Enclosure of the Commons: the borders that keep us out
The Common Life

The enclosure of wild time

May Day in Chagford

May Day in ChagfordPictures above & below from Chagford's Jack in the Green procession on May Day, 2015

Just as Commons land creates a physical border between private property and wilderness (discussed here yesterday), traditional carnivals, festivals, and folk pageants create a metaphorical border between the measured clock-time of ordinary life and the "wild time" of the mythic realm. But this cultural Commons has also been effected by Britain's history of Enclosures, as Jay Griffiths explains in the following passage from her book Pip, Pip, a cultural study of time:

"In Britain there were once hundreds of carnivals: blessing-of-the-mead days; hare-pie-scrambling days and cake-and-ale ceremonies; there were Hobby Horse Days and Horn Dance Days, with their pagan hunting associations and symbolic suggestions of fertility rites; there were Well-Dressing days, Cock-Squoiling days (or 'throwing-at-cocks'); there were Doling days and days for 'beating the bounds' of the parish; wassailing the apple trees and playing duck-apple at Halloween; burning the clavie (tar barrel) at new year or 'Hallooing Largesse' (where, in East Anglia, the Lord of the Harvest traditionally led a troup of people to serenade householders, seeking money), all colored the course of the year. Some of these are pre-Christian; some are medieval or later. Many of them have survived in some form -- often as 'just' a children's game.

May Day in Chagford

"At Somerset's Punkie Night, at the end of October, children made punkies (lanterns) out of mangel-wurzels (a large kind of beet) and went knocking on people's doors for money or candles. This was one of the many ancient mischief nights of the year, when children played up gleefully, changing shop signs or taking gates May Day in Chagfordoff hinges:

Give us a light, give us a light.
If you don't you'll get a fright
...

is the children's refrain; an ancient threat this, playing a trick if you're not treated. Guisers (children disguising themselves at Halloween) in Scotland sang:

If ye dinnae let us in,
We will bash yer windies in.

"Whuppity Scooorie in Lanark is a festival, believed to have survived from pagan times, during which as much noise as possible was made to scare off evil spirits and protect crops; latterly it is acted out by children who, started by a peal of bells, swing paper balls at each other and scramble for pennies. Up-Helly-Aa is a Shetland Isles festival, dating back to Viking times, when a thirty-foot model Viking ship, complete with banners, shields and a bow of a dragon's head, is taken down to the sea by torchlight, then the torches are flung in and it blazes across the water, representing the dead heroes sent to Valhalla in a burning ship. Garland Day at Abbotsbury in Dorset is a ceremony to bless the fishing boats at the opening of the mackerel fishing season which had strong hints of pagan sacrifice in its thousand-year history, though now it is, like so many other festivals, just a children's game."

May Day in Chagford

Processing past the church yard copy

May Day in Chagford

"Many festivals chime with the seasons of the agricultural year and of the natural world," notes Griffiths, "the life and death cycle of vegetation as, for example, the Obby Oss on May Day at Padstow in Cornwall, where the Oss dances, dies, resurrects, and dances again. There are festivals marking the death of winter, or bringing in the summer, there are cyclic (and sacrificial) nature-festivals for the corn spirit wherever corn is grown."

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"Festival time, traditionally, binds communities together, knitting them to their land, each area tootling its own festive tune, accented with dialect voices specific to certain places and describing a 'vernacular time.' Thus one area's festival calendar could have been different from the calendar of a neighboring locale. Festival-time could further delineate not only the physical geography but also the economic geography of an area, protecting rights of access or land-use, particularly -- in the past -- in such customs as the 'beating of the bounds' of a parish or village."

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"The beating of the bounds, or processioning, as Bob Bushaway says in By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880, 'provided the community with a mental map of the parish...which was the collective memory of the community.' These festivals tied a society to its past, its land and its rights to that land. But, as Bushaway shows, these customs disappeared, up and down the country, as a result of one thing: enclosures."

May Day in Chagford

"Pre-enclosure," Griffiths continues, "other customs concerned with common land, with the rights of gleaning, wood-gathering or access, were vigorously upheld. Cheese-rolling ceremonies, for instance, used festival-time to mark such rights; when the access was denied, so was the festival At Shapwick Marsh at Sturminster Marshall, a 'feast of Sillabub' was held. It was joint-stock merry-making,' so one person might bring the milk of one cow, another the milk of three, while yet another might bring the wine. With the 1845 enclosure, this custom disappeared and many other festivals of commons were outlawed.

May Day in Chagfod

May Day i Chagford"Before enclosures, festivals were vigorously convivial, as numerous chronicles show; they were off-license times, drunken, licentious and rude, ranging from mid-summer ales to apple-tree wassailing, from autumn mead-mowing to May Day liaisons. And the Victorian middle-classes hated it. Just as land was literally fenced off and enclosed, so the spirit of carnival-time was metaphorically enclosed, repressed and fenced in by Victorian morality: no drinking, no bawdiness, no sex. The common -- very vulgar -- character of festival was increasingly outlawed and fenced off from the commoners and turned over to the land-owning middle classes in the form of the queasy, fluttery remains of Victorian festival...The lewd and the loud were disallowed. The acts and the spirit of enclosure tried to suppress the broad, unenclosed, unfettered, unbounded exuberance of the vulgar at large."

The Jack, the Piper, and the Obby Oss

The photograph in the first half of this post come from last spring's May Day procession here in Chagford -- where a group of us, led by folk musician & scholar Andy Letcher, are working to revive this old folkloric tradition. That's Andy on the bagpipes, Jason of England as the Jack-in-the-Green, Suzi Crockford as the Queen of May, and my husband Howard as the Obby Oss. The photographs are by Ashley Wengraf, Ian Atherton, Ruth Olley, and Simon Blackbourn. (Run your cursor over the images for picture descriptions and credits.)

May Day in Chagford

"Few festivals are more flamboyantly vulgar than May Day or Beltane," says Griffiths. "One pagan festival which the disapproving church did not -- could not -- colonize, it kept its raw smell of sexual license and its populist grass roots appeal....Beltane was celebrated with huge bonfires, the Lord and the Queen of May (who, in the Middle Ages, was often a man dressed as a woman) and Spring was personified by the Green Man -- the May Day in ChagfordWild Man or Jack-in- the-Green. Dressed in leaves, he carried a huge horn. (Enough said.) The Maypole, the phallic pole planted in mother earth, was the key symbol of the day.

"Then came the Puritans, sniffing the rank sexuality, decrying the Maypole as 'this stinking idol'; and in 1644 the Long Parliament banned all Maypoles. They also objected to the social reversal of carnival [men dressed as women, fools as kings, etc.]; to the Puritans, an attack on the status quo was almost as disgusting as sex. After the Restoration, England's most famous Maypole was erected in London's Strand in 1661; a stonking hundred and thirty feet high, all streamers and garlands, making people wild with delight, it stood for over fifty merry years. But Isaac Newton put a stop to it. In 1717, he bought the Maypole to use as a post for a telescope to penetrate the darkness of the night. In the 19th century, the Victorians infantalized May Day, making it a children's festival to emphasize innocence, of all things.

"But the festival of Beltane and the whole spirit of carnival is robust. Coming from the earth itself, it erupts, whether puritans and politicians like it or not. In rural areas, you can still find Beltane celebrated, complete with Green Men, Maypoles, and Fools."

More information on the history of May Day can be found in this previous post.

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

Our village is a place where festivals tend to erupt at the drop of a hat, and everyone seems to have well-stocked box of dress-up clothes in their closet. Despite a tiny population (roughly 2500 people, and a whole lot of sheep), Chagford hosts an annual film festival, a music festival, a bi-annual literary festival, a summer carnival, and plenty of other events besides, and kids grow up here thinking it's perfectly ordinary to dance in the streets on a regular basis. Perhaps it's no coincidence that we've also held on to our village Commons, and many here still gather to "beat the bounds," affirming the boundaries of the parish and the timeless ties of community life.

The photographs below are by Simon Blackbourn, taken just last weekend on the final night of the Chagford Film Festival, celebrating Indian film and dance this year. Please visit Simon's website to see more of his beautiful work.

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

12032634_10153726394365774_396044174349548810_oPictures: Many thanks to the photographers who allowed their work to appear here. The black-and-white photos and the Film Festival photos are all by Simon Blackbourn; the May Day photos were taken by various folks. You'll find credits in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them). The photos without credits were snapped on the fly by me, on Suzi Crockford's camera. Words: The passage by Jay Griffiths comes from Pip, Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999), highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above are reserved by their respective creators.

Comments

May I recommend Stations of the Sun - the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton

A rigorous scholarly look into these festivals that casts a bright light on the origins of nearly all of them. Only two can be absolutely proven to be pre-Christian (Beltane and Samhain -- and most current ways to celebrate these are medieval in origin. The book details which parts are decidedly pre-Christian.) Actually nearly every festival which is believed to be pre-Christian is in fact medieval in origin or even as late as Victorian.

I think it would be very difficult to definitely prove or disprove that the Summer and Winter Solstices have a Pagan origin, jensketch, and I think the same could be said of the equinoxes. And as for those that may have such a late origin, there is no way of proving or disproving that the initiators of such festivals had anything but pagan sympathies that had continued in an unbroken line down the generations since pre-Christian times. Just who was it who placed the images of the Green Man and other pagan symbols in the medieval churches and even Cathedrals? Whoever it was, it hardly seems like an act of Christian piety. But knowing the way that some academic minds work, the inability to prove a belief often, in the academic's opinion, disproves that belief.

Excellent. Although I feel I should point out that Up Helly Aa isn't particularly ancient. It dates from the late 19th century, I believe. But that in no way lessens what you've said here. Thank you.

How wonderful!

What a lovely coda for the exploration of enclosures. It must be so wonder-filled to live where tradition has shaped the land and the customs and the stories. I read about the neolithic discoveries on Orkney and wished so much I could take a ride on a time machine. But maybe that's what stories and customs are if you tilt your head just right. So thanks again for the ride, Terri.

Love the photos! Made me feel so happy--i hope the tradition continues its revival and I'd love to come and make merry while it's happening.

Let's not forget the modern Druids either who are purely an eighteenth century fabrication. But even so, this in no way detracts from the sincerity of many of their followers. I sometimes think that the provable antiquity of a festival/ceremony is quite immaterial; what really matters is what they bring into people's lives in terms of quality, comfort and a sense of belonging.

The quoted text in this post is by Jay Griffiths, not me, so I can neither take credit for it nor argue for the accuracy of her description of Up Helly Aa -- but I agree with you, Stu, that her words are indeed excellent, as are all her books. ("Wild" is a particular favorite -- not to be confused with the Cheryl Strayed book of the same title, though that's also good, in a very different way.)

You should do that, Judith. I assume you recognize the leafy fellows from Throwleigh in the first 3 black-and-white pictures....? :)

Yes I do! I'll have to drop them a line--Hope to see you for revels come spring--looking to come sojourn for awhile if I can find a thatched roof cottage :) Your posts on illness, borderlands and enclosures have been exquisite Terri, like a meal made sumptuous by its subtle, complex, fragrant spices.

I don't think I've commented on a post here before, so I first wanted to say thank you for directing me to so many wonderful musicians, books and artists over the years! And for your book The Wood Wife which is one of my favorites.

Anyway, I was hoping you might be able to help me. I am planning on making an Obby Oss inspired by the Welsh Mari Lwyd this year. But, living in the States, I don't have anyone to guide me as to the technical construction of it - how exactly the horse skull is mounted on the pole, most importantly. Reading all the folklore about them, there is little practical information available. Seeing as your husband has carried one, I'm hoping you either know or could direct me to someone who does? I'd be very grateful.

Goosebumps! What a joyful place! Oh, I do love your village, though I've never been. I'm so glad there are grown ups in the wide world who are working to restore the best of ancient, "childish", "vulgar" celebration and ritual. Three cheers for Chagford!

This odd poem happened this morning and it's a bit longer than my usual style, but, well, it's clearly informed and inspired by some of the work here (and a true story) so I offer it in thanks for all your work, Terri. I hope you're feeling well and that the rest of your week is peaceful and restorative (or raucous and musical, whatever your pleasure).

Thief
By Edith Hope Bishop


This morning I stole a persimmon.
I don’t know who it belongs to,
Only that it wasn’t mine
And now it is,
safe in my palm.

I stole because I didn’t plant the tree
Or water the seed,
Or trim the boughs.
I didn’t rain or shine on the young thing
Until it was wide and green
And ready to give.
I didn’t pay for the land and file the deed
In a drawer in my basement.
Forgotten.

I stole because I walked a path,
Saw the fruit,
And thought to myself,
I don’t know what that tastes like.
I don’t know its weight in my hand.
Is it tomato soft
Or hard as an apple?
Will it be under ripe?
I saw that some of the fruit had already been scraped
And hollowed by bird or bat,
Bug and worm.
But there were many, so many,
Pulling the branches low
With their bulbous green and orange
Like other worldly tangerines.
They must be sweet.
They must be.

Footsteps came down the path and I hid, slightly.
The way you hide when the teacher comes
To check on work you haven’t started.
When a child, I trembled.
This morning they walked on.

After all, I’m permitted in public gardens.
Though perhaps not to covet their persimmons.
I don’t know what would happen if they saw me reach up,
My arm arched so as not to break a cobweb,
My fingers locking on the small orange thing
And twisting gently until the stem gave way in a delicate snap
Landing the fruit on my palm.
Maybe nothing. Maybe they would say, “Enjoy”,
Or ignore the act,
Or scowl.
That would be that.
Disapproval the final verdict.

I took it and walked away
Beneath the sentinels of the evergreens.
The dead sunflowers
Bending down,
Unwilling to observe my shame.

And why should I be afraid of them,
The Landowners, the Gardeners, the Officials?

And yet, in my escape,
I forgot to thank the tree.
This, I know, will haunt me.

Wonderful merriment! The need for tradition has evolved to odd events here in San Francisco. We have
Fools day, a parade, There is a dress up like Santa Clause evection, home made and bought costumes, from pub to pub, are all smiles and laughter. St. Patricks' Day is green wreckage. In June, we have the
Gay parade, which is giddy, jammed and many straights dancing around on the streets. The run from East San Francisco to the ocean, is all about costumes, often witty, ribald and a lot like ancient tom foolery.
But of course Halloween. The whole city turns into a show. Witches and Warlocks, from ancient to far fetched future, Ghouls or Zombies, and of course before darkness, little witches and princesses, pirates,
clowns, Comic Book heroes, and odd things like child in a big green box ???? And of course, here is where the Renaissance Faire began in 1968 (?) As family, we were the Greengrocers of Norwich, a

Accidentally posted...a scruffy bunch who played Mystery and Miracle plays but were quite loud and goofy, too.

LOVE the pictures! We don't get that sort of festival here, though we do "beat the bounds" of our property on Lady Day and wassail the trees at Yule. Many of the others I haven't heard of and will be doing some research!

Enclosure Of The Witch

Then came the Puritans...
Jay Griffiths

They have starched us
in collars, caps and cuffs.
Our aprons tied
tight by hands that rather
wrap ribbons around a pole

or break eggs in a glass bowl
of water to watch the yolk
foretell our fate.

They have sheltered us
in a half timbered house
and strained joy from our voice.
We sing hymns that cause
the floorboards to ache
as boredom settles in
not Winter's chill.

And yet part of us,
the split soul, the wild half
nests in the loft and flies at night
circling the sky

and pitchforking wind
into field or wood. The swallow
has absorbed our need
to be as we were:

darting the stern ways
of fence and faith,

diving into the depth
of chant and change
the seasons bring,

stealing fire from the gods
and spinning their flame
into our hair, our breath -
our craft of being.
_______________________________
Loved everything about this post, the history, the pictures and the
lore/magic of these festivals. Despite efforts by dogma, clergy, critics and others/things to impose their will and enclosures on the
old ways, the misunderstood rites and rituals, the wild spirit defies place and time. It somehow transcends captivity in one form or another.

Many thanks for this,
Wendy


Hi Edith

Love every inch of this poem and the way it progresses from the urge to taste something new, fulfilling one's curiosity, to the fear of being caught/scolded/punished
to a sort of justification - after all, there is always the prevalent child within in -- exploring out spontaneity and need. But then the last two lines become so telling of the human conscious when we remember we should have thanked something or someone for the gift, the chance, even the joy of taking a risk. It shows despite a small act of theft, we have an appreciation for the owner, the giver, the tree.

Some of my favorite stanzas include:

stole because I didn’t plant the tree
Or water the seed,
Or trim the boughs.
I didn’t rain or shine on the young thing
Until it was wide and green
And ready to give.

or
My arm arched so as not to break a cobweb,
My fingers locking on the small orange thing
And twisting gently until the stem gave way in a delicate snap
Landing the fruit on my palm.

and this --

I took it and walked away
Beneath the sentinels of the evergreens.
The dead sunflowers
Bending down,
Unwilling to observe my shame.

Thanks for sharing this,
so lovely an indicative of our human nature, made often
more vulnerable by our curiosity and imagination.

Wendy

The is an error in the wording of one of the stanzas.

the lines reading

"darting the stern ways
of fence an faith"

should read

"swerving from the stern ways
of fence and faith."

And here is the entire poem corrected

Enclosure Of The Witch

Then came the Puritans...
Jay Griffiths

They have starched us
in collars, caps and cuffs.
Our aprons tied
tight by hands that rather
wrap ribbons around a pole

or break eggs in a glass bowl
of water to watch the yolk
foretell our fate.

They have sheltered us
in a half timbered house
and strained joy from our voice.
We sing hymns that cause
the floorboards to ache
as boredom settles in
not Winter's chill.

And yet part of us,
the split soul, the wild half
nests in the loft and flies at night
circling the sky

and pitchforking wind
into field or wood. The swallow
has absorbed our need
to be as we were:

swerving from the stern ways
of fence and faith,

diving into the depth
of chant and change
the seasons bring,

stealing fire from the gods
and spinning their flame
into our hair, our breath -
our craft of being.

Thanks for commenting, D, and for your kind words.

The Chagford Obby Oss was made by Suzi Crockford and Nomi McLeod, who you can contact through their personal blogs:

Suzi: http://suzi-crockford.blogspot.co.uk/
Nomi: http://airandparchment.blogspot.co.uk/

Do you know the work of the Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins? He's done amazing art (and puppetry) on the theme of the Mari Lwyd.

Clive's website: http://www.hicks-jenkins.com/
Clive's blog: https://clivehicksjenkins.wordpress.com/

Oh Edith, I love this. Those last three lines are just perfection. And though it's not at all a fairy tale poem, being saturated in fairy tales as I am I couldn't help but think of all the tales in which fruit or vegetables are stolen from various gardens: the pears eaten by the Handless Maiden, the lettuce leaves stolen from a witch's garden in Rapunzel, etc. And then I got to the end of the poem and thought:

No one thanks the pear trees or the lettuce patch either. Hmmm.

Thank you for this lovely gift.

Wendy, I have a number of wiccan/pagan/animist friends around here who are going to love this. I will pass it on. This is beautiful, mythic, and wonderfully joyous despite the tragic overtones of the subject.

That's one of the things I love about San Francisco. Minneapolis does a splendid May Day, New Orleans has its famous carnival, Tucson has its magical Day of the Dead parade...the Hopi, Yaqui, and so many, many other tribes still have their dances and ceremonies. Myth still thrives in America too, if you know where to look.

Thanks so much Terri!!

I deeply appreciate your wonderful comments; and I ,too, have wiccan friends on-line an in life who are very special and creative people. Unfortunately, in earlier times and even with some right wing religious groups today, women of the wood, wisdom, midwifery, pagan/earth religions were persecuted and marginalized for being imaginative and different, for being individuals with a different point of view. Unfair and biased, such critics are ruled by their
dogmatic ignorance.

Again many thanks
Take care and have a great weekend!
Wendy

Another wondrous piece, Wendy.

"The swallow
has absorbed our need
to be as we were:

swerving from the stern ways
of fence and faith,"

I love the recurring theme, in your work, of animals, particularly birds carrying the wild Spirit. Thank you, as always, for sharing your work! You inspire me every time.

Thank you Wendy and Terri. Your encouragement means so much to me. And yes, the realization that I owed more to the tree than to the "owners" was a sudden one. Certainly, had this been an enchanted garden, I'd be in trouble.

Thank you so much for those links, I'll get in touch with them!

Yes, I do know Clive Hicks-Jenkins work on the mari lwyd, it's amazing!

Have you read Philippe Walter's Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins? It's quite an interesting read and he explores the term "carnival" and what it may have meant. And also that it wasn't just one time of year how we think of it now but rather a time recurring throughout the year. Great Post!

Thanks so much Edith!

I am so glad you enjoyed the poem and deeply appreciate your kind and thoughtful words!! Birds for me are messengers, totems, and guardians. They have a magic all their own and seem to always find their way into my poems.

Again, thank you!
Wendy

I haven't read Walter's book, Daniel. Thank you for the recommendation; I'll seek it out.

A friend of mine wrote an article on Carnavale in Spain some years back, which you might enjoy, if you haven't seen it already:

http://endicottstudio.typepad.com/articleslist/the-sacred-and-the-profane-of-spanish-carnaval-by-alan-weisman-with-photographs-by-cristina-garcia-r.html

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