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Beating the Bounds

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The custom of 'Beating the Bounds'1 has taken place in a variety of forms in Britain for over 2000 years. Its origins have roots in many different cultures from across Europe and beyond. In essence it involves local inhabitants perambulating their farm, manorial, church or civic boundaries, pausing as they pass certain trees, walls and hedges that denote the extent of the boundary to exclaim, pray and ritually 'beat' particular landmarks (or even young boys) with sticks. The ceremony might also involve the blessing of crops or animals and the inspection of fences.

The Celtic Rituals and their Origins

Prior to the Roman invasion and well before the subsequent arrival of Christianity to Britain, Celtic rituals acknowledging the passing of the seasons were of crucial significance. Rural communities, relying as they did on the fertility of their crops or good catches of fish or the availability of water, marked the equinoxes long before the celebration of Spring and Autumn became formalised as seasons during the year.

The festival of Beltane, which coincided with May Day, marked the start of the second half of the Celtic year and included elements closely associated with the marking of boundaries. Birch trees, being one of the first to break leaf, had a particular significance. It is suggested that Maypole dancing is derived from this tradition of dancing around a birch tree to celebrate Springtime. Elsewhere, cattle would be driven through the flames of twin 'bel fires' constructed of oak to purify them before they were moved to their summer pastures.

In what we would now call Autumn, at the end of the old Celtic year, birch twigs would be cut and made into besoms2 to beat specific stones or markers in order to drive out the evil spirits from the old year and purify the land. In Scotland, birch trees would be set alight to mark the transition from the old to the new year.

Roman Influences

The Romans paid homage to a number of Gods such as Pan or Faunus to ensure fertility and purification of the land. In a festival called Robigalia they venerated a God of boundaries called Terminus and would lead a procession around their fields anointing the young women. The start of the Roman year was March and during February houses were purified by sweeping out and by sprinkling with salt and toasted spelt (a kind of wheat). Pagans also had a custom, still performed today, of blessing a new house or 'Beating the Bounds' of the perimeter of the property, sweeping the front steps and walls with besoms to banish unwanted elements. The coincidence of these customs is not surprising as the Romans, as they conquered other peoples, would have been influenced by their traditions and incorporated them into their own religious ceremonies.

The Romans were also known to partake in some less savoury rituals including animal and, on occasion, even human sacrifice. It has been suggested that the ritual beating of children with sticks which is known to have occurred from around the time of the Roman invasion of Britain, might be symbolic of such ceremonies.

Anglo Saxon Britain

The Romano-British culture, which persisted after the departure of the Romans, would have also retained a number of elements of the Pagan (Celtic) tradition. The subsequent invasion by Scandinavian tribes would have modified rather than suppressed many of these ceremonies. For example, Scandinavian traditions and festivals involving the worship of gods such as Frigga, Freya and Eostre, the goddess of Spring from which the name Easter derives.

We know relatively little of this period of our history as few, if any, records exist of how the people of this time behaved. This would have been a period of uncertainty and lawlessness. Around 500 AD, the progressive development of Anglo Saxon control suppressed much of what was characteristic of the Britons and many of the indigenous people were forced to migrate to the extremities of the British Isles taking many of their traditions with them.

Over the next few hundred years the order created by the Saxon chieftains, particularly through land ownership, established a new rule of law, which required periodic reinforcement. It was crucial that the demarcations between neighbouring communities were clearly recognised to avoid boundary disputes breaking out. Ceremonies such as the 'Beating the Bounds' would have played an important part in reinforcing Anglo Saxon charters in the same way they would subsequently be associated with the royal and baronial charters of the later medieval period.

Such ceremonial processions served to establish the power the charter-holder had over tenants and serfs and was an important means of asserting the primacy of the law, defining the rights of tenants and the exercise of feudal power by the landowner and his agents. In a throw-back to earlier times, adolescent boys might also be 'switched' (hit with willow wands), thrown over hedges, into brambles or ponds or, where a boundary had been built over, be required to climb up chimneys or over roofs. The custom also involved young boys being held upside down and having their heads bumped on a marker stone or 'Boundstone' at certain points around the boundary. Although these actions may have originally had a darker significance, in medieval times they ensured the imprinting of the exact location of a boundary on successive generations of the community. Bread, cheese and ale were given out to ensure the event was remembered by those who took part. Some scholars have also likened this whipping of adolescents to a 'rites of passage' ceremony known to occur in many native cultures.

Early Christian Ceremonies

Although Christianity first began to arrive in Britain around the 5th Century AD it would have had an uneasy co-existence alongside Pagan traditions for several hundred years. The celebration of the 'Rogantide' as part of the Roman Church's litany probably reached England around the 8th Century.

It is understood that the origin of the festival stemmed from 467 AD, when the Bishop of the town of Vienne in France instituted processions around the town's perimeter, following a series of devastating events that plagued the local people, in order to seek God's intercession on behalf of the inhabitants. Rogantide derives from the Latin rogatio to 'intercede', ask or beseech. The subsequent fixing of 'rogation days' in the liturgical calendar to coincide with the time of the year when God's blessing was sought for the seeds sown in Spring would, in Britain at least, have contributed towards increased acceptability of the Christian tradition by integration with other persisting beliefs. Evidence of this incorporation can be found in the alternative name for rogation days, still used in some places, of Gang Days from the Anglo-Saxon gangen meaning to 'go' or 'walk'.

In the later part of the Middle Ages what had started as a simple ceremony occurring alongside older Pagan traditions became the feast of Rogantide, fixed in the liturgical calendar to coincide with the three days before Ascension Day, the fifth week after Easter. It became a major event in the church year and evolved into a perambulation led by the priest with banners depicting the saints, chanting from the Scriptures and erecting stone crosses at intersections with other parishes. During each pause at a boundary mark the priest would give a blessing thanking the Lord for the bountiful earth and praying for the seeds to grow and flourish. This gave names to marking points such as Gospel Oak and Thorn or Amen Corner. For particularly large parishes these processions might take several days and be concluded with the handing out of food and ale to the congregation including 'Ganging Beer' and 'Rammalation Biscuits'. When processions met others from neighbouring parishes the encounters may have become boisterous affairs, asnd where disputes over boundaries occurred may, on occasion, have been anything but friendly.

Church and State

During the Middle Ages, the Christian jurisdiction became entwined with that of the manorial estates, as land was often granted by the Lord of the Manor to the Church. Literacy was limited to the clergy and the few educated estate owners. Therefore processions served to ensure boundaries were recognised by the inhabitants of the parish or manor and had not been encroached upon by neighbouring landowners.

In 1548, the protestant reformers prohibited the carrying of banners in processions by the clergy although Queen Mary subsequently rescinded this particular church law. During the reign of Elizabeth I the unification of Church and State led to the annual Rogation festival becoming a more subdued affair once again. The importance of periodically marking the boundary was recognised and specifically permitted, although the whipping of boys and other abuses were outlawed. In the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell banned all such celebrations as part of the Puritan's prohibition of religious ceremonies.

The restoration of the monarchy and re-establishment of Church festivals led to revival of Rogantide as an important feast day and processions once again perambulated around the boundaries of the parish perimeters. However the tradition of 'Beating the Bounds' died out towards the end of the 19th Century. This was principally due to the Enclosure Acts which split up parish and manorial lands amongst several landowners and the ceding of church parish jurisdiction to control by local government around this time.

Incorporation into Modern Folklore

'Beating the Bounds' ceremonies in communities up and down the land may have had a common purpose of securing the continued existence of a parish boundary and reinforcing this in the minds of local people; but, the manner in which they were performed were anything but standard. The decentralised nature of church and manorial governance which persisted up until the 1800s ensured that such customs adopted local distinctiveness. There are far too many such examples to include here but the following perhaps illustrate this point.

Whereas it might be traditional for bells, banners and lights to accompany the beating of parish bounds, in Poole (Dorset) a tradition continues whereby boys and girls were given 'points and pins'. By pricking their fingers, they would be encouraged to remember the bounds of the town parish. In 1778, it was recorded that halfpennies were thrown to boys. This custom continues today, unchanged except for the modern coinage. Another aspect of Poole's tradition involved marking of the maritime jurisdiction of the harbour authorities granted by the Admiralty, which goes back 600 years to the Winchelsea Certificate, an agreement that formally recognised the borough's sea boundaries and gave Poole the same rights of jurisdiction at sea as the Cinque Ports3.

In Jersey, in the Channel Islands, there was the tradition of the 'Visite Royal' in which the various parish boundaries were inspected by the magistrates of the island's Royal Court. In Cork (Ireland), in the 19th Century, the mayor, in full regalia of office, annually threw a dart into the harbour, its landing-place marking the limit of municipal authority.

In Scotland and Wales, particularly in the border towns, ceremonies called 'Riding the Marches', 'Riding the Fringes' or 'Common Riding' occur with a similar purpose. The term 'marches' derives from the Saxon word for border or boundary. These border areas were historically a place where lawlessness was rife. During the 1700s it became necessary to conduct regular inspections to ensure there had been no incursions involving the grazing of cattle or cutting of turf. The King would appoint a local official or 'Champion' to inspect the marches.

There are other customs of related origin, such as in South Petherton in Somerset and Painswick in Gloucestershire, where the congregation take part in a 'Clipping Ceremony' that involves holding hands and dancing around the church.

Walking the boundaries is not restricted to the British Isles and there are numerous accounts of similar activities occurring in, for example, the USA, Canada and Australia where neighbours walk their boundaries annually to check the fences and ensure there is agreement over the land ownership. The expression 'strong fences make good neighbours' has a resonance with such customs.

'A Sense of Place'

Today, although the original purpose of such rituals may have been lost or forgotten, they nevertheless continue to persist as part of modern day celebrations. Furthermore, other customs, such as songs and dances, might incorporate elements from these original traditions. For example, the English folk-dance 'Stripping The Willow' is one of many relatively modern re-interpretations of an ancient practice whereby willow 'rods' or 'wands', taken from pollarded4 trees, would have the bark removed or 'stripped' and be used to beat points on a boundary walk. The Hobby Horse, which processes on May Day in Padstow North Cornwall, and Morris Men are other examples of enactments of traditional customs that contain elements associated with 'Beating the Bounds' customs.

Today the importance of parish boundaries has been diminished to that of civil administration. However, reliance on maps may result in ancient rights of way being forgotten. Inclusion of parish boundaries on maps have little significance to daily life. Maps sometimes fail to reflect accurately the boundaries of commons and village greens or precise routes of footpaths and bridleways. Often these are unfenced, and local people may not only be unsure about the boundaries, but be totally unaware that this land has any special status. The organisation Common Ground has been encouraging local communities to investigate their local surroundings and record information about, amongst other things, the boundaries of their parishes as part of 'Parish Map' projects.

'Beating the Bounds' has been revived in recent times. A search on the Internet will reveal over a thousand events across the UK. In many cases the Millennium, and more recently the Queen's Golden Jubilee, have stimulated local communities to enact a long forgotten custom. An additional factor might be the growing centralisation of power and a desire to recreate a local identity or distinctiveness.

One example of this has been in the parish of Cholesbury-cum-St Leonards in Buckinghamshire, where the periodic 'Beating of the Bounds' now takes place every 10 years on the Anniversary of the establishment of the new parish in 1934. This custom would have occurred regularly around the manors and church parish boundaries that historically constituted the four old church parishes. A beating of the bounds ceremony occurred in April 1974 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of establishment of the civil parish. A note of the event records how children were ceremonially held upside down at points where two or more parishes meet and had their heads gently 'bumped' on the grass as well as the cutting of crosses at such places as Nut Tree Cross. Subsequent 'beatings' have taken place in 1984 and 1994, as well as in 1977 to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee.

While a fear of incursion by a neighbouring parish may have receded long ago, perhaps, in a one sense, it is just as important to recharge that community spirit and re-instil that sense of place.

1The term 'Beating the Bounds' is used throughout to describe the practice of circumnavigating a boundary, although it would not have been in common usage until the time of Elizabeth I.2 A besom is a broom made from birch twigs bound together with strips of ash or oak and fastened with a wooden peg or nail to a wooden handle of ash or hazel. Often called a witch's broomstick and favoured by gardeners.3 Five ports given leave to keep all legal fees assigned in court cases, by Edward the Confessor, in return for providing sailors and ships for defence of the Crown, when required.4 The practice of cutting back the upper branches of trees to encourage the dense growth of new shoots.

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