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Sunday, 6 March 2016

Clipping the Church and the Customs and Traditions of Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday, also called "Mothers' Day" in the United Kingdom and Ireland falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent (exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday). It is believed to have originated from the 16th century Christian practice of visiting one's mother church annually, which meant that most mothers would be reunited with their children on this day. Most historians believe that young apprentices and young women in servitude were released by their masters that weekend in order to visit their families. As a result of secularization, it is now principally used to celebrate and give thanks for mothers, although it is still recognized in the historical sense by some churches, with attention paid to Mary the mother of Jesus as well as the traditional concept 'Mother Church'. 

Church Clipping

Church of St. Laurence, Upwey, near Weymouth
The custom of ‘Clipping the Church’ as it is called, is a dance-like ceremony in which the parishioners join hands and move around the outside of the church in an unbroken ring often singing a traditional clipping hymn. The word "clipping" is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and is derived from the word "clyp-pan", meaning "embrace" or "clasp" and thus is an expression of devotion to the Mother Church, although the tradition is sometimes held on Easter Monday or Shrove Tuesday. As is so often the case with traditions like this, Clipping the Church finds its origins in pagan times and has probably descended from the Spring Equinox festivals.  Currently, there are only a few churches left in England that hold this ceremony like St. Peter's Church, Edgmond, and St. Mary's Church in Painswick.   

'Clipping the Church' at Upwey in 1970
The Church of St. Laurence at Upwey also revived this tradition in 1962.  An account of this custom was featured in a local newspaper 'Why they are 'Clipping' the Church', March 1970.

"The Mothering Sunday Celebration, pictured above is called Clipping the Church and was performed at Upwey Parish Church, Weymouth, yesterday for the eighth year after the revival of the tradition.

The Rector, the Rev. A. Leslie Jones, explained that the ceremony arose from an Epistle in the Bible which referred to the Church as the "mother of us all." The tradition was an "embracing" of the mother on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

About 100 people attended a short service before the ceremony which posies brought by the children were blessed and presented to their mothers.

Then the concregation went outside, linked arms and walked or danced around the church."

An earlier revival in nearby Preston featured a Clipping the Church ceremony in the Dorset Evening Echo 8th March 1961.

"The ancient custom of “Clipping the Church” was observed at the picturesque village church of St Andrew’s at Preston, Weymouth, yesterday – Mothering Sunday.

The ceremony was revived nine years ago, is intended to symbolise the family character of the Christian church.  The church was nearly filled and the service conducted by the new Vicar, Canon W. J. Smith, assisted by the Rev E.V. Tanner.

Children and their parents filed out of the main door, headed by the choir and joined hands to completely surround the church.

Moving round it continuously they sang the hymn “All things bright and beautiful.”


Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of Mothering Sunday (Mid-Lent Sunday) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Without attributing to Dorset folk the ideas of some old writers in giving this name to the fourth Sunday in Lent, namely, that whilst Roman Catholicism was the established religion in England it was customary for people to visit their Mother church on Mid-Lent Sunday and to make their offerings at the high altar, (See Brand, i, 92.) yet there are traces of a less ecclesiastical practice that at one time prevailed in some parts of the county at this time. The eating of " furmity " (fr. frumentum) a dish composed of steeped wheat, milk, currants, spice, etc. and boiled together—whether at the house of parents whom it was usual in some parts of England to visit on this day and to take them some little present of nice eatables, or otherwise—was customary at this time to some extent in Dorsetshire. We have the authority of the late Sir Frederick A. Weld, K.C.M.G.—at one time Prime Minister of New Zealand and, later, Governor of the Straits Settlements—for saying(Notes and Queries, Ser. v, v. 78) that in his own home at Chideock, in West Dorset, "furmity" made of boiled wheat and raisins, was eaten on their village feast day. I myself, many years ago, accepted some of this savoury dish at the hands of an old West Dorset lady, now dead, at this time of the year.

I have had no support from any Dorset source for the suggestion of certain scriptural writers (8 See Brand, i, p. 93 (n.). that this eating of " furmity " on Mothering Sunday may have taken its rise from the miraculous " feeding of the five thousand " by our Saviour as recorded in the Gospel for that day, or, perhaps, from the entertainment by Joseph of his brethren as related in the first lesson.
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days March 6th 1864, details the tradition of Mother's day.
In the year 1864 the 6th of March is the fourth Sunday in Lent, commonly called Midlent Sunday. Another popular name for the day is Mothering Sunday, from an ancient observance connected with it.
The harshness and general painfulness of life in old times must have been much relieved by certain simple and affectionate customs which modern people have learned to dispense with. Amongst these was a practice of going to see parents, and especially the female one, on the present, such as a cake or a trinket. A youth engaged in this amiable act of duty was said to go a-mothering, and thence the day itself came to be called Mothering Sunday. One can readily imagine how, after a stripling or maiden had gone to service, or launched in independent housekeeping, the old bonds of filial love would be brightened by this pleasant annual visit, signalised, as custom demanded it should be, by the excitement attending some novel and perhaps surprising gift. There was also a cheering and peculiar festivity appropriate to the day, the prominent dish being furmety—which we have to interpret as wheat grains boiled in sweet milk, sugared and spiced. In the northern parts of England, and in Scotland, there seems to have been a greater leaning to steeped pease fried in butter, with pepper and salt. Pancakes so composed passed by the name of carlings: and so conspicuous was this article, that from it Carling Sunday became a local name for the day.
 'Tid, Mid, and Misera,
Carling, Palm, Pase-egg day,'
remains in the north of England as an enumeration of the Sundays of Lent, the first three terms probably taken from words in obsolete services for the respective days, and the fourth being the name of Midlent Sunday from the cakes by which it was distinguished.
Herrick, in a canzonet addressed to Dianeme, says

I'll to thee a simnel bring,
'Gainst thou go a-mothering:
So that, when she blesses thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give me.'

Simnel Cake
He here obviously alludes to the sweet cake which the young person brought to the female parent as a gift: but it would appear that the term 'simnel' was in reality applicable to cakes which were in use all through the time of Lent. We are favoured by an antiquarian friend with the following general account of Simnel Cakes.

It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff; tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing largo and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury.

The usage of these cakes is evidently one of great antiquity. It appears from one of the epigrams of the poet Herrick, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century it was the custom at Gloucester for young people to carry simnels as presents to their mothers on Midlent Sunday (or Mothering Sunday).

It appears also from some other writers of this age, that these simnels, like the modern ones, were boiled as well as baked. The name is found in early English and also in very old French, and it appears in mediæval Latin under the form simanellus or siminellus. It is considered to be derived from the Latin simile, fine flour, and is usually interpreted as meaning the finest quality of white bread made in the middle ages. It is evidently used, however, by the mediæval writers in the sense of a cake, which they called in Latin of that time artocopus, which is constantly explained by simnel in the Latin-English vocabularies. In three of these, printed in Mr. Wright's Volume of Vocabularies, all belonging to the fifteenth century, we have 'Hic artocopus, anglice symnelle,' 'Hic artocopus, a symnylle,' and 'artocopus, anglice a symnella;' and in the latter place it is further explained by a contemporary pen-and-ink drawing in the margin, representing the simnel as seen from above and sideways, of which we give below a fac-simile.

It is quite evident that it is a rude representation of a cake exactly like those still made in Shropshire. The ornamental border, which is clearly identical with that of the modern cake, is, perhaps, what the authorities quoted by Ducange v. simila, mean when they spoke of the cake as being foliata. In the Dictionaries of John de Garlande, compiled at Paris in the thirteenth century, the word simineus or simnenels, is used as the equivalent to the Latin placentæ, which are described as cakes exposed in the windows of the hucksters to sell to the scholars of the University and others. We learn from Ducange that it was usual in early times to mark the simnels with a figure of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, which would seem to shew that they had a religious signification. We know that the Anglo-Saxon, and indeed the German race in general, were in the habit of eating consecrated cakes at their religious festivals. Our hot cross buns at Easter are only the cakes which the pagan Saxons ate in honour of their goddess Eastre, and from which the Christian clergy, who were unable to prevent people from eating, sought to expel the paganism by marking them with the cross.

It is curious that the use of these cakes should have been preserved so long in this locality, and still more curious are the tales which have arisen to explain the meaning of the name, which had been long forgotten. Some pretend that the father of Lambert Simnel, the well-known pretender in the reign of Henry VII, was a baker, and the first maker of simnels, and that in consequence of the celebrity he gained by the acts of his son, his cakes have retained his name. There is another story current in Shropshire, which is much more picturesque, and which we tell as nearly as possible in the words in which it was related to us. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead.
The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the Lenten dough for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far, all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked.

The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell, not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who on his part seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first, and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone pre-served and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel, or Simnel!

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