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The simpler mode of conducting this pastime, as it was practised in Scotland, has been detailed by Dr. Jamieson, who tells us, that it was a game generally played by young people in a corn-yard. One stack is fixed on as the dule, or goal; and one person is appointed to catch the rest of the company, who run out from the dule. He does not leave it till they are all out of his sight. Then he sets off to catch them. Any one who is taken cannot run out again with his former associates, being accounted a prisoner; but is obliged to assist his captor in pursuing the rest. When all are taken, the game is finished; and he who was first taken is bound to act as catcher in the next game.' It is evident, from our old poetry, that this style of playing at barley-breake was also common in England, and especially among the lower orders in the country.
It may be proper to add, at the close of this chapter, that a species of public diversion was, during the Elizabethan period, supported by each parish, for the purpose of innocently employing the peasantry upon a failure of work from weather or other causes. To this singular though laudable custom Shakspeare alludes in the Twelfth Night, where Sir Toby says, "He's a coward, and a coystril, that will not drink to my niece, 'till his brains turn o' the toe like a parishtop." "This," says Mr. Steevens," is one of the customs now laid aside;" and he adds, in explanation, that "a large top was kept in every village, to be whipped in frosty weather, that the peasants might be kept warm by exercise, and out of mischief, while they could not work;" a diversion to which Fletcher likewise refers in his Night-Walker," and which has given rise to the proverbial expression of sleeping like a town-top.
From this rapid sketch of the diversions of the country, as they existed in Shakspeare's time, it will be immediately perceived that not many have become obsolete, and of those which have undergone some change, the variations have not been such as materially to obscure their origin or previous constitution. The object of this chapter being, therefore, only to mark what was peculiar in rural pastime to the age under consideration, and not to notice what had suffered little or no modification, its articles, especially if we consider the nature of the immediately preceding section (and that nearly all amusements common to both town and country were referred to a future part), could not be either very numerous, or require any very extended elucidation.
What might be necessary in the minute and isolated task of the commentator, would be tedious and superfluous in a design which professes, while it gives a distinct and broad outline of the complexion of the times, to preserve among its parts an unrelaxed attention to unity and compression.
View of Country Life during the Age of Shakspeare, continued-An Account of some of its Superstitions.
THE popular creed, during the age of Shakspeare, was perhaps more extended and systematised than in any preceding or subsequent period of our history. For this effect we are indebted, in a great measure, to the credulity and superstition of James the First, the publication of whose Demonology rendered a profession in the belief of sorcery and witchcraft a matter of fashion and even of interest; for a ready way to the favour of this monarch was an implicit assumption of his opipions, theological and metaphysical, as well as political.
* Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1808.
It must not be inferred, however, that at the commencement of the seventeenth century, the human mind was unwilling or unprepared to shake off the load which had oppressed it for ages. Among the enlightened classes of society, now rapidly extending throughout the kingdom, the reception of these doctrines was rather the effect of court example than of settled conviction; but as the vernacular bards, and especially the dramatic, who ever hold unbounded influence over the multitude, thought proper, and certainly, in a poetical light, with great effect, to adopt the dogmata and machinery of James, the reign of superstition was, for a time, not only upheld, but extended among the inferior orders of the people,
Every goblin of ignorance," observes Warton, speaking of this period, "did not vanish at the first glimmerings of the morning of science. Reason suffered a few demons still to linger, which she chose to retain in her service under the guidance of poetry. Men believed, or were willing to believe, that spirits were yet hovering around, who brought with them "airs from heaven, or blasts from hell," that the ghost was duly released from his prison of torment at the sound of the curfew, and that fairies imprinted mysterious circles on the turf by moon-light. Much of this credulity was even consecrated by the name of science and profound speculation. Prospero had not yet broken and buried his staff," nor" drowned his book deeper than did ever plummet sound." It was now that the alchymist, and the judicial astrologer, conducted his occult operations by the potent intercourse of some preternatural being, who came obsequious to his call, and was bound to accomplish his severest services, under certain conditions, and for a limited duration of time. It was actually one of the pretended feats of these fantastic philosophers, to evoke the queen of the Fairies in the solitude of a gloomy grove, who, preceded by a sudden rustling of the leaves, appeared in robes of transcendent lustre. The Shakspeare of a more instructed and polished age would not have given us a magician darkening the sun at noon, the sabbath of the witches, and the cauldron of incantation."
The history of the popular mythology, therefore, of this era, at a time when it was cherished by the throne, and adopted, in its fullest extent, by the greatest poetical genius which ever existed, must necessarily occupy a large share of our attention. So extensive, indeed, is the subject, and so full of interest and curiosity, that to exhaust it in this division of the work, would be to encroach upon that symmetry of plan, that relative proportion which we wish to preserve. The four great subjects, therefore, of Fairies, Witchcraft, Magic, and Apparitions, will be deferred to the Second Part, and annexed as Dissertations to our remarks on the Midsummer-Night's Dream, Macbeth, the Tempest, and Hamlet.
As a consequent of this decision, the present chapter, after noticing, in a general way, the various credulities of the country, will dwell, at some length, on those periods of the year which have been peculiarly devoted to superstitious rites and observances, and include the residue of the subject under the heads of Omens, Charms, Sympathies, Cures, and Miscellaneous Superstitions.
It is from the "Winter-Night's Conversation" of the lower orders of the people that we may derive, in any age, the most authentic catalogue of its superstitions. This fearful pleasure of children and uneducated persons, and the eager curiosity which attends it, have been faithfully painted by Shakspeare:
For the particulars forming the subject-matter of these tales, and for their effect on the hearers, we must have recourse to writers contemporary with the bard, whose object it was to censure or detail these legendary wonders. Thus Lavaterus, who wrote a book " De Spectris," in 1570, which was translated into English in 1572, remarks that "if when men sit at the table, mention be made of spirits and elves, many times wemen and children are so afrayde that they dare scarce go out of dores alone, least they shoult meete wyth some evyl thing: and if they chaunce to heare any kinde of noise, by and by they thinke there are some spirits behynde them :" and again in a subsequent page, simple foolish men— imagine that there be certayne elves or fairies of the earth, and tell many straunge and marvellous tales of them, which they have heard of their grand-mothers and mothers, howe they have appeared unto those of the house, have done service, have rocked the cradell, and (which is a signe of good luck) do continually tary in the house." He has the good sense, however, to reprobate the then general custom, a practice which has more or less prevailed even to our own times, of frightening children by stories and assumed appearances of this kind. “It is a common custome," he observes, " in many places, that at a certaine time of the yeare, one with a nette or visarde on his face maketh Children afrayde, to the ende that ever after they should laboure and be obediente to their Parentes: afterward they tel them that those which they saw, were Bugs, Witches, and Hagges, which thing they verily believe, and are commonly miserablie afrayde. How be it, it is not expedient so to terrifie Children. For sometimes through great feare they fall into dangerous diseases, and in the nyght crye out, when they are fast asleep. Salomon teacheth us to chasten children with the rod, and so to make them stand in awe : he doth not say, we must beare them in hande they shall be devoured of Bugges, Hags of the night, and such like monsters." But it is to Reginald Scot that we are indebted for the most curious and extensive enumeration of these fables which haunted our progenitors from the cradle to the grave.
"In our childhood," says he, "our mother's maids have so terrified us with an ouglie divell having hornes on his head, fier in his mouth, and a taile in his breech, eies like a bason, fanges like a dog, clawes like a beare, a skin like a Niger, and a voice roaring like a lion, whereby we start and are afraid when we heare one crie Bough and they have so fraid us with bullbeggers, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, syrens, kit with the can'sticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell-waine, the fierdrake, the puckle Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneless, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our own shadowes: in so much as some never feare the divell, but in a darke night; and then a polled sheepe is a perillous beast, and manie times is taken for our father's soule, speciallic in a churchyard, where a right hardie man heretofore scant durst passe by night, but his haire would stand upright." S
That this mode of passing away the time," the long solitary winter nights," was as much in vogue in 1617 as in 1570 and 1580, is apparent from Burton, who reckons among the ordinary recreations of winter, tales of giants, dwarfs, witches, fayries, goblins, and friers.
The predilection which existed, during this period of our annals, for the marvellous, the terrible, and romantic, especially among the peasantry, has been noticed by several of our best writers. Addison, in reference to the genius of Shak
Winter's Tale, act ii. sc. 1.
"Of Ghostes and Spirites walking by nyght, and of strange noyses, crackes, and sundry forewarnynges, whiche commonly happen before the death of menne, great slaughters, and alterations of kyngdomes. One Booke, Written by Lewes Lavaterus of Tigurine. And translated into Englyshe by R. H." Printed at 153. p. 21.
London by Henry Benneyman, for Richard Watkyns, 1572. Vide p. 14 and 49.
* Vide Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 172.
§ Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1580, p. 152,
speare for the wild and wonderful in poetry, remarks, that "our forefathers loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and inchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it; the churchyards were all haunted; every large common had a circle of fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit;" and Mr. Grose, after enumerating several popular superstitions, extends the subject in a very entertaining manner.
"In former times," says he, "these notions were so prevalent, that it was deemed little less than atheism to doubt them; and in many instances the terrors caused by them embittered the lives of a great number of persons of all ages; by degrees almost shutting them out of their own houses, and deterring them from going from one village to another after sun-set. The room in which the head of a family had died, was for a long time untenanted; particularly if they died without a will, or were supposed to have entertained any particular religious opinions. But if any disconsolate old maiden, or love-crossed bachelor, happened to dispatch themselves in their garters, the room where the deed was perpetrated was rendered for ever after uninhabitable, and not unfrequently was nailed up. If a drunken farmer, returning from market, fell from Old Dobbin and broke his neck,- —or a carter, under the same predicament, tumbled from his cart or waggon, and was killed by it,—that spot was ever after haunted and impassable in short, there was scarcely a bye-lane or cross-way but had its ghost, who appeared in the shape of a headless cow or horse; or clothed all in white, glared with its saucer eyes over a gate or stile. Ghosts of superior rank, when they appeared abroad, rode in coaches drawn by six headless horses, and driven by a headless coachman and postilions. Almost every ancient manor-house was haunted by some one at least of its former masters or mistresses, where, besides divers other noises, that of telling money was distinctly heard: and as for the churchyards, the number of ghosts that walked there, according to the village computation, almost equalled the living parishioners to pass them at night, was an achievement not to be attempted by any one in the parish, the sextons excepted; who perhaps being particularly privileged, to make use of the common expression, never saw any thing worse than themselves."†
Of these superstitions, as forming the subject of "a country conversation in a winter's evening," a very interesting detail has been given by Mr. Bourne; the picture was drawn about a hundred years ago; but, though even then partially applicable, may be considered as a faithful general representation of the two preceding centuries.
"Nothing is commoner in Country Places," says this historian of credulity, "than for a whole family in a Winter's Evening, to sit round the fire, and tell stories of apparitions and ghosts. Some of them have seen spirits in the shapes of cows, and dogs, and horses; and some have seen even the devil himself, with a cloven fool.
"Another part of this conversation generally turns upon Fairies. These, they tell you, have frequently been heard and seen; nay, that there are some still living who were stolen away by them, and confined seven years. According to the description they give of them, who pretend to have seen them, they are in the shape of men, exceeding little: They are always clad in green, and frequent the woods and fields; when they make cakes (which is a work they have been often heard at) they are very noisy; and when they have done, they are full of mirth and pastime. But generally they dance in moonlight when mortals are asleep, and not capable of seeing them, as may be observed on the following morn; their dancing places being very distinguishable. For as they dance hand in hand, and so make a circle in their dance, so next day there will be seen rings and circles on the grass.
"Another tradition they hold, and which is often talked of, is, that there are particular places allotted to spirits to walk in. Thence it was that formerly, such frequent reports were abroad of this and that particular place being haunted by a spirit, and that the common people say now and then, such a place is dangerous to be passed through at night, because a spirit walks there. Nay, they'll further tell you, that some spirits have lamented the hardness of their condition in being obliged to walk in cold and uncomfortable places, and have therefore desired the person who was so hardy as to speak to them, to gift them with a warmer walk, by some well grown hedge, or in some shady vale, where they might be shelter'd from the rain and wind.
"The last topic of this conversation I shall take notice of, shall be the tales of haunted houses.
*Spectator, No. 419., vol. vi. p. 118. of Sharpe's edition. See also Nos. 12, 110, and 117. † Grose's Provincial Glossary, p, 242, 243.
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
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 pieture; 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.