Written by Heather Elvidge
Last Sunday marked the beginning of Rogationtide. These are the days leading up to today, Ascension Day, when the church remembers Christ being taken up into heaven.
During this period clergy and congregation used to go in procession around fields and fisheries, asking for divine blessing on all growing things. Villagers on the route often gave them refreshments as thanks for the blessing of the crops.
The rite of Rogations is an ancient one, adopted by the English church in 747. The name comes from the Latin, rogare, to ask: people hoped that their prayers would be heard and they’d be granted a good harvest from land and sea.
When English parish boundaries were fixed between 1200 and 1320, the Rogation processions included these too. The priest would pause at a boundary marker – a stream, river, ditch, stone, hedge or ancient tree – to read psalms and give prayers of blessing.
It was essential to check that a marker hadn’t been moved to make a false claim on land. And youngsters needed to know where the markers lay, because anyone could be called as a witness in a dispute. To make sure they didn’t forget, boys were whipped with the willow wands used to beat the boundary markers.
Shorn of religious trappings, the processions continued until the mid-1700s, when the custom began to decline. This was the period of enclosures when open land was hedged or fenced. At the same time detailed maps were becoming available and memorising boundaries was no longer essential.
However, since the Second World War there’s been a gradual revival of Rogationtide customs. Crops are prayed for, orchards, rivers and seas blessed, showing our growing awareness of kinship with the natural world.
An old Rogationtide custom takes place this week in Whitby. This is Planting the Penny Hedge, a short stretch of fence that’s erected at low tide in the upper harbour.
This unglamorous event is enacted without fuss. Well before 9am on Rogation Wednesday, two men in stout wellies squelch through the mud carrying hazel stakes and willow wands. When they’ve finished planting the Hedge there’s a shout of, “Out on ye”, meaning, “shame on you”.
So what’s this about? Nobody knows for sure. Legend says that in 1159, some hunters who killed a monk from the Abbey were made to erect the Hedge every year as penance. It had to stand for three tides, or the Abbot of Whitby could claim their land. The penance passed down the generations along with a farm at Fylingdales.
We can discount the murder story, a universal legend. But the longevity of such an odd custom — at least 500 years, although some say it dates back to the founding of the Abbey — suggests something happened in the distant past.
Most likely is a breach of the horngarth, a medieval service that obliged tenants of land to maintain hedges or fences. Then there’s the timing. The choice of Rogation Wednesday, 40 days after Easter, is because the tide will be low in the early morning. But perhaps there’s another reason. Maybe the offenders removed a boundary hedge, a serious crime in the days before maps.