Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Midsomer Magick

St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) Achillea millefolium Sempervivum tectorum

Above from left to right: St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), chief among the magical herbs of midsummer; yarrow (Achillea millefolium), used apotropaically and in love divination; houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) kept lightning from the roof.

Then doth the iouyful feast of John the Baptist take his turne,
When bonfires great with loftie flame, in every towne doe burne:
And yong men round about with maides, doe daunce in every streete,
With garlandes wrought of Motherwort, or else with Vervaine sweete
And many other flowres faire, with Violets in their hands,
Whereas they all doe fondly thinke, that whosoever standes,
And thorow the flowres beholds the flame, his eyes shall feel no paine.

The Popish Kingdom or Reigne of Antichrist written in Latin Verse by Thos. Naogeorgus and Englyshed by Barnaby Googe, 1570

Naogeorgus (Thomas Kirchmeyer), a Protestant pastor and polemicist, goes on to describe fully the paganistic rites proper to midsummer’s eve in sixteenth-century Catholic Germany: leaping through bonfires, casting herbs and flowers into the flames, solemnly invoking that all ills be consumed in the conflagration until the circle of the year comes round again, and rolling flaming wheels down mountainsides in imitation of the sun, in the hope that all mischief, harm, and danger is likewise thrown down to hell.

These midsummer revelries and bonfires were common throughout Europe. The term “midsomer” is first found in the Old English translation of the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum completed in 731 A.D. Bede speaks of the quarter in which the sun rises at the solstitialem, the solstice, which the Saxon translator renders as “middum sumere.” The term was applied to the great Christian celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before the Midwinter’s Mass celebrating the birth of Christ. (The tradition that the Evangelist proceeded the Christ by six months is derived from the gospel of Luke, the only account of John’s infancy; when Mary the mother of Jesus came to tell Elizabeth the mother of John that she was with child, the infant Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb.)

Several primary sources for the celebration of midsummer in England are quoted in The Oxford Companion to the Calendar Year (Blackburn & Holford-Stevens, 1999). In thirteenth-century Gloucestershire, the monk of Winchcomb cites three rites associated with Saint John’s Eve: the collection of bones and refuse by boys to make bonfires, the carrying of burning brands through the fields, and the rolling of a flaming wheel downhill. The monk says that these practices are had from the pagans, and that the wheel is turned to signify that the sun ascends to the highest point of its circle at the solstice and then returns. By the sixteenth century, the rowdiness of the medieval midsummer revelry led to the establishment of officially sanctioned pageants and processions through the main thoroughfares of the capital city and its suburbs.  Some two thousand military men played a part, as recorded by the Elizabethan antiquarian John Stow in his Survey of London, published in 1598.

Stow also notes that every man’s door was decked with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpine (Sedum telephium) and other midsummer herbs and flowers on Saint John’s Eve, and on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrated on the following day.

In The Englishman’s Flora (1951), Geoffrey Grigson compiled a list of the herbs of Saint Jean used in midsummer rites in France, based on the research of the noted anthropologist and folklorist, Arnold van Gennep. These include mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), vervain (Verbena officinalis) and houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum). The herbs and flowers were gathered when the morning dew was still on them, as this increased their magical power. They were then passed through the smoke of the midsummer bonfire, which made them more powerful still. Thus fortified, they were used as agents of blessing and protection, and hung above the doors of households and cattle byres. Like bad weather, diseases of cattle were attributed to the activities of witches and malign beings.

All but the corn marigold grow in Bonnefont Garden, and that has a home in Trie Cloister. I intend to make some garlands. Is anyone celebrating?

—Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (3)

  1. Adriana Says:

    Great post. I would also toss in the fires of summer solstice the flowers of Betony (Stachys officinalis) :)

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Adriana—

    Thank you for the suggestion. We grow betony (Stachys officinalis) in the bed devoted to plants used in medieval magic here at The Cloisters, as it was credited with apotropaic powers in addition to its considerable reputation as a medicinal plant. I didn’t have it on the list I’ve compiled of plants associated with rites performed on Midsummer Eve and Day, but will look into it. If you have any specific information about the folk use of betony or any other plant associated with the solstice, I’d be very pleased if you would share it.

  3. Tennessee in Bloom | Higher Ground Says:

    [...] Magick.” The Cloisters Museum & Gardens, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2009. Available at: http://blog.metmuseum.org/cloistersgardens/2009/06/23/midsomer-magick/#more-2718. Accessed March 27, [...]

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