This week in North Kentish festive history: ‘Youling’ ritual took place, Keston and Wickham

Until the 1800s, for centuries, the youth of the North Kentish villages of Wickham and Keston (now suburbs of south London) used to hold an annual ritual, something of a mashup between a fertility rite, a hippy tree festival and riotous blackmail…

The festival would take place during Rogation, several days of prayer and fasting, when farmers would also often have their crops blessed by a priest. (Rogation was also associated with ‘gang-days or beating the bounds).

The young men taking part would expect free drinks or cash from the owner of the orchard thus ‘blessed’. If they didn’t get it they would curse them and their trees. The youths blessing the apple trees is also clearly a pisstake or appropriation of the priest’s role, slightly blasphemous in itself…!

Much of the Rogation-tide activity was fertility-related, with it taking place in late Spring.

Edward Hasted reported: “There is an odd custom used in these parts, about Keston and Wickham, in Rogation Week; at which time a number of young men meet together for the purpose, and with a most hideous noise run into the orchards, and incircling each tree, pronounce these words:

“Stand fast root: bear well top,
God send us a youling sop,
Every twig apple big.
Every bough apple enow.”

For which incantation the confused rabble expect a gratuity in money or drink, which is no less welcome: but if they are disappointed of both, they with great solemnity anathematise the owners and trees with altogether as significant a curse. “It seems highly probable that this custom has arisen from the ancient one of the perambulation among the heathens, when they made prayers to the gods for the use and blessing of the fruits coming up, with thanksgiving for those of the preceding year: and as the heathens supplicated Eolus, god of the winds, for his favourable blasts, so in this custom they still retain his name with a very small variation; this ceremony is called Youling, and the word is often used in their invocations.”

(Edward Hasted, The history and topographical survey of the county of Kent, second edition, volume 2, Canterbury 1797)

This custom seems to have been popular across several counties of Southern England, and was also known as ‘apple howling’. It seems likely that the name came from yowling or howling, and not a along-remembered roman hangover from ‘Eolus’… but who knows…?

The ‘expecting free drinks from landowners and threatening curses if they didn’t get it’ part has strong echoes of the mischief night/trick or treat style pranking tradition, which often has manifested with a sly class twist. This sometimes produces a licensed day a year where invading the homes or property of the wealthy is tolerated, and a limited blackmail of the rich by the poor is allowed (where cops would get called the rest of the time!). This in itself is part of a long tradition of temporary reversal, something between a genuine threat of class conflict, and a pressure relief valve to maintain social peace by letting off some pressure from the constant tension of class antagonisms.

Earlier reversal festivals like the Roman Saturnalia and the Feast of Holy Innocents were more controlled, restricted; in later centuries class antagonism came more and more to the fore.  The European Catholic Carnival tradition gradually evolved a subversive and satirical fringe, with a powerful culture of critique of authority,

Mischief Night is generally celebrated in the UK/US at the end of October/early November, though the Youling festival being in May chimes with places like Germany, where May 1st was traditionally Mischief Night…

To some extent Youling seems to have been another of those traditions that grew up around feast days which an expression of licence, a certain amount of tolerated disorder; the Shrove Tuesday apprentice holidays were usually the most unruly in England, but Mayday (just a few days before Rogation Week) was also a popular festival with some elements of riot, as was St Johns Eve at Midsummer.

Youling seems to also contain an element of Mumming – traditional English folk plays, performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also rhymerspace-eggers,
soulerstipteererswrenboys, and galoshins). Most mumming plays feature a hero, often Saint George, King George, or Prince George (but Robin Hood in the Cotswolds and Galoshin in Scotland), and a baddy, (known as the Turkish Knight in southern England, or Slasher elsewhere) – these two fight, one gets killed, and a quack Doctor who comes to restore the dead man to life. Other characters include: Old Father Christmas, who introduces some plays, the Fool and Beelzebub or Little Devil Doubt (who demands money from the audience).

Mumming was often performed in the street but more usually during visits to houses and pubs, or at festivals, often at Christmas, Easter or on Plough Monday, more rarely on Hallowe’en or All Souls’ Day. The collection of money is crucial, in which the practice may be compared with other customs such as those of Halloween, Bonfire Night, wassailing, pace egging and first-footing at new year.

The word mummer  is likely to be associated with Early New High German mummer (“disguised person”) and vermummen (“to wrap up, to disguise, to mask ones faces”)… Mumming groups often disguised themselves, wearing masks or face-obscuring hats, or blackening or painting their faces. In 1418 a law was passed forbidding “mumming, plays, interludes or any other disguisings with any feigned beards, painted visors, deformed or coloured visages in any wise, upon pain of imprisonment”. Some mummers and guisers, however, have no facial disguise at all.

Mumming was, basically, it seems, a way of raising money – the play was often toured round the big houses by poorer folk. Most Southern English versions end with the entrance of “Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back”. Johnny, traditionally played by the youngest mummer in the group, first asks for food and then more urgently for money. Johnny Jack’s wife and family were either dolls in a model house or sometimes a picture.

Mumming spread from the British Isles to a number of former British colonies, notably the Caribbean and the US.

In the US, early migrant traditions in the English speaking colonies merged the custom of ‘mumming’, Mischief Night, Saturnalia’s masked charivari, but also evolved some lovely elements of pure class extortion. In Boston, Massachusetts, in the late eighteenth century, ‘Anticks’, lower class mummers, “a set of the lowest blackguards… disguised in filthy clothes and offtimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies” and pretty much forced their way into the houses of the richer sort, performing part of the traditional mummers’ play, with insults and menaces:

“The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiently to a foolish dialogue… it happened not infrequently that the house would be filled with another gang when these had departed. there was no refusing admittance. Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose…” (Samuel Breck, quoted by Hal Rammel)

In 1702, one ‘John Smith’ (his real name, surely) was up in court in Philadelphia, charged with “being maskt or disguised in women’s apparel, stalking openly through the streets of this city from house to house on or about the 26th [of December]”, as part of a traditional mumming ritual. [Note the date: within a few days of our New Year, the old Feast of Fools, Saturnalia, all reversal festivals].

Other scattered records of this Philly tradition all record attempts to repress it by the authorities, although it survives in an official, co-opted form as a New Year Mummers Parade).

Something of this survives in Trick or Treat, and has crossed the Atlantic back to take hold in England in the last thirty years; but think back to the peasants turning the tables on the Teutonic Knights, or the edgier carnival practices. Again, licenced it may have been, thinly veiling the class antagonism; but by the 1830s it had been stamped out in Boston. But a Land of Cokaygne could be created, not just by dancing and drinking, but by inverting class relations – if only for a while…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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