The Elizabethan People/Chapter 11
MANY were the superstitious rites pertaining to birth, marriage, and death. The Elizabethans talked freely and without shame among themselves in a manner that has gone out of vogue in our more artificial age—hence it is not surprising that many of their superstitions related to the time preceding birth. Certain features of the body indicated the likelihood of children. An oily palm was thought to be a fruitful prognostication. A child got when drunk was certain to be a girl. An affectionate husband was likely to suffer from toothache during his wife's pregnancy. Pregnant women and women in childbed were especially liable to be stolen by fairies either to nurse the fairy children or to nurse human children who had been stolen by the woodland folk. We are told that a piece of bread, or iron, or the Bible put in the bed in the time of labour was a protection against the malice of the fairies. The knowledge that one's wife was with child was often the occasion for building a bonfire in celebration of the fact.
Birth was also commemorated by the building of huge bonfires, and by other public rejoicing. For a month or more the new-born infant led a strenuous life. Two dangers were immediately to be guarded against. The child might be overlooked, or it might be stolen by the fairies. Many people possessed the evil eye, a power that enabled them to overlook one, or bewitch one, with baneful results. Out and out witches by reputation would in no case be allowed in the neighbourhood of an unbaptised infant; but other people of ugly feature and darksome reputation might be guilty of exercising the power of the evil eye. This custom is the subject of frequent allusion. Overlooking, however, was not confined to the time of infancy. In The Merry Wives, Pistol cries out of Falstaff, "Vile worm, thou wast o'erlook'd even in thy birth."More dangerous yet was the malice of the fairies. Only people of evil minds exercised the above-mentioned malicious practice, and, though fairies were on the whole a goodly kind of folk and well disposed towards human beings, there were fairies of malicious inclinations. Perhaps this was why their ill-timed acts were so hard to guard against, for they stole the human children out of love. Fairies were not only beautiful in themselves but notoriously fond of beautiful children. They stole such on every occasion.
The Great Hall, Charlecote.
"O that it could be prov'd
That some night tripping fairy had exchang'd
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And call'd mine Percy, his Plantagenet!"
Mr. Dyer is my authority for the following description of a practice so similar to the usual treatment of insane people in the time of Shakespeare: "To induce the fairies to restore the stolen child," he says, "it was customary in Ireland to put the one supposed of being a changeling on a hot shovel, or to torment it in some other way. It seems that in Denmark the mother heats the oven, and places the changeling on the peel, pretending to put it in, or whips it severely with a rod, or throws it into the water. In the western isles of Scotland idiots are supposed to be the fairies' changelings, and in order to regain the lost child, parents have recourse to the following device. They place the changeling on the beach, below high-water mark, when the tide is out, and pay no heed to its screams, believing that the fairies, rather than suffer their offspring to be drowned by the rising water, will convey it away, and restore the child they had stolen. The sign that this has been done is the cessation of the child's screaming."
The surest protection against such dangers was baptism; hence the haste on the part of superstitious people to have the ceremony performed as soon as possible. The christening was the occasion of much rejoicing and public festivity. The child was often borne upon a costly and beautifully embroidered cushion, the child itself being covered during the ceremony with the bearing cloth. "Here's a sight for thee," cries one in The Winter's Tale at the discovery of Perdita, "Here's a sight for thee: look thee, a bearing cloth for a squire's child! Look thee here; take up, take up, boy; open 't." "A yard of lawn will serve thee for a christening cloth," occurs in Middleton's The Witch. During the ceremony the priest laid on the child's face the face-cloth, or chrisom-cloth, of pure white linen, emblematic of purity. This was worn by the child till after the churching of the mother. Infants who died during the period allotted to the wearing of the chrisom were frequently alluded to in the records of deaths merely as chrisoms. The sweet innocence of infancy is implied by Dame Quickly in her well-known remark: "'A made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child."
It was the custom to give presents at the christening. In Stow's Chronicle (Ed. 1631), we read that at about this time it is not customary "for godfathers and godmothers generally to give plate at the baptism of children, but only to give 'christening shirts,' with little bands and cuffs, wrought either with silk or blue thread. The best of them for chief persons were edged with small lace of black silk and gold, the highest price of which, for great men's children, was seldom above a noble, and the common sort, two, three, or four, and six shillings apiece."
A few years earlier, however, in the time of Shakespeare, it was indeed the custom to give presents of plate, often of great value, at christenings. Money, jewelry, and cups were common presents, but the form of plate considered necessary as a gift from the sponsors was one or more of the well-known apostle spoons. These were wrought with the handle terminating in a carved image representing one of the apostles. Sometimes one, two, or more were given; and the finest example of extravagant generosity on the occasion consisted in presenting the child with a full set of the twelve apostles. In King Henry VIII., when Cranmer professes himself unworthy to be sponsor to the young princess, the king cries out: "Come, come, my lord, you'd spare your spoons."
In a collection of anecdotes compiled by Sir Nicholas L'Estrange under the name of Merry Passages and Jests (MSS. Harl. 6395) occurs the following amusing bits of repartee:"Shakespeare was godfather to one of Ben Jonson's children, and after the child's christening, being in a deep study, Jonson came to cheer him up, and ask'd him why he was so melancholy. 'No, faith, Ben,' says he, 'not I; but I have been
The Gallery of Haddon Hall.
considering a great while what should be the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my godchild, and I have resolved at last.' 'I pr'y thee, what?' says he. 'I' faith, Ben, I'le e'en give him a dozen good Latin spoons, and thou shalt translate them.'" Latten was an inferior kind of metal resembling brass.
Following the christening was the gossips' feast. This was the occasion of much fraternal drinking and exchange of sentiment. The Bachelor's Banquet, published in 1603, and attributed to Thomas Dekker the dramatist, says in regard to the gossips' feast: "What cost and trouble it will be to have all things fine against the Christening Day; what store of sugar, biskets, comphets, and caraways, marmalet, and marchpane, with all kinds of sweet suckers and superfluous banqueting stuff, with a hundred other odd and needless trifles, which at that time must fill the pocket of dainty dames."
The falling off in generosity exemplified by the gradual cessation of the habit of giving presents of plate seemed to foster a notion that the gossips no longer deserved their feast. At any rate, we read the following in regard to the custom in Shipman's Gossip, published in 1666.
"Especially since gossips now
Eat more at christenings than bestow.
Formerly when they used to troul
Gilt bowls of sack, they gave the bowl;
Two spoons at least; an use ill kept;
'Tis now well if our own be left."}}
The birthday was annually commemorated by a great feast, often given at high noon. An interesting superstition concerning the time of infancy is thus alluded to in Dekker's Westward Ho!. "I do assure you if a woman of any markable face in the world give her child suck, look how many wrinkles be in the nipple of her breast—so many will be in her forehead by that time twelve month."
Courtship in the time of Shakespeare was carried on in a more fearless though less refined manner than at the present time. Except for this people seem to have fallen in love then much as they have done at other times in the history of the race. It was the custom to send gifts and tokens to the sweetheart; and it was quite the fad to accompany the present with a set of verses which, at a period of several years either way from 1600, usually were couched in the form of a sonnet. Whether it was the sonnet vogue which produced such an appalling mass of worthless sonnet literature, justifying Mr. Sidney Lee's comparison of their authors to "mere wallowers in the bogs that lie at the foot of the poetic mountain,"—whether it was this that fostered the custom on the part of lovers, or whether their ill-advised but popular attempts accounts for the worthless character of so much of the production, it is hard to say. Certainly the two, to a certain extent, went hand in hand, for the wholly unpoetic lover had his literature "done out" by the professional verse writer.
It was customary for the sad lover, who went about "sighing like a furnace," to drink his sweetheart's health in public with a right hearty will. In fact, the vivacity of his toast and the length of his draught were a fair indication to his fellows of the depth of his passion. On such an occasion the sentimental lover was likely to be furnished with his lady-love's favour, which he wore not upon his crest as in the former days of chivalry, but upon the more modern love-lock. Even when the hair was cropped fairly close, fashion decreed that one lock behind the ear on one or both sides should be left long. To this, the love-lock, was tied the sweetheart's favour, much as we attach a blue ribbon to the braided mane or tall of the prize winner at a horse show. We are reminded of this by a line in Edward II. (ii. 2), "Where women's favours hang like labels down." Again, in Lyly's Mydas (iii. 2), "Your love-locks wreathed with silken twist, or shaggie to fall on your shoulders." A sweetheart's picture as well as her bracelets were frequently in possession of her lover. In case of a quarrel all presents were immediately returned to the rightful owner.
It was not considered good form to propose to a girl until after the parents' consent had been obtained; and then it was as often they as the lover who submitted the proposition to the young woman for consideration. The old plays furnish us with more allusions to the need of the lover's endeavour to gain the aid of the mother in his suit than of the father. Gifts to the mother are of great service in Heywood's The Fair Maid of the Exchange. One necessity for this previous sanction of the parent was due to the fact that it would be a reckless lover indeed who forgot the marriage portion, no matter how deeply he was in love. The father's will for a marriage was all in all to the daughter, and few girls dared to express dissatisfaction with a marriage already planned. Neither of these facts is exaggerated in the following quotation from Lyly's Mother Bombie (i. 3):"Parents in these days are grown peevish, they rock their children in their cradles till they sleep, and cross them about their bridals till their hearts ache. Marriage among them has become a market. What will you give with your daughter?
The Library, Charlecote.
What jointure will you make for your son? And many a match is broken off for a penny more or less, as though they could not afford their children at such a price; when none should cheapen such ware but affection, and none buy it but love.... Indeed our parents take great care to make us ask blessing and say grace whenas we are little ones, and growing to years of judgment, they deprive us of the greatest blessing, and the most gracious things to our minds: they give us pap with a spoon before we can speak, and when we speak for that we love, pap with a hatchet: because their fancies being grown musty with hoary age, therefore nothing can relish in their thoughts that savours of sweet youth: they study twenty years together to make us grow as straight as a wand, and in the end by bowing us, make us as crooked as a cammock. For mine own part (sweet Candius) they shall pardon me, for I shall measure my love by mine own judgment, not my father's purse or peevishness. Nature hath made me his child not his slave."
How like a slave's was the treatment of an Elizathan girl, who opposed her father's will in marriage may be read in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and in Romeo and Juliet. Though the scene in the latter play where Capulet abuses Juliet is doubtless introduced for comic effect, the modern reader should remember that the scene was comic to the Elizabethan audience merely because Capulet was overdoing a natural and customary rôle. In a milder way Ophelia is responsible for much of the pathos in Hamlet's situation because of her unquestioning obedience to her father's arbitrary decree. Yet this was what a well bred Elizabethan girl should have done and the action should not be interpreted as an indication of the colourless character of the heroine.
Young women in Shakespeare's time were married at an earlier age than to-day, sometimes at such a tender age that it was necessary to wait several years before they were old enough to live with their husbands as man and wife. Juliet and her mother were brides at fourteen. Fifteen or sixteen was a common marriageable age. And the woman who reached twenty unmarried had justly earned the title of confirmed spinster.
The marriage ceremony was often, if not generally, preceded by the ceremony of betrothal. The latter should take place in church and be performed by the priest; yet it was not always performed in church, and the presence of a priest was not deemed absolutely essential provided that a responsible witness were present. The following words constituted the oath administered on this occasion: "You swear by God and his holy saints herein and by all the saints of Paradise, that you will take this woman whose name is N. to wife within forty days if holy church will permit?" The priest then joining their hands, said: "And you thus affiance yourselves?" to which the parties answered "Yes, sir."
The ceremony was concluded by some sign or token of constancy, thus, a piece of gold might be broken, each retaining a portion. Exchange of rings was commoner. One kind of ring, the gimmel ring, was frequently used on this occasion. It consisted of three rings so closely wrought that they fitted together like one ring. One, however, who understood the puzzling structure could easily split them apart into three separate rings. One was given to each party to the betrothal, and the third to the priest or to the principal witness.
From the frequent allusion to this custom in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it is to be inferred that the betrothal was still of frequent occurrence. There is no reason, however, to believe that the limit of forty days as the period intervening between betrothal and marriage was regarded as binding.
Such a ceremony is circumstantially recorded in Twelfth Night (iv. 3). Olivia says to Sebastian:
"Now go with me and this holy man
Into the chantry by: there before him,
And underneath that consecrated roof,
Plight me the full assurance of your faith;
That my most jealous and too doubtful soul
May live at peace. He shall conceal it
Whiles you are willing it should come to note;
What time we will our celebration keep
According to my birth."
It will be noticed here and elsewhere that the terms husband and wife were usable after the ceremony of betrothal, notwithstanding the fact that the marriage proper had not yet taken place. Later, the priest, describing what had passed between the couple, says:
"A contract of eternal bond of love,
Confirmed by mutual joinder of your hands,
Attested by the holy close of lips,
Strength'd by interchangement of your rings;
And all the ceremony of this compact
Seal'd in my function, by my testimony."
A Ceiling in Sir Paul Pindar's House, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)
"My wife's a hobby-horse; deserves a name
As rank as any flax-wench, that puts to
Before her troth-plight."
Sunday was a common day for weddings. The bridal party assembled at the house of the bride whence the procession marched to the church. On one occasion the bride was "attired in a gown of sheep's russet, and a kirtle of fine worsted, her hair attired with a billement of gold, and her hair as yellow as gold hanging down behind her, which was curiously combed and plaited, she was led to the church between two sweet boys, with bride laces and rosemary tied about their silken sleeves. There was a fair bride cup of silver, gilt, carried before her, whereon was a goodly branch of rosemary, gilded very fair, hung about with silken ribbands of all colours. Musicians came next, then a group of maidens, some bearing great bride cakes, others garlands of wheat finely gilded; and thus they passed on to the church." (History of Jack Newbury. Quoted by Drake, i. 223.) The above describes a rural wedding. In Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, the bride walks to the church through the streets of London masked. The bride-laces referred to were long ribbons of gay appearance distributed among the guests. They were used to bind up the rosemary twigs and other flowers carried, and after the ceremony used as ornaments in the hat or twisted in the hair.
The priest hastened on in order to await the bridal party with its lively music and joyous laughter at the door of the church. Here a bowl of wine was presented, out of which the happy couple quenched their thirst. It was brought forward again at the end of the ceremony when all the guests present likewise shared in the contents of the bowl. Among the household ordinances of Henry VII. is one "For the Marriage of a Princess—Then pots of ipocras to be ready, and to be put into cups with sop, and to be born to the estates, and to take a sop and drink." The bowl of wine was used at the wedding of Queen Mary to Philip of Spain at Winchester. And few forget the exaggeration of the custom that is set down in The Taming of the Shrew (iii. 2):
Petruchio "stamped and swore,
As if the vicar meant to cozen him.
But after many ceremonies done,
He calls for wine:—'A health!' quoth he as if
He had been aboard, carousing to his mates
After a storm:—quaffed off the muscadel,
And threw the sops all in the sexton's face;
Having no other reason
But that his beard grew thin and hungerly,
And seemed to ask him sops as he was drinking."
The same Petruchio "took the bride about the neck and kissed her lips with such a clamorous smack that, at the parting, all the church did echo." The act was customary, only the manner was an innovation.
Though the hair of the bride was braided in the wedding procession described above, it hung down her back; and the more frequent custom was to let it fall quite loose. At the marriage of Elizabeth Stuart she wore "her hair dishevelled and hanging down her shoulders." (Dyer, p. 353.) And from Heywood we quote the couplet:
"At length the blushing bride comes, with her hair
Dishevelled 'bout her shoulders."
Flowers were lavishly used at weddings. Rosemary, for remembrance, was especially suitable.
"Were the rosemary branches dipped, and all
The hippocras and cakes eat and drunk off;
Were these two arms encompass'd with the hands
Of bachelors to lead me to the church."
—Beaumont and Fletcher, The Scornful Lady.
Rosemary, however, was not the only flower strewed before the bride on her way to church or in the church itself. The following bit of verse is found in the fifteenth song of Drayton's unpoetic but interesting Polyolbion:
"Thus for the nuptial hour, all fitted point device,
Whilst some still busied are in decking of the bride,
Some others were again as seriously employ'd
In strewing of those herbs, at bridals used that be;
Which everywhere they throw with bounteous hands and free.
The healthful balm and mint, from their full laps do fly.
The scentful camomile, the verdurous costmary.
The hot muscado oft with milder maudlin cast;
Strong tansy, fennel cool, they prodigally waste:
Clear isop, and therewith the comfortable thyme,
Germander with the rest, each thing then in her prime;
As well of wholesome herbs, as every pleasant flower,
Which nature here produced, to fit this happy hour.
Amongst these strewing kinds, some other wild that grow,
As burnel, all aboard, and meadow-wort they throw."
A Ceiling in Oldbourne Hall, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)
"See, at my girdle hang my wedding knives!
With those dispatch me."
And the Witch of Edmonton supplies the quotation:
"But see, the bridegroom and bride come; the new
Pair of Sheffield knives fitted both to one sheath."
Great and elaborate festivities followed the wedding; and though wheat was thrown upon the pair as we now throw rice, symbolical of fruitfulness, and though the old shoe was also thrown as a token of good luck, it was not customary for the groom and bride immediately to depart upon a wedding trip. On the contrary, they remained as the principal figures in the merry-making that followed—often lasting over several days.
The guests wore scarves, gloves, and other favours. The bride cake, which was first carried to the church, was, after the ceremony, distributed among the guests. Dancing was one of the important kinds of merriment. It was, in accordance with a tradition of long standing, incumbent upon the bride to dance with each and every guest present. In the Christian State of Matrimony (1543) we read: "Then must the poor bride keep foot with all dancers, and refuse none, how scabbed, foul, drunken, rude, and shameless soever he be."
Readers of The Taming of the Shrew recall how necessary it was to marry Katharine first so that her younger sister might decently and in order approach the bridal altar. In rare cases, however, a younger sister was permitted to marry first. On such occasions, the older unmarried sisters were compelled to mingle barefoot in the dancing that followed the ceremony. It is to this custom that Katharine refers so angrily in the words:
"She is your treasure, she must have a husband:
I must dance barefoot on her wedding day,
And, for your love to her, lead apes in hell."
If the elder sister refused to perform this ceremony, she would die an old maid; and for such the Elizabethans could imagine no more profitable occupations during the long years after death than to lead apes in hell. In weddings among those of great wealth and position the masque, which is elsewhere described, formed one of the principal entertainments. But high and low, rich and poor alike made much of the wedding feast. All sorts of dishes were cooked in great variety, especially many kinds of highly spiced cakes and drinks.
As the festivities drew to a close on the evening of the wedding day the women present took off the bride and put her to bed. Later, the same was done by the men for the groom. The ceremony of blessing the bridal bed, which followed, is thus described by the antiquary, Mr. Jeafrison (Brides and Bridals, i. 98): "On the evening of the wedding day, when the married couple sat in state in the bridal bed, before the exclusion of the guests, who assembled to commend them yet again to heaven's keeping, one or more priests, attended by acolytes swinging to and fro lighted censers, appeared in the crowded chamber to bless the couch, its occupants, and the truckle bed, and fumigate the room with hallowing incense."
Shakespeare had the custom in mind when he wrote the words for Oberon:
"Now until the break of day,
Through the house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us blessed shall be;
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate."
"It is recorded in France," Mr. Dyer tells us, "that on frequent occasions, the priest was improperly detained till midnight, while the wedding guests rioted in the luxuries of the table, and made use of language that was extremely offensive to the clergy. It was therefore ordained, in the year 1577, that the ceremony of blessing the nuptial bed should for the future be performed in the daytime, or at least before supper, and in the presence of the bride and bridegroom, and of their nearest relatives only."Early the next morning the couple were roused from slumber by a serenade, usually the "Hunt's up," or hunting song which so frequently preceded the great hunt that had been planned for the second day of merriment. However great the celebration during this period, all things usually went off decently and in order. In the country, however, the case was not exactly the same. There the merry-making often became exaggerated to boisterous buffoonery. So different was the appearance of a rural wedding from the more decorous ceremony in vogue in London that Leicester considered the representation of such a scene suitable for the entertainment of the Queen when she visited his castle. Laneham, who wrote a description in the form of a Letter on the Queen's Entertainment at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, is so circumstantial in his narrative of the
Ornamental Ceiling in Crosby Hall, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)
"Thus were they marshalled. First, all the lustie lads and bold bachelors of the parish suitably, every wight with his blue buckram bridelace upon a branch of green broom (cause rosemary is scant there), and his alder pole for a spear in his right hand, in martial order ranged on afore, two and two in a rank: Some with a hat, some in a cap, some a coat, some a jerkin, some for lightness in his doublet and his hose, clean trust with a point afore: Some boots and no spurs, he spurs and no boots, and he neither one nor t'other: One a saddle, another a pad or a pannel fastened with a cord, for girths wear geason [were scarce]. And these to the number of a sixteen wight riding men and well beseen. But the bridegroom foremost, in his father's tawny jacket (for his friends were fain that he should be a bridegroom before the Queen), a fair straw hat with a capital crown, steeple-wise on his head: a pair of harvest gloves on his hands, as a sign of good husbandry: A pen and inkhorn at his back; for he would be known to be bookish: lame of a leg, that in his youth was broken at foot-ball: Well-beloved yet of his mother, that lent him a new muffler for a napkin that was tied to his girdle for losing. It was no small sport to mark this minion in his full appointment, that through great schoolation, became as formal as his action, as he had been a bridegroom indeed; with this special grace by the way, that ever as he would have framed him the better countenance, with the worse face he looked.
"Well, sir, after these horsemen, a lively morris-dance, according to the ancient manner: six dancers, maid-marian, and the fool. Then three pretty puzels (maids, or damsels from pucelle), as bright as a breast of bacon, of a thirty year old a piece, that carried three special spice cakes of a bushel of wheat (they had it by measure out of my lord's bake-house), before the bride: Cicely with set countenance, and lips so demurely simmering, as it had been a mare cropping of a thistle. After these a lovely lubber woorts, a freckle faced, red-haired, clean trussed in his doublet and his hose taken up now indeed by commission, for that he was so loth to come forward, for reverence belike of his new cut canvass doublet; and would by his good will have been but a gazer, but found to be a meet actor for his office: That was to bear the bride-cup, formed of a sweet sucket barrel, a fair turned foot set to it, all seemly besilvered and parcel gilt, adorned with a beautiful branch of broom, gayly begilded for rosemary; from which two broad bride-laces of red and yellow buckram begilded, and gallantly streaming by such wind as there was, for he carried it aloft: This gentle cup-bearer yet had his freckled physiognomy somewhat unhappily infested as he went, by the busy flies, that flocked about the bride-cup for the sweetness of the sucket that it savoured on; but he, like a tall fellow, withstood their malace stoutly (see what manhood may do), beat them away, killed them by scores, stood to his charge, and marched on in good order.
"Then followed the worshipful bride, led (after the country manner) between two ancient parishioners, honest townsmen. But a stale stallion, and a well spread (hot as the weather was), God wot, and ill smelling was she: a thirty-five year old, of colour brown bay, not very beautiful indeed, but ugly, foul, ill-favoured; yet marvellous vain of the office, because she heard she should dance before the Queen, in which feat she thought she would foot it as finely as the best: Well, after this bride came there two by two and two, a dozen damsels for bridemaids; that for favour, attire, for fashion and cleanliness, were as meet for such a bride as a treen ladle for a porridge pot; more (but for fear of carrying all clean) had been appointed, but these few were enow."
Concerning death the Elizabethans entertained many superstitious notions and performed numerous superstitious rites. It was, doubtless, the earnest seriousness of the moment that prompted them to believe that people about to die were often for a moment on the borderland betwen life and death, thereby seeing beyond, a fact which found expression in the form of prophecy, "Methinks I am a prophet new inspired. And thus, expiring, do foretell of him," cries Gaunt in Richard II. ii. 1). And again, Percy, in Henry IV. (v. 4), alludes to the belief in the words:
"O, I could prophesy.
But that the earthly and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue."
A sudden brightening of the spirits often preceded death and was frequently regarded as a sign.
"How oft, when men are at the point of death.
Have they been merry! which their keepers call
A lightning before death."
(Romeo and Juliet, v. 3.)
And again, in the last act, immediately before Romeo receives the news that prompts him to take his life, he exclaims:
"If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
My bosom's lord sits lightly on his throne;
And all this day an unaccustom'd spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts."
Painted Ceiling in Crosby Hall, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)
It was customary at that time to draw the pillow from beneath the head of dying persons in order to accelerate the passage to the world beyond. "Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads" is a line from Timon of Athens. It was thought hard to die on feathers plucked from a dove. This is what gave rise to the above superstition, for there was always a chance of some of the tabooed feathers having got among the others used to stuff the pillow.
Agents of the deities that ruled the upper and the lower worlds waited upon a man at the moment of death. The Elizabethans were in ever constant dread lest on such occasions the agent of the devil should prove the more powerful of the two. Signing the cross, incantations, and many other rites besides earnest prayer were resorted to in order to drive away these evil spirits. Recall Henry's appeal at the bedside of Beaufort:
"O thou eternal mover of the heavens,
Look with a gentle eye upon this wretch!
O beat away the busy meddling field
That lays strong siege unto this wretch's soul,
And from his bosom purge this black despair!"
Perhaps the most popular and wide-spread superstition of this kind was that which related to the appearance of corpse candles before death. When a person was about to die a pale flame would appear at the window of the room in which he lay. It would hover there for a moment, then disappear in the direction of the churchyard, traversing the same path along which the body would subsequently be carried. It would stop and burn more brightly for a while over the spot to be occupied by the grave. Sometimes this apparition took the form of a procession. Laveterius, who has already been quoted, says: "There have been seen some in the night when the moon shined, going solemnly with the corpse, according to the custom of the people, or standing before the doors, as if some body was to be carried to the church to burying."
Blue candles are often mentioned by those in the presence of death. This grew out of a superstition that the presence of unearthly beings changed the colour of flame. Thus, in Richard III.:—
"The lights burn blue—it is now dead midnight;
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.—
Methought the souls of all that I had murdered.
Came to my tent."
Less poetic but more specific is the following quotation from Lyly's Gallathea (ii. 3): "That's a stinking spirit. I thought there was some spirit in it because it burnt so blue. For my mother would often tell me that when the candle burnt blue there was some ill spirit in the house, and now I perceive it was the spirit of brimstone."
The place of interment was supposed to be ever after haunted by the spirit of the deceased except at such times as he was compelled to walk elsewhere in the way of penance. The presence of spirits in the neighbourhood of graves is the subject of frequent allusion.
"Now it is the time of night,
That the graves, all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the churchyard paths to glide."
(A Midsummer-night's Dream, v. 1.)
In another part of the same play (iii. 2) Puck says:—
"At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
That in cross-ways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone;
For fear lest day should look their shames upon."
Those buried in cross-ways were those who had committed suicide. It was customary to dig the graves of such at the intersection of two public roads. The interment took place at midnight by torchlight, and part of the ceremony was the driving of a sharp wooden stake through the breast of the corpse just before the grave was filled up. In the same line above there is a reference to the hanging of pirates and mutineers at the seaside in such a position that the waves at high tide would wash over the body.
It was a curious custom of the time to shave the head just before death. This custom is referred to in Measure for Measure (iv. 2). "O, death's a great disguiser; and you may add to it. Shave the head and tie the beard; and say it was the desire of the penitent to be thus bared before his death: you know the course is common."
The passing bell was originally tolled by the sexton at the moment of death as a help towards the driving away of the evil spirits. It was also expected that whoever heard the passing bell should meditate for a moment on his own sins, and breathe a prayer for the dying.
"No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly, sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world."
(Shakespeare, Sonnet 71.)
"And now his grief may be compared well
To one sore sick that hears the parting bell."
Ornamental Ceiling in the Nunnery of St. Helen's, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection.)
The bellman was a civic officer of no little importance. One of his chief offices, besides ringing the bell at deaths and funerals, was to visit condemned criminals the night before their execution and to admonish them of their sins.
"I am the common bellman
That usually is sent to condemned persons
The night before they suffer."
(Duchess of Malfi, iv. 2.)
I have elsewhere described in detail the elaborate performance of this officer when a prisoner was taken from Newgate for execution.
In the time of Shakespeare the putting on of the winding sheet was an impressive ceremony, accompanied by solemn and melancholy music. The following descriptive lines are taken from Webster's White Devil:
"I found them winding of Marcello's corse;
And there is such a solemn melody,
'Tween doleful songs, tears, and sad elegies;
Such as old grandames, watching by the dead,
Were wont to outwear the nights with; that, believe me,
I had no eyes to guide me forth the room,
They were so o'er charged with water.——
[Cornelia, the Moor, and three other ladies discovered
winding Marcello's corse. A song.
Cor. This rosemary is withered, pray get fresh;
I would have these herbs grow up in his grave,
When I am dead and rotten. Reach the bays,
I'll tie a garland here about his head:
'Twill keep my boy from lightning. This sheet
I have kept this twenty years, and every day
Hallow'd it with my prayers. I did not think
He should have worn it."
The shroud, which was white, was often stuck with bits of yew. This practice is referred to in Twelfth Night (ii. 4): "My shroud of white, stuck all with yew."
The customary wake that intervened between death and burial, had changed somewhat with the passage of years. Originally the dearest friends and the nearest relatives met solemnly and sedately for the purpose of watching the corpse during the brief time it remained above the ground. The wake, however, soon degenerated into a feast of wild revelry and intoxication. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it continued to be of this character. So unbecoming, indeed, was the behaviour of guests and relatives at this time that the celebration of the wake bordered upon sacrilege.
Before burial the corpse was amply decorated. Flowers were used profusely, also fine clothes, usually the finest procurable, in which to dress the corpse. Burning tapers were also placed upon the coffin. A garland of flowers and sweet smelling herbs was carried before the coffin of a maid, and afterward hung up in the church as a symbol of virginity.
The burial, which often took place as soon as the day following death, was preceded by a procession, as ostentatious and as spectacular as the relatives, or, more usually, the deceased's provision, could manage. From the house to the church, thence to the grave, was the path of this procession. Relatives, retainers, and domestic servants formed a part of it. If the deceased were a member of one of the city guilds, the official pall would probably be pressed into service as a covering to the coffin. Either the entire fraternity or an official delegation followed, walking reverently, and bareheaded. Inmates of almshouses and hospitals supported by the guild also swelled the following. Oftentimes one provided in his will for the expenses of the funeral. Among these expenses one is likely to find black gowns and gold rings for each of the principal mourners. It was also customary to pin upon the coffin copies of memorial verses, written by admiring friends, or by professional verse writers. Flowers and garlands in profusion, and much music characterised the funerals.
Following the funeral in point of time was the lunch at the house of the deceased, an institution made much of in those days. Oftentimes it was found upon opening the will that the deceased had left a great gift of money in order sumptuously to entertain the true friends who did him the honour to accompany him to the end of his last earthly journey. It is in Hamlet that we read (i. 2):
"The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables."
And at the supposed death of Juliet, the wedding cheer was changed "to a sad burial feast."
Immediately after the burial, if the deceased were a man of property, an official inventory of his goods and chattels was taken. These interesting lists give us many clues to the daily life and household furnishing of the Elizabethans that would otherwise be lost in the obscurity of the past.
Room in Sir Paul Pindar's House, London.
(From a print in Wilkinson's collection. The chimney-piece to the top of the stag-hunt tablet is stone; above this, the cornice and ceiling are plaster; the rest is oak.)
- ↑ Though Ophelia is not, literally speaking, an Elizabethan girl, it should be remembered that Shakespeare in common with his fellow dramatists interpreted their characters in accordance with his own times regardless of the local time or place represented in the story. Thus Hamlet and the grave-diggers both speak of current affairs in London. In almost any play allusions to the customs of Elizabethan England can be discovered mingled with what little local colour the original of the play furnished. The idea of accuracy in this respect was not yet familiar to the Elizabethans.
- ↑ Shakespeare's London, page 229.