midsummer


midsummer
(23/4 June)
   Astronomically, the summer solstice is 21 June, but tradition throughout Europe reckons 24 June as Midsummer Day, and calls the night of 23/4 Midsummer Eve, Midsummer Night, or *St John's Eve, since 24 June is the feast of St John the Baptist. In England, the main folkloric features of the season were *bonfires, processions, and *divinations; it was the date for seeking the magical *fernseed, or the 'coal' under the roots of mugwort.
   The earliest description of midsummer celebrations, by the 14th century monk John Mirk, of Lilleshall, Shropshire, turns out on examination to be quoting from a continental writer but is often cited as describing his own experience and has thus influenced subsequent ideas on the nature of midsummer celebrations and the etymology of the word *bonfire. John Stow provides a more useful and vivid description of midsummer festivities in London in the 1590s, which gives details of local street bonfires, domestic decorating customs, and also spectacular processions:
   In the months of June and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evenings after the sun setting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labour towards them; the wealthier sort also before their doors near to the said bonfires would set out tables on the vigils furnished with sweet bread and good drink ... These were called bonfires [i.e. 'boon' or 'good' fires] as well of good amity amongst neighbours that being before at controversy, were there, by the labour of others, reconciled . . . and also for the virtue that a great fire hath to purge the infection of the air ... (Stow, 1598: 125-9)
   Stow continues to describe people's doors bedecked with 'green birch, long fennel, St John's Wort, orpin, white lillies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers' and oil-burning lamps. He then writes at length about the marching processions, with 'whifflers, drummers and fifes, standard and ensign bearers, sword players, trumpeters on horseback, demilances on great horses, gunners with hand guns, or half hakes, archers in coats of white fustian . . .' and *giants, *morris dancers, torch-bearers, and many more.
   Midsummer processions in London first enter the documentary record as an outgrowth of the system of policing the city called the Watch; men who patrolled the streets at night to prevent wrongdoing and keep the peace. These Watchmen also provided the authorities with a ready-made bodyguard and they were thus ordered by the Corporation, in 1378, to accompany the aldermen in procession on Midsummer and St Peter's Eve. Over the next two centuries the Midsummer Watch processions grew ever more spectacular and sumptuous, as each Lord Mayor attempted to make his mark. Outside London, midsummer was similarly a popular time for municipal processions, especially once these had been divorced from their religious guild origins by the Reformation and taken over by civic authorities. In Norwich and Chester, among other towns, the Mayor and other dignitaries would ride in splendour, without the saints and candles of pre-Reformation times, but still with a dragon, a giant, or other secular effigies. At some places, the effigies could come out on their own: 'At Burford (Oxfordshire), annually, and still within memory, on Midsummer Eve, the men used to carry a figure of a dragon up and down the town. A giant was also added, for what reason I do not know . . .' (Robert Plot, The Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677), chapter 10).
   Like many popular pastimes, midsummer bonfires came under increasing pressure from Puritan reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, and were all but extinguished in most of the country during that time. Some, however, survived (or were revived) and lasted long enough for the 19th-century folklorists to find traces of them, particularly, it seems, in the west country and the extreme north of the country. In rural areas, communal fires were lit and people danced and generally ate, drank, and made merry around them, and young men made a point of leaping through the flames when they had died down somewhat, which some commentators like to see as ritual purification but is just as likely to be simple male showing off. Nevertheless, a continuing thread throughout the history of traditional bonfire customs, which has not been totally manufactured by early folklorists, is the notion that the fire and its smoke is beneficial and purifying, keeping at bay disease and misfortune - from crops, cattle, and people. But there is no mention of anything like this in many later reports, which stress the good clean fun of outdoor summer evening festivities. One such is the description of midsummer celebrations in Penzance (Cornwall) in 1801, which describes the fire itself, *tar barrels on poles, fireworks frightening the ladies, and a long game of *Thread the Needle through the streets of the town. The following day was mainly taken up with a fair and boat trips (R. Polwhele, History of Cornwall (1816), i. 49-51, quoted in Wright and Lones, 1936: 1. 7-8).
   Midsummer Eve was one of the key nights for *love divinations, some of which are unique to the season, while others also turn up at other times, such as *St Mark's and *St Agnes's Eves. A belief reported several times under the title of the 'Midsummer Rose' - from Cornwall, Devon, Worcestershire, and elsewhere - concerns the plucking of a rose on Midsummer's Day, although further details then vary. In the longest form (noted in 1833):
   if a young woman, blind-folded, plucks a full-blown rose, on Midsummer day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas day, it will be found fresh as when gathered. Then, if she places the rose on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away. (A. E. Bray, Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy (1879), ii. 120)
   In another version she must walk *back-wards into the garden. Further examples of divination out of many possible: (Hertfordshire) maidens can pluck St John's Wort on Midsummer Eve and judge their matrimonial chances by seeing if the plant is still fresh in the morning; (Somerset) during the night of Midsummer Eve, a girl must go to the churchyard and wait for the stroke of twelve. She must have rose leaves, and a herb such as rosemary in her hand. At the first stroke of midnight she must start to run round the church, scattering the leaves and singing softly: 'Rose leaves, rose leaves, Rose leaves I strew, He that will love me, Come after me now' (Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 16). At noon on Midsummer Day, in the 17th century, girls would dig up *plantains, seeking a 'coal' under the roots; they put it under their pillows to dream of future husbands (Aubrey, 1696: 131).
   Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream cleverly exploits the association of this date with love, sleep, dreams, and magic; it also implies that encounters between humans and fairies were likely at this season. Such an idea would have good parallels in European folklore, but references to it in England are surprisingly scarce. It may be that in Elizabethan times, when fairy-lore was more vigorous, the notion was common, or perhaps Shakespeare was drawing more on foreign parallels than has hitherto been realized.
   See also *fernseed, *hemp seed divination, *orpine.
   ■ Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 6-23; Brand, 1849: i. 298-337; Hutton, 1996: 311-21; Lean, 1902-5; Dyer, 1876: 311-31.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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