ANTIQUITIES AND CURIOSITIES OF THE CHURCH.
Church and Churchyard Charms and Cures.
BY REV. R. WILKINS REES.
WHEN Charles Dudley Warner issued his delightful essays, “My Summer in a Garden,” 1 it was found that at least one reader took them seriously, and was doomed to dire disappointment in consequent gardening operations. It is to be hoped that no one will accept these “Church and Churchyard Charms and Cures” in like good faith, even though the writer could append to each the words so frequently used by John Wesley in his treatise on physic, “This hath been tried.” The fact that sickness and disease of every kind have been attributed to evil agency, or the presence of some bad spirit which needed to be expelled from the patient’s person, may account to some extent, at least, for the solicitation of help within the precincts of a church; but, however that may be, there is not the slightest doubt that such “spiritual” help has been earnestly sought again and again.237
Epilepsy, with which for long ages the idea of demoniacal possession was associated, has been a favourite ailment for this kind of nostrum. One of the charms prescribed for it, which requires a person of strong nerves to carry through, directs the patient to walk thrice round the church at midnight, then to enter the building and stand before the altar. On one occasion at Crowan, a village in West Cornwall near Clowance, an old mansion of the St. Aubyn family, an epileptic subject entered the church at midnight. As he was slowly groping his way through the intense darkness, his hand touched something which thrilled him with fear. Scream after scream of terror rang through the church as it flashed across the man’s mind that he had grasped the head of the famous Sir John St. Aubyn. The poor fellow was removed in a dead faint through fright, and never recovered from the shock, but died in a lunatic asylum. He had really seized the head of the sexton who had stolen in to watch that no trick was played upon the man by which he might be startled in his quest of cure. Sometimes a sexton has been bribed to allow an epileptic patient to enter the church at “the witching hour,” in order that he or she might creep three 238 times under the communion-table to gain relief. Mrs. Bray, in “The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy,” quotes a letter which her husband, the Vicar of Tavistock, once received: —
“Feb 2, 1835.
REV. SIR. — I should take is as a great favour if your Honour would be good enough to let me have the key of the churchyard to-night, to go in at twelve o’clock, to cut off three bits of lead about the size of a half-farthing, each from three different shuts (i.e., spouts) for the cure of fits.
Sir, I remain,
Your obliged, humble servant,
A local paper tells us how on Christmas Day, 1874, a labourer’s wife in Wiltshire came to a clergyman of the parish and asked for a “Sacrament Shilling” — that is, one out of the alms collected at the Holy Communion — in exchange for one which she tendered. On inquiries being made, it appeared that her son was subject to fits, and that the only certain remedy was to hang a sacrament shilling about the patient’s neck. But, it would seem, this so-called sacrament shilling is not obtained without some trouble, the mode of procedure being as follows:— The person must first collect a penny apiece from twelve maidens, then exchange the pence for an ordinary shilling, 239 and finally exchange the shilling for a sacrament one. Such a charm has been in vogue in Herefordshire also, and is declared to have been invariably successful when thoroughly carried out. For the same purpose, in certain localities in the West Country, single women wear a silver ring on the wedding-ring finger, made out of sixpences which have been begged from six young bachelors.
Another variation of this strange belief was recorded in the Times some years ago. A young woman, living in the neighbourhood of Halsworthy, Devon, having been subject for some time to periodical fits, endeavoured to effect a cure by attendance at the afternoon service at the parish church, accompanied by thirty young men, her near neighbours. Service over, she sat in the porch of the church, and each of the young men, as they passed out in succession, dropped a penny into her lap; but the last, instead of a penny, gave her a half-crown, taking from her the twenty-nine pennies. With this half-crown in her hand, she walked three times round the communion-table, and afterwards had it made into a ring, by the wearing of which she fully expected to recover her health. For the person afflicted with epilepsy 240 to collect thirty pence at the church door from those of the opposite sex, to change the pence for sacrament money (silver), and to have the latter made into a ring to be worn day and night, was a general practice in parts of Cornwall and Devon, and the writer is not persuaded that the custom has by any means died out; not long ago, indeed, a case of this kind was reported from St. Just-in-Penwith. In the North of England a “sacramental piece,” as it is frequently called, is the royal remedy for this terrible disorder of epilepsy, but the manner of acquiring the coin differs slight from that in vogue in the Delectable Duchy. Thirty pence are to be begged of thirty poor widows and then carried to the church minister who, in exchange for them, gives the applicant a half-crown piece from the communion alms. After being “walked with nine times up and down the church aisle,” the piece has a hole made in it in order that it may be hung on a ribbon and worn about the neck. There may be something in the suggestion that these widows’ pence have a reference to the widow’s mite, which won the unqualified approval of Christ.
In some parts of the West Country the superstition prevails that the ring to be worn by an 241 epileptic subject should be made of three nails or screws which have been used to fasten a coffin, and which must therefore be dug-out of a churchyard. Harland and Wilkinson, the authorities on North Country folk-lore, state that formerly in Lancashire and adjoining counties silver rings made from the hinges of coffins were worn as charms for the cure of such fits, or for the prevention of cramp, or even of rheumatism, and that the superstition continues, though the metal is of necessity changed, few coffins now having hinges of like precious material. Amongst any considerable number of the humbler classes in town or country in Lancashire, rings made of two hoops, one of zinc and one of copper, soldered together, have been frequently seen, on the fingers of women, chiefly, but occasionally, also, of men. Another practice, which was declared to exist more or less all over the country, is mentioned in the following cutting, under date October 8th, 1858: — “A collier’s wife recently applied to the sexton of Ruabon Church for ever so small a portion of a human skull for the purpose of grating it similar to ginger, to be afterwards added to some mixture, which she intended giving to her daughter as a remedy against fits, to which she was subject.”242
As it was often supposed that persons afflicted with epileptic fits were bewitched, a reference to the method which, it is said, should be adopted by a person wickedly inclined who wishes to become a master of “the evil eye,” must not be omitted. A Cornishman once told Mr. R. S. Hawker, the brilliant vicar of Morwenstow, what should be done, and I now quote from the latter. “Let him go to the chancel, said he, to sacrament, and let him hide and bring away the bread from the hands of the priest; then next midnight let him take and carry it round the church widdershins (that is from south to north), crossing by the east three times; the third time there will meet him a big, ugly, venomous toad, gaping and gasping with his mouth opened wide; let him put the bread between the lips of the ghastly creature, and as soon as it is swallowed down his throat, he will breathe three times upon the man, and he will be made a strong witch for evermore.” To resist the baleful influence of the evil eye, and of witchcraft generally, some are provided with little bags of earth, teeth, or bones, taken from a grave. Many requests have been received for water from a font after a christening to undo some spell, and formerly the fonts in the 243 country were locked to prevent people from stealing the “holy water,” as they called it. Such water was, in fact, employed for various disorders; in Scotland it was regarded as a preservative against witchcraft; and eyes bathed in it were rendered for life incapable of seeing ghosts.
Mr. Robert Hunt, the learned West Country folk-lorist, instances another use of sacramental money — in this case for paralysis — so interesting that it may be quoted at length: — “Margery Penwarne, a paralysed woman, about fifty years of age, though from her affliction looking some ten years older, sat in the church porch of St. ——, and presented her outstretched withered arm and open palm to the congregation as they left the house of God after the morning service. Penny after penny fell into her hand, though Margery never opened her lips. All appeared to know the purpose and thirty pennies were speedily collected. Presently the parson came with his family, and then she spoke for the first time, soliciting the priest to change the copper coins into one silver one. The wish was readily acceded to, and the paralytic woman hobbled into the church and up to the altar rails. A few words passed between her and the clerk; she was admitted within the 244 rails, and the clerk moved the communion-table from against the wall that she might walk round it, which she did three times. ‘Now,’ said Margery,‘with God’s blessing I shall be cured; my blessed bit of silver must be made into a ring,’ (this was addressed to the clerk, half aside): ‘and within three weeks after it is on my finger I shall get the use of my limbs again.’ This charm is common throughout the three western counties for the cure of rheumatism — the Devonshire halt — or for any contraction of the limbs.”
In this connection it may be mentioned that long years ago the kings of this country were wont to hallow certain rings on Good Friday, the wearing of which was believed to prevent illness. This strange custom is supposed to have been suggested by a ring long cared for and regarded with utmost veneration in Westminster Abbey, which was stated to have been presented to King Edward (the Confessor?) by some pilgrim from Jerusalem. The rings hallowed by the sovereign were called “cramp rings,” and there was a special service for their consecration. In his “Breviary of Health,” Andrew Boorde, speaking of cramp, says: — “The kynge’s majestie hath a great helpe in this matter in 245 halowyng crampe rings, and so geven without money or petition.”
That enthusiastic Cornish antiquary of the last century, Dr. Borlase, gives, in his “Natural History of Cornwall,” a strange method of curing madness — a method referred to also by Carew as adopted in the parish of Altarnum — which directed that the disordered in mind should be placed “on the brink of a square pool filled with water from St. Nun’s Well. The patient, having no intimation of what was intended, was, by a sudden blow on the breast, tumbled into the pool, where he was tossed up and down by some persons of superior strength, till, being quite debilitated, his fury forsook him; he was then carried to church, and certain masses were sung over him. The Cornish call this immersion boossenning, from beuzi or bidhyzi, in the Cornu-British and Armoric, signifying to dip or drown.” Another, writing in 1848, says, “So strong a hold has the genius of superstition among the peasantry of South Wales, that a woman recently bitten by a mad donkey was sent to the churchyard of St. Edrin’s to eat the grass, which, it is believed, has the peculiar property of being an antidote to hydrophobia.”246
In Launceston and the surrounding district, the poor people say that a swelling in the neck (the goitre or bronchocele as it is variously termed) may be cured by the patient going before sunrise on the first of May to the grave of the last young man, if the patient be a woman, or, if a man, to that of the last young woman, who had been buried in the churchyard, and applying the dew, gathered by passing the hand three times from the head to the foot of the grave, to the part affected by the ailment. The following appeared in the Times during 1855: — “At an early hour on the morning of the 1st of May, a woman, respectably attired, and accompanied by an elderly gentleman, applied for admittance to the cemetery at Plymouth. On being allowed to enter, they proceeded to the grave of the last man interred; and the woman, who had a large wen in her throat, rubbed her neck three times each way on each side of the grave, departing before sunrise. By this process it was expected the malady would be cured.”
In the “Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association” for 1867, a new recipe, with which the writer had been favoured, was given for boils. “ ‘Go into a churchyard on a 247 dark night, and to the grave of a person who has been interred the day previous; walk six times round the grave, and crawl across it three times. If the sufferer from boils is a man, this ceremony must be performed by a woman, and the contrary. The charm will not work unless the night is quite dark.’ There is an appended note: ‘This remedy was tried by a young woman in Georgeham Churchyard,’ but with what result is not told; the inference was that it succeeded.” This is not, however, the only such charm for the complaint; another prescribes that the boil shall be poulticed for three days and nights continuously, and the poultices with their cloths then placed in the coffin of anyone lying dead and about to be interred.
In the neighbourhood of Penzance it has been thought that if a person afflicted with any cutaneous disease were taken secretly to a corpse, and the dead hand passed over the parts affected, and a piece of linen the patient had worn to cover such parts were afterwards dropped upon the coffin during the reading of the burial service, a perfect cure would result. In Notes and Queries for December, 1859, it is recorded that a lady who was staying at Penzance and was present at a funeral 248 there, observed than when the clergyman came to the words “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” a woman forced her way to the edge of the grave, dropped a white cloth upon the coffin, closed her eyes, and apparently said a prayer. On the lady making enquiries as to the reason of this peculiar proceeding, she was informed of the superstition just recorded. The woman had a child with a bad leg, and she had followed this course of action with a firm belief in its efficacy.
The remedies for warts are very numerous, and here again the churchyard has been called into requisition. A cure will be certainly effected if each wart is touched with a new pin, every pin enclosed in one bottle, and the bottle buried in the newly-made grave of a person of opposite sex to the sufferer. As the pins rust, the warts will disappear. On one occasion the Vicar of Bodwin found a bottle full of pins laid in a recently-opened grave. To touch each wart with a pebble, put the stones in a bag, and throw them away, when the finder would get the warts, and they would quit their former possessor, was a very favourite if selfish remedy. Or, in coming out of church the sufferer might wish his warts on some part of another person’s body or on a tree, and the 249 warts would soon disappear, and be found again on the person or the spot so selected. People have declared that when they were children, they have, out of curiosity and in ignorance, picked up and examined a bag containing pebbles such as those just alluded to, and, as a result, have had in a short time as many warts as there happened to be stones in the bag.
For whooping-cough it was customary, in one of the chief towns of Yorkshire, for parents to take their children when so afflicted to a neighbouring convent, where the priest allowed them to drink a small quantity of holy water out of a silver chalice, which the little sufferers were strictly forbidden to touch. It is said that by Protestant, as well as by Roman Catholic parents, this was esteemed as a most effective remedy. In Devonshire the people have maintained that a child would be speedily relieved of the whooping-cough if he were carried fasting into three parishes on a Sunday morning.
For toothache, a dead person’s tooth carried in the pocket is held to be a cure in Staffordshire; while, in Devonshire, to carry an old tooth in the pocket, bitten from a skull found in the churchyard, is deemed a preventive against such pain. In 250 some parts of the country, moss growing upon a human skull that is turned up in the churchyard, if dried and powdered, and taken as snuff, is deemed an efficacious cure for headache of every description.
A charm for the removal of yellow jaundice is indicated in the following incident, which was recently related. A man was once walking in a village churchyard near St. Austell, when he saw a woman approach an open grave. She stood by the side of it, and seemed for the moment to be muttering some words. When the muttering ceased, she produced from beneath her cloak a large-sized baked meal-cake, threw it into the grave, and then quitted the place. Upon inquiry, the observer ascertained that the cake was composed of oatmeal, mixed with some objectionable matter, baked and thrown into the grave as a charm for the yellow jaundice. On further inquiry, the man was informed that such a remedy was commonly believed in by the peasantry of the neighbourhood.
Urgent application has been made to the rector of a Norfolk parish for the loan of the church plate to lay on the stomach of a child, which was much distended by some mesenteric disease, this 251 being accounted an excellent cure for such cases. It may be also stated that church dust, brought to the bed of a dying person, is supposed in some places to shorten and ease a lingering and painful death.
A few superstitions, connected in some way with the subject of this chapter, shall be instanced before the close. On All Souls’ Eve — the night after Allhallows’ — and on the Eves of St. Mark and St. John, the practice has been observed far and wide, especially amongst young people, of watching in the church porch at midnight for death omens. It was supposed that the forms of those persons destined to die in the neighbourhood during the succeeding twelve months would pass along and enter the church. This superstition was so readily and fully believed, that if any who were ill chanced to hear that it was thought they had been seen in this manner, they at once relinquished all hope of recovery, and in some cases even died through the influence of their fears. In Gloucestershire, the belief has been cherished that after an open grave on a Sunday a death would certainly ensue within a month. A contributor to that well-packed storehouse, Chambers’ “Book of Days,” points out that Sunday is 252 frequently a favourite day for funerals amongst the poor, this must be a purely local superstition. But he admits, “I have met with it in one parish, where Sunday funerals are the exception, as I recollect one instance in particular. A woman coming down from church, and observing an open grave, remarked,‘Ah, there will be someone else wanting a grave before the week is out!’ Strangely enough (the population of the place was then under a thousand) her words came true, and the grave was dug for her.”
In Cornwall, it is said that a corpse should never be carried to church by a new road, and should a hearse stop on its way to the churchyard, there will soon be another death in the house. Flowers and shrubs planted in Cornish churchyards are never plucked, from the fear that the spirits of the departed will at night visit the desecrator and carry with them the curse of ill-luck.
In connection with baptism, there are several queer beliefs to be noted. There are parts of Cornwall where it is considered a sure sign of being sweethearts if a young man and woman “stand witness together,” that is, become godfather and godmother of the same child. But this is not so 253 everywhere, as in the extreme west of the county, couples have been known to refuse to do so, because it was unlucky — “First at the font, never at the altar.” And in the same county to be baptised with water from the well of St. Ludgvan brings with it the peculiar property of being safe from hanging. In many districts of England it is thought to be a misfortune if the child should refrain from crying at its baptism, for, as the people declare, when the child kicks and screams, the evil spirit is quitting it. Silence does not, however, indicate that the evil spirit retains its hold, but that the infant is too good for an earthly life. Mrs. Latham once related the following incident in the “Folk-lore Record”: — “I was lately present at a christening in Sussex, when a lady of the party, who was grandmother of the child, whispered in a voice of anxiety, ‘The child never cried; why did not the nurse rouse it up?’ After we had left the church, she said to her, ‘O nurse, why did you not pinch the baby?’ And when the baby’s good behaviour was afterwards commented upon, she observed, with a very serious air, ‘I wish that he had cried.’ ” In Sussex it is also considered unlucky to reveal a child’s name before its baptism; and the water sprinkled on its 254 forehead by the clergyman must on no account be wiped away.
Confirmation also has its attendant superstitions, to which, for example, the Rev. Thiselton Dyer makes some interesting references. In Devonshire and Norfolk, to name two widely separated counties, the bishop’s right hand is deemed the giver of luck, and if any of the young people are touched by the left, they are deeply disappointed, and almost inclined to think that a ban, instead of a blessing, thereby rests upon them. In certain districts of the North of England, it has been said that to be touched by the bishop’s left hand meant an inevitable unmarried life. Notwithstanding that they had already been confirmed people have again presented themselves in after years, convinced that the prelate’s blessing would cure some bodily ailment, just as it was thought that the monarch’s hand would cure the king’s-evil. The story goes that at one of Bishop Bathurst’s confirmations, an old woman was observed eagerly pressing forward to the church at which it was to take place. An onlooker, rather astonished at her strange conduct, and struck by her aged appearance, asked if she was going to be confirmed, and, being answered in the affirmative, 255 admonished her for having postponed it so such a late period in life. But the old woman smartly resented the reproof, saying it was not so; “that she had already been bishopped seven times, and intended to be again, it was so good for her rheumatism!”
In Cornwall, Sunday is reckoned to be the day for leaving off any article of clothing, as then those who so divest themselves will have the prayers of every congregation in their behalf, and are sure not to catch cold. In some parts of Kent, it used to be the custom to strew the pathway to the church in which the marriage ceremony was to be performed, not with flowers, but with emblems of the bridegroom’s trade. A blacksmith, for instance, walked on scraps of old iron; a paper-hanger on strips of paper, and a carpenter on shavings. It has not been said, however, that a doctor walked on medicine, bones, and pills, or a clergyman on sermons. But, at any rate, the shavings, iron, and the like, were so employed, and it was thought that such a practice would work a charm that would bring good-luck to the happy couple.
1 Elf.Ed. For an excerpt from this book, see Garden Ethics, by Charles Dudley Warner, on this site.