North Devon Customs and Superstitions (1867)
By J. R. Chanter.
(Read at Barnstaple, 24th July 1867)
DEVON in general, and North Devon in particular, has been very retentive of ancient customs, habits, and superstitions. Its folk-lore is especially interesting from its local form of fairy, the Devonshire pixy. But the most noticeable fact connected with North Devon is, not so much the variety or specially local character of its superstitions and vulgar customs, as of their being still generally interwoven with the daily life of the population. In most parts of the country it is necessary, in order to gather up local customs or legends, to seek out ancient crones or noted legend-tellers; but no one can live in this district, and mix much with the country folks, without finding a general belief in witchcraft still existing, and old customs and superstitions in full sway. A great many of these are, or were, common to all England, but having gradually died out in the more busy parts of the country, have continued here, most probably from the isolated nature of the district, and the stagnant character of the agricultural population.
It is not even necessary to go out of our homes to have very palpable proof of these superstitious practices; they are brought into our houses by domestic servants, who are mostly supplied from the agricultural districts, and who communicate them to our children. Curious revelations frequently occur in our Police and County Courts. The Judge of one of them very recently expressed his indignation at the cool way in which a man spoke of his wife having been “strook” several times; and it was necessary to be explained that he did not refer to her having been subjected to personal chastisement, but to her having had proper medical treatment for some ailment, by the part being “struck” with some imaginary remedy or charm.
The medical repute of charms is, in fact, very prevalent; any sudden cure is proverbially said to act like a charm. The seventh son of a seventh son is still in great request to “touch” for fits; and a case of this came out on a legal enquiry only a week or two since. Warts and swellings are removed by various charms, such as skeins of thread knotted with the number of the warts to be removed, and struck across the warts as many times, and then buried; or striking with a witch elm wand, or a piece of stolen bacon; in each of which cases as the buried article decays so do the warts gradually decrease; or by depositing a given number of pebbles or peas in a bag, and losing it, but in this case the unfortunate finder gets the warts himself. But the most favourite remedy for warts, and indeed all swellings, is to have “words” said over them.
A portion of a rope with which a suicide has hanged himself is a wondrous charm against all accidents, when worn around the person.
The tooth ache is cured, and, what is more, perfect exemption from it for the future is supposed to be attained, by biting out a tooth from a corpse or skull; and very recently, a skeleton having been discovered at Croyde, the jaws were quickly denuded of all their teeth by the number of persons who hastened to the spot to bite them out. Every old woman has her remedy for boils, some of them of a very ludicrous nature. I was favoured with a new and rather ghastly recipe this week only, which I copy in full.
“To cure a friend of Boils. – Go into a churchyard on a dark night, and to the grave of a person who has been interred the day previous; walk six times round the grave, and crawl across it three times. If the sufferer from boils is a man, this ceremony must be performed by a woman, and the contrary. The charm will not work unless the night is quite dark.” There is an appended note. “This remedy was tried by a young woman in Georgeham churchyard”, but with what result was not told; the inference was that it succeeded. I should add, that this recipe was given in full faith and belief of its efficacy.
Accidents, or any obscure ailments to cattle, are commonly attributed to their being witched, or “overlooked”, as the term is, and can only be cured by a white witch; and it is well known that more than one person in North Devon gains his livelihood by acting professionally as a white witch, that is, the country people call him the white witch, though he professes to be a cattle doctor.
In fact, if any one gets into trouble in any way, it is quite a sufficient explanation that he has been “evil-wished and overlooked,” and the white witch is forthwith called into requisition.
Omens, presentiments, and death-warnings, are much believed in hereabouts. The bells in a house ringing, or knocks heard at night; a winding sheet in a candle; a dog howling on a door-step; or, what is a more local and poetic superstition, the “wist bird” being heard twittering, – are regarded with dread, as the sure forerunners of a death, or other calamity in a house. Cocks crowing at night are signs of sickness; and the most forced interpretations are put on dreams, when any trivial matter occurs, in order that the dreamers may say, “There, my dream is out”.
Bee-keepers, almost without exception, are full of superstitions. A swarm must on no account he sold, but given away or exchanged. The bees must be informed, by tapping on the hive and whispering, of anything that takes place in the house, or if any of the family are ill, or going to, or returning from, a visit. A Christmas handsel must be given them on New Year’s Day; and the hives must be turned if a death occurs, or the bees will forsake the hive; and the Charivari of bells and kettles, when they swarm, is sometimes extreme. These customs are not exceptional, but very common. Some friends of mine near the town, who are beekeepers, and who have given me most of these details, carefully attend to all these superstitions on the principle that, though absurd in themselves, it is impossible to make the people about them think so, and that their servants would be dissatisfied and take no interest in the bees, unless allowed to consult their own prejudices, and would attribute any accident or failure in the honey crop entirely to the omission of the accustomed forms.
If any one offends an old woman, the severest reply she can make is to say she will have him witched; and an instance occurred only last week. A sailor from a vessel that put into Croyde Bay carried off a rope belonging to a singular character there resident, who was heard to threaten very earnestly, that if he had been there, he would have witched the vessel, and made a spell by which she should never have left the Bay again.
A great many old English customs also still linger, and are frequently practised here. The groaning cheese is cut on the birth of an infant; a shoe is thrown after a bride for luck; and, in cases of death, the common superstition of opening every lock and bolt in the house is very generally observed, as is also another very curious local one. When the funeral procession leaves the house, all the doors are carefully set open, and not closed until after the procession returns, the superstition running, “Shut one corpse out – three corpses in”. These last customs are continued simply because at these periods the arrangements are generally left in the hands of nurses and other persons about the sick house, who are a class for the most part strongly imbued with superstitious feelings.
The ashen faggot is burnt at Christmas with all formality; Lenten shirds are plentifully thrown on Ash Wednesday; even the May Day and Midsummer Eve ceremonies, and mumming at Christmas, have not been long discontinued, as I have myself seen St. George and the Dragon acted by parties who went from house to house on Christmas Eve; the old fashioned play, “Here come I, old Father Christmas; Here come I, the great St. George”; but I believe the Waits or Christmas Carols are the only ancient custom now in use, and they are still entertained at midnight on elder wine and toasts. Barnstaple great fair is still heralded by hanging out an immense glove.
I have here referred only to a few customs and superstitions which have come under my own personal observation. No doubt the list can be very largely increased; but my object on this occasion is to call attention to a curious local application of a widely diffused vulgar custom, – that of Skimmington riding. The origin of this custom is rather obscure, as it appears to have been practised under different names in most parts of England, and in many foreign countries. It consists of a burlesque procession, in ridicule of a man whose wife has been faithless to him, and likewise of a tame husband submitting to be henpecked and beaten by his wife, and, in fact, allowing her to wear the unmentionables.
This procession usually consists of two stuffed figures of a man and a woman on horseback, back to back, preceded by a man carrying a pair of ram’s horns on a pole, or on his head, and followed by noisy music of ladies, pots, frying-pans, and cleavers, all the other persons in the procession smacking whips; and in this manner are paraded through the parish into the next, where the horns are nailed up sometimes to the Church porch. Such a procession is even yet not unfrequently seen in this district, and is intended as a warning and punishment to unruly wives and tame husbands, and to hold them up to public scorn. But the rustics have a tradition, that, by using this ceremony, they can legally establish a Cattle Fair; just as they fancy, that if a funeral passes through any private property, it establishes for ever after a public right of way; or that a wife can be legally divorced by exposing her for sale in Market Overt, with a halter round her neck; and I believe that more than one fair in North Devon was first established with this ceremony. One instance of it came under my personal notice some years since, as I was visiting at the Manor House, when a deputation arrived, bringing the following document, drawn up with a great pretence of legal form, and tendering the tolls.
“Manor of Lynton, in the County of Devon.
Whereas the Inhabitants of Lynton, having sent Notice to the Inhabitants of Countisbury, did ride Skivetton on the 12th day of June, 1854; and having carried the horns, and having nailed and left the horns in the parish of Countisbury, in the county of Devon, without let or hindrance; and having sent notice to the Churchwardens of Countisbury, that they should bring the horns, and leave the same in the parish of Countisbury, on Monday, June 26th, for the purpose of holding a Cattle Fair; and the inhabitants of Countisbury having received the same without let or hindrance, a Cattle Fair was accordingly held in the said Manor of Lynton, on Monday, June 26th, 1854; and the tolls having been refused by Mr. Teppee, the majority have voted the same to the Lord Of the Manor of Lynton, and that the same be sent to him accordingly.”
Then follows a long list of the sales affected at the fair, and the tolls received.
The fair, thus commenced, continued to be held until the cattle disease put a stop to all these local fairs. I know of no custom analogous to this anywhere else in England, except the well-known Horn Fair at Charlton, in Kent, which used to be opened with a procession somewhat similar to that of the Skimmington. But, in conclusion, I would call attention to a curious entry in the Churchwardens’ accounts of Pilton – “1797, July 10th. Paid for crying down the Whips and Horns, 3d.” I imagine this must have some reference to Skimmington riding, which was considered to confer some legal rights, and, as we have seen in the document quoted, that the horns were taken into the next parish, and notice sent to the Churchwardens – probably something of the sort occurred in the case of Pilton – and the Churchwardens thought it necessary to prevent any assumed rights being acquired in their parish, by having the removal of the horns cried down.