The Origins Of Popular Superstitions And Customs  ~ Magick7

 

 

 

ASCENSION DAY--"BEATING THE BOUNDS"

The visitor to London, be he a Britisher or a foreigner, cannot but be struck by the manner in which the City Corporation keeps up some of the old customs, particularly those which are carried out under the eyes of the public. Among them is the practice of "beating the bounds." Even the callous man of the City will pause in, say Coleman Street, as he sees a uniformed servant of the Corporation stop at a certain point, utter a few words from a document, and then wait a moment as two or three boys with bunches of long, thin rods belabour the walls or doorways to their own satisfaction and the amusement of the crowd? What does it all mean?

It was a general custom formerly (says Bourne), and is still observed in some country parishes, to go round the bounds and limits of the parish on one of the three days before Holy Thursday, or the Feast of our Lord's Ascension, when the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish.

He cites Spelman as deriving this custom from the times of the Heathens, and that it is an imitation of the Feast called Terminalia, which was dedicated to the god Terminus, whom they considered as the guardian of fields and landmarks, and the keeper up of friendship and peace among men. The primitive custom used by Christians on this occasion was for the people to accompany the bishop or some of the clergy into the fields, where Litanies were made, and the mercy of God implored, that He would avert the evils of plague and pestilence, that He would send them good and seasonable weather, and give them in due season the fruits of the earth.

In Herbert's Country Parson (1652), we are told that "the Country Parson is a lover of old customs, if they be good and harmlesse. Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein four manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field. 2. Justice in the preservation of bounds. 3. Charitie in loving, walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any. 4. Mercie, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to be present at the Perambulation, and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it he mislikes, and reproves as uncharitable and unneighbourly; and, if they will not reforme, presents them."

This gives a fair notion of the custom in the middle of the seventeenth century. Sir John Hawkins (1776) says in his History of Music, "it is the custom of the inhabitants of parishes, with their officers, to perambulate in order to perpetuate the memory of their boundaries, and to impress the remembrance thereof in the minds of young persons, especially boys; to invite boys, therefore, to attend to this business, some little gratuities were found necessary; accordingly it was the custom, at the commencement of the procession, to distribute to each a willow-wand, and at the end thereof a handful of points, which were looked on by them as honorary rewards long after they ceased to be useful, and were called Tags."

In the Churchwardens' Accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill in the City of London, 1682, are the following entries:--

 

s.

d.

For fruit on Perambulation Day

1

0

0

For points for two yeres - -

2

10

0

 

The following extracts are from the Churchwardens' Books of Chelsea:--

 

s.

d.

"1679. Spent at the Perambulation Dinner - - - - - - -

3

10

0

Given to the boys that were whipt -

0

4

0

Paid for poynts for the boys - -

0

2

0

 

(Lysons's Environs of London, vol. ii. p. 126.)

The second of these entries alludes to another expedient for impressing the recollection of particular boundaries on the minds of some of the young people.

"Bumping persons to make them remember the parish boundaries has been kept up even to this time (1830). See a trial on the occasion, where an angler was bumped by the parishioners of Walthamstow parish, reported in the Observer Newspaper of January 10th, 1830. He was found angling in the Lea, and it was supposed that bumping a stranger might probably produce an independent witness of parish boundary. He obtained 50 damages."

The encroaching of boundaries is now an item against which it is superfluous to obtain protection, and all that remains of a once important custom is the quaint journey round the City of London previously referred to, and the repetition of similar functions in Linlithgow and Selkirk, also the Tower of London.