrimony' (Heiratsobjekt), or, in case they could be provided with husbands, taken to the 'Giritzimoos' for bachelors who were unable to make up their minds to marry. Es gab ferner öffentliche Ausrufe, in welchen auf ärgerlichen Lebenswandel angespielt wurde. So zog einst in einem Dorfe ein Ausrufer herum, welcher unter Hornstössen bekannt gab: 'De St. hed d' Frau gschlage, er gäb's Pfund für e Vierer, aher es stink, es well's niemer.'" And, for example, a drunken woman was sold as veal. All this makes it quite clear that matrimony was regarded as a social duty, and its avoidance as a social crime.[12]

Similarly in Rüthi (Canton St. Gall) a "Pfingstmannli" was painted (on Whit-Sunday?) on houses where a girl who had no sweetheart lived. In Oberriet, on the other hand, the Pfingstmannli was painted on the house of one who had a 'Schatz,' but Hofmann-Krayer is doubtless right in thinking that the custom originated in the public branding or moral punishment of celibacy.[13] He is equally justified in saying that folk-justice is supported by the Scriptural commandment to 'increase and multiply.'

At Dagmerstellen in Canton Luzern the "Giritzenmoos" ceased to be observed about 1870, and J. L. Arnold's account of it leaves some points obscure. Originally held on the Hirsmontag, the Monday after Invocavit, but later on Güdismontag, the Monday after Estomihi, it was an elaborate example of folk-justice. The Giritzvater was elected, and a youth chosen to represent each and every village belle, for which purpose he was masked. The proceedings were mainly directed against unmarried maidens whose ages ranged from 24 to 35, but other misdemeanants were not exempt. The Giritzvater and his scribe were seated on a big wain, covered in like those of travelling folk. Arriving at the door of an offending maid, she was summoned, and if she refused to come out her representative was dragged out by the Giritzvater's orderlies. But while those who submitted to his jurisdiction were subjected to considerable indignity, being put up to auction, and if not bid for cast into a gravel-pit, those who refused to do so apparently escaped the ordeal or only underwent it by their proxies.[14]

Traces of a similar usage are found in festivals during the month of May, Thus at Provence in Canton Waadt the following song was sung on May 7th in 1843:

"Jeunes filles de quarante ans,
Qui avez passé votre temps,
Vous l'avez passé, le passerez
Sans vous marier . . .
Belles il faut vous consoler!"[15]

Lastly, childlessness is a social offence in the country round Geneva. On the first Sunday in May the village children visit the houses of couples which have been married a year but have no children. The usage is called "crier les allouilles" or "allouiller," and as allouille means the fête of the brandons, allouillâ has apparently come to mean 'to throw out of window.' The children have to be bought off with gifts of sweets and pence.[16]

In Brittany the duty of bringing into the world an allotted number of children is a motive of the grimmer Breton stories.[17]

The observation that marriage is a duty under any circumstances has already been emphasised by Westermarck,[18] but he does not allude to any specific penalties imposed on unjustifiable celibacy. Sir James Frazer also brings out the general attitude of primitive society towards men or women who fail to fulfil this duty.[19]

The Jews, who have always encouraged early marriage, have now abandoned all attempts at compulsory marriages, but a Jewish court often used to put pressure on a man over 20 to compel him to take a wife.[20]

  1. Notes and Queries, twelfth series, Jan. 1919, pp. 24-5.
  2. These words are omitted in the Ff., according to Aldis Wright, in the Cambridge Shakespeare, 1892, vol. vii. p. 534. They look like a gloss, but, as is common in popular poetry, the dialogue is clearly given without specification of the speakers. No one ever seems to have suggested that Ophelia ascribes this retort to Hamlet. It must then have been a well-known part of the folk-rhyme.
  3. Notes and Queries, fourth s., viii. p. 505. It is not clear that he was bound to marry her.
  4. N.Q. seventh s., x. p. 188. But the great Queen Margaret, who suppressed marriage with a step-mother or with a deceased husband's brother, died before the end of the eleventh century (P. Hume Brown, History of Scotland, i. p. 64). Margaret of Norway (1283–4) can hardly be meant (ib. p. 128), and Margaret, daughter of Henry VII. and wife of James IV. is obviously not alluded to. In 1228 no 'Queen Margaret' was alive in Scotland.
  5. Encyclopædia Britannica, eleventh ed., xvi. p. 330.
  6. Wright, Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore, p. 272.
  7. Year Book, p. 101.
  8. In Switzerland young boys dress as girls and girls as boys on the Güdismendig or Güggismendig, i.e. the Monday after the Herrenfastnacht, Shrove Tuesday, and following days, in Frei- and Keller-amt, but the significance of the custom is not explained: Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, Zürich, 1905, p. 128.
  9. Wright, op.cit., pp. 289-90. Mrs. Wright also cites an agricultural proverb from Rutlandshire: 'Valentine's day—sow your beans in the clay.'
  10. Sunday Pictorial, 2/3/19.
  11. Sébillot, Folk-Lore de France, iv. 238-9. I am indebted for this and several other references to Dr. Sidney Hartland.
  12. "Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 1905, p. 131. Moos appears to be the Anglo-Saxon 'moot.'
  13. Ibid., 1904, p. 166.
  14. Ibid., 1903, pp. 295-8.
  15. Ibid., 1907, p. 258. In some parts of Canton Neuenburg it was the custom for boys to sing at the "Maisingen" if the beeches were in leaf on May-Day, otherwise the girls sang: p. 257.
  16. Ibid., 1903, p. 161.
  17. E. Sidney Hartland, Ritual and Belief, p. 200.
  18. Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, ii, p. 66 ff.
  19. Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, ii. ch. vi., especially pp. 336-7.
  20. Ebhen hā-'ezer, i. 2, cited in J. Hastings, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, viii. 461.