Read CHAPTER VI - JUNE of Old English Sports, free online book, by Peter Hampson Ditchfield, on ReadCentral.com.

“The woods, or some near town

That is a neighbour to the bordering down,
Hath drawn them thither, ’bout some lusty sport,
Or spiced wassel-bowl, to which resort
All the young men and maids of many a cote,
Whilst the trim minstrell strikes his merry note.”

FLETCHER, The Faithful Shepherdess.

Whitsuntide Sports Church-ales Church-house Quarter-staff Whistling and Jingling Matches St. John’s Eve Wrestling.

After May Day our villagers had not long to wait until the Whitsuntide holiday came round. This holiday was notorious for the “Church-ales,” which were held at this season. These feasts were a means of raising money for charitable purposes. If the church needed a new roof, or some poor people were in sad straits, the villagers would decide to have a “Church-ale”; generally four times a year the feast was given, and always at Whitsuntide. The churchwardens bought, and received presents of, a large quantity of malt, which they brewed into beer, and sold to the company, and any inhabitant of the parish who did not attend had to pay a fine. Every one who was able contributed something to the entertainment. The feast was held in the church-house, a building which stood near the church. This was the scene of many social gatherings, and is thus described by an old writer

“In every parish was a church-house, to which belonged spits, crocks, and other utensils for dressing provisions. Here the housekeepers met. The young people were there, too, and had dancing, bowling, shooting at butts, &c., the ancients (i.e. the old folk) sitting gravely by and looking on. All things were civil, and without scandal. The church-ale is, doubtless, derived from the Agapai or Love Feasts, mentioned in the New Testament.”

Whether the learned writer was right in his conjecture we cannot be quite certain, but church-ales subsequently degenerated into something quite different from New Testament injunctions, and were altogether prohibited on account of the excess to which they gave rise. Let us hope that all these feasts were not so bad as they were represented, and indeed in early times great reverence was attached to them, which prevented excess. The neighbours, too, would come in from the adjoining parishes and share the feast. An arbour of boughs was erected in the churchyard, called Robin Hood’s Bower, where the maidens collected money for the “ales in the same way which they employed at Hock-tide, and which was called Hocking. The old books of St. Lawrences Church, Reading (to which I have before referred), contain a record of this custom1505 A.D. Item. Received of the maidens gathering at Whitsuntide by the tree at the church door.” The morris-dancers and minstrels, the ballad-singers and players, were in great force on these occasions, and were entertained at the cost of the parish. In the churchwardens’ account of St. Mary’s, Reading, we find in the year 1557

“Item paid to Morris-dancers and the Minstrels, meat and
drink at Whitsuntide.”

When the feasting had ended, archery, running races in sacks, grinning through a horse-collar (each competitor trying to make the most ludicrous grimaces), afforded amusement to the light-hearted spectators.

The game of quarter-staff is an old pastime which was a great favourite among the rustics of Berkshire. The quarter-staff is a tough piece of wood about eight feet long, which the player grasped in the middle with one hand, while with the other he kept a loose hold midway between the middle and one end. The object of the game was, to use the forcible language of the time, to “break the head” of the opponent. On the White Horse Hill, where Alfred fought against the Danes, and carved out on the hill-side the White Horse as a memorial of his victory, many a rural sport has been played, and at the periodical “scourings of the Horse” many a Berkshire head broken to see who was the noted champion of the game. An old parishioner of mine, James of Sandhurst, was once the hero of quarter-staff in the early part of the century. The whistling match was not so dangerous a contest; the prize was conferred upon the whistler who could whistle clearest, and go through his tune while a clown, or merry-andrew, made laughable grimaces before him.

Another diversion common at these country gatherings was the jingling match. A large circle was inclosed with ropes, in which the players took their place. All were blindfolded with the exception of one, who was the jingler, and who carried a bell in each hand, which he was obliged to keep ringing. His object was to elude the pursuit of his blinded companions, and he won the prize if he was still free when the play ceased. It was an amusing sight to see the men trying to catch the active jingler, running into each other’s arms, and catching every one but the right one. When the jingling match was over, a pig with a short, well-soaped tail was turned out for the people to run after, and he who could hold it by the tail without touching any other part obtained it for his pains. There was also a game called Pigeon-holes, which appears to have been somewhat similar to our present game of bagatelle.

And so with laughter and with song the feast ended, the evening shadows fell around, and the happy rustics retired to their humble thatched-roofed homes. The proceeds of these church-ales were often considerable. “There were no rates for the poor in my grandfather’s time,” says one writer, “the church-ale of Whitsuntide did the business”; and whether the parishioners had to pay a tax for the support of the King’s army, or to repair the church, or to maintain some orphan children, it was generally found “that something still remained to cover the bottom of the purse.”

Of the “mysteries,” or miracle plays, as they were called, which were performed in towns on Corpus Christi Day and at other times, I propose to write in another chapter; and we will now proceed to the hillsides near our villages on the eve of St. John’s Day, when we should witness the lighting of large bonfires, and some curious customs connected with that ceremony. Both the old and the young people used to sally forth from the village to some neighbouring height, and there, amidst much laughter and with many a shout, they lighted the large bonfire. Then they danced round the blazing logs, and afterwards leaped through the flames, and at the close of the ceremony each person brought away with him a burning branch. This rite appears to have been a relic of Paganism. Probably the fire was originally lighted in honour of the sun, which our forefathers worshipped before they became Christians. The leaping through the flames had also a superstitious meaning, and the simple people thought that in this way they could ward off evil spirits and prevent sickness. The Roman shepherds used to leap through the Midsummer blaze in honour of Pales. The Scandinavians lit their bonfires in honour of their gods Odin and Thor, and the leaping through the flames reminds us of the worshippers of Baal and Moloch, who, as we read in the Bible, used to “pass their children through the fire” in awe of their cruel god. St. John’s Day, or Midsummer Day (June 24th), was chosen because on that day the sun reaches its highest point in the zodiac. There is, however, another interpretation of the meaning of the fires on St. John’s Day, as illustrating the verse which speaks of him “as a burning and a shining light” (St. John ; but this interpretation was probably invented by some pious divine who endeavoured to attach a Christian meaning to an ancient heathen custom. The connection of the ceremony with the old worship of the sun is indisputable. Its practice was very general in nearly all European nations, and in not very remote times from Norway to the shores of the Mediterranean the glow of St. John’s fires might have been seen. The Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century forbade the custom as a heathen rite, but the Church endeavoured to win over the custom from its Pagan associations and to attach to it a Christian signification. In the island of Jersey the older inhabitants used to light fires under large iron pots full of water, in which they placed silver articles as spoons, mugs, &c., and then knocked the silver against the iron with the idea of scaring away all evil spirits. Sometimes bones were burnt in the fire, for we are told in a quaint homily on the Feast of St. John Baptist, that bones scared away the evil spirits in the air, since “wise clerks know well that dragons hate nothing more than the stink of burning bones, and therefore the country folk gather as many as they might find, and burned them; and so with the stench thereof they drove away the dragons, and so they were brought out of great disease.”

In some most remote northern parts of England the farmer lights a wisp of straw, which he carries round his fields to protect them from the tare and darnel, the devil and witches. In some places they used to cover a wheel with straw, set it on fire, and roll it down a hill. A learned writer on antiquities tells us that the people imagined that all their ill-luck rolled away from them together with this burning wheel. All these customs are relics of the old fire and sun worship, to which our forefathers were addicted. Wrestling, running races, and dancing were afterwards practised by the villagers. Wrestling is a very ancient sport, and the men of Cornwall and Devon, of Westmoreland and Cumberland, were famous for their skill. A “Cornish hug” is by no means a tender embrace. Sometimes the people bore back to their homes boughs of trees, with which they adorned their doors and windows. At Oxford the quadrangle of Magdalen College was decorated with boughs on St. John’s Day, and a sermon preached from the stone pulpit in the corner of the quadrangle; this was meant to represent the preaching of St. John the Baptist in the wilderness.

At length the villagers, wearied with their exertions, retire to their cottage homes, marching in procession from the scene of their observances; and silence reigns o’er the village for a few short hours, till the sunlight summons them to their daily toil.