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.

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