Summer customs

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, 
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.

(Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; Oberon, Act 2 Scene 1)

Shakespeare's Titania depicted by Edwin Landseer in his 1851 painting Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream act IV, scene I, with Bottom and fairies in attendance.

As we move past Midsummer, genealogists’ thoughts may turn to the summer lives of our ancestors. We know where most of our British ancestors were on the night of 6 June 1841, thanks to the census of that date.

Those of us with agricultural labourer ancestors may discover in whose fields they were working the harvest, and alongside which colleagues.

More difficult, perhaps, to establish are the beliefs and domestic customs of our families during the long summer days. We may wonder whether any of our relatives were, like Titania, tempted by the concept of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Globe of 23 June 1899 printed an article (below) on an unusual divination based around cake. I'm not sure how many of our ancestors were united by cake-based dreams, but it’s something to think about!

But among the numerous forms through which a special Midsummer knowledge of the future might be sought, nothing was, or could be, more acceptable to the feminine instinct than the delightful  divination known as the "dumb cake."

This was a conspiracy of the two, pledged to ecstatic secrecy, with a third "lady friend," also inviolably bound, as "intervener" at the critical moment. The ceremony was based upon a cake. Not a handsome family cake intended to "go round," and all fair and above board. No; it was a small cake; a mysterious little bun, emblem itself of the acute privacy involved. It might be plain, seed, or currant, according to the wishes or opportunities of its makers. But, by the immemorial necessities of the case, which alone could insure the true working of the charm, "two must make it, two bake it, and two break it."

These critical stages having been successfully passed, the momentous midnight hour approaches. Retaining each her own half of the broken cake, the two maidens retire to their chambers, which they must attain by ascending the stairs backwards, On this point the oracle is inflexible. And now enter the common friend designated to complete the conjuration.

She probably has been through it all before. So much the better; her part will be the better played. Without a word being spoken - the exceptional fascination of the ordeal will be readily conceded - the intervener solemnly places each half of the cake under the pillow of the maiden destined to press it; and with finger on lip retires, leaving her friends to dream serenely of their future husbands. Which they infallibly do, or all Village thaumaturgy is at fault.

To help you explore customs your ancestors may have practised, below is a selection of the many relevant texts held at the SoG Library:

Discovering English customs & traditions : Discovering series no. 66 [TB/SH 266]

A dictionary of archaic & provincial words, obsolete phrases, proverbs & ancient customs from the 14th century (2 vol.) [TB/DIC 5 A-B]

Ancient customs which prevail in the county of Northumberland with conjectures thereon [Northumberland Tracts Box]

The Clitheroe district : proverbs & sayings, customs & legends & much of its history: in 17th & 18th Clitheroe, etc [LA/L 14]

Chronicles & stories of Old Bingley : a full account of the history, antiquities, natural productions, scenery, customs & folk lore of the ancient town & parish of Bingley, in the West Riding of Yorks [YK/L 9]

Cambridgeshire customs & folklore [CA/G 25]

Calendar of customs, superstitions, weather-lore, popular sayings & important events connected with the County of Somerset : reprinted from The Somerset county herald [SO/G 14]

Cornish homes & customs [CO/G 60]

Ancient laws & customs of the burgh of Scotland, vol. 2 1424-1707 : Scottish Burgh Records Society, vol. 25 [SC/PER]

British calendar customs Scotland (3 vols) [SC/G 240 A-C]

Anglesey family letters, 1840-1935 [FH/HUG]

Chinese birthday, wedding, funeral & other customs [ASI/L 45]

Notes and comments

Please contact Emma Jolly for more information about this article

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