churches

   As appears in many entries in this book, a remarkable number of English *calen-dar customs are associated with churches, even though they now contain no religious elements. Sometimes, their dates link them to saints' days; sometimes, as with *ales, *wakes, and *rushbearing, they were a way of raising funds for the church and supplying its needs. The further back one explores the historical record, the more one sees church buildings functioning as centres for community events, secular as well as sacred, while for individuals they were places where major life-cycle rites were held, and the dead visibly commemorated; unlike castles and manor houses, they were used by all classes, not merely the elite. Their interiors, brightly painted and crammed with statues, murals, lamps, candles, draperies, and votive offerings, gave work to local craftsmen; in some regions, notably East Anglia, wholesale rebuilding and modernization of churches was undertaken as a proud statement of economic prosperity.
   Symbolically, a church could represent its whole community - a fact neatly expressed by various taunting rhymes in which 'steeple' and 'people' are jointly mocked:
   Dirty Tredington, wooden steeple, Funny parson, wicked people. (Gloucestershire)
   It is also notable that traditions about coastal villages abandoned to the encroaching sea commonly have the poetic detail that the church can still be glimpsed under water, or that its bells still ring in stormy weather. Along the Welsh Border, there is a cluster of legends about lakes and pools in which villages were miraculously engulfed because of some crime or impiety, and again the loss of the church is stressed (Burne, 1883: 64-73; Leather, 1912: 11).
   A type of legend found throughout England purports to explain why a church comes to stand where it does, by alleging that supernatural events guided the builders; naturally, such tales generally apply to those which are inconveniently sited in relation to the village they serve. Sometimes the story has religious overtones; just as cows, wandering freely, brought the Ark of the Covenant to an appropriate halting-place (1 Samuel 6: 8-14), so the site for Clodock Church (Herefordshire) was indicated when oxen drawing St Cly-dawg's bier stood still (Leather, 1912: 214). More often, it is said that the work had been started elsewhere, but every night what had been built by day was torn down, and the stones shifted - by fairies, or the Devil, or an invisible force - till the builders gave in and adopted the new site. Animals can play a role here too: at Winwick (Lancashire) the builders mistakenly thought they were raising their church on the precise spot where St Oswald died, but a pig carried the stones away one by one in its mouth to the right place, so a pig is carved on the church wall.
   Some churches have structural oddities which call for explanation - for instance, when the weight of shingles twists a spire like a corkscrew. At Chesterfield (Derbyshire), where the effect is very pronounced, there are at least two stories to account for it: that the *Devil, enraged by the *bells, wrenched the spire round as he flew past; or, that a bride who was a virgin was arriving for her wedding, and the spire, amazed at her unheard-of virtue, turned to stare at her, and got stuck. At West Tarring (Sussex) the twist is only slight, yet enough to cause a story that the architect made an error in his plans, and flung himself off the spire (or off Beachy Head) in despair at the sad result JS].
   Large boulders near a church are sometimes said to be missiles which the Devil vainly aimed at it, the most dramatic example being the huge prehistoric stone at Rudston (Hum-berside); in other cases, he is said to have kicked a church, or attempted to fly away with it, or flood it, or drop a hill on it. Such tales are now jocular, but probably began as religious propaganda, since the Devil constantly attacks the Church but can never defeat it (Matthew 16: 18). It is sometimes suggested that they refer particularly to local conflicts with paganism at the Conversion; in itself, the motif might well be that old, but the churches where it is now found (both here and in Europe) are not exceptionally ancient - it is the presence of a nearby rock which sparks the tale.
   Churches and churchyards being eerie places, especially by night, they figure frequently in magical and divinatory rituals. The oldest and most serious was watching in the church porch on *St Mark's Eve to see who would die that year. In Lincolnshire, Herefordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Sussex in the early 20th century, it was said of various village churches that anyone who ran round the building seven times on a moonlit night (or, at *midnight) and then peered through the keyhole (or *whistled through it, or dropped a pin through) would see the Devil (Rudkin, 1936: 71-3; Leather, 1912: 40; Porter, 1969: 337; Simpson, 1973: 66). A *love divination for young men in the 17th century, still known in Shropshire in the late 19th, was to go to a churchyard at midnight with a drawn sword and circle the church nine times (or three times), saying 'Here's the sword, but where's the scabbard?', after which the destined girl would appear (Mother Bunch's Closet Newly Broke Open, 1685, ed. G. L. Gomme, 1885: 18; Burne, 1883: 177).
   Lead cut from the windows or guttering of a church, water dripping from its roof, dust from its altar, and chips of stone from its carvings have all been regarded as having healing power (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 78, 81, 94).
   See also *bells, *Christianity, *graves, *pilgrimage.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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