Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Some things I learned today

One of the nice things about scholarly research is when the eye wanders to the article next to the article you're supposed to be reading, and you think, 'oh, I'll just have a little look at that...'. I particularly can't resist articles with titles like 'Some Folk Beliefs of the Fens' (by Enid M. Porter, Folklore (1958), 112-122), from which today I learned the following:

Fenmen washed their feet as seldom as possible, believing that washing would impair their strength. Relatives of a deceased husband or father took it as a compliment when told by the one who had prepared the body for burial, that 'she had never seen dirtier feet' - for this implied that the man had been exceptionally strong right up to his death. For the same reason, toenails were seldom cut, nor, in Burwell Fen, was the hair cut more often than once a year, at Reach Fair.

Further, on the subject of the herb yarrow:

To ensure that a baby grew up to be of contented and cheerful disposition, a bunch of yarrow was often tied to its cradle... Cattle were kept docile if they grazed in fields where plenty of yarrow grew.

Yarrow was a well-known love herb in the Fens. The flower, if cut on St Swithin's Day and put into a pillow, would bring great happiness to lovers who slept on it. Women wore bunches of yarrow when in the company of those whose attentions they wished to attract. If a girl wished to bring a young man to the point of proposing marriage, she would go out at midnight, when the moon was full, and walk bare-footed in a patch of yarrow. Then, with eyes closed, she would pick some of the flowers. On her return to the house, she placed them under her bed or in a drawer. The next morning she looked anxiously to see if the dew were still on the flowers, for if so, this meant she would have her wish. If not, the ritual was repeated at the next full moon.

To keep a witch from entering the house, yarrow strewn on the threshold was thought to be effective. If, however, her entry could not be prevented, her powers for evil were nullified if she was made to sit on a cushion stuffed with yarrow.
Imagine trying to induce a witch to sit on a particular cushion...

And finally, a gruesome contraceptive:
One belief was that, if a woman held the hand of a dead man for two minutes, she would not have a child during the next two years.

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