Today in festive history: it’s St John’s Eve – for bonfires, drink, dancing and dreams…

When the sun sets on 23 June, Saint John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist.

In medieval times the feast of St John was one of the most important festivals of the year – and they liked their festivals back then. But although renamed for poor old headless St John, in fact those pesky thieving Christians had appropriated the midsummer festival, the solstice, the longest day of the year. Early Christians loved to nick pagan gods and turn them into saints, and lift pre-christian festivals and graft saints onto them…

Midsummer celebrations pre-dated Christianity all over Europe – the time when the day is longest and night is shortest, is just an obvious excuse for either a ritual or a knees-up. Or both. But St John’s Eve reflected much more than that: there are elements of pagan worship, dreams of an idle and carefree life, the wandering of the soul into the spirit world, and the threat of riot and revolt…

Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. Some countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight.

“At midnight on the holyday’s eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its “flower,” and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer’s eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.”

St Johns Eve was everywhere associated with fire – bonfires were lit all over Europe, often going along with a ritual, that young people had to jump over the fire… In some places it was customary to build the fire near water, on the beach or a river bank or lake side (though in Scandinavia they were also lit on the tops of hills). Bonfire parties naturally turned into revelry – carnivals of drinking and eating, singing and dancing, late into the night. Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, “witch’s bones.” People observing these old pagan customs were called “John’s folk,” after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. In some places you can find St John place names where popular celebrations were held on this night, (or where people celebrated on June 23rd because of the name).

“Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolised the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting. 

In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease.”

Midsummer marked the start of the harvest, too, so it was a shindig before some serious hard graft had to be done…

Like all the medieval feast days St Johns Eve played a part in social cohesion – both in ritual terms, marking ceremonies that bound people together, and in more informal or complex ways… for instance it was once the custom in Yorkshire for any family who had come to live in the parish within the last year to put a table outside their house, on St. John’s Eve, and place on it bread and cheese and beer and offer this to anyone who passed by. Any of the parish might help themselves, and if the fortunes of the family ran to it, would be invited indoors for a further supper and a festive evening. By this means the newcomers to the parish made many acquaintances and friends, and were helped to see themselves as having a definite place in the local community. Midsummer was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbours, and giving to the poor.

On top of this, as with the southern European carnival, the rowdiness and letting your hair down associated with St John’s Eve celebrations helped by defusing the social tensions, the class resentment and straining against constraints and social control, which bubbled along under the surface.

Collecting plants – gathering medicinal herbs or plants held to have magical properties was also customary on St Johns Eve. The flowers represented the fertility of the earth, just as the fires stood for the sun. It was traditional to decorate one’s home – especially the main entry door – with garlands or wreaths. The colours of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colours identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs.

The flowers associated with the feast of St John include fennel, rue, rosemary, lemon verbena, mallows, laburnum, foxgloves and elder flowers. It was especially important to gather the perennial herb “St. John’s Wort”. Since medieval times, the herb has been hung over doors, windows and icons to keep witches and evil spirits away, and was once known as ‘chase-devil’. Yarrow has been used since ancient times for healing wounds, and its essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties. Yarrow was also used as a ward against evil, and traditionally it was burned on the eve of St John’s Day.

Bracken was also collected: its minute spores were reputed to confer invisibility on their possessor if gathered at the only time when they were said to be visible, i.e., on St. John’s Eve at the precise moment at which the saint was born. THAT sounds worth trying out!

St John’s Eve was long celebrated in London: “Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish Street, Thames Street, &c.” (John Stow)

Festivals like St John’s were often times where a release of energy was allowed, where the ties of social control were deliberately let loose, so as to provide a safety valve, a letting off of steam, which helped to ensure a reduction in trouble and rebellion the rest of the time. Between Midsummer Eve and June 29th (St Peter’s Eve), the mayor of London, the aldermen and other worthies paraded through the streets, carrying torches, in the ‘Midsummer Watch’. Not just taking part in a ritual, impressing the lower orders with the power and wealth of the City elite – but also usefully keeping an eye on the revels and being on hand to keep any boisterousness from becoming socially dangerous.

Sponsored by the twelve great London livery companies, the great and good, accompanied by soldiers in armour, processed through the ‘principal streets’, carrying banners, lit up by ‘lampes of glasse’ hung on the houses ‘with oyl burning in them all the night’, and followed by morris dancers, minstrels, gunners, archers, pikemen, officials.

Another element was men dressed up as giants. Rented by the London livery companies, sometimes so massive it would take to men to carry them… They were made from hoops of metal, plaster. Lath, paper mache, sized cloth, and tinfoil, gold and silver leaf. The giants were so popular that the idea spread to many other Midsummer parties around the country (not sure where it originates…) The gigantic Gog and Magog were favourites by the 16th century…

This pageant became more elaborate, involving dramatics, pageants, plays, carnival type floats, and great spectacle, and absorbing large sums of money, especially in the early 16th century. By this time the guilds and livery companies were competing to sponsor plays and costumes to demonstrate that they were more influential and richer than the others. “In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.”

St Johns Eve may well have been celebrated most energetically by apprentices, famed as the most forward group in riots, rebellions, fights, rowdy sports and other outbreaks of trouble. Apprentices looked forward most of all to feast days – because their working life was hard, with long hours, virtually unpaid and possibly bound to unscrupulous bullies for masters. Feast represented a time to escape work for everyone, buy for apprentices the bonds were harsher and the (temporary) release more of a giddy joy.

Just as the feast of St John revelries had a respectable and approved face, there was a dark, dangerous, hedonistic and rebellious side, which the Watch parades acknowledged in their exhibiting the power of the state. Hell, the parade was itself a response to this threatening and pleasure-centred counter-current. Which included paganism, the dream of Cokaygne, and magic…

Midsummer was long associated with magic and witchcraft – like the other turning points of the year, the solstice was thought to be a powerful time, when magic became more powerful and the spirit worlds nearer to the material. Midsummer Night was, like All Hallows, a time when the divisions between these worlds grew thin and easy to bridge.

The ‘Watch’ may have reflected this, interestingly. According to Chambers’ Book of Days: “Some of the superstitious notions connected with St. John’s Eve are of a highly fanciful nature. The Irish believe that the souls of all people on this night leave their bodies, and wander to the place, by land or sea, where death shall finally separate them from the tenement of day. It is not improbable that this notion was originally universal, and was the cause of the widespread custom of watching or sitting up awake on St. John’s night, for we may well believe that there would be a general wish to prevent the soul from going upon that somewhat dismal ramble. In England, and perhaps in other countries also, it was believed that, if any one sat up fasting all night in the church porch, he would see the spirits of those who were to die in the parish during the ensuing twelvemonths come and knock at the church door, in the order and succession in which they were to die. We can easily perceive a possible connexion between this dreary fancy and that of the soul’s midnight ramble.

The civic vigils just described were no doubt a result, though. a more remote one, of the same idea. There is a Low Dutch proverb used by those who have been kept awake all night by troubles of any kind:

‘We have passed St. John Baptist’s night.’ In a book written in the seventeenth century for the instruction of a young nobleman, the author warns his pupil against certain ‘fearful superstitions, as to watch upon St. John’s evening, and the first Tuesday in the month of March, to conjure the moon, to lie upon your back, having your ears stopped with laurel leaves, and to fall asleep not thinking of God, and such like follies, all forged by the infernal Cyclops and Pluto’s servants.’

A circumstance mentioned by Grose supports our conjecture—that to sleep on St. John’s Eve was thought to ensure a wandering of the spirit, while watching was regarded as conferring the power of seeing the vagrant spirits of those who slept. Amongst a company who sat up in a church porch, one fell so deeply asleep that he could not be waked. His companions after-wards averred that, whilst he was in this state, they beheld his spirit go and knock at the church door.

The same notion of a temporary liberation of the soul is perhaps at the bottom of a number of superstitious practices resembling those appropriate to Hallow-eve. It was supposed, for example, that if an unmarried woman, fasting, laid a cloth at midnight with bread and cheese, and sat down as if to eat, leaving the street-door open, the person whom she was to marry would come into the room and drink to her by bowing, after which, setting down the glass, with another bow he would retire. It was customary on this eve to gather certain plants which were supposed to have a supernatural character. The fern is one of those herbs which have their seed on the back of the leaf, so small as to escape the sight. It was concluded, according to the strange irrelative reasoning of former times, that to possess this seed, not easily visible, was a means of rendering one’s self invisible. Young men would go out at midnight of St. John’s Eve, and endeavour to catch. some in a plate, but without touching the plant—an attempt rather trying to patience, and which often failed.”

Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Witches were held to assemble in sabbats at Midsummer: part of the ritual of the St John’s Eve fires in some countries was to ward off witches and ‘evil spirits’ – obviously it helped you stay up all night ‘watching’ if you had some evil spirits of your own to quaff to pass the time. Or beer. Lots of beer.

Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms. Divinations for love, prosperity and health were widely practiced.

Another subversive undercurrent associated with the fest of St John was the dream of Cokaygne.

In most, if not all, the corners of Europe, in their mythologies, folk tales, popular songs and festivals, the poor of the Middle Ages dreamed up a land where their sufferings were reversed, where people lived in harmony and plenty without having to work.

The lives of the poor in medieval times were viciously hard – oppressed and exploited by the rich and the church, terrorised by their hired soldiers, forced to work long hours all their lives, for sometimes little more than a bare living, without hope of any change in their situation. On the one hand, they were told constantly by the Church that they could not expect and should not dream of a better existence in this life; on the other that a paradise existed for them somewhere after death: so long as they held the right religious beliefs, worked hard and obeyed their ‘betters’.

People were also absolutely dependent on changes in their natural environment: bad weather, a bad season, might mean crop failure, famine and hunger or even starvation.

Not surprising, then, that the frustrated dreams of the poor should create a place where everything was free, where life was easy, where the weather was always fine, where all desires came true – and where the rich could never hope to come.

Their dream of a Utopia of the poor appears in popular medieval literature in many parts of Europe, most notably anonymous poems or stories, part of a shared oral tradition, but varying in their form and content. In fourteenth Century Western Europe, this image of a free earthly paradise is usually named as Cokaygne, or Cockaigne; and descriptions of it emerged in a popular song, The Land of Cokaygne. Many versions existed, varying from country to country, from area to area; and it was anonymous, possibly a product of many minds.

In Cokaygne, clothes grow on trees, animals run around ready cooked crying eat me; no one works, and the idlest is the king; sex is abundant and guilt-free; the poor only can get in, and the rich are barred. Cokaygne is a land of conscious rebellion against work, poverty, hierarchy and religion, which are all ruthlessly satirized in the poems. This tradition survived its early medieval roots, was transmuted into moral warning literature in the reformation, filtered into mumming plays and ‘exploration’ tales, and was itself carried to the ‘new world’ to emerge again in later centuries, breaking forth into social comment again as the Big Rock Candy Mountain or Poor Man’s Heaven.

The surviving French version of this song, ‘La Fabliau de Cocagne’, and a version of the English Cokaygne poem, mention the feast of St John, celebrating it, bringing it into the fabulous country, or asserting its Cokaygne-like nature, along with hounourable mentions for other carnivals and feast days. All carnival and festival to some extent reflected Cokaygne, in their excess, satirical dramas, bingeing and dressing up, in the release of pent-up aggression in wild fantastic partying. The worry for the authorities was always to keep this controlled release from becoming something more violent and dangerous – and many revolts and attempts to overthrow authority of one form or another would begin in festivals and carnivals, across Europe. Kett’s 1549 Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk did begin to take shape at Midsummer, on June 21st…

St John’s Eve also saw the launch of an uprising in the German peasants War: “On 23 June 1524 the Countess von Lupfen in Stuhlingen ordered her peasants to collect stripey snail shells.  She liked to use these to wind her embroidery thread around. But anyway this was a bad day as it was St John’s day and should have been a holiday. It was actually also the first opportunity the peasants had to tend to their own vegetables as the weather had been very bad and they had otherwise been working on her estate.  Anyway on this occasion they refused to collect the shells for her. They went up to her castle to complain but instead of standing her ground she fled. This was probably a mistake as before they knew what was happening more and more peasants assembled and within days there were thousands of peasants in full revolution.  Eventually there were an estimated 300,000 peasants in an armed revolt which spread across Germany and Austria, burning down hundreds of castles and abbeys until eventually it was suppressed by mercenary armies hired by the princes.” (Thanks, Mark!)

So don’t go nicking our holidays, poshos.

The blatant theft of the pagan solstice/midsummer celebrations, and its christianising into St John’s Eve/Day, would return to bite the godbotherers in the bum… Paganism, or at least elements of it, would erupt every now and again throughout the middle ages – at least partly because much of it was very attractive and obvious if you lived among nature, and also because the Christian church was often so fucking controlling and repressive. Some of the element of St John’s Eve – fire, the garlands, the jumping through flames – had clear origins in pre-christian nature worship, and the feast of St John would carry this association for centuries.

The feast of St John seemed open to subversion and overflowing of convention and restraint. Perhaps because people felt the spirit world the material world were so close, because the ‘liberation of the soul’ was on people’s minds, the constraints on the body, and on behaviour, could easily fall away. Max Dashu describes how frequent movements of euphoric dancing appeared in central Europe over several centuries, often associated with St John and his feast.

“Midsummers became the focus for a revival of pagan culture in the mid-to-late 1300s. Trance dancing spread through southern Italy and the Rhineland. Large groups of people danced the round with deep emotion, for days at a time. These gatherings were large enough to attract the notice of chroniclers. The dancers appear in Erfurt, Germany, in annals of the year 1237, and again in 1278 in Utrecht, Holland. The earliest records of ecstatic dancers call them St. John’s Dance, after the saint assigned to Midsummer Day. (The later name of St Vitus’ Dance points to the same time frame; that saints’ festival fell on June 15th.) The dances took place on and around the summer solstice…

In 1373 and 1374 a mass celebration of dancers spread over Flanders and western Germany. At Aachen people danced through the streets in circles, leaping and singing with religious intensity. The dancers entered trances, sinking to the ground unconscious, and later sat up and recounted their visions. Some prostrated themselves before images of the Virgin in churches. Most of the dancers were poor folk, with a large proportion of women…”

This popular outbreak of pogoing alarmed officials of church and state, who saw it as uncontrollable, hysterical, and dangerous, with people traveling from place to place – never easily tolerated in a society where ‘knowing your place’ was paramount. Church commentators described the entranced dancers as tormented by the devil.

“… in markets and churches, as well as in their own homes, they danced, held each others’ hands and leaped high into the air. While they danced their minds were no longer clear, and they paid no heed to modesty though bystanders looked on. While they danced they called out names of demons, such as Friskes and others…

However, Frisch or Friskes was not the name of any devil, but medieval German: frisch or vrische, having to do with healing and lifeforce. As E. L. Bachman pointed out, “Vrische is also a verb with the meaning, ‘make whole’… East Frisian has frisk, which means ‘healthy, young, unspoiled, lively’ and frisken, meaning ‘to make healthy…” Its English relative is frisky, “lively, frolicking”, and the Scandanavian versions mean “fresh.” The dancers were singing the praises of wholeness, vitality, and health, not “devils never before heard of,” as the historian Radulphus de Rivo wrote. In Holland the dancers themselves were called Friskers…

Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians.”

The association with St John and his festi emerges again and again. Koelhoff’s Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, “Oh Lord St John/so, so/ Whole and happy, Lord St John!”

“It is quite possible that Europeans revived trance dancing as a way of confronting the plague. We have already seen how the dancers invoked healing power with their cries of “Friskes!” We know that in 1349 the people of Wertheim tried to ward off the plague by performing ringdances around a pine tree. The church had always recognized and condemned the animist and pagan roots of these ecstatic ceremonies.

A new wave of dancing started in 1381 near a chapel of St John by the river Gelbim. The ecstatic dance took place in a forest secluded from the view of would-be exorcists, who had begun to claim that the dancers were possessed by devils.

… in one lonely spot in the diocese of Trier, far from the abodes of men, near the ruins of a deserted old chapel, there gathered several thousand members of this company [societas] as if to fulfil a sacred vow. They and others who followed to see the show amounted to some five thousand persons. There they stayed, preparing for themselves a kind of encampment: they built huts with leaves and branches from the nearby forest, and food was brought from towns and villages as to a market.

The music and songs of these dancers are lost to us, but the deliberate and ceremonial nature of the dance-gathering is clear. Near the turn of the century Johannes de Beka wrote about another outbreak of entranced dancing in 1385:

In the same year there spread along the Rhine, beginning in the kingdom of Bohemia, a strange plague which reached as far as the district of Maastricht, whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds, marched here and there bound around with cloths and towels and with wreaths on their heads. They danced and sang, both inside and outside the churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground. At last it was determined that they were possessed. The evil spirits were driven out….

The lauding of successful priestly exorcisms does not mesh with the chronicles’ assertion that the “choreomaniacs” kept on going from city to city. Rather than disappearing under dramatically successful ministrations, as the clergy claimed, the dancers passed through Flanders and Holland and then headed towards southern Germany.

In 1418 a crowd assembled to watch women dancing in the Water Church of Zurich. This chapel had been built over a spring reknowned as a source of healing and strength-giving waters for centuries. [Bachmann, 232] Other gathering points were places associated with rites of the summer solstice. At St John’s Mount near Dudelingen, Midsummer was celebrated with dancing that culminated with people falling to the ground unconscious. This site continued to be a place of pilgrimage for centuries; in 1638 Bertelius wrote that “even today” large crowds came there in procession.

Trance dance remained common practice through the 1400s. The priesthood disparaged it but peasant festival celebrants kept it alive. Only in 1518 did it come to be known as St Vitus’ Dance, after the patron saint of seizures, spasms and rabies, when priests performed exorcisms on dancers at the chapel of St Vitus in Strasbourg. Perhaps they had decided that the pagan associations of “St John’s” festival had become problematic.

Contemporary chronicles tell us that this rather desperate outbreak of dancing took place in a year preceded by several years of ruined harvests and famine. Several chroniclers agree that a woman began dancing for days at a stretch, that 34 others soon were dancing, and within a month more than 400 had taken to dancing and hopping “in the public market, in alleys and streets, day and night…” People fasted and danced continually “until they fell down unconscious.”

The authorities were at a loss about how to suppress this popular movement. They tried to keep the dancers indoors and to make the guilds responsible for taking their dancers to the shrine of some saint. None of this worked, so finally they outlawed the playing of music.

At the end of the middle ages, churchly prohibitions against dancing reach their highest pitch. They single out for condemnation “the participation of women and… crude magical churchyard dances.” Chroniclers made no secret of their contempt for the celebrants, especially “the women and young girls who shamelessly wandered about in remote places under the cover of night.”

The strategy of branding the dancers as out-of-control maniacs ultimately succeeded. Trance dancing came to be viewed with contempt in Western Civilization. The dancers are described, with the same contempt later directed at the vodunsis and santeros of Afro-Caribbean sacramental dance, as mad people held captives by superstition and delusion. Diabolism was projected on these groups, and many others, by a hostile priesthood who became the primary (and sometimes the only surviving) historical sources.” (Dashu)

Repression of these dancers was only a part of the crackdown on festivals, carnivals, dancing, ‘pagan elements’ in worship, and many other aspects of popular culture across Europe, across the late middle ages and early modern period. This saw saints days and images and decoration abolished, long-held practices and beliefs outlawed and fairs and feast days reduced. A culture of hard work and joylessness was rising, and there was just way too much fun being had and a lot if it very suspicious indeed. It all had to go, and it wasn’t only the protestants, wither – catholic Europe also experienced a vicious purge of popular celebrations.

London’s St John’s Eve practices were to vanish. The increasing cost of the London Midsummer parades, and the drunken bawdiness and violence that often accompanied the festival, became too much for the authorities, eventually. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. The suspicious paranoid old psycho may also have been afraid that any gathering of armed citizens or assembly of crowds might be a cover for some kind of rebellion against him.

Many of his loyal subjects were not too impressed by this act, and in 1548, after his death, the Watch was briefly revived.

The following year, however, the parade was switched suddenly to October and transformed into the Lord mayors parade, which survives today a pure celebration of City power. The increasingly protestant regime of the protector Somerset took a dim view of pageantry and much of he show, considering it idolatrous and pagan, associated with Roman Catholicism. Moving it to a much colder time of years would also cut down on much of the drinking, fighting and snogging (etc) in the street, they no doubt thought. Never been to Newcastle then?

Midsummer parties continue, however; new celebrations sparked by more recent midsummer revolts (eg Gay Pride), or conscious revivals of ancient festivals (or what hippies fondly imagine them to have bee like), such as summer solstice at Stonehenge… When the days are long and hot, you just need to grab a shandy and dance till your head is at least partly in another world…

Interestingly, the rowdy Pinner Fair originally began on June 23rd, before being moved to August.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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