Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

31
SHEEP, HAY, AND RUSHES

AROUND the important ecclesiastical, municipal, and popular ceremonies of June were undertaken a pair of major agricultural tasks which in some districts were so central to the economy that they involved their own formalities of organization and celebration. The first was sheep-shearing, of which a late Elizabethan ballad-writer could declaim:

At sheering of sheepe, which they do keepe,
good lorde! What sporte is than.
What great good cheire, what ale and beare, is set to every man.
With beefe and with baken, in wooden brown platters, good store,
they fall to their meate, and merrily eate:
they call for no sauce therfore. 1

Just over a hundred years later, another ballad could describe the shearer's feast in almost identical terms, 2 and in its essentials it hardly altered down to the middle of the nineteenth century, its most famous literary portrayal being in Thomas Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd. Other records of Hardy's Dorset bear out most of its details and set them in a geographical and chronological perspective. It is plain that the suppers were partly a local tradition, being much more common in the south of the county than in the north. Until the middle of the nineteenth century the shearing in Dorset was performed by mutual aid between farmers, all converging with their own complements of hands to assist a particular neighbour on a given day. The meal which closed the process was their reward, and their families and friends were invited. Thereafter the process was commercialized, itinerant bands of men who were normally thatchers, hurdle-makers, and hedgers going from farm to farm hiring out their labour. They too got a substantial supper, but one which lacked the invitation to families and thus most of the festive elements which had been attached to the old feasts. Singing remained a feature of them, many of the favourite numbers being taken from corn harvest suppers, but a few designed specially for the occasion, such as

Here's health unto the shepherd,
His clip and his dog,
Thinking on the dumb creatures
While they feed in the field;
With other dumb creatures

-322-

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Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements and Note xiii
  • Contents xv
  • List of Plates xvii
  • List of Maps xx
  • 1 - The Origins of Christmas 1
  • 2 - The Twelve Days 9
  • 3 - The Trials of Christmas 25
  • 4 - Rites of Celebration and Reassurance 34
  • 5 - Rites of Purification and Blessing 42
  • 6 - Rites of Hospitality and Charity 54
  • 7 - Mummers' Play and Sword Dance 70
  • 8 - Hobby-Horse and Horn Dance 81
  • 9 - Misrule 95
  • 10 - The Reinvention of Christmas 112
  • 11 - Speeding the Plough 124
  • 12 - Brigid's Night 134
  • 13 - Candlemas 139
  • 14 - Valentines 146
  • 15 - Shrovetide 151
  • 16 - Lent 169
  • 17 - The Origins of Easter 179
  • 18 - Holy Weekz 182
  • 19 - An Egg at Easter 198
  • 20 - The Easter Holidays 204
  • 21 - England and St George 214
  • 22 - Beltane 218
  • 23 - The May 226
  • 24 - May Games and Whitsun Ales 244
  • 25 - Morris and Marian 262
  • 26 - Rogationtide and Pentecost 277
  • 27 - Royal Oak 288
  • 28 - A Merrie May 295
  • 29 - Corpus Christi 304
  • 30 - The Midsummer Fires 311
  • 31 - Sheep, Hay, and Rushes 322
  • 32 - First Fruits 327
  • 33 - Harvest Home 332
  • 34 - Wakes, Revels, and Hoppings 348
  • 35 - Samhain 360
  • 36 - Saints and Souls 371
  • 37 - The Modern Hallowe'En 379
  • 38 - Blood Month and Virgin Queen 386
  • 39 - Gunpowder Treason 393
  • 40 - Conclusions 408
  • Notes 428
  • Index 519
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