Beating the Bounds


Beating the Bounds
   In former times, when the parish was an essential unit of both religious and local government organization, it was imperative that the exact parish boundaries be generally known, agreed, and, most important of all, remembered from generation to generation.The custom of perambulating the parish boundaries, or Beating the Bounds as it is usually called now, thus had a very necessary practical purpose, and the curious practices associated with the event were also usually of practical utility. Perambulations usually took place at *Rogationtide and involved both religious and secular officials, as the boundary custom had been grafted on to a much older one of religious processions on *Ascension Day. Many other local residents took part - each of whom would be able to 'bear witness' in any future boundary dispute - and a number of boys were also taken along, to ensure that the knowledge was passed to future generations. These youngsters were useful in that they could be made to clamber through hedges, wade streams, climb over walls, and so on, to ensure that the whole boundary was properly followed, and various customs grew up whereby the boys were bumped on to boundary stones or whipped at key points, 'to make sure they remember'. They were, of course, remunerated in some way. At other key points the clergy would preach or lead a prayer - 'cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark' (Deuteronomy 27: 17) being a favourite text - and a number of local Vicar's or Gospel Oaks are memories of these places. Once the practical aspects of the perambulations faded, and the ceremonial became increasingly meaningless, most of them died out, although there are still sporadic revivals, especially at the time of centenary celebrations or other important local dates. A handful of places still perform the custom on a regular basis, including St Mary the Virgin and St Michael in the Northgate (both in Oxford) and the Liberty of the Tower of London.
   ■ Shuel, 1985: 103-6; Kightly, 1986: 49; Angus Winchester, Discovering Parish Boundaries (1990).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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