Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders/Introductory chapter

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IT is difficult, while living on the surface of society, so smooth, so rational, so commonplace, to realise what relics of a widely different past linger in its depths—relics of an extensive and deeply-rooted system of mythology, antedating in great measure Christianity itself. Yet so it is: in almost every part of our island we occasionally come across such bits of stubborn antiquity, but in the North of England they abound. The district between the Tweed and the Humber teems with Folk-Lore of a rich and varied character. Great part of the county of Durham is indeed spoiled (in an antiquarian point of view) by collieries; but it still contains some quiet villages far away from great thoroughfares, where strange tales are yet told and strange old customs practised; while the north and west of Northumberland, and the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire, abound with them.

Those who mix much among the lower orders, and have opportunities of inquiring closely into their beliefs, customs, and usages, will find in these remote places—nay, even in our towns and larger villages—a vast mass of superstition, holding its ground most tenaciously. On looking closely into this we discern, among much that is mythical and legendary in its character, and much that is the simple outgrowth of human fancy and imagination, a good deal of what is unquestionably heathenism in disguise. Archbishop Whately states this perhaps too broadly. “It is,” he says, “a marvel to many, and seems to them nearly incredible, that the Israelites should have gone after other gods, and yet the vulgar in most parts of Christendom are actually serving the gods of their heathen ancestors. But then they do not call them gods, but fairies or bogles, and they do not apply the word worship to their veneration of them, nor sacrifice to their offerings. And this slight change of name keeps most people in ignorance of a fact that is before their eyes.”[1]

This is a strong statement, yet historical facts appear to bear it out. We know that as late as the seventeenth century undisguised idol-worship was to be found in Brittany, while down to the eighteenth it was common there for offerings of money, milk, and ears of corn to be made to the great Menhir, an obelisk once connected with Druidical worship. We know, too, that almost if not quite up to the present time, on holiday eves, the Norwegian peasant has offered cakes, sweet porridge, and libations of wort or buttermilk, on mounds consecrated to the invisible folk, and called bœttir mounds; and, as will be shown hereafter, well-nigh within the memory of man, beasts have been slain in sacrifice, at times of great extremity, in our own country; while the rites still in use for the dressing of wells at Buxton and Tissington in Derbyshire, and in other places throughout England and on the Borders, bear a singular resemblance to the Fontinalia of heathen Rome, when the nymphs of wells and fountains were honoured by flinging nosegays into the fountains and crowning the wells with garlands of flowers.

The question naturally arises, how is it that heathen beliefs and heathen observances still exist in a country which was christianized so many centuries ago? We may reply, with reference to the district especially under our consideration, that the stern mould of the northern mind is strong to retain images once deeply impressed upon it. And on the subject generally it may be observed that from the beginning the Church appears practically to have tolerated such parts of the old mythological system as she considered harmless, and to have permitted them to live on without check or rebuke. Thus the customs of the Lupercalia passed into those of St. Valentine’s day, and, the Scandinavian Yule coinciding with the Feast of the Nativity, the old Yule merrymakings and mummings continued in use without raising ecclesiastical censure. Thus the honour long given to persons and demigods was transferred to saints and martyrs. Thus, again, old sacred sites were taken possession of for the new faith. We often find Christian burial-grounds occupying the site of Pagan ones; and I myself have seen huge upright stones marking some place sacred in heathen eyes in close proximity to Christian churches.[2] In Sweden there was, at the first propagation of Christianity, a good deal of intermingling of truth and error. Heathen images were removed from the ancient oratories, and those of sacred beings set up in their places; still old associations proved sometimes too strong for the converts, and prayers to Thor and Freya were mixed with Christian orisons.

In judging the clergy of the day for their line of action in this and kindred matters we should in justice remember that they were taken from among the people, and consequently imbued with the same prejudices, feelings, and superstitions as those to whom they ministered. Nor must we forget that, like them, they were wholly unacquainted with the causes of natural phenomena. This universal ignorance of the laws of nature goes far to account for the widespread superstition which for ages pervaded all Europe, and which from local causes has taken so firm a grasp of some particular spots.

Perfectly unacquainted with the laws that govern the universe, the early Christians, like the Pagans and Neo-Platonists, made supernatural beings the special cause of all the phenomena of nature. They attributed to these beings, according to their beneficial or injurious effects, all atmospheric phenomena. According to them, angels watched over the different elements, and demons endeavoured to overthrow their power. From the struggle between them arose storms and whirlwinds, plagues and earthquakes. St. Clement of Alexandria refers all this to diabolical agency, and the same idea was perpetuated throughout the Middle Ages.[3] Hence it was that of old, storms were conjured to depart by the sign of the cross or the ringing of church bells, as indeed to this day Roman Catholics are wont to cross themselves during a thunderstorm.

From the first the Church, by the decrees of Councils and the voice of her chief Fathers and Doctors, condemned such superstition as she deemed worthy of notice; not however on the ground of folly, but of impiety. It is possible, therefore, that her denunciations might go towards confirming a belief in the whole fabric of superstition, as a real and powerful though forbidden thing. “Religion,” said Lactantius, “is the cultus of the truth, superstition is that of the false.” Among persons mentioned in the Apostolical Constitutions as unworthy of baptism are “magicians, enchanters, astrologers, diviners, magical charmers, idle and wandering beggars, makers of amulets and phylacteries, and such as dealt in heathenish lustrations, soothsayers and observers of signs and omens, interpreters of palpitations, observers of accidents in meeting others, making divinations therefrom as upon a blemish in the eye or in the feet, observers of the motions of birds or weazels, observers of voices and symbolical sounds. All these are to be examined and tried a considerable time whether they would relinquish their arts or not. If they did they might be received; if not they were to be rejected from baptism. Phylacteria were amulets made of riband with a text of scripture or some other charm of words written on them to cure diseases or to keep off danger—a piece of heathen superstition hard to cure. Clergymen who made such were condemned by the council of Laodicea, and the wearers ordered to be cast out of the Church. The council of Trullo decreed six years’ penance for such offenders.”—Bingham’s Antiquities, book xi. chap. 5. “I omit other things that might make us weep,” says St. Chrysostom.[4] “Your auguries, your omens, your superstitious observances, your casting of nativities, your signs, your amulets, your divinations, your incantations, your magical arts,—these are crying sins, enough to provoke the anger of God.” “You may see a man washing himself from the pollution of a dead body; but from dead works, never. Again, spending much zeal in the pursuit of riches, and yet supposing the whole is undone by the crowing of a cock.” “So darkened are they in their understanding, their soul is filled with all sorts of terrors. For instance: ‘Such a person,’ one will say, ‘was the first to meet me as I was going out of doors to-day,’ and of course a thousand ills must ensue. At another time, ‘That wretch of a servant, in giving me my shoes, held out the left shoe first,’—terrible mishaps and mischief! ‘I myself, in coming out, put my left leg foremost;’ and here, too, is a token of misfortune. Then, as I go out, my right eye turns up from beneath—a sure sign of tears. Again, the women, when the reeds strike against the standards and ring, or when they themselves are scratched by the shuttle, turn this also into a sign. And again, when they strike the web with the shuttle, and do it with some vehemence, and then the reeds on the top sound, this again they make a sign; and ten thousand things besides as ridiculous. And so if an ass bray, or a cock crow, or a man sneeze, or whatever else happen, like men bound with ten thousand chains—they suspect everything, and are more enslaved than all the slaves in the world.”[5]

A long list of popular superstitions was condemned by a council held in the eighth century at Leptines, in Hainault, under the title of Indiculus superstitionum et paganarium. Pope Gregory III. issued similar anathemas.[6] The Capitularies of Charlemagne and his successors repeat the denunciation of them.

About the same date similar superstitions were rebuked in Scotland by the Abbot Cumeanus the Wise, in his tract De mensura pœnitentiarum. In the same century St. Eligius, Bishop of Noyon, preached against similar superstitions: “Above all, I implore you not to observe the sacrilegious customs of the pagans. Do not consult the gravers of talismans, nor diviners, nor sorcerers, nor enchanters, for any sickness whatsoever. . . . Do not take notice of auguries, or of sneezings; do not pay attention to the songs of the birds when you go abroad. Let no Christian pay regard to the particular day on which he leaves a house or enters it. Let no one perplex himself about the new moon or eclipses. Let no one do on the calends of January those forbidden, ridiculous, ancient, and disreputable things, such as dancing, or keeping open house all night, or getting drunk. Let no one on the feast of St. John, or any other saint, celebrate solstices by dances, carols, or diabolical chants; let no one invoke Neptune, Pluto, Diana, Minerva, or his genius; let no one rest on the day of Jupiter, unless it fall on a saint’s day; nor observe the month of May, nor any other season or day except the Lord’s day. Let no one light torches along the highways and crossroads; let no one tie notes to the neck of a man or some animal; let no one make lustrations or enchantments upon herbs, or make his cattle pass through a split tree, or through a hole made in the ground. Let no one utter loud cries when the moon is pale; let no one fear that something will happen to him at new moon; let no one believe in destiny of fortune, or the quadrature of the geniture, commonly called a nativity,” &c. &c.

Four centuries later Burchard of Worms made a collection of denunciations of superstitions from the decrees of Councils and Popes, and the list is very remarkable. “Superstition is a vice opposed by excess to adoration and religion,” said the illustrious Gerson; and in the provincial Council of York, in A.D. 1466, it was declared, with St. Thomas, that all superstition was idolatry.

On the whole, it certainly appears that the early and medieval Churches in their collective form, far from encouraging heathenish superstition, constantly protested against it. Individual clergy in remote districts may have taken a different line, as St. Patrick is said to have “engrafted Christianity on Paganism with so much skill that he won over the people to the Christian religion before they understood the exact difference between the two systems of belief.”[7] At any rate, the old superstition lived on with marvellous vitality, and the Reformation, at least on the Continent and in Scotland, did little to check it. On the contrary, It would seem, that, when cut away from communion with the angelic world and saints departed, men’s minds fastened the more readily upon a supernatural system of another order. Curiously enough, Martin Luther fell a prey to the grossest superstition. Witness the following extracts from his Table Talk, quoted in the Introduction to Thorpe’s Mythology, vol. ii.:—

“Changelings (Wechselbälge) and Kielkropfs, Satan lays in the place of the genuine children, that people may be tormented with them. He often carries off young maidens into the water, has intercourse with them, and keeps them with him until they have been delivered, then lays such children in cradles, takes the genuine children out, and carries them away. But such changelings, it is said, do not live more than eighteen or twenty years.” Again: “Eight years ago there was a changeling in Dessau, which I, Dr. Martin Luther, have both seen and touched: it was twelve years old, and had all its senses, so that people thought it was a proper child; but that mattered little, for it only ate, and that as much as any four ploughmen or thrashers, and when any one touched it, it screamed; when things in the house went wrong, so that any damage took place, it laughed and was merry; but if things went well it cried. Thereupon I said to the Prince of Anhalt, ‘If I were prince or ruler here I would have this child thrown into the water, into the Moldau, that flows by Dessau, and would run the risk of being a homicide.’ But the Elector of Saxony, who was then at Dessau, and the Prince of Anhalt, would not follow my advice. I then said they ought to cause a pater-noster to be said in the church, that God would take the devil away from them. This was done daily at Dessau, and the said changeling died two years after.”

On at least one point the early Scotch and English Calvinistic divines showed the greatest credulity. It is notorious that they believed unhesitatingly in the existence of sorcery, and were ever ready to extend and enforce the legal penalties against it. “It is not to be denied,” says Sir Walter Scott,[8] “that the Presbyterian ecclesiastics, who in Scotland were often appointed by the Privy Council commissioners for the trial of witchcraft, evinced a very extraordinary degree of credulity in such cases, and that the temporary superiority of the same sect in England was marked by enormous cruelties of this kind.”

The notices, however, of the Folk-Lore of my fellow-countrymen which I have been able to collect during the last few years are widely varied in their origin. If some of them are unmistakeable relics of heathenism, some have their origin in the rites and customs of the unreformed Church, and some in the myths and historical traditions of our ancestors the Saxons and Danes; while others, again, appear to be the spontaneous growth of sensitive and imaginative minds, yearning for communion with a mysterious past and yet more mysterious future. They are varied, too, in their character; some breathing deep religious feeling, some full of light, graceful fancy, while some are gross, vulgar, even cruel superstitions. Let me add, that while recording them a conviction has deepened upon me that there are very, very many more incidents of a similar kind to be collected. Unless this be speedily done I firmly believe that many a singular usage and tradition will pass away from the land unnoted and unremembered. It would be very desirable if a scheme could be organised for systematically collecting and classifying the remnants of our Folk-Lore; but at least I would intreat all those in whose eyes the subject possesses any interest accurately to note down every old custom, observance, proverb, saying, or legend which comes before them.

  1. Miscellaneous Remains, p. 274.
  2. Thus, in Ireland, St. Patrick and his followers almost invariably selected the sacred sites of Paganism, and built their wooden churches under the shadow of the Round Towers—then as mysterious and inscrutable as they are to-day.
  3. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summ. Theolog., I. quæst. lxxx. act 2. St. Bonaventura, Comp. Theolog. veritat ii. 26. Albertus Magnus de Potentia Dæmonum.
  4. Hom. X. on 1 Tim.
  5. St. Chrysost. Hom. XII. on Eph. iv. 17. Compare also St. Clem. Alex. Strom, vii. 4, pp. 841-844. St. Cyril of Jerus. iv. 37. St. Augustine, Enchiridion, p. 134, de Doct. Christ, ii. 20, 21, &c.
  6. Coneil, ed. Labbs, lib. vi. fol. 1476, 1482.
  7. Dr. O’Donovan’s Four Masters, p. 131.
  8. Demonology and Witchcraft, letter viii.