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Church Porch Devilry October 9, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Midsummer’s eve doubtless had significance to our distant pagan ancestors, yoked to the land and to the seasons like oxen. What is striking is how often these traditions survived Christianity, the Reformation and even industrialisation. Take one of Beach’s favourite: looking for the dead-to-come on Midsummer’s Eve. Tradition claimed – traditions that still survive in part of Britain as a memory – that if you went into the church porch at midnight and waited then you would see all those who would die in the next year troop before you.  They would come, in fact, and knock on the church door in the order that they would die. There are different accounts of how this watching was to be done. Typically, it was a woman who was described undertaking the ordeal. There were also references to fasting and silence in some (later?) accounts. Unlike many of the other rather juvenile and laughter-loving St Johns pastimes there is a hint of the serious and perhaps even diabolical about this ritual: many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators warned against it and with good reason. Some folk stories – Robert Hunt quotes one – has the maiden confronted by a series of villagers and last of all herself: as Hunt notes the girl would never see St John’s Eve again.

What was the antiquity of this? Do we have a Christian innovation fusing with some vague thoughts about the rural calendar? Or do we have a custom that used to be practised by men and women sitting under the crude porticos of Romano-British temples, when Jesus Christ was still a distant and disturbing Mediterranean dream? Beach has not the slightest idea but the oldest description he can find appears – where else? – in Aubrey. Interestingly, Aubrey already gives the priority to women: ‘I have heard [women] tell strange stories of it’. An incidental reference comes meanwhile in 1608 when one Katherine Foxgale of Walesby was deservedly hauled before the Archdeacon of Nottingham for cursing her fellow villagers and for ‘watching upon St Mark’s Eve [sic!] at night last in the church porch to presage by devilish demonstration the death of some neighbours within the year.’ Can anyone go any earlier? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Did Katherine, a recently widowed mother, really sit in the porch? This question is beyond proof now. But the fact she was believed to have spent the crucial hours there clearly gave her some leverage over her neighbours and she was lucky not to get a one way trip to the stake.  She did disappear from the parish records, so maybe she was forced to skedaddle shortly after her interview with the Archdeacon.

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16 Oct 2012: First up is PJ: I saw your blog on the church porch devilry and remembered this article by Paul Devereux from Fortean Times: If Mr. D is to be believed, it wasn’t just church porches that allowed one to see all the dead of the coming year.  He believes that there were “church way paths,” special spirit pathways leading through the landscape, traveled not only by the spirits of the dead, but fairies and the like.  He quotes a reference to them in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, if valid, is probably at least contemporaneous with Katherine of Aubrey): Now it is that time of night,That the graves all gaping wide, Every one lets forth his sprite, In the church-way paths to glide. He goes on to say, “In Britain, they can also be known by a number of other names – bier road, burial road, coffin line, lyke or lych way (from Old English liches, corpse), or funeral road, to mention just some.”  And “In Britain, we pick it up as the “church porch watch” or “sitting-up”. In this, a village seer would hold a vigil between 11 pm and 1 am at the church door, in the graveyard, at the lych-gate (where the cortège entered the churchyard), or on a nearby lane (presumably a corpse road), in order to look for the wraiths of those who would die in the following 12-month period. Typically, this ‘watch’ took place on St Mark’s Eve (24 April), Hallowe’en, or the eves of New Year, Midsummer, or Christmas.  The wraiths of the doomed, but still living, members of the community would usually appear to the inner eye of the seer as a procession coming in from beyond the churchyard and passing into the church, and then returning back out into the night. However, in some cases, especially in Wales, watchers were more likely to hear a disembodied voice tell the names of those who were soon to die.” Next KR ‘Here is a link with some information, the most interesting being the link between Midsummers Eve and the Black Death. It was believed by “the Celts” and many others of ancient times and into present times in some places, that times and places “in between” or “neither here nor there” were places where “the veils are thin” between this world and the other world, between this world and the fairy world, between this world and the world of the souls of the departed, or between this world and the world of goddess or god. So a branch in a stream/river (neither this stream nor that,) a fording place (neither fully in or out of water) the time of midnight (neither this day nor that,) the time of dawn or twilight (neither dark nor light) the days that divided the seasons (neither this season nor that)
entryways/thresholds (neither within nor without,) tops of summits (the person is “in the sky” yet on the earth,) places where the steam/gasses from the underworld pass through to the upper-world (neither above ground nor below ground,) mists (neither rain nor fair,) edges of great woods (neither fully in a clearing nor fully in a wood) bright and big fires in the night (neither fully dark nor fully light, the person by the fire being neither fully cold nor fully hot, the dream-state (neither conscious nor unconscious) were long considered to be the places where contact might be made with the otherworld.  The churches use/used some of the same. Censers(fire, smoke, herbs) baptisms(water and air) prayers at burials (for the soul of the newly departed between heaven and earthly existence) or to saints(the blessed dead, but spirits living) are but a few examples. There are more examples of “in between” places, and in-between times and in-between situations. But these examples are plenty. The more in-between was the person, place or time, or the more of in-between factors existed, the more likely that fates could be known, or ghosts or fairies could be seen. In many old religions, a combination of neither-here-nor-there times and places increased the contact with the otherworld, and more clearly opened the veils/the portals between the earth world and spirit world in the old beliefs.  So in the-woman-on-the-church-porch episodes we have: 1. Neither inside nor outside (a portal) 2. Neither sacred/heavenly place nor secular/earthly place. 3. Neither seeding time nor threshing time/ the Midsummer solstice being between those. 4. Neither climbing sun nor lowering sun, but at the height, a point in between. 5. Neither closer to morning light nor closer to the daylight before, the hour(s) of mid night.  6. Neither untouched maid nor married woman, the widow is herself in an in between state. 7. Neither fully in this world nor fully in the next, a grief-stricken widow might have been in a state of wishing she could be with her loved one again either here or there. There are likely more “in-betweens” in this than I have found. Perhaps the widow is neither secure nor in abject poverty, neither sure of her faith nor ready to disown it. A widow’s wish to see spirits, any spirits, might indicate a wish to fully believe that spirits exist: therefore her loved one still exists. We still use the saying, Living “on the edge” to denote (usually)a risky/dangerous way to live, as in-between life and death, or living in a way so as to put one (another saying)”at deaths door.” Interesting how common old expressions might still reference old ways of believing. Thanks KR and PJ!!

31 Oct 2012: Invisible writes in over the Church Porch: Church porches were not just for women, although women often made use of the church porch: for marriage, for “churching,” for refuge, and for healing (there is a note on p. 173 of Choice Notes from Notes & Queries, 1859 about a young woman seeking to be cured from fits by sitting in the church porch, receiving money.) And in my new favorite book: Church folklore: a record of some post-Reformation usages in the English Church, now mostly obsolete, The Rev. James Edward Vaux, 1894) it is mentioned that the church porch is a refuge for the destitute, that financial transactions often took place there, as it was a public place, and in some areas, corpses of the unknown dead were laid in the porch for identification. I’m most familiar with the following sort of story, involving only men who see their fetch/wraith/double in the porch and subsequently die. I have also seen references to this custom occurring on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. I regret that I don’t have a date for this anecdote. The following, illustrating as it does a superstition still very prevalent in Lincolnshire, may interest some of your readers. I transcribed it a few days ago in the British Museum from Holly’s Lincolnshire Notes, vol. iii. fol. 358: “The other I receaued from Mr. Thomas Codd, minister of Laceby in Linc, wch he gave under his owne hand: he himself being a native of ye place where this same happened, and it was thus: “At Axholme, alias Haxey, in ye Isle, one Mr. Edward Vicars (curate to Mr. Wm. Dalby, vicar), together with one Robert Hallywell a taylor, intending on St. Marke’s even at night to watch in ye church porch to see who shoud die in ye yeare following (to this purpose using divers ceremonies), they addressing themselues to the busines, Vicars (being then in his chamber) wished Hallywell to be going before and he would psently follow him. Vicars fell asleep, and Hallywell (attending his coming in y“ church porch) forthwith sees certaine shapes psenting themselves to his view, resemblances (as he thought) of diuers of his neighbours, who he did nominate ; and all of them dyed the yeare following ; and Vicars himselfe (being asleep) his phantome was seen of him also, and dyed with ye rest. This sight made Hallywell so agast that he looks like a Ghoast ever since. The lord Sheffield (hearing this relation) sent for Hallywell to receiue account of it. The fellow fearing my Lord would cause him to watch the church porch againe he hid himselfe in the Carrs till he was almost starued. The number of those that died (whose phantasmes Hallywell saw) was as I take it about fower score. “ Tho. Cod, Rector Ecclie de Laceby.” Edward Peacock.— (Vol. iv. p. 470.) Bottesford Moors. Choice Notes from Notes & Queries, 1859, pp. 51-2.