Whilst on a recording visit to an early-mid 18th century house in Stratford I came across a feature that I had not seen before, or to be clearer – I may have seen it before but presumed it was a faint daisy-wheel - an apotropaic mark seen inside and on the outside of houses throughout Wiltshire.
Daisy wheels are usually regularly divided with four or more pairs of petal-like scribed lines. They are thought to have been placed there to protect a building from bad luck and as a solar symbol, they ritualistically dispelled ‘darkness’.
High up on a corner stone of the building we thought we’d identified one of these daisy wheels when Peter Filtness, who had been recording the building with me, recognised it as a mass dial. I must admit I was completely mystified, not having studied churches much.
This was a scribed circle with what looked like a few randomly-scratched lines, not the chrysanthemum-shaped petals I was used to seeing. It was more like a sun-dial than anything, and in fact, worked in much the same way.
Apparently, without the aid of a clock, a priest was able to determine at what time to say mass from casting a shadow across the appropriate line with a straight rod acting as a gnomon in the central hole. Sounds simple!
The mass dial became known as a service dial after the Reformation, masses being Catholic. The principle of literally marking time was exploited generally and indicating mass times was only one of several uses of this clever device that was simply made up of a few scratched lines radiating from a central point. Obviously, they relied on daylight to cast the requisite shadow so had to be set on the south side of the church. They were also conveniently set at eye-level. Mass dials went out of use in the 16th century with the advent of the mechanical clock.
Some 3,000 of these dials have been recorded in the UK and no doubt there are others, like this one, which turn up in unexpected places on reused stone. The house we were looking at started life as a humble two- or three-cell farmhouse. There was an assumption that the very large and well-cut corner stones might have come from Old Sarum up the hill, but still, the haulage costs of such heavy stones would have been considerable. Why not use even more local material?
It was after a bit of research that it was discovered that St Lawrence church, just nearby, had its tower rebuilt in 1711. Was this after a collapse? It is not likely that we will ever be able to answer the question of where the stone might have come from except perhaps by divine intervention!
Now in The Salisbury Museum, the Salisbury Giant and Hob-Nob were first mentioned in 1570 and 1572 respectively, in records from the Salisbury Guild of Tailors but it is probable he existed by the 1400s. Originally used by the Salisbury Guild of Tailors on the eve of the feast of St John (Midsummer’s Day), they have been a part of processions and festivals in Salisbury, originally to mark the eve of St John the Baptist’s Day (June 23rd) and the eve of the feast of St Osmund’s translation (July 15th), but later to be paraded for special occasions, such as royal weddings and jubilees.
The Salisbury Giant is a tall (now 12ft) figure made from a wooden frame; the oldest part of which is the head. Hob-Nob’s purpose in celebrations and parades was to clear the way for the Giant – he is smaller, and horse-like, with jaws fitted with hob-nails to snap at members of the crowd if they were in the way. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were reports of the hobby horse chasing people and ripping their clothes with his teeth as a result of people throwing things at him. The Giant and Hob-Nob could each be supported by one man holding the frame. This resulted in the Salisbury Giant having a very life-like sway and movement.
The physical appearance of the Giant has changed frequently since the sixteenth century. Most depictions of him in the nineteenth century show a tricorn hat and tobacco pope, but in the twentieth century he was garbed in fifteenth century style robes. One of the biggest changes to his appearance was also in the twentieth century, when his face was painted over with shellac to preserve it, but had the side effect of making him look as if he was from African descent. A restoration later on discovered around 6 layers of pink-ish paint underneath.
Some say that the Salisbury Giant represents St Christopher, the biblical giant, and that he was detached of his religious significance during the Reformation and the Puritan era. However, it has also been pointed out that other than his bearing, the Salisbury giant has no other similarities to the saint.
In 2013 my colleague used the blog to explore the pagan roots of Easter and the customs associated with it in Wiltshire, but I thought this year I would focus on our churches’ customs and traditions for this season, since Easter is also an important Christian festival, celebrating Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some of these customs have fallen into disuse but recall a time when the parish church was at the centre of village or town life in Wiltshire, and church customs and traditions formed an important part of everyday life. I am indebted to my colleague Steve Hobbs’s book: ‘Gleanings from Wiltshire Parish Registers’, Wiltshire Record Society Volume 63, for the examples in this blog.
Most of us will be familiar with the tradition of giving up treats (such as chocolate or alcohol) for Lent. However, I wonder how many people know that it used to be necessary to have a licence to eat meat during Lent? The Roman Catholic Church had a long tradition of abstaining from meat during Lent and on Fridays, but after the Reformation this practice was zealously promoted, in an attempt to boost the fishing industry. In 1562/3 an Act of Parliament (5 Elizabeth 1 c.5) ruled that meat could not be eaten during Lent, and on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Ember Days. Anyone caught eating meat was subject to a penalty of £3 or three months’ imprisonment, but it was possible to obtain a licence or dispensation from the Bishop or local clergy.
Wiltshire’s parish registers contain numerous references to licences granted by the clergy, to parishioners who were deemed to need meat as well as fish, usually because of age or poor health. For example, one of Alderbury’s parish registers (1966/1) states: “1 Mar 1619 licence granted to Mr Richard Goulstone and Mrs Jane Tooker to eat flesh during Lent, because of their… great age.” The Salisbury St Edmund register for 1559-1653 is more eloquent: “William Fawconer the elder … and Katherine his wife are now both sick and diseased, upon their instance and request for the better preservation of their strength and recovery of their health, [I, Peter Thacher] do … license them to eat such kind of flesh as the laws of this realm do allow, during the time of their sickness and no longer…” (1901/1 - 1633)