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  • Flying Fairies, Stolen Wine and the Hat Tree August 20, 2015

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    hat tree

    Here is a very modest nineteenth-century Cornish story: it appeared in Robert Hunt, Popular Romances (1865); the piskeys are Cornish fairies (pixies). This tale is not, note, specifically Cornish, there are lots of British versions recorded in the nineteenth century, and one earlier Scottish tale.

    Our story has especially to do with the adventures of one of the party, John Sturtridge, who, well primed with ale, started on his homeward way for Luxulyan Church-town. John had got as far as Tregarden Down without any mishap worth recording, when, alas! he happed upon a party of the little people, who were at their sports in the shelter of a huge granite boulder. Assailed by shouts of derisive laughter, he hastened on frightened and bewildered, but the Down, well known from early experience, became like ground untrodden, and after long trial no gate or stile was to be found. He was getting vexed, as well as puzzled, when a chorus of tiny voices shouted, ‘Ho! and away for Par Beach!’ John repeated the shout, and was in an instant caught up, and in a twinkling found himself on the sands of Par. A brief dance, and the cry was given, ‘Ho! and away for Squire Tremain’s cellar!’ A repetition of the Piskie cry found John with his elfish companions in the cellars at Heligan, where was beer and wine galore. It need not be said that he availed himself of his opportunities. The mixture of all the good liquors so affected him that, alas! he forgot in time to catch up the next cry of ‘Ho ! and away for Par Beach!’ In the morning John was found by the butler, groping and tumbling among butts and barrels, very much muddled with the squire’s good drink. His strange story, very incoherently told, was not credited by the squire, who committed him to jail for the burglary, and in due time he was convicted and sentenced to death. The morning of his execution arrived; a large crowd had assembled, and John was standing under the gallows-tree, when a commotion was- observed in the crowd, and a little lady of commanding mien made her way through the opening throng to the scaffold. In a shrill, sweet voice, which John recognised, she cried, ‘Ho! and away for France!’ Which being replied to, he was rapt from the officers of justice, leaving them and the multitude mute with wonder and disappointment.

    What is fascinating is that there is a much earlier continental version written up about 1300 by Rudolf von Schlettstadt in his Historiae memorabiles, Memorable Stories. Note that the ‘hat’ of the story is a pilleum, usually translated as a berret. (Beach likes to think of it as being a top hat, but that just for the vision of a tree heavily laden down with toppers.) The mysterious men are, to judge by every other version of this tale, fairies. Loose translation warning: Latin below for purists.

    This is the story of a peasant with a hat that Henry the doctor from Basel told. In 1294 in the days around the feast of St Matthew, in Alsace there were several peasants in a hurry to get home from the Rhine where they had busied themselves with certain affairs but one of them still busy sent ahead his companions. He only followed after by moonlight. He seemed to be behind some people that he did not know with whom he would have gladly shared the path. These came to a certain tree on which there hung many hats and each one took a hat, put it on and flew up high in the air and like birds went wherever they wished. The peasant, once he got to the tree, put on a hat likewise and followed the path of those who had gone before him. They ended up in the cellar of a rich man and they drank the best wine that they could find there. The peasant, when all were heated up with wine, took off his hat at which point the others went off where they wanted, but the peasant couldn’t follow them because he no longer had the hat on his head. Then, the next morning, the burgher, that is the houseowner went down and found the containers empty and the peasant sat in a corner. The owner took the peasant before a judge and accused him of theft. After both sides had long argued before the judge and the judge having sentenced the peasant to death, one of those there put the hat on the peasant that, tied to the neck with a cord, hung on his back and the peasant shouted out: ‘if I hadn’t taken off this hat in the cellar I would never have risked having to pay anything’. And as soon as he had put the hat on before the judge, in front of all, he disappeared and in this way he went where he wanted and was free from every danger.

    De rustico pilleato uerissima historia, quam descripsit Hainricus medicus Basiliensis. Anno domini milesimo ducentesimo nonagesimo quarto circa festum Mathie apostoli cum in Alsacia aliqui rustici de Rinaugia, ubi aliqua negocia tractauerunt, iterum ad propria redire festinarent, unus eorum plus aliis negociis occupatus socios suos precedere fecit. Postea ipsos de nocte luna splendente sequebatur. Uidebatur autem ei, quasi aliqui homines sibi ignoti ante eum precederent, quibus se libenter in itinere coniungisset. Precedentes autem cum ad quandam arborem sitam prope viam peruenissent, inuenerunt in ea pillea multa pendencia. Et quilibet eorum unum super caput suum posuit. Et statim sursum in aera leuabantur et sicut aues, quo libuit, perrexerunt. Ille rusticus autem cum eciam ad arborem peruenisset, unum ex pilleis super caput suum posuit et uiam precedencium sequebatur. Conuenerunt autem in cellarium uiri diuitis. Uinum melius biberant, quod in cellario diuitis poterant inueniri. Rusticus, cum incaluissent omnes uino, pillium suum deponebat. Tunc alii homines post potum, quo placuit, perrexerunt. Rusticus uero cum sociis recedere non ualebat, quia pillium in capite non habebat. De mane autem ciuis seu hospes domus cellarium uisitauit et uas suum pene uacuum inuenit et istum hominem seu rusticum reperit in angulo residentem. Eum cepit et pro fure judici presentauit. Cum uero multa altercacio ab ambobus uel utraque parte coram judice facta fuisset et judex contra eum debuisset mortis sentenciam protulisse, unus astancium pillium, quod habebat in funiculo in collo ad dorsum pendentem, supra caput eius posuit arguitque uehementer: si hoc pillium sero pro pignore in cellario de capite non detraxisset, nullum periculum sibi minime nocuisset. Hoc autem jam coram judice facto ab eis omnibus euanuit et sic, quo uoluit, perrexit et ab omni malo liberatur.

    So can this particular story type be dragged back still further into the past: how widely was it told? And most importantly, what happened to the hats? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    PS Beach is back from 2 weeks holidays: or rather the kids and Mrs B. are back from their holiday. Been in downmode. Thanks for being so patient with emails etc.