Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

in his way, he stands dumb and astonished, and though his hasle be never so great, will is here half an hour's contemplation. His habitation is some poor thatched roof, distinguished from his barn by the loop-boles that let out smoak, which the rain had long since washed through, but for the double ceiling of bacon on the inside, which has hung there from his grandsire's time, and is yet to make rashers for posterily. His dinner is his other work, for he sweats at it as much as at bis labour; he is a lerrible fastner on a piece of beef, and you may bope to stave the guard of sooner. His religion is a part of his copy-hold, which he takes from his land-lord, and refers it wholly lo his discretion: yet if he give him leave he is a good Christian to his powors, (tbal is,) comes to church in his best cloaths, and sits there with bis neighbours, where he is capable only of two prayers, for rain, and fair weather. He apprehends God's blessings only in a good year, or a fat pasture, and never praises him but on good ground. Sunday, he esteems a day to make merry in, and thinks a bag-pipe as essential to it as evening prayer, where he walks very solemnly after service with his band coupled behind him, and censures the dancing of his parish. His compliment with his neighbour is a good thump on the back, and his salulation commonly some blunt curse. He thinks nothing to be vices, but pride and ill husbandry, from wbich he will gravely dissuade the youth, and has some thristy hob-pail proverbs to clout bis discourse. He is a niggard all the week, except only market-day, where, if his corn sell well, he thinks he may be drunk with a good conscience. He is sensible of no calamily but the burning a stack of corn or the overflowing of a meadow, and ibioks Noah's flood ibe greatest plague that ever was, not because it drowned the world, but spoiled the grass. For death be is never troubled, and if he get in but his harvest before, let it come when it will, he cares not,”

The nine characters which have now passed in brief review before us, namely, the Rural Squire ; the Coxcomb; the Rural Clergyman ; the Rural Pedagogue ; the Farmer or substantial Yeoman; the Farmer's Wife; the Farmer's Heir; the Poor Copyholder, and the mere Ploughman or Country Boor, will, to a certain extent, point out the personal manners, condition, and mode of living of those whose inhabited the country, during the period in which Shakspeare flourished. They have been given from the experience, and, generally, in the very words of contemporary writers, and may, therefore, be considered as faithful portraits. To complete the picture, a further elucidation of the country, as drawn from its principal occurrences and events, will be the subject of the ensuing chapter, in which the references to the works of our immortal bard will be more frequent than could take place while collecting mere out-line draughts of rural character.

CHAPTER VI.

A View of Country Life during the Age of Shakspeare; its Manners and Customs.--Rural Holy

days and Festivals.

The record of rural festivity and amusement must, as far as it is unaccompanied by any detail of riot or intemperance, be a subject of pleasing contemplation to every good and cheerful mind. Labour, the destined portion of by far the greater part of human beings, requires frequent intervals of relaxation; and the encouragement of innocent diversion at stated periods may be considered, therefore, both in a moral and political point of view, as essentially useful. The sports and amusements of our ancestors on their holydays and festivals, while they had little tendency to promote either luxury or dissipation, contributed very powerfully to preserve some of the best and most striking features of our national manners and character, and were frequently mingled with that cheerful piety which forms the most heart-felt species of devotion, where religion, mixing with the social rite, offers up the homage of a happy and contented heart.

• Earle's Microcosmography, p. 64. et seq. edit. of 1811, by Philip Bliss.

[ocr errors]

It may be necessary here to mention, that in enumerating the various ceremonial and feast days of rural life, we have purposely omitted those which are peculiarly occupied by superstitious observances, as they will with more propriety be included under a subsequent chapter, appropriated to the consideration of popular superstitions.

The ushering in of the New Year, or New Years tide, with rejoicings, presents, and good wishes, was a custom observed, during the sixteenth century, with great regularity and parade, and was as cordially celebrated in the court of the prince as in the cottage of the peasant.

To end the old year merrily and begin the new one well, and in friendship with their neighbours, were the objects which the common people had in view in the celebration of this tide or festival. New Years Eve, therefore, was spent in festivity and frolic by the men; and the young women of the village carried about, from door to door, a bowl of spiced ale, which they offered to the inhabitants of every house where they stopped, singing at the same time some rude congratulatory verses, and expecting some small present in return. This practice, however, which originated in pure kindness and benevolence, soon degenerated into a mere pecuniary traffic, for Selden, in his Table Talk, thus alludes to the subject, while drawing the following curious comparison : “ The pope in sending relicks to princes, does as wenches do by their wassails at New Years tide. They present you with a cup, and you must drink of a slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them money ten times more than it is worth."

It was customary also, on this eve, for the young men and women to exchange their clothes, which was termed Mumming or Disguising; and when thus dressed in each other's garments, they would go from one neighbour's cottage to another, singing, dancing, and partaking of their good cheer; a species of masquerading which, as may be imagined, was often productive of the most licentious free doms.

On the succeeding morning, the first of the New Year, presents, called New Year's gifts, were given and received, with the mutual expression of good wishes, and particularly that of a “happy New Year." The compliment was sometimes paid at each other's doors in the form of a song; but more generally, especially in the north of England and in Scotland, the house was entered very early in the morning, by some young men and maidens selected for the purpose, who presented the spiced bowl, and hailed you with the gratulations of the season.

The custom of interchanging gists on this day, though now nearly obsolete, was, in the days of Shakspeare, observed most scrupulously; and not merely in the country, but, as hath been just before hinted, even in the palace of the monarch. In fact the wardrobe and jewellery of Elizabeth appear to have been supported principally by these annual contributions.

As a brief summary of these presents, though given not in the country, but at court, will yet, as including almost every rank in life, from the peer to the dustman, place in a strong light the prevalence of this custom, and point out of what these gifts usually consisted in a town, and therefore, by inference, of what they must have included in the country, its introduction will not, we should hope, be considered as altogether digressive from the nature of our subject.

To Mr. Nichols, who, in his work entitled “ Queen Elizabeth's Progresses," has printed, from the original rolls in vellum, some very copious lists of New Year's gifts annually presented to this popular monarch, are we indebted for the following curious enumeration.

“From all these rolls,” says be, " and more of them perhaps are still existing, it appears that the greatest part, if not all the peers and peeresses of the realm, all the bishops, the chief officers of state, and several of the Queen's huushold servants, even down to her apothecaries, master

• Selden, under the article Pope. The Table Talk, though not printed until A. D. 1689, is a work illustrative of the era under our consideration.

cook, serjeant of the pastry, etc. gave New Year's gifts to Her Majesty; consisting, in general, either of a sum of money, or jewels, trinkels, wearing apparel, elc. The largest sum given by any of the lemporal lords was 201. ; but the Archbishop of Canterbury gave 401., the Archbishop of York 301., and the other spiritual lords 201. and 101. ; many of the temporal lords and great officers, and most of the peeresses, gave rich gowns, petticoats, smocks, kirtles, silk slockings, cypres garters, sweel-bags, doblels, manlles, some embroidered with pearles, garnels, etc. lookingglasses, fans, bracelets, caskets studded with precious stones, jewels ornamented with sparks of diamonds in various devices, and other costly trinkels. Sir Gilbert Delhick, Garter King of Arms, gave a book of the states in King William the Conqueror's time, and a book of the arms of the noblemen in Henry the Fifth's time; Absolon, the master of the Savoy, a Bible covered with doth of gold, garnished with silver, and gilt, and two plates with the royal arms; “ Petruchio C'baldino," a book covered with vellum of Italian ; Lambarde, the antiquary, his Pandecla of all the Rolls, etc. in the Tower of London. The Queen's physician presented her with a box of foreign sweetmeals; another physician with two pols, one of green ginger, the other of orange flowers; Iwo other physicians gave each a pot of green ginger, and a pot of the rinds of lemons; her apothecaries a box of lozenges, a box of ginger candy, a box of grene ginger, a box of orange candit, a pot of conserves, a pot of wardyns condite, a box of wood with prunolyn, and two boxes of manus Christi; Mrs. Blanch a Parry, a little box of gold to put in cumphells, and a little spoon of gold; Mrs. Morgan a box of cherryes, and one of aberycocks; her master cook a fayre marchepaype; her serjeant of the pastry a fayre pie of quinces oringed; a box of peaches of Jeoneway (Genoa); a great pie of quyoses and wardyns guilte; Putrino, an Italian, presented her with two pictures ; Jonocent Corry with a box of lutestrings; Ambrose Lupo with another box of lulestrings, and a glass of sweet waler; Petro Lupo, Josepho Lupo, and Cæsar Caliardo, each, with a pair of sweet gloves; a cutler with a meat knyfe with a fan haft of bone, a conceit in it; Jaromy with twenty-four drinking-glasses ; Jeromy Bassano lwo drinking-glasses; Smyth, duslman, two boltes of cambrick.”

The Queen, though she made returns in plate and other articles, took sufficient care that the balance should be in her own favour; hence, as the custom was found to be lucrative, and had indeed been practised with success by her predecessors on the throne, it was encouraged and rendered fashionable to an extent hitherto unprecedented in this kingdom. In the country, however, with the exception of the extensive households of the nobility, this interchange was conducted on the pure basis of reciprocal kindness and good will, and without any view of securing patronage or support; it was, indeed, frequently the channel through which charity delighted to exert her holy influence, and though originating in the heathen world, became sanctified by the Christian virtues.

To the rejoicings on New Year's tide succeeded, after a short interval, the observance of the Twelfth day, so called from its being the twelfth after the Nativity of our Saviour, and the day on which the Eastern Magi, guided by the star, arrived at Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus.

This festive day, the most celebrated of the twelve for the peculiar conviviality of its rites, has been observed in this kingdom ever since the reign of Alfred, in whose days, says Collier, “ a Law was made with relation to Holidays, by virtue of which the twelve days after the Nativity of our Saviour were made Festivals.”+

In consequence of an idea, which seems generally to have prevailed, that the Eastern Magi were kings, this day has been frequently termed the Feast of the Three Kings; and many of the rites with which it is attended, are founded on this conception; for it was customary to elect, from the company assembled on this occasion, a king or queen, who was usually elevated to this rank by the fortuitous division of a cake containing a bean or piece of coin, and he or she to whom this symbol of distinction sell, in dividing the cake, was immediately chosen king or queen, and then forming their ministers and court from the company around, maintained their state and character until midnight.

The Twelfth Cake was almost always accompanied by the Wassail Bowl, a composition of spiced wine or ale, or mead, or metheglin, into which was thrown

• Nichols's Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth, vol. i. preface, p. 25--28, + Collier's Ecclesiastical History, vol. i. p. 163.

roasted apples, sugar, etc. The term Wassail, which in our elder poets is connected with much interesting imagery, and many curious rites, appears to have been first used in this island during the well-known interview between Vortigern and Rowena. Geoffrey of Monmouth relates, on the authority of Walter Calenius, that this lady, the daughter of Hengist, knelt down, on the approach of the king, and presenting him with a cup of wine, exclaimed “ Lord king was heil," that is, literally, “ Health be to you.” Vortigern being ignorant of the Saxon language was informed by an interpreter, that the purport of these words was to wish him health, and that he should reply by the expression "drinc-heil, or drink the health;" accordingly, on his so doing, Rowena drank, and the king receiving the cup from her hand, kissed and pledged her.* Since this period, observes the historian, the custom has prevailed in Britain of using these words whilst drinking; the person who drank to another saying was-heil, and he who received the cup answering drinc-heil.

It soon afterwards became a custom in villages, on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Twelfth Night, for itinerant minstrels to carry to the houses of the gentry, and others, where they were generally very hospitably received, a bowl of spiced wine, which being presented with the Saxon words just mentioned, was therefore called a Wassail-bowl. A bowl or cup of this description was likewise to be found in almost every nobleman's and gentleman's house, (and frequently of massy silver), until the middle of the seventeenth century, and which was in perpetual requisition during the revels of Christmas. In “ The Antiquarian Repertory, vol. i. p. 217,” relates Mr. Douce, “there is an account accompanied with an engraving, of an oaken chimney-piece in a very old house at Berlen, near Snodland in Kent, on which is carved a wassail-bowl resting on the braches of an apple-tree, alluding, probably, to part of the materials of which the liquor was composed. On one side is the word wassheil, and on the other drincheile. This is certainly," he adds, “ a very great curiosity of its kind, and at least as old as the fourteenth century. Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, in his will gave to Sir John Briddlewood a silver cup called wassail : and it appears that John Duke of Bedford, the regent, by his first will bequeathed to John Barton, his maitre-d'hotel, a silver cup and cover, on which was inscribed WASHAYL.”I

In consequence of the Wassail-bowl being peculiar to scenes of revelry and festivity, the term wassail in time became synonymous with feasting and carousing, and has been used, therefore, by many of our poets either to imply drinking and merriment, or the place where such joviality was expected to occur. Thus Shakspeare makes Hamlet say of the king “ draining his draughts of Rhenish down,” that he

Keeps wassel:”S

6

* Galfred. Monumeth. I. 3. c. 1. Robert of Gloucester gives us a similar account of the origin of this ceremony, and makes the same observation as to its general prevalency. The rude lines of the ancient poet have been thus beautifully paraphrased in the Antiquarian Repertory :

“Health, my Lord King,' the sweet Rowena said,
• Health,' cried the Chieftain to the Saxon maid;
Then gaily rose, and, 'mid the concourse wide,
Kiss'd her hale lips, and plac'd her by his side.
At the soft scene such gentle thoughts abound,
That healths and kisses 'mongst the guests went round:
From this the social custom took its rise,

We still retain, and still must keep the prize." + “The ingenious remarker on this representation observes, that it is the figure of the old Wassel-Bowl, so much the delight of our hardy ancestors, who on the vigil of the New-Year never failed to assemble round the glowing hearth, with their chearful neigl.bours, and then in the spicy Wassel-Bowl (which testified the goodness of their hearts) drowned every former animosity, an example worthy modern imitation. Wassel was the word, Wassel every guest returned as he took the circling goblet from his friend, whilst song and civil mirth brought in the infant year.” Brand's Observations, by Ellis, vol. i. p. 3.

* Douce's Illustrations of Shakspeare and of Ancient Manners, vol. ii. p. 209, 210. Ś Acti, sc. 4. Reed's edit. vol. xviii. p. 64.

and in Macbeth, the heroine of that play declares that she will convince the two chamberlains of Duncan

64 With wine and wassel, '* In Anthony and Cleopatra also, Cæsar, advising Anthony to live more temperately, tells him to leave his

« Lascivious wassals." + And lastly, in Love's Labour's Lost, Biron, describing the character of Boyet, says,

“ He is wit's pedler: and retails his wares

At wakes, and wassels, meetings, markets, fairs." + Ben Jonson has given us two curious personifications of the Wassail; the first in his Forest, No. 3. whilst giving an account of a rural feast in the hall of Sir Robert Wroth; he says,

“ The rout of rural folk come thronging in,

Their rudenesse then is thought no sin-
The jolly Wassail walks the often round,

And in their cups their cares are drown'd:S and the second in “ Christmas, His Masque, as it was presented at Court 1616," where Wassall, as one of the ten children of Christmas, is represented in the following quaint manner: Like a neat Sempster, and Songster; her Page bearing a browne bowle, drest with Ribbands, and Rosemarie before her.*

Fletcher, in his Faithful Shepherdess, has given a striking description of the festivity attendant on the Wassail bowl :

“ 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-Boul, to which resort
All the young men and maids of many a cote,

Whilst the trim minstrell strikes his merry note.” ++ The persons thus accompanying the Wassail bowl, especially those who danced and played, were called Wassailers, an appellation which it was afterwards customary to bestow on all who indulged, at any season, in intemperate mirth. Hence Milton introduces his Lady in Comus making use of the term in the following beautiful passage:

-“ Methought it was the sound
Of riot and ill manag’d merriment,
Such as the jocund flute, or gamesome pipe
Stirs up among the loose unletter'd hinds,
When for their teeming flocks, and granges full,
Io wanton dance, they praise the bounteous Pan,
And thank the gods amiss. I should be loath
To meet the rudeness, and swill'd insolence,
Of such late wassailers.” #1

• Act i. sc. 7. Reed, vol. x. p. 88.

+ Act i. sc. 4. Reed, vol. xvii. p. 49. # Act v. sc. 2. Reed, vol. vii. .P: 165.

$ Epigrammes i. booke, folio 1610, p. 50. Jonson's Works, fol. vol. ií. 1610.

tt Act v. sc. 1. # Warton's Milion, 2d edit. p. 160. The Peg Tankard, a species of Wassail-Bowl introduced by the Saxoos, was still in use in the days of Shakspeare. I am in possession of one, which was given to a member of my family about one hundred and fifty years ago; it is of chased silver, containing nearly two quarts, and is divided by four pegs.

This form of the wassail or wish-health bowl was introduced by Dunstan, with the view of checking the intemperance of his countrymen, which for a time it effected; but subsequently the remedy was converted into an additional stimulus w excess ; “ for, refining upon Dunstan's plan, each was obliged to drink preciely to a pin, whether he could sustain a quantity of liquor equal to others or not: and to that end it became a rule, that whether they exceeded, or fell short of the prescribed bumper, they were alike compelled to drink again, until they reached the next mark. In the year 1102, the priests, who had not been backward in joining and encouraging these drunken assemblies, were ordered to avoid such abominations, and wholly to discontinue the practice of “ Drinking to Pegs.” Some of these Peg or Pin Cups, or Bowls, and Pin or Peg Tankards, are yet to be found in the cabinets of antiquaries; and we are to trace from their

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »