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And indeed it is not to be wondered at, that this is never omitted. For formerly almost every place had a house of this kind. If a house was seated on some melancholy place, or built in some old romantic manner; or if any particular accident had happened in it, such as murder, sudden death, or the like, to be sure that house had a mark set on it, and was afterwards esteemed the habitation of a ghost. In talking upon this point, they generally show the occasion of the house's being haunted, the merry pranks of the spirit, and how it was laid. Stories of this kind are infinite, and there are few villages which have not either had such an house in it, or near it.”*
The quotations which we have now given from writers contemporary with, and subsequent to, Shakspeare, will point out, in a general way, the prevalent superstitions of the country at this period, and the topics which were usually discussed round the fire-side of the cottage or manorial hall, when the blast blew keen on a December's night, and the faggot's blaze was seen, by fits, illumining the rafter'd roof.
The progress of science, of literature, and rational theology, has, in a very great degree, dissipated these illusions; but there still lingers, in hamlets remote from general intercourse, a somewhat similar spirit of credulity, where the legend of unearthly agency is yet listened to with eager curiosity and fond belief. These vestiges of superstitions which were once universally prevalent, have been seized upon with avidity by many modern poets, and form some of the most striking passages in their works. More particularly the ghostly and traditionary lore of the cotter's winter-night, has been a favourite subject with them. Thus Thomson tells us, that
"the village rouses up the fire,
and Akenside, still more poetically, that
"6 by night
The village-matron round the blazing hearth
Of him who robb'd the widow, and devour'd
At every solemn pause the crowd recoil,
Each trembling heart with grateful terrors quell'd."
The lamented Kirke White has also happily introduced a similar picture; having described the day-revels of a Whitsuntide wake, he adds,
Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People apud Brand, p. 113, 118, 119, 120, 122, 123.
+ Seasons, Winter, line 617.
Pleasures of Imagination, book i.
and lastly Mr. Scott, in his highly interesting poem entitled Rokeby, speaking of the tales of superstition, adds,
"When Christmas logs blaze high and wide,
Such wonders speed the festal tide,
Pleasure and pain, sit crouching near,
Cant. ii. st. 10.
After this brief outline of the common superstitions of the country, as they existed in the days of Shakspeare, and as they still linger among us, we shall proceed, in conformity with our plan, to notice those Days which have been peculiarly devoted to superstitious rites and observances.
In entering upon this subject, however, it will be necessary to remark, that as several of these days are still kept by the vulgar in the same manner, and with the same spirit of credulity which subsisted in the reign of Elizabeth, it would be superfluous to enter at large into a detail of their ceremonies, and that to mark the coincidence of usage, occurring at these periods, will be nearly all that can be deemed requisite. Thus on St. Paul's Day, on Candlemas Day, and on St. Swithin's Day, the prognosticators of weather still find as much employment, and as much credit as ever.† St. Mark's Day is still beheld with dread, as fixing the destinies of life and death, and Childermas still keeps in countenance the doctrine of lucky and unlucky days.
A similarity nearly equal may be observed with regard to the rites of lovers on St. Valentine's Day. The tradition, that birds choosing their mates on this day, occasioned the custom of drawing Valentines, has been the opinion of our poets rom Chaucer to the present hour. Shakspeare alludes to it in the following passage:
Good-morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past;
Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?” ‡
The Remains of Henry Kirke White, vol. i. p. 311.
Gay, in his Trivia, notices, at some length, the prognostications attendant on these days, and which equally apply to ancient and to modern times:
"All superstition from thy breast repel;
Nor Paul, nor Swithin, rule the clouds and wind."
; Midsummer-Night's Dream, act iv. sc. 1. Buchanan also beautifully records the same traditionary imagery:
Festa Valentino rediit lux
Quisque sibi sociam jam legit ales avem.
Inde sibi dominam per sortes quærere in annum
Mansit ab antiquis mos repetitus avis;
Quisque legit dominam, quam casto observet amore,
Quam nitidis sertis obsequioque colat:
Mittere cui possit blandi munuscula Veris."
The ceremony of this day, however, has been attributed to various sources beside the rural tradition just mentioned. The legend itself of St. Valentine, a presbyter of the church, who was beheaded under the Emperor Claudius, we are assured by Mr. Brand, contains nothing which could give rise to the custom; but it has been supposed by some to have originated from an observance peculiar to carnival time, which occurred about this very period. It was usual, on this occasion, for vast numbers of knights to visit the different courts of Europe, where they entertained the ladies with pageantry and tournaments. Each lady, at these magnificent feasts, selected a knight, who engaged to serve her for a whole year, and to perform whatever she chose to command. One of the never-failing consequences of this engagement, was an injunction to employ his muse in the celebration of his mistress.
Menage, in his Etymological Dictionary, has accounted for the term Valentine, by stating that Madame Royale, daughter of Henry the Fourth of France, having built a palace near Turin, which, in honour of the Saint, then in high esteem, she called the Valentine, at the first entertainment which she gave in it, was pleased to order that the ladies should receive their lovers for the year by lots, reserving to herself the privilege of being independent of chance, and of choosing her own partner. At the various balls which this gallant princess gave, during the year, it was directed that each lady should receive a nosegay from her lover, and that, at every tournament, the knight's trappings for his horse should be furnished by his allotted mistress, with this proviso, that the prize obtained should be hers. This custom, says Menage, occasioned the parties to be called Valentines.
Mr. Brand, in his observations on Bourne's Antiquities, thinks, that the usages of this day are the remains of an ancient superstition in the Church of Rome, of choosing patrons for the year ensuing, at this season; and that, because ghosts were thought to walk on the night of this day, or about this time;" Douce, with more probability, considers them as a relic of paganism.
"It was the practice in ancient Rome," he observes, "during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno, whence the latter deity was named februata, februalis, and februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who by every possible mears endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of Pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutation of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen Saint Valentine's day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time. This is, in part, the opinion of a learned and rational compiler of the lives of the saints, the Reverend Alban Butler. It should seem, however, that it was utterly impossible to extirpate altogether any ceremony to which the common people had been much accustomed; a fact which it were easy to prove in tracing the origin of various other pop alar superstitions and accordingly the outline of the ancient ceremonies was preserved, but modified by some adaptation to the Christian system. It is reasonable to suppose that the above practice of choosing mates would gradually become reciprocal in the sexes; and that all persons so chosen would be called Valentines, from the day on which the ceremony took place." +
The modes of ascertaining the Valentine for the ensuing year, were nearly the the same in Shakspeare's age as at the present period; they consisted either in drawing lots on Valentine-eve, or in considering the first person whom you early on the following morning, as the destined object. In the former case the names of a certain number of one sex were, by an equal number of the other, put into a vase; and then every one drew a name, which for the time was termed their Valentine, and was considered as predictive of their future fortune in the nuptial state; in the second there was usually some little contrivance adopted, in order that the favoured object, when such existed, might be the first
• Bourne's Antiquities apud Brand, p. 253.
+ Douce's Illustrations of Shakspeare, vol. ii. p 252 253
seen. To this custom Shakspeare refers, when he represents Ophelia, in her distraction, singing,
"Good morrow, 'tis Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine."
The practice of addressing verses, and sending presents, to the person chosen, has been continued from the days of James 1., in which the gifts of Valentines have been noticed by Moresin,† to modern times; and we may add a trait, not now observed, perhaps, on the authority of an old English ballad, in which the lasses are directed to pray cross-legged to Saint Valentine, for good luck.‡
It was a usage of the sixteenth century, in its object laudable and useful, for the inhabitants of towns and villages, during the summer-season, to meet after sunset, in the streets, and for the wealthier sort to recreate themselves and their poorer friends with banquets and bonfires. Of this custom Stowe has left us a pleasing account:
"In the moneths of June and July," he relates, "on the Vigiles of festivall dayes, and on the same festivall dayes in the evenings, after the sun-setting, there were usually made bonefires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them. The wealthier sort also before their dores, neere to the said bonefires, would set out tables on the vigiles, furnished with sweet bread, and good drink, and on the festivall dayes with meates and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit, and be merry with them in great famiHarity, praysing God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires, as well of amily amongst neighbours, that beeing before at controversie, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends; as also for the virtue that a great fire bath, to purge the infection of the ayre."S These rites were, however, more particularly practised on Midsummer-Eve, the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, a period of the year to which our ancestors paid singular attention, and combined with it several superstitious observances. "On the Vigill of Saint John the Baptist," continues Stowe, "every man's dore beeing shadowed with greene birch, long Fennell, Saint John's Wort, Orpin, white Lillies, and such like, garnished upon with Garlands of beautifull flowers, had also Lamps of glasse, with Oyle burning in them all the night, some hung out branches of yron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of Lamps lighted at once, which made a goodly shew."
Of some of the superstitions connected with this Eve, Barnabe Googe has left us an account in his translation of Neogeorgius, which was published, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, in 1570:
"Then doth the joyfull feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
* Mr. Gay has more distinctly recorded this ceremony in the following lines :—
"Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find;
To milk my kine (for so should housewives do),
+ "Et vere ad Valentini festum à viris habent fœminæ munera, et alio temporis viris dantur." Moresini Deprav. Relig. 160.
Donce's Illustrations of Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 258. “I have found unquestionable authority," remarks Mr. Brand, "to evince that the custom of chusing Valentines was a sport practised in the houses of the gentry in England as early as the year 1476" Brand apud Ellis, vol. p. 48.
The authority alluded to by Mr. Brand, is a letter, in Fenn's Paston Letters, vol ii. p. 211., dated February, 1476.
9 Survey of London, 1618, p 159
And thorow the flowers behold the flame, his eyes shall feele no paine.
Whereby they thinke, through all that yeare, from agues to be free." *
This Midsummer-Eve Fire and the rites attending it, appear to be reliques of pagan worship, for Gebelin in his "Allégories Orientales" observes, that at the moment of the Summer Solstice the ancients, from the most remote antiquity, were accustomed to light fires, in honour of the New Year, which they believed to have originally commenced in fire. These fires or feux de joie were accompanied with vows and sacrifices for plenty and prosperity, and with dances and leaping over the flames, "each on his departure snatching a firebrand of greater or less magnitude, whilst the rest was scattered to the wind, in order that it might disperse every evil as it dispersed the ashes." +
Many other superstitions, however, than those mentioned by Googe, were practised on this mysterious eve. To one of the most important Shakspeare alludes in the First Part of King Henry the Fourth, where Gadshill says of himself and company, "We have the receipt of fern-seed, we walk invisible." Jonson and Fletcher have also ascribed the same wonderful property to this plant, the first in his "New Inn."
No medicine, Sir, to go invisible,
the second in the "Fair Maid of the Inn,"
"had you Gyges' ring,
Or the herb that gives invisibility?" §
It was the belief of our credulous ancestors, that the fern-seed became visible only on St. John's Eve, and at the precise moment of the birth of the Saint; that it was under the peculiar protection of the Queen of Faery, and that on this awful night, the most tremendous conflicts took place, for its possession, between sorcerers and spirits; for
"The wond'rous one-night seeding ferne,"
as Browne calls it," was conceived not only to confer invisibility at pleasure. on those who succeeded in procuring it, but it was also esteemed of sovereign potency in the fabrication of charms and incantations. Those, therefore, who were addicted to the arts of magic, and possessed sufficient courage for the enterprise, were believed to watch in solitude during this solemn period, in order that they might seize the seed on the instant of its appearance.
The achievement, however, was accompanied with great danger; for if the adventurer were not protected by spells of mighty power, he was exposed to the assaults of demons and spirits, who envied him the possession of the plant, and who generally took care that he should lose either his life or his labour in the attempt. "A person who went to gather it, reported that the spirits whisked by his ears, and sometimes struck his hat, and other parts of his body; and at
• Vide Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, p. 317.
"L'origine de ce feu que tant de nations conservent encore, et qui se perd dans l'antiquité, est tres simple. C'était un feu de joie, allumé au moment où l'année commençait; car la première de toutes les Années, la plus ancienne dont on ait quelque connaissance, s'ouvrait au mois de Juin.
"Ces feux de joie étaient accompagnés en même temps de vœux et de sacrifices pour la prospérité des peuples et des biens de la terre: on dansait aussi autour de ce feu; car y a-t-il quelque fête sans danse? et les plus agiles sautaient par dessus. En se retirant, chacun emportait un tison plus ou moins grand, et le reste était jeté au vent, afin qu'il emportât tout malheur, comme il emportait ces cendres." Hist. d'Her cule, p. 203. $ Beaumont and Fletcher's Works apud Colman.
Jonson's Works, act i. sc. 6.
Chalmers's English Poets, vol. vi. p. 281. Britannia's Pastorals, book ii. song 2.