St Mark's Eve
Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist. In liturgical Christian churches, this feast of St. Mark is observed on 25 April of each year; thus making TODAY St. Mark's eve. And this seems as good a day as any to properly launch this blog. As in folkloric terms, St. Mark's eve is one of the most important days (or more accurately) nights in the Lincolnshire folk calendar.
I have previously heard St. Mark's eve referred to as "the Halloween in the spring" While Halloween (31st October) has now become the one night in the year most people popularly associate with ghostly goings on. This is a much more recent development, And at one time, the night of the 24th of April might see the night-dark streets, rural lanes and churchyards of Lincolnshire witness to hushed flitting groups, from the young teens to some of the oldest members of the community, abroad on tasks involving everything from attempting to predict who they might marry to seeing if they could foretell those who would die in the coming twelve months! The eve of St. Mark's day is rooted in English folklore as night when the boundaries between our world and that of the spirit and magical become very thin indeed.
An indicator of the importance of St. Marks eve can be inferred from a quick scan of County Folklore (volume V); Examples of Printed Folklore Concerning Lincolnshire, compiled by Edith Gutch and Mabel Peacock, and published in 1908 by the Folklore Society. In this study of Lincolnshire Folk traditions and popular customs, St. Marks Eve beliefs and activities connected to the day are mentioned seventeen times, while Halloween manages two short entries. A reason for the importance of this date, could be found in the fact it touches on the most basic wants and fears a human can have, to wonder if they will be loved, and when you may die!
"Several curious Lincolnshire legends are connected with St. Mark’s Eve, On that night, says a dying tradition, horses and cattle converse in their Stalls, and foretell future events, as they do at Christmas. And it is believed that the spirits of living people become so far disembodied that the "shades" of both men and women may be forced to appear before their future husbands or wives. It is also said that those who watch the church porch on St. Mark’s Eve see the spirits of all the parishioners enter the building, and judge from their subsequent behaviour whether they will die, marry, or remain single during the twelve following months."
— Lincolnshire Notes and Queries. Vol viii., p. 388.
For those youngsters, troubled by their single status, this was a once yearly opportunity to divine either the chances or the nature of a potential love-match. A Lincolnshire-wide tradition has it, that if you fast on St. Mark’s eve you will dream of your lover when you go to bed. But with a night so full of strange powers, you could go further and actually conjure the shade of your fated love.
" an unmarried girl who sets out supper, with proper precautions, and watches it on St. Mark’s
Eve, will see the spirit of her fore-ordained husband enter the room at midnight and partake of the meal. "
Though to see this through to the conclusion in a lonely dark kitchen must have taken stiff nerves, something the two ladies in the next account apparently lacked...
" Mrs. H . and another girl made a dumb cake. Both of them had to do each part of the performance; both went to the dairy to get the materials; both took hold of the bowl; both helped to get the flour; both got Some water and rinsed the bowl; both helped to make
the cake and roll it. A line was then drawn across the cake and the initials o f each girl placed on the cake on opposite sides of the line. During the whole time strict silence was maintained (a well-known rule in all incantations), and while the cake was being made the two girls stood upon something never stood on before.* Just when they had done a sudden gust o f wind swirled round the house and put the two to an ignominious flight. One of them feels sure if they had but held out her future husband would have appeared at the open door. "— County Folklore Vol V (Lincolnshire) P. 94
Other suggested courses of action, require certain plants, picked at a very specific time of the night.
" On St. Mark’s Eve a girl who gathers red sage between eleven and twelve o’clock at night or, according to another version of the story, While the clock is striking twelve— will see the semblance of the man who is bound to marry her. "
For the bolder sorts, a midnight walk to the village Church was in order.
" another formulary bids anyone desirous of a vision of his or her future mate to walk round the church at midnight on St. Mark’s Eve, looking in at each window; for anyone having courage enough to accomplish this deed will see the face of the destined partner of weal and woe in the last window. "
And in the village of North Kelsey, near Brigg the truth could be divined by a walk to the "Maiden Well"
" The, Maiden-Well at North Kelsey should be visited by unmarried women on St. Mark’s Eve, St. Mark’s being a holy-day as inseparably linked with the practice of amorous spells and other superstitions o f pre-Christian origin as Hallow E ’en itself. A young servant, who was a native of Kelsey, informed W -—— F —- not many years ago, that girls coming to the spring with the view of divination must walk towards it backwards, and go round it three times in the same manner, each girl, meanwhile, wishing the wish that she may see her destined sweetheart. After the third circle is complete, the inquirer must kneel down and gaze into the spring, in which she will See her lover looking up out of the depths. "
However, if all this conjuring of spirits and ghostly faces reflected in Church windows seems to veer into the overly dramatic, a more sedate solution is recounted from Northorpe (though whether this is the Northorpe in West Lindsey, or South Kesteven isn't currently clear)
" If on St. Mark’s Eve you go into the barn and riddle beans, or if you riddle the ashes fine on the hearth, in the morning there will be the impression of the foot of the person you are to marry in the beans or ashes. "
The Dead Walk
But this night could instead offer insights of a much darker sort. A nearly UK wide tradition has that the eve of St. Marks day, is a time when you can foresee the fates of souls. And the custom of observing a St. Mark's eve vigil is well attested to here in Lincolnshire.
" On St. Mark’s Eve at midnight the spirits of all go to church, and those who are to die within the year do not come out, while those who are to be married come out arm-in arm. Those who watched church doors were called church watchers, and so if a person once began to church watch they were forced to continue to do so until their time came, when on that St. Mark’s Eve they would be unable to keep awake. "
Imagine though, after years of doing this the sudden waking-jolt and gasping realisation that this time you had fallen asleep at your post, and so could only mean one thing! The horror must have been so great I wonder if it did not have a deleterious effect on the person. So, it is not surprising some saw darker powers at work, and possibly that particular person who was gleefully encouraging all this night time rural superstition, as a North Lincolnshire belief recounts.
" St. Mark’s Eve is Called the ‘ Devil’s harvest,’ because exactly at midnight ferns bud, blossom, flower, and seed all in an hour, and the devil harvests the seed ; therefore if anyone can catch any of the seed between two pewter plates at the same time, he or she will become as wise as the devil.’ "
— Lincolnshire Notes and Queries. vol. iii., p. 209.