15th July Forecasting the Harvest & the Downfall of the Mayor of Casterbridge

Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

Its not just important for the farmer but, even more, for the corn factor, to get the weather right for harvest. If it rains of St Swithins Day it betokens rain for 40 days from 15th July. But beyond that speculating on the price of corn was very dependent upon the weather. Michael Henchard in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ has formed a terrible rivalry with his erstwhile friend Donald Fafrae and is determined to outdo him in the Casterbridge Cornmarket. He has a hunch about the weather but needs reassurances so despite his doubts he goes to a lonely hand built cottage to see ‘a man of curious repute as a forecaster or weather-prophet.’ Henchard is shrouded possibly to protect his identify and he will not stay to take hospitality from the prophet, not cross the threshold, and masks his face with a handkerchief as if suffering from a toothache.

The prophet knows this strange man is the former Mayor of Casterbridge, much to Henchard’s surprise. Henchard quizzes him. ‘can ye charm away warts?’ ‘cure the evil?’ ‘forecast the weather?’ Replying in the affirmative he takes Henchard’s crownpiece and forecasts:

“By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candle-flame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be – rain and tempest.’ ‘Twill be more like living in Revelations this autumn that in England.’

Henchard buys up grain at the current high price, and is ruined by the fine weather that sets in for a fine harvest with corn prices tumbling.

Local folklore was at the heart of many of Hardy’s stories. Perhaps the most dramatic is the ‘Withered Arm’. Gertrude has a withered arm wished upon her by the former lover of her husband, mother of his illegitimate boy.. Determined to cure it she visits a Casterbridge Cunning Man. He tells her the only cure is to touch the neck of recently hanged man. So she goes to Casterbridge on a Hanging Day, makes the arrangements with the hangman; touches the neck; is cured immediately only to find the young man is the son of her husband.

I first read these stories one after another at a time I was going through a painful split up. I remember throwing the ‘Withered Arm’ at the wall shouting ‘Oh Thomas Hardy’ you miserable man.’ It took me twenty years to come back to him, to appreciate his amazing descriptions of life in rural Wessex, with a cast of characters struggling to make a place for themselves in a world that was changing beyond all recognition.

The Skimmity Ride

Skimmity Ride. Montecute House . Early 17th Century Plaster decoration

Yesterday, I wrote about the custom of Wife-Selling which appears as the main plot driver in Thomas Hardy’s 1886 masterpiece ‘the Mayor of Casterbridge’. Later in the book another folk custom brings the erstwhile Mayor to the brink of suicide. This was the Skimmity Ride, or Skimmington Ride.

The ride, which has deep roots in history, was designed to humiliate a member of the community and it consisted of a procession through the streets of the community with music or at least percussion instruments. Those being mocked, or an effigy of them or a local dressed up to look like them rode a horse or donkey or sat on a pole.

The illustration above is from the early 17th Century. It is in Montecute House, in Somerset above one end of the Great Hall of Sir Edward Phelips, who rose to the top of the legal profession becoming Master of the Rolls. And yet he choose to have a representation of popular justice in this prestigious part of his house. ( more information here)

The ‘offence’ is seen on the left – a neighbour sees the wife hit her husband over his head with a clog while he is trying to get a drink of beer at the same time as holding the swaddled baby. They live in a simple thatched cottage.

The normal interpretation is that she is ruling the roost and taking over the man’s role. It is he who is being punished for losing control to his wife and he is seen ‘riding the stang’, or pole either in person, or in effigy, or played by a stand-in. It would be nicer to think he is being punished for being drunk in charge of a child. The Skimmity Ride is heading from the couple’s home to the Church, and thus shown as involving the entire community.

Detail of the Skimmity Ride

In the fictional ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ skimmity ride effigies of the ex-Mayor and his lover, Lucetta Le Sueur, are tied back to back on a donkey and paraded through Casterbridge. She has just married the Mayor’s rival and on seeing the skimmity ride has a seizure which kills her. Henchard, full of remorse, decides to kill himself in the local river, but as he looks down into Ten Hatches Hole he sees an image of himself which stops him jumping in. It turns out to be his Skimmity effigy but he, none-the-less, sees it as divine intervention.

William Hogarth also portrays a Skimmington Ride in his illustration for Samuel Butler’s ‘Hudibras’. It illustrates the cacophonous nature of the Skimmington with horns and percussion the main forms of ‘music’.

William Hogarth. ‘Hudibras_Encounters the Skimmington’

Tomorrow, Cunning Men in Thomas Hardy’s fiction.

Wife-Selling & the bonds of Marriage

October 1837, Wolverhampton Chronicle.

A strange and unwonted exhibition took place in Walsall market on Tuesday last,” the Wolverhampton Chronicle said.

“A man named George Hitchinson brought his wife, Elizabeth Hitchinson, from Burntwood, for sale, a distance of eight or nine miles. They came into the market between ten and eleven o’clock in the morning, the woman being led by a halter, which was fastened round her neck and the middle of her body. “

“In a few minutes after their arrival she was sold to a man of the name of Thomas Snape, a nailer, also from Burntwood. There were not many people in the market at the time. “

“The purchase money was 2s 6d [about 13p today] and all the parties seemed satisfied with the bargain. “The husband was glad to get rid of his frail rib, who, it seems, had been living with Snape three years, at any price, erroneously imagining that because he had brought her through a turnpike gate in a halter, and had publicly sold her in the market before witnesses, that he is thereby freed from all responsibility and liability with regard to her future maintenance and support.”

Readers will note the similarity of this to the plot of the Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886. Michael Henchard, gets drunk on spiked Fumity – a mixture of Corn, milk, raisins and currents to which the Furmity Woman at Weydon-Priors Fair adds Rum. Henchard in a drunken rage offers his wife for safe, and she is purchased by Richard Newson, a sailor who has a successful relationship with Henchard’s wife until the sailor is drowned.

While not exactly legal, records show that wife-selling at markets happened occasionally from the 17th Century onwards. As in the case at Walsall Market it seems to have been a recognised mechanism to end an unsuccessful marriage. In both factual and fictional cases the wife accepts the sale to rid herself of a difficult husband. The husband is relieved of his life long duty to be financially responsible for his wife, and, for a fee, he passes that duty on to the seller.

The sale seems to a modern onlooker to be a humiliation while in fact the public nature of it might be rather a public acknowledgement that the marriage has irrevocably broken down, and that another union has superseded the failed marriage. In the Walsall case the new husband has in fact been living with the wife for some years.

At this time there was no legal way to divorce except by the means of an expensive private act of Parliament far beyond the reach of any but the richest. Marriage itself was also a looser institution than we think. Hand-fasting and common-law marriages were very common in pre-Victorian times.

Tomorrow we are going on a skimmity ride.


The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494) reports on a restitution deal of one of the major collections of Benin bronzes back to Nigeria.

The Bronzes, which are actually Brasses, are from the Royal Palace of the Kingdom of Benin which was looted by the British during the Benin Expedition of 1897 as part of British subjection of Nigeria.

Wikipedia reports that ‘Two hundred pieces were taken to the British Museum in London, while the rest found their way to other European museums. A large number are held by the British Museum[ with other notable collections in Germany and the United States.’

The Smithsonian has recently made a similar arrangement to restore their brasses to Nigeria, and UK collection The Great North Museum: Hancock, has followed suit joining Jesus College, Cambridge and the University of Aberdeen. (The Art Newspaper)The British Museum has refused and is indeed prevented from so doing by an Act of Parliament.

An interesting sidelight on the collection is that the wealth of the Benin Kingdom benefited from income from the slave trade.

This is what The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494) says:

Two Benin Bronzes Returned

Last week, Germany signed a restitution agreement with Nigeria. The agreement covers 1,100 artefacts currently held by the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, Berlin’s Humboldt Forum, the Cologne Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Hamburg’s Museum of World Cultures and the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony. The agreement immediately puts these objects into Nigerian ownership; the affected Museums will then negotiate directly with the Nigerian Government whether they return to Nigeria, or remain in Germany under custodial agreements.

Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Culture Minister, described the agreement as ‘the single largest known repatriation of artefacts in the world’. It was marked by the return of two Benin Bronzes – an eighteenth century 35kg head of an oba and a 16th-century relief depicting an oba accompanied by guards or companions. German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said ‘It was wrong to take the bronzes and it was wrong to keep them. This is the beginning to right the wrongs.’

Image credits: The returned Benin Bronzes, Martin Franken

The Society of Antiquities newsletter ( Salon: Issue 494)