This week I saw some pictures taken by my sister-in-law of the school Nativity service in the small Cumbrian village where she lives.  They were completely charming, with the wood panelling and slight dais of the sanctuary setting off the traditional garb of dressing gowns and tea towels.  The costuming was suitably eclectic, though, and a note of realism was added by one shepherd in jeans, checked shirt and flat cap.  Staging a Nativity play in a village surrounded by hills (and the odd mountain) on which sheep do indeed graze is a striking proposition.  I know at least one other church in those villages with a lavish nineteenth-century stained-glass window of the Christ-child, in which the accoutrements of the shepherds’ craft are prominently crowded in the foreground of the image. 

This reminded me of some local customs recorded in my sister-in-law’s parish.  If memory serves they were written down by a new vicar arriving in the place in the early nineteenth century (though I’ll check that when we’re up in the Lakes for New Year).  Firstly, a couple declaring their betrothal in the church would give a sum of money – a specified number of shillings – to be kept in a particular box in the church.  If they did not marry in the end, the box was unlocked and the money spent on a special meal for the poor of the village.

Secondly, on the Sunday after a funeral had been held, the mourners would come to church.  But they would sit at the back, would keep their heads bowed, and would not sing, or speak, or look at the vicar throughout the whole service.  Then the next week they would come to church as usual.

I found these absolutely fascinating.  They seem to offer a peek into the secret life of a small community over the years, with its own habits, customs and way of behaving.  They were certainly unusual enough for the vicar, coming from elsewhere, to record them – and for later local historians to comment on them.  The excitement of finding a closed world in the countryside is a feeling which runs through a lot of the literature I enjoy, and it’s a familiar trope from horror to fantasy to detective fiction.  On screen, it’s an idea shared to various degrees by The Wicker Man and Midsomer Murders

Of course in historical terms it is a rather different matter.  We no longer assume that rural customs are survivals from immemorial centuries, performed in the same fixed way by lost generations who only dimly perceived the ancient meanings behind them.  Local customs are now seen as containing multiple meanings, changing with the circumstances over the years, and fulfilling different social functions at different times.  Nonetheless, there is something rather thrilling about the way these customs were apparently part of the life of the village.

Though it’s a mistake to try to “translate” such things, as if custom and ritual had a clear and articulable equivalent, I was tempted to speculate on how they worked, and what other parts of the local culture they connected with.  I wondered what was going on with the shillings paid over to the church on betrothal.  It almost sounds like a dowry, but not one paid by either family to the other – but not is it a fee paid to the church.  It was apparently functioning as some kind of insurance or “deposit”, introducing some penalty cost to the act of breaking a match off.  Perhaps in a small rural community there was a risk of local families using betrothals as a way of playing local power politics: making alliances which could be socially or economically advantageous by announcing an engagement, and then breaking those alliances equally swiftly.  Maybe a bit of financial drag made them less eager to use potential marriage as a means of getting their way, introducing a sunk cost into their calculations.

Or perhaps the “cost” worked (was intended?) to introduce a bit more friction into the personal morality of local life.  In times when a betrothal marked a relatively permissive state between singledom and marriage, when an engaged couple might be allowed a certain amount of romantic and sexual licence not extended to those not destined for wedlock – not officially recognised, but connived at in a certain vagueness about how long an evening walk back over the hills takes, or who was in the barn after the harvest supper – in such times, I wonder if the shillings provided a firmer boundary to the engaged state.  No-one had to be married immediately, but it wouldn’t be do (or be fair on those involved) for betrothals to become a sheer matter of personal convenience.  The money in the church box might have acted as a different kind of sunk cost.

There is a fourth party to the transaction, as well – or a third party, if the church isn’t considered part of it.  The “poor” of the village.  Why are they named?  Are they simply a convenient way for the money to disappear?  If the main purpose (or effect) of the custom is to penalize someone, then the money has to go somewhere, and “the poor”, in that frequently quoted and often-debated passage of the Gospel, “always ye have with you”.  Maybe it would not be suitable for the church coffers to so obviously benefit from a moral slip, of either local landowners or engaged couples.  Perhaps it had too much the smack of selling indulgences for a Reformed parson to relish, if the shillings went to the church.  Or perhaps it was some recompense for the less well-off in the village, now that there was not going to be a big wedding, at which they might reasonably have expected a free meal, a jug of beer and the benefit someone else’s firewood.

These are all speculations, of course. Perhaps the custom served all these purposes at different times, and perhaps it had changed over the years.  Maybe it used to be definitely paid by either intended bride or groom (or their family), and maybe the money used to go to the church if forfeited.  But it is difficult to avoid pondering the potential effects that custom had over the years.

The funeral custom seems a bit more straightforward, but nonetheless intriguing.  In one sense, it is a means of showing the ongoing grief over the loss of a member of family or the community.  It mimics some of the signs of personal grief in our culture – the withdrawal from others, the inability to make eye contact or speak – and codifies them into a ritual observance.  Whatever the immediate emotion of the moment, the people carrying out this custom act in the way a particularly grief-stricken individual might.  In a sense, then, it might be a sympathetic gesture, a way of “joining” the bereaved by a stylized set of acts (or deliberate abstention from acts) which copy their personal response.  It might even help by “hiding” the grieving person in a group of others all behaving the same way, making them less remarkable to onlookers.

That, I suspect, is also a rather individual-centred reading of the custom, emphasizing the immediate and emotional aspects of grieving.  There are probably larger and more impersonal things going on here.  Certainly there is a parallel between the mourning party sitting at the back, and refusing to speak or make eye contact, and other mourning rituals.  Like wearing black, or keeping the blinds drawn, or not going to parties, or covering the mirrors, it involves some element of withdrawing from normal life and the image of oneself.  I remember reading in John Kerrigan’s book about revenge tragedy that anthropologists interpret many funerary customs as a sort of liminal space between the living and the dead.  That abstaining from certain foods, or dressing in dark clothes, etc, functions to move the mourners temporarily out of the world of the living community, to be with the person who has died, before then returning to everyone else.  The Victorian lady who only appears in public with a black veil before her face, then all in black without a veil, then in lighter purple, and so on, is carrying out the same process.

This has the eerie effect of making some mourning customs feel like haunting.  Silent figures who seat themselves around the edges of the congregation, won’t speak or look anyone in the eye, and then leave without any explanation at the end of the service, do sound like the beginning of a Victorian ghost story.  There is something rather poignant in the idea that this happens the Sunday after the funeral, as if the mourners are not yet quite ready to give the church back to its weekly use.  They sit there, as a reminder to themselves and to others, that something interrupted this round of services – something which will eventually have to be incorporated into a narrative of due time and season, but which, for this week, cannot be. 

As I said it is tempting to speculate, and I am a literature scholar, not a historian or folklorist (as this post amply proves!)  I also find it intriguing that both customs focus around “rites of passage”, when people move from one state to another, and that they are both customs which happen in church, but which take place around the edges of the main kinds of service one would find in a prayer book.  They give a sudden glimpse into the intricate world of a hillside parish across the years.