Tag Archives: folklore

Snow Light

I’ve got nothing…but snow: sorry, worldly readers, I must feature snow yet again! With another 17 inches deposited from this weekend’s storm, we are now up to about 7 ½ feet by my unofficial calculation. We’ve got two major ice dams over our bay windows (thanks Victorians!!! the 1820s house is tight as can be) that have been depositing incessant drops of brown water into our house over the past few days, and I woke up happy this morning because it was so cold that the leaking stopped…for awhile. That about sums it up. You do develop perspective when you go through a prolonged period of weather adversity, and begin to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not sure that our tunnel is coming to an end yet (it’s only February!), but I did see a lot of light this weekend. Saturday night we walked to dinner through the snowy streets and I noticed it was so light outside, and when we returned home it seemed lighter still. What the weatherman was calling a blizzard was intensifying, and the sky was an eerie light gray–I almost expected to see the famous Boston Yeti out back….and there he was!

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Yeti in Salem Feb 14

Sorry it’s so blurry–I can’t venture out back because we haven’t shoveled, so this (these) picture(s) was taken through my dining room window, while it was snowing.  And yes, this is a rather pathetic attempt to place the Boston Yeti in Salem; he/she lives in Somerville, I believe. Seriously, that snow-lit sky was beautiful on Valentine’s Day evening, even though it meant ever more snow.

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And yesterday, blustery cold. Behold the inside of my second-floor library window, with major ice-dam leak above: all clear and dry today, for now. I promise: this is my last post on snow!

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A Very Porcine New Year

Along with four-leaf clovers, chimney sweepers, mushrooms, and horseshoes, pigs were the most common symbols of good luck for the New Year a century ago, and they appear on all sorts of greeting cards for that purpose. This is a tradition that is more continental than British, and more eastern European than western–although some of the most charming New Year’s pig postcards I have seen are French. The lucky pig does not seem to have taken hold in New England expressions–even those by the Polish-born Louis Prang–but in New York State (or more specifically, Saratoga Springs), smashing a peppermint variety heralds in the New Year. Traditional New Year’s Day fare from central Europe features pork as well, though this seems a bit contradictory to me–why would you want to eat your lucky charm? Best wishes to everyone for a joyful 2015: may we all be as happy as veritable pigs in clover!

The best pigs are from Vienna……Carl Josza, Raphael Kirchner (c. 1899-1900), and more Mela Koehler (c. 1910), from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Porcine New Year

Porcine New Year MFA 2

Porcine New Year Koehler 1

Porcine MK MFA

Porcine New Year 1910 Koehler MFA

Skiing (Swedish) and Skating (French) pigs, c. 1914-1915

Porcine New Year Swedish pre-war

Porcine New Year 1915 Skating

German postcards from the Spehr collection, available here: all the symbols (minus mushrooms) from 1908, and a pig on top of the world in 1915.

Porcine Postcard New Year's

Porcine New Year 9 World


Mummers Mumming

A 14th-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library contains the first illustration of mummers, costumed players or “guisers” performing occasionally out-of-doors in a merry band, for amusement and/or some form of compensation. These mummers, wearing masks of stag, rabbit, and horse heads, are in good company: accompanying them in the margins of this cycle of Alexandrian romances are knightly puppets, dancing monkeys, hunting hares, monks and nuns on piggyback, and monstrous men. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to associate their appearance with Christmas revelry in the text of the manuscript, but several centuries later the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson did just that in his 1616 Christmas Masque, in which the progeny of Father Christmas personify and epitomize the main institutions of the season: “Mis-Rule, Caroll, Minc’d Pie, Gamboll, Post and Paire, New-Yeares-Gift, Mumming, Wassail, Offering, Babie-Cake”. And from that point on, mumming was an essential part of the Merry Old English Christmas, as described by a succession of English social “historians” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From his American heritage perspective, the novelist Washington Irving (whose biography of Christopher Columbus laid the very solid foundation for the Flat Earth Myth), contributed to this association with his Bracebridge Hall sketches, first published in 1820. Mumming is part invention of tradition, part social commentary in the industrializing nineteenth century, both a sentimental look back to the way things were in a supposedly-simpler society and a controlled expression of seasonal “misrule” by the villagers or the workers for that society.

mummers_illuminated Bodley

Mummers 14th 19th c.

Bodleian MS Bodley 264, f. 21v: The Romance of Alexander in French verse, by Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise and his workshop, 1338-44, with additional sections added in England c. 1400; Illustration from Old England, A Pictorial Museum, edited by Charles Knight (James Sangster & Co, c. 1845).

In the vast revival (or creation) of Merry Old Christmas that occurred over the nineteenth century, one book really stands out for me: Thomas Kibble Hervey’s The Book of Christmas:  descriptive of the customs, ceremonies, traditions, superstitions, fun, feeling, and festivities of the Christmas Season (1836). This is really a delightful book, made more so by the original illustrations by Robert Seymour. Hervey presents mumming as traditional custom and folklore, in the company of Morris and sword dances, regional plays and London pantomimes, and Christmas caroling, and definitely de-emphasizes the misrule. And Seymour’s illustrations (which you can see almost in their entirely here) depict the Christmas that we all want to have. Their audience was perhaps interested in escaping the increasingly-complex world that was being created by industrialization and urbanization, but it is rampant Christmas commercialization that makes me want a Merry Old Christmas with mummers, whether it was real or not!

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Hervey’s Book of Christmas (1836), with illustrations by Robert Seymour,University of St. Andrews Special Collections.

Modern Mummers (excluding those from Philadelphia–a whole other story!):

Mummers Eurich 1952

Mummers 1980s

Mummers, 1952, Frank Ernst Eurich, Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries; Fritz Wegner commemorative stamp for the 1981 GB Folklore series.


What I Want Now: Green Men on Plates & Paper

The acquisitive instinct in me has been kicking in lately, which I think is a good thing. I’ve been working very hard for the past year or so, and focusing on more material things gives my mind a rest. It’s really all about the search: I don’t have to buy, I can just look (really)!  Looking around, I get little short-lived obsessions, and right now I’m very focused on the creations of the prolific artistic partnership of Kahn/Selesnick, whose work spans decades and genres and explores a myriad of alternative historical and futuristic themes in ways that are both conceptually and visually panoramic. Be prepared to be submerged into other worlds if you check out their website or those of any of the galleries that showcase their work, most of which is way beyond my ability to acquire except, perhaps, for a few of their Green Men. When I was browsing around the online shop of the Morbid Anatomy Museum (which has quite an eclectic collection, let me assure you), I became immediately fixated on the Kahn/Selesnick calendar plates, which feature a different Green Man for each month, and then I was off on a mission in search of more.

Green Man November

Green Man November 2

Green Man December

Green Man December 2

I think I can swing one or two plates (of course I want them all) but the Green Man photographs are a bit too dear for me. I would love a few of the amazing hand-colored “souvenir” playing cards from Kahn & Selesnick’s Eisbergfreistadt (a fictitious independent city-state located on a Baltic iceberg in the 1920s) series, but they seem to be long sold out, so I suppose my only paper option is a seed pack designed by the dynamic duo for Hudson Valley Seed Library. I can frame it!

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Green Man Garden Suburb

PicMonkey Collage

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Kahn/ Selesnick “On a Flowering Path” and “The Green God” photographs @ the Carrie Haddad Gallery; Eisbergfreistadt playing cards at the Kahn/Selesnick online store; and sunflower seed pack at Hudson Valley Seed Library. More Green Men.

 

 

 


Of Mice and Martyrs

On this day in 1555, two of the three “Oxford Martyrs’ were put to death for their manifest Protestant heresy by the government of her Catholic Majesty Queen Mary I, an event which went a long way in cementing her historical identity as “Bloody Mary” after Protestantism was re-established in England. Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley did not leave the country with her accession, like many of their conspicuous co-religionists, and so they paid the ultimate price along with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who was sent to the flames several months later. In his passionate and polemical account, Actes and Monuments, John Foxe illustrated the onset of their valiant deaths–just before the flames were lit– and recorded Latimer”s final words: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; for we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace,  in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Mice Foxe

I thought I would take the occasion of this dark anniversary to explore a long-held connection between Mary’s most prominent martyrs and the children’s nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice. It seems like an odd pairing, but I have a distinct childhood memory of my mother telling me that Queen Mary was the mean farmer’s wife who cut off the tails of the three blind (-folded, apparently, or blinded by the light? or blinded by Protestantism?) mice/bishops/martyrs. Now she definitely had a Protestant bias, but she didn’t make this tale up–it’s been out there for a while, and the internet has done much to turn it into “fact” without much basis. Is there any? It sounds plausible, as seemingly-innocent nursery rhymes and fairy tales often have darker hidden meanings, but there are a few problems–and very little evidence–for any connection between the mice and the martyrs.

MICE Nypl 1918

Mice Nursery Songs

The most apparent problem is one of perspective: how could an account which portrays the Queen as a malicious woman (sometimes a miller’s wife, or a butcher’s wife, before she becomes exclusively the farmer’s wife) who carves off the tails of mice also portray those very same mice (bishops) as “blind”? It’s not clear whether there is an anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant bias here–certainly if it is the former the mice should be not only able to see the light but also enlightened:  they are the light, according to Latimer’s quote. But the biggest problem is any kind of contemporary allusion: the first reference to the rhyme (or “round”) occurs in a little 1609 ballad book, Thomas Ravenscroft’s Deuteromelia, or, the Second Part of Musicks melodie, or melodius Musicke, of Pleasant Roundelaies; K. H. mirth, or Freemens Songs, and such delightfull Catches as nothing more than a little ditty–whether it reflects an earlier verse I do not know. When it reappears in the various Victorian nursery rhyme compilations, it’s pretty much the recognizable standard. Something either happened in the interim or we have yet another example of the Victorian “invention of tradition”. In any case, there is no obvious hint of a Marian subtext in its first appearance. And there are far too many “generally accepted” references in the scholarly literature–I’m coming to the conclusion that the mice were just mice and the farmer’s wife wanted them out of her kitchen.

Mice Homer 1858Mice Paula Rego 1989 V and A

Illustration credits:  John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, 1563 edition; Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1918, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Joseph Moorat, Thirty Old-Time Nursery Songs, 1912 (Illustrated by Paul Vincent Woodroffe); Winslow Homer illustration from The Eventful History of Three Blind Mice, 1858; Paula Rego, Three Blind Mice, 1989, Victoria & Albert Museum


Holy Horseshoes

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Dunstan (909-988) has been much on my mind lately, even though his Feast Day (May 19) is months away. He has popped up in both of my classes coincidentally and then I rediscovered the most charming little book that focuses on his most enduring claim to fame: the horseshoe as protective talisman. Dunstan was the most popular early medieval saint in England by far and many things contributed to his legend and popularity. In his time, Dunstan served in every high-ranking position within the English church: Bishop of London and Worcester, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was a dedicated servant of the Church but also an adviser to Kings–this dual role was not quite perceived as a conflict of interest at this time, but it provoked envy on more than one occasion. Dunstan clearly had the political skills to mentor princes and effect an ambitious program of monastic reform, but he was also skilled in the arts and crafts: whenever he retreated from the world to Glastonbury (where he was brought up), he kept busy in humble solitude, as a scribe, a painter, an instrument-maker, a silversmith, and even a blacksmith. It was during these times that Dunstan’s legend was crafted through duels with the Devil–who tried to tempt him on more than one occasion. Dunstan defeated the Devil not with words but with tools: when the Devil (disguised as a beautiful woman) tried to lure him away from his forge while he was working (piously) one day, Dunstan waited until his tongs were red hot and then seized the Devil by the nose, and when the Devil appeared as a weary traveler in need of hospitality and a new shoe for his horse, Dunstan duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of Satan. Before he removed the nails, which were causing the Devil considerable pain, Dunstan made him promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and with one stroke of the Devil’s pen a utilitarian object was transformed into a talisman. Talk about muscular Christianity!

Dunstan 1

Dunstan harp

Dunstan

Dunstan shoe

Dunstan 5

Dunstan last arms

HOrseshoe p 22

Centuries later, with more whimsy than reverence, Edward Flight and George Cruikshank presented the story of St. Dunstan, the Devil, and the lucky horse-shoe in The True Legend Of St Dunstan And The Devil; Showing How The Horse-Shoe Came to Be A Charm Against Witchcraft by Edward G. Flight with eight woodcut illustrations by George Cruikshank, engraved by J. Thompson, London, 1871. And here I see that my own horseshoe is pointed in the wrong direction!


Wicker Men

Over the past few days I was exposed, for the first time, to the wild photographs of Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann series, featuring participants in neo-neo-neo-(many neos-) pagan rituals, as well as the classic 1973 horror film The Wicker Man (I’m not sure horror is the right word, it’s actually quite funny), so now I am thinking about Wicker men, in all their various incarnations. The Wicker Man is a pre-Christian, “barbarian” entity and practice, referred to in Greek and Roman sources ( Julius Caesar, Strabo), and then, like everything classical, rediscovered in the Renaissance. According to the legend, the Celtic practice of human sacrifice involved effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent. (Caesar, De Bello Gallico, 6.16). A century later, Strabo writes that having devised a colossus of straw and wood [the Celts] throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing (Strabo,Geographia, 4:5). Of course neither “observer” actually saw these great burning behemoths, but that doesn’t matter: their names were influential enough to establish the Wicker Man as fact even before their texts made it into print (for good discussions of some material evidence, go here and here), and after that, it was all over.

The literary descriptions of the Wicker Man are so graphic that they inspired some great artistic depictions in the early modern era, particularly in the later seventeenth century. Once the religious dissension of the Reformation had cooled, authors (and their illustrators) were once again free to explore the pre-Christian past. A particularly influential image of Julius Caesar’s Wicker Man comes from Aylett Sammes’ Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676): only the hairstyle changes in the succeeding centuries–and the sacrificial lambs get a bit more numerous and detailed.

Wicker Man 1676-001

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Wicker Man 19c-001

Wicker man 1903 Wellcome

Wicker Man Movie Still-001

Wicker Men from Aylett Sammes, Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676); Robert Sanders, The Complete English Traveller (London, 1771); The History of the Nations of Europe (19th century); Charles Wellcome’s Hen Feddegyaeth Kymrie (Ancient Cymric Medicine, 1903), and the 1973 film (©Archive Photos/Getty Images).

I don’t want to be restrained to this particular conception of the Wicker Man; after all it is (nearly) summer, the season of wicker! Certainly the real wicker men (and women) of the past would have been the itinerant street hawkers, carrying their wares in wicker baskets. The ultimate wicker man of this type is certainly the street basket-seller for Carle Vernet’s Cries of Paris series (c. 1820): he is a basket man. A more modern, and much more comfortable, “wicker man” is Robert Louis Stevenson, as depicted by John Singer Sargent in 1887. Commerce and comfort: wicker has been tamed.

Wicker Man Cries of Paris Vernet

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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati 

 

 


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