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Thursday, 23 June 2016

Midsummer Eve and the arrival of the Black Death to England

Midsummer Eve
by Edward Robert Hughe
Midsummer Eve’ or ‘St John’s Eve’ falls on 23rd June and like Hallowe’en and St Mark’s Eve this is a time when ghosts, phantoms and fairies are believed to be abroad and when one can foretell the future.

Midsummer's Fright Dream

If there was a full moon on Midsummer Eve night and a clear sky, a girl could use a mirror to discover how many years had to pass before she was to marry. The method used was for the girl to stand upon a stone on which she had never stood before with her back to the full moon and a looking glass in her hand. Gazing into the mirror she would see the moon's reflection and also a number of smaller moons. How many of these there were denoted how many years had to pass before she was to wed.

Flowers and plants feature heavily in such Midsummer Eve charms. The small yellow flower ‘St John’s Wort’ was considered to be very lucky, because it was believed to keep fairies, ghosts and evil from haunting the house. Unmarried girls would gather the flower very early on Midsummer Eve morning while the dew was still on its petals and place it under their pillows. If a girl did this in secret, it was believed that she would dream of her future husband that night.
St John's wort doth charm all witches away
if gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day
any devils and witches have no power to harm
those that gather the plant for a charm
rub the lintels with that red juicy flower
no thunder nor tempest will then have the power
to hurt or hinder your house; and bind
round your neck a charm of similar kind.
St. John's Wort
Sage leaves too were formerly used in love-divinations. This charm was believed to work for both females and males alike. To enable a person to see his or her future sweetheart, in either bodily form or in a vision, required the person to pluck twelve leaves off a sage bush at midnight; pulling one for each strike of the clock. With the last leaf pulled the destined wife or husband would appear behind them.

Rosemary is yet another herb used in Midsummer Eve charms. If a girl puts a plate of flour under a rosemary bush before retiring to bed, the next morning she should find her future husband's initials traced in the flour.

Roses are of special importance on Midsummer's Eve. It is said that any rose picked on Midsummer's Eve, or Midsummer's Day will keep fresh until Christmas. 

At midnight on Midsummer's Eve, young girls should scatter rose petals before them and say:
Rose leaves, rose leaves,
Rose leaves I strew.
He that will love me
Come after me now.
Then the next day, Midsummer's Day, their true love will visit them.

Those girls who had boyfriends already, but were perhaps unsure if he was the right partner for them would use the Orpine plant, which is often called "Mid Summer Men" to discover if he was their true-love. The enquiring girl would take two sprigs of Orpine, naming one after herself and the other after her boyfriend and place them upright in a lump of clay (Blue tac will do just as well today) and leave over night. If the next morning they were found bending towards each other, their love would prosper, but if they had turned away in opposite directions, their love affair was doomed. However, anyone trying this should be warned! If either of the two named sprigs had withered away, it was a sure sign that the said person was soon to die.

Watching in the church porch for those in the parish who were to die within the coming year was another universal Midsummer Eve custom. Anyone wishing to know would have to go to the church porch and wait there from 11pm until 1am (one hour either side of midnight) in complete silence. At some moment during the two-hour vigil, the fetches of those doomed to die would appear and pass one by one into the church.

Midsummer Fire Leaping
"Many of these ancient customs are still continued, and the fires are still lighted on St. John's Eve on every hill in Ireland. When the fire has burned down to a red glow the young men strip to the waist and leap over or through the flames; this is done backwards and forwards several times, and he who braves the greatest blaze is considered the victor over the powers of evil, and is greeted with tremendous applause. When the fire burns still lower, the young girls leap the flame, and those who leap clean over three times back and forward will be certain of a speedy marriage and good luck in after life, with many children. The married women then walk through the lines of the burning embers; and when the fire is nearly burnt and trampled down, the yearling cattle are driven through the hot ashes, and their back is singed with a lighted hazel twig. These hazel rods are kept safely afterwards, being considered of immense power to drive the cattle to and from the watering places. As the fire diminishes the shouting grows fainter, and the song and the dance commence; while professional story-tellers narrate tales of f airy-land, or of the good old times long ago, when the kings and princes of Ireland dwelt amongst their own people, and there was food to eat and wine to drink for all corners to the feast at the king's house. When the crowd at length separate, every one carries home a brand from the fire, and great virtue is attached to the lighted brone which is safely carried to the house without breaking or falling to the ground. Many contests also arise amongst the young men; for whoever enters his house first with the sacred fire brings the good luck of the year with him."
Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, 'The Baal Fires and Dances', 1887

Midsummer Eve Customs and Superstitions in Dorset

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Midsummer Eve (Eve of St. John the Baptist) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Dorsetshire does not appear to have followed the example of many other parts of England and of other European countries in the ceremonies which marked the advent of the summer solstice as recorded by Brand and other writers, such as, piling up and dancing round  or through bonfires, and other recognized festivities. It seems to have contented itself with those simple and domestic practices that are so  dear to the heart of the village maidens, who seek by " divination", or some form of " matrimonial oracle ", to learn what is to be their own fate or chance of happiness in the married state.
William Barnes, writing in Hone's Year Book in 1832, refers to one of the commonest or best known of these. After mentioning some of the various means and practices which were resorted to in his childhood in order to attain this object, and which required no particular day or season in order to be effective, he tells us (p. 588) :—

Hemp-seed throwing.—" Midsummer Eve, however, is the great time with girls for discovering who shall be their husbands ; why it is so, more than any other, I cannot tell, unless, indeed, the sign Gemini, which the sun then leaves, is symbolical of the wedding union. But, however that may be, a maiden will walk through the garden at midsummer, with a rake on her left shoulder and throw hemp-seed over her right, saying at the same time:—

'Hemp-seed I set, hemp-seed I sow,
The man that is my true-love come after me and mow.'
"It is said by many who have never tried it, and some who have without effect, that the future husband of the hemp-sowing girl will appear behind her with a scythe, and look as substantial as a brass image of Saturn on an old time-piece"

Barnes also weaves this superstition or charm into " Mrs. Mary's Tale " in Erwin and Linda, one of his Poems of Rural Life in National English " (1846), pp. 11 and 12 :—
"For once, when summer's shortest night
Came round, so slowly letting fall
Its sparkling dew below the light
The moon cast down upon the wall ;
The while the slowly-clanging bell
Struck twelve o'clock, and giggling maids
Stole out to try the well-known spell
That brings their unknown husbands' shades ;
Young Linda too was scatt'ring wide
Her hemp-seed, crying 'This I sow
'That he who takes me for his bride
'Should now come after me and mow.'
 And turning round her fair-neck'd head
With timid smile, and backward look,
She saw—and seeing, felt half dead—
A shape come slowly o'er the brook ;
And when she saw his scythe-blade's bow
Behind him gleaming by the moon,
She sank with one convulsive throe,
Against an elm-tree in a swoon."

Thomas Hardy gives a delightfully realistic account of the observance of this custom by the village maidens of the Hintocks in The Woodlanders (vol. ii, chapter iv), where, as they left their homes for the woods in which they were to try their fate, " a handful " (of hemp-seed) " was carried by each girl ".

Mr. Hardy — who is a keen observer of all that is archaic and quaint in the life of the Dorset peasantry—at the same time alludes incidentally to a somewhat similar species of divination by which girls were enabled to learn what were the trades of their future husbands, namely, by " hole-digging " at noon on the following day, St. John the Baptist's or Midsummer Day. No further details are given; and as I have not myself come across this particular form of divination I cannot give any information as to how it was actually carried out, beyond saying that it would seem to bear some kinship to that mentioned by Brand (i, 267), who cites Aubrey's Miscellanies (1696) for the statement that " on the day of St. John Baptist " as he was walking in the pasture at 12 o'clock he saw a group of young women on their knees " very busie, as if they had been weeding ".

"A young man told him that they were looking for a coal (or " cole " : an old, blackened root, often found under mugwort or plantains) under the root of a plantain, to put under their heads that night, and they should dream who would  be their husbands. It was to be that day and hour."

Crossed Shoes. — Barnes also gives another well-known " matrimonial oracle ", which consists in a. girl, on going to bed on Midsummer Eve, putting her shoes at right angles to each other in the shape of a T, and saying :—
"Hoping this night my true love to see,
I place my shoes in the form of a T."
When she will be sure to see her husband in a dream, and perhaps in reality, by her bed-side.

According to the Rev. Canon C. H. Mayo this couplet sometimes takes the form of a quotation :—

"I place my shoes in the form of a T,
Hoping this night my true-love to see,
In his apparel and in his array,
As he goes forth on every day."
Letters of Alphabet.—There is still another one mentioned by Barnes. " A girl, on going to bed, is to write the alphabet on small pieces of paper and put them into a bason of water with the letters downward ; and it is said that in the morning she will find the first letter of her husband's name turned up, and the others as they were left."

Death Omen. — Miss M, G. A. Summers, of Hazelbury Bryan, contributed to the " Folk-lore Column " of the Dorset County Chronicle in 1881 several interesting items relating to Midsummer Eve.

She stated that a curious old custom was still firmly believed in Dorsetshire, that if you sit in the church porch on Midsummer Eve you will see those who are to die during the ensuing year enter the church and not come out again ; whilst those who will have a serious illness will go in and return again. Also that she had been informed by a Dorset woman " with a most solemn face" that if you put some }^arrow gathered off a young man's grave under your pillow on Midsummer Eve you will surely see your future husband.

Miss Summers further remembered hearing a young woman in a neighbouring village say that she had laid out some bread and cheese and had sat up, as she had " heard tell how her young man's spirit would come and take some ".

This last is evidently that alluded to by Thomas Hardy in his Under the Greenwood Tree, where at the Christmas party given by the tranter Reuben Dewy, depicted in Part I, Chapter VIII, Mrs. Penny speaks of the occasion when one Midsummer Eve, when she was a young woman, she had sat up, accordin to the' time-honoured custom, to watch for the spirit of the man who was to be her future husband. She says : "I put the bread and cheese and cider quite ready as the witch's book ordered, and I opened the door and waited till the clock struck twelve. When the clock had struck, lo and behold I could see through a little small man in the lane wi' a shoemaker's apron on. In he walks and down he sits, and, O my goodness, didn't I flee upstairs, body and soul hardly hanging together! "

Though this was not the figure she approved or desired, as her conduct on this occasion showed, so effectual was the charm that she had prepared that she nevertheless in due course of time became his wife."
The Black Death enters Weymouth

It was also this time in the month over 600 years ago that the dreadful plague known as the Black Death swept into from Asia claiming a third of Europe's population in just two years. Its arrival to England through Weymouth on the 25th June 1348. Is documented in the Grey Friars Chronicle.
'In this year 1348 in Melcombe, in the county of Dorset, a little before the feast of St. John the Baptist, two ships, one of them from Bristol came alongside. One of the sailors had brought with him from Gascony the seeds of the terrible pestilence and through him the men of that town of Melcombe were the first in England to be infected.'

A victim of the Black Death
Villages and hamlets on the outskirts of Weymouth soon fell victim to the plague causing the villagers to abandon their settlements and seek refuge in other parts of the county; this caused the infection to spread over a wide area, until it eventually reached the major cities. The Death took a heavy toll on the people of Portland, that the quarries and fields ceased to be worked and the coastal defences were left deserted. Edward III, in 1352 ordered the movement of the islanders to be restricted. The bubonic plague was transmitted to humans by the bite of a flea, the flea itself being infected by the black rat upon which it lived. Both rats and fleas thrived in unsanitised conditions of the time. One bite from a flea could cause the most horrifying symptoms. The first sign being a blackish rash followed by large swellings in the armpit, groin and neck area. Preceding death the victim would develop a fever and begin to hallucinate. The bubonic plague continued to affect Europe for centuries, its last manifestation in Britain being the Great Plague of the 1660's.

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