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

“Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art:
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies
Clad all in linen white as lilies.
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned.”

HERRICK’S Hesperides.

Lammas Day St. Roch’s Day Harvest-home “Ten-pounding” Sheep-shearing “Wakes” Fairs.

The harvest fields have begun to ripen, and the corn will soon be ready for the sickle; of this fact our forefathers were reminded by the Lammas Festival, which was celebrated on the first of this month. Lammas is a shortened form of the word Loaf-mass, or feast of the loaf. A loaf of bread was made of the first-ripe corn, and used in Holy Communion on this day; so this feast was a preliminary harvest thanksgiving festival a feast of “first-fruits,” such as the Jews were commanded in the old Mosaic law to observe.

When the harvest was gathered in there were great festivities, and it has been thought that August 16th, St. Roch’s Day, was generally observed as the harvest-home. St. Roch, or Roque, was a Frenchman, who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century, and was supposed to have performed miraculous cures, but August 16th seems to have been rather early in the year for a harvest-home. However, when the feast of ingathering did take place, there were great rejoicings in our English villages, and the mode of its celebration helped to knit together the masters and labourers, and to promote good feeling between them.

When the fields were almost cleared of the golden grain, the last few sheaves were decorated with flowers and ribbons, and brought home in a waggon, called the “Hock-cart,” while the labourers, their wives and children, carrying green boughs, sheaves of wheat and rude flags, formed a glad procession. All the pipes and tabors in the village sounded, and shouts of laughter and of song were raised as the glad procession marched along. They sang

“Harvest-home, harvest-home,
We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load.

Hip, hip, hip, harvest-home!”

or, as they say in Berkshire

“Whoop, whoop, whoop, harvest whoam!”

Sometimes the most comely maiden in the village was chosen as Harvest Queen, and placed upon her throne at the top of the sheaves in the hock-cart as it was drawn homewards to the farm.

The rustics receive a hearty welcome at their master’s house, where they find the fuelled chimney blazing wide, and the strong table groaning beneath the smoking sirloin

“Mutton, veal,
And bacon, which makes full the meal,
With several dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.”

Frumenty, which is made of wheat boiled in milk was a standing dish at every harvest supper. And then around the festive board old tales are told, well-known jests abound, and thanks given to the good farmer and his wife for their hospitality in some such homely rhymes as these

“Here’s a health to our master,
The lord of the feast;
God bless his endeavours,
And send him increase.

“May everything prosper
That he takes in hand,
For we be his servants,
And do his command.”

The youths and maidens dance their country dances, as an old writer, who lived in the reign of Charles II., tells us: “The lad and the lass will have no lead on their heels. O, ’tis the merry time wherein honest neighbours make good cheer, and God is glorified in His blessings on the earth.” When the feast is over, the company retire to some near hillock, and make the welkin ring with their shouts, “Holla, holla, holla, largess!” largess being the presents of money and good things which the farmer had bestowed.

Such was the harvest-home in the good old days joy and delight to both old and young. The toils of the labourers did not seem so hard and wearisome when they knew that the farmers had such a grateful sense of their good services; and if any one felt aggrieved or discontented, the mutual intercourse at the harvest-home, when all were equal, when all sat at the same table and conversed freely together, soon banished all ill-feeling, and promoted a sense of mutual trust, which is essential to the happiness and well-being of any community. Shorn of much of its merriment and quaint customs, the harvest-home still lingers on in some places; but modern habits and notions have deprived it of much of its old spirit and light-heartedness. We have our harvest thanksgiving services, which (thank God!) are observed in almost every village and hamlet. It is, of course, our first duty to thank God for the fruits of His bounty and love; but the harvest-home should not be forgotten. When labourers simply regard harvest-time as a season when they can earn a few shillings more than usual, and take no further interest in their work, or in the welfare of their master, all brightness vanishes from their industry: their minds become sordid and mercenary; and mutual trust, good-feeling, and fellowship cease to exist.

Neither did the harvest-men allow drunkenness, laziness, swearing, quarrelling, nor lying, to go unpunished. The labourers in Suffolk, if they found one of their number guilty, would hold a court-martial among themselves, lay the culprit down on his face, and an executioner would administer several hard blows with a shoe studded with hob-nails. This was called “ten-pounding,” and must have been very effectual in checking any of the above delinquencies.

Besides the harvest-home there was also observed another feast of a similar character in the spring, when the sheep were shorn. A plentiful dinner was given by the farmer to the shearers and their friends, and a table was often set in the open village for the young people and children. Tusser, who wrote a book upon Five Hundred Points of Husbandry, did not forget the treats which ought to be given to the labourers, and alludes to the sheep-shearing festival in the following lines

“Wife, make us a dinner; spare flesh, neither corn,
Make wafers and cakes, for our sheep must be shorn;
At sheep-shearing, neighbours none other things crave,
But good cheer and welcome like neighbours to have.”

We have in many villages and towns a feast called “the Wakes,” which is one of the oldest of our English festivals. The day of “the Wakes” is the festival of the Saint to whom the parish church is dedicated, and it is so called because, on the previous night, or vigil, the people used to watch, or “wake,” in the church till the morning dawned. It was the custom for the inhabitants of the parish to keep open house on that day, and to entertain all their relations and friends who came to them from a distance. In early times the people used to make booths and tents with the boughs of trees near to the church, and were directed to celebrate the feast in them with thanksgiving and prayer. By degrees they began to forget their prayers, and remembered only the feasting, and other abuses crept in, so at last the “waking” on the eve of the festival was suppressed. But these primitive feasts were the origin of most of our fairs, which are generally held on the dedication festival of the parish church. The neighbours from the adjoining villages used to attend the wakes, so the peddlers and hawkers came to find a market for their wares. Their stalls began to multiply, until at last an immense fair sprang into existence, which owed its origin entirely to the religious festival of “the wakes.” Fairs have degenerated like many other good things, and we can hardly realize their vastness in the middle ages. The circuit of a fair sometimes was very great, and it would have been impossible in those days to carry on the trade of the country without them. The great Stourbridge Fair, near Cambridge, I have described in my former book on English Villages. The booths were planted in a cornfield, and the circuit of the fair, which was one of the largest in Europe, was over three miles. All kinds of sports were held on these occasions: plays, comedies, tragedies, bull-baiting, &c., and King James was very wroth with the undergraduates of Cambridge who would insist upon frequenting Stourbridge Fair rather than attend to their studies.

The “Wakes,” or village feast, was a great day for all sports and pastimes. A writer in the Spectator describes the “country wake” which he witnessed at Bath. The green was covered with a crowd of all ages and both sexes, decked out in holiday attire, and divided into several parties, “all of them endeavouring to show themselves in those exercises wherein they excelled.” In one place there was a ring of cudgel-players, in another a football match, in another a ring of wrestlers. The prize for the men was a hat, and for the women, who had their own contests, a smock. Running and leaping also found a place in the programme. In Berkshire back-sword play and wrestling were the favourite amusements for vigorous youths, and men strove hard to win the honour of being champion and the prizes which were offered on the occasion. There were “cheap jacks,” and endless booths containing all kinds of fairings, ribands, gingerbread cakes, and shows, with huge pictures hung outside of giants and wild Indians, pink-eyed ladies, live lions, and deformities of all kinds. There were minor sports, such as climbing the pole, jumping in sacks, rolling wheelbarrows blindfolded, donkey races, muzzling in a flour-tub, &c.; but the back-sword play was the chief and most serious part of the programme.

A good sound ash-stick with a large basket handle was the weapon used, very similar to, but heavier and shorter than an ordinary single-stick. The object is to “break the head” of the opponent i.e. to cause blood to flow anywhere above the eyebrow. A slight blow will often accomplish this, so the game is not so savage as it appears to be. The play took place on a stage of rough planks about four feet high. Each player was armed with a stick, looping the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap, which he fastened round his left leg, measuring the length, so that when he drew it tight with his left elbow up he had a perfect guard for the left side of his head. Guarding his head with the stick in his right hand, he advanced, and then the fight began; fast and furious came the blows, until at last a red streak on the temple of one of the combatants declared his defeat. The Reading Mercury of May 24, 1819, advertised the rural sports at Peppard, when the not very magnificent prize of eighteenpence was offered to every man who broke a head at cudgel-play, and a shilling to every one who had his head broken.

Such was the sport which our old Berkshire rustics delighted in. Back-sword play, wrestling, and other pastimes made them a hardy race, full of courage, and developed qualities which it is hoped their descendants have not altogether lost. The gallant Berkshire Regiment, which fought so bravely at Maiwand, is composed of the sons of those who used to wield the back-sword on the Berkshire downs, and showed themselves not unworthy of their ancestry, although the quarter-staff and ashen-swords are forgotten. The old village feasts are forgotten too more’s the pity. Then old quarrels were healed, old bitternesses removed: aged friends met, and became young again in heart, as they revived old memories and sweet recollections of youthful days. Rich and poor, the squire and the farmer, the farmer and his labourers, all mingled together, class with class; and good-fellowship, harmony, and mutual confidence were promoted by these annual gatherings. It is true that these village feasts degenerated, because the well-to-do folk abstained from them; but would it not be possible to revive them, to preserve the good which they certainly did, and to eliminate the evil which is so often mingled with the good? Such a consideration is worthy of the attention of all who have the welfare of the people at heart.