Forecasting the Harvest & the Downfall of the Mayor of Casterbridge. St Swithin’s Day July 15th

Photo by David Becker on Unsplash

It’s not just important for the farmer but, even more, for the corn factor, to get the weather right for harvest. If it rains on St Swithins Day it betokens rain for 40 days from 15th July. But the BBC tells us that, since records have been kept (1841) there has been no period of 40 days rain after St Swithins Day.

The price of corn is 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 and the price of corn, but needs reassurances. So despite his doubts about the efficacy of prophecy 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.

However, 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, with whom she has an illegitimate boy.

Years pass, and she is still determined to cure her arm. She visits a Casterbridge Cunning Man. He tells her the only cure is to touch the neck of a 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 illegitimate son of her husband.

I first read these stories one after another at a time I was going through a painful period in my life. 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.

First Published in 2022, revised July 2024

St Pancras May 12th

St Pancras, Old Church (Photo: Kevin Flude)

Pancras means ‘all-powerful’ in Greek. St Pancras was a 14 year old who refused to give up his Christian Faith during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. He was beheaded on the Via Aurelia, traditionally, on 12 May 303 AD. His youth makes him the Patron Saint of children, but he is also the patron saint of jobs and health, and ‘invoked’ against cramps, false witnesses, headaches, and perjury. His body was buried in the Catacombs, but his head is kept in a reliquary in the Church of Saint Pancras in Rome, where he was buried.

Pope Gregory is said to have given St Augustine relics from St Pancras when his mission came to Kent in 597AD. They built a church dedicated to St Pancras, ruins of which can be found in the grounds of what is now St Augustine’s. Canterbury.

This story is partly responsible for the claims that St Pancras Old Church (pictured above) is a very old foundation. The idea being that there was a late Roman place of worship here. But there is very little solid evidence for this. It is also argued that, if it isn’t late Roman, then it dates to just after 604AD when St Mellitus, sent by St Augustine, established St Pauls Cathedral, and St Pancras Church. St Pancras’ Church was a Prebend of St Pauls Cathedral, but this is not evidence it was established as early as the Cathedral was. (a Prebend provides the stipend (pay) to support a Canon of a Cathedral).

When the Church was restored, the architects said it was mostly Tudor work with traces of Norman architecture. However, the suggested finding of a Roman tile or two, reused in the fabric, is used as evidence to keep the legend going.

If you read the Wikipedia page you will see evidence of two strands to the contributions, one trying to play down the legends of its early foundation, and, another trying to keep hold of its place as among the ‘earliest sites of Christian worship’.

Read the wikipedia page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Pancras_Old_Church

It is a lovely Church, on an impressive site, with links to Thomas Hardy, and Sir John Soane whose tomb is the design inspiration for the iconic Red Telephone Box.

Lambing January 18th

Hermes the ram-bearer near Roman 1st BCE copy of 5th Greek statue
Hermes the ram-bearer, Roman 1st BCE copy of 5th Greek statue

My apology of the day is to Diane Stein, the author of the ‘The Goddess Book of Days’ because of the implied error in the book in the sentence (below). Republished yesterday:

Before we read Ovid’s ‘Fasti’ first note that he locates the Day on the 16th January rather than the ‘Book of Goddesses’ which puts her on the 17th

Not only did I get the name of the book wrong (which is ‘The Goddess Book of Days’, but I had another look at what Ovid actually said and I saw this:

Book I: January 16
Radiant one, the next day places you in your snow-white
shrine,’

So, ‘the next day’, so Ovid agrees that January 17th is the appropriate day to honour Concordia.

Lambing

If a lamb be born sick and weak, the Shepherd shall fold it in his cloak, blow into the mouth of it and then, drawing the Dam’s dog, shall squirt milk into the mouth of it. If an Ewe grow unnatural, and will not take her Lamb after she has yeaned it, you shall take a little of the Clean of the Ewe (which is the bed in which the Lamb lay) and force the Ewe to eat it, or at least chew it in her mouth and she will fall to love a Lamb naturally. But if an Ewe have cast her Lamb, and you would have her take to another Ewe’s Lamb, you shall take the Lamb which is dead, and with it rub and daub the live Lamb all over, and so put it to the Ewe, and she will take to it as naturally as if it were her own.

Gervase Markham, ‘Cheap and Good Husbandry’ 1613 (quoted in the Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly.

tionalsheep.org.uk

Lambing can begin about now in the south-west, but it gets progressively later as you travel north. Itinerant shearers, now often from New Zealand, travel the country shearing sheep. They will begin in the south and then progress north.

March and April are peak lambing time in the UK, although the season runs from February to April, but some farmers even lamb before Christmas (and even November). If ewes are tupped in October, they will lamb in March. www.nationalsheep.org.uk

The country expression is ‘in with a bang and out with the fool’ which suggests an ideal time to tup, is November 5th, on Fireworks Night. So that the lambs will be born, 5 months later, around the 1st of April.

A litter is normally one or two but occasionally more. Ewe’s get fed depending on how many lambs they will be having.

In the ‘Return of the Native’, Thomas Hardy has a character called Diggory Venn, he is a reddle man. He travels the country in a little pony and trap selling reddle, a red ochre dye with which shepherds mark their flock. Part of the plot is about the reluctance of women to marry a man whose red, reddle-stained face, makes him look like a devil.

The reddle is used to mark sheep. The ram is given a collar or girdle with a marker full of reddle in it. When he mounts the ewe, she will have a red mark on her back. Once she has been tupped twice, she will have two red marks on her back, and she will be taken out of the field, to encourage the ram to impregnate the others. Reddle could also be used to mark lambs chosen for slaughter, or dipping, or weighing etc.

(Tup is a country verb: I tup. You tup, we are tupping etc, and means what happens when the ram ‘covers’ the ewe).

First, published Jan 2023, republished Jan 2024

The End of Hardy’s tree

From the Guardian Article

I published the following post about Hardy’s Tree on 28th December 2022. Here, follows the original post and an update which suggests the tree and the gravestones were not erected by Thomas Hardy.

This is the day that Herod ordered the slaughter of the Innocents, or Childermas, and I am glad to see that my Grandson is now older than Herod’s prescription.

Hardy’s Tree in St Pancras Church, Camden, London has fallen down. Hardy was an architect and worked in London for a while, where one of his jobs was to supervise the clearance of the graveyard. Several poems of Hardy refer to the removal of graves from their original positions and in this case, the gravestones were set around an Ash tree that inspires many, including my Central St Martin’s students who used it in a project recently. So, I was shocked to read a Guardian article (since deleted) which noted the sad demise of the Tree.

Extracts from one of several Hardy Poems about moving graves and gravestones follow, but I need to update the post about the connection to Hardy. The Guardian has now got an article which suggests the connection with Hardy is a more recent one than previously thought (Guardian article).

I (and I think the Guardian) were alerted to this by the work of Lester Hillman, who wrote a Churchyard Guide and a recent pamphlet about the Tree, which is reported in ‘Context ISSN 1462-7574’. This is the Journal of the City of London Archaeological Society. Evidence proves that the Ash Tree dates to the 1930s, and that the mound of gravestones is from burials relocated from St Giles in the Fields, and therefore unlikely to have been in St Pancras at the time Hardy was responsible for clearing it.

So it is not ‘the’ Hardy Tree, but then nor was the tree at Sycamore Gap anything to do with Robin Hood. What it was, was a beautiful piece of nature, in a poignant setting. May she rest in peace.

The Levelled Churchyard
Thomas Hardy

O Passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!

We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaimed in fear,
I know not which I am.

Where we are huddled none can trace,
And if our names remain,
They pave some path or porch or place
Where we have never lain!

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.