Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Fork Handles

                       In 1327, the inhabitants of Bury St Edmunds, angered by the abuses long committed against them by the Benedictine Abbey there, rose up in a ‘Great Riot’, attacked the buildings and assaulted the monks, tore up legal documents and carried away  
“… gold and silver chalices, books, vestments and ornaments of the church, vessels, gold and silver spoons, cups and other household utensils and goods  £500 in money and 3,000 florins, worth £500” (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward III, Vol 1, November 2nd 1327). 
The Abbot was away in London, so the Prior, Peter de Clopton, and twelve monks were kidnapped and made to sign and seal a document indebting the Abbey to the sum of £10,000 and “a letter of release and quit-claim of all actions and suits of debts and trespasses” [ibid.] in favour of six citizens. Amongst these six was one named Ralph le Smeremongere. 

Two Candlesticks

Smere, or smear, is an old English word for fat, grease, tallow or lard, and a smeremongere, or smearmonger, is another word for a candle-maker, or chandler, (monger comes from Old Norse mangari, derived from Latin mango, a dealer or trader). 

and two candles

Candles are an ancient method of lighting, and with this great age there has, inevitably, grown up a great deal of folklore about candles. If a maiden questions her lover’s intentions, she should push a needle through a candle and then light it. If the needle remains in the wick, his intentions are true, but if it falls out, he will be false. The same match should not be used to light three candles, as this will bring bad luck. 

Two more candlesticks

In Lancashire there is a tradition of ‘leeting’ or ‘layting’ witches. If a person carries boughs of rowan and bay and a lighted candle up Pendle Hill on Halloween night, and can keep the candle alight for the hour between eleven and midnight, then witches will be unable to harm them for the next year. 

...and that makes four candles

One particularly grisly 'candle' is the ‘Hand of Glory’, a hand taken from a hanged man and wrapped tightly in a winding sheet until drained of blood. The hand is then put in a pot with saltpetre, salt and long peppers for fifteen days, after which it is dried thoroughly. A candle is made from the fat of a hanged man, virgin wax and Lapland sesame, and this is gripped by the dead man’s hand. 

The Hand of Glory

When the candle is lit, there are no locks that cannot be opened, sleepers will not awake, and by some accounts, the holder is invisible. The candle can only be put out with milk. (In some versions, it is the fingers of the hand itself that are lit). This legend grew out of a false folk-etymology on the French words for the Hand of Glory – la Main de Glorie, which is a misinterpretation of mandragora or mandrake. In an Anglo-Saxon manuscript of the Herbarium Apuleii Platonici from about 1050 CE, it is said that the mandrake “… shineth at night altogether like a lamp,” [See T O Cockayne Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft 1864 Vol 1, p. 245] 

Mandrake - T O Cockayne Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft 1864

The mandrake has a long history of its own. In The Jewish Wars by Josephus (c.75 CE), he writes about a flame coloured plant, the root of which cannot easily be taken, and the touch of which is certain death. He adds that when someone wants the root, 
“… they dig a trench quite round about it, till the hidden part of the root be very small, they then tie a dog to it, and when the dog tries hard to follow him that tied him, this root is easily plucked up, but the dog dies immediately, as if it were instead of the man that would take the plant away.” (Josephus The Jewish Wars Book VII Ch. VI) 

Mandrake - Robert Dodoens A Nievve Herbal or Historie of Plants 1578

In the Middle Ages this method of harvesting deadly roots had been applied to the mandrake, which was said to scream so horribly when uprooted that anyone hearing it would die.

“What with loathsome smells,
And shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth
Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet, Act IV Scene III

Mandrake - Peter Schoeffer Herbarius Latinus 1484

It was also said that the root of the mandrake resembled the shape of the human body, and if it was dressed in red and white and fed with a mixture of blood and milk it would do its owner’s bidding, tell the future, grant wishes and bring wealth. Obviously, such an item was very desirable, and a trade in mandrakes grew up, although as John Gerarde notes in The Herball [1597] 
There have been many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of olde wives, or some runnagate surgeons or physickmongers, I know not, (a title bad inough for them)”
 and goes on to say how some
 “… idle drones that have little or nothing to do but eate and drinke, have bestowed some of their time in carving the roots of brionie, forming them to the shape of men & women, which falsifying practice hath confirmed the errour amongst the simple and unlearned people.” 
Mandrake - John Greville The Herball 1597

So now you know. Don’t you dare go buying your mandrake roots from any old runnagate surgeons or physickmongers. But do make sure in future to purchase all your candles from your local smeremonger.

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