Around All Hallows Eve

A few things to note, at this very autumnal time of year.

On Saturday we went to a concert, part of the St Andrews Voices festival. The concert was given by Dowland Works (five singers including Emma Kirkby, and two lutenists) and four St Andrews students. They performed the music in St Andrews church, as it might have been done in Dowland’s time (around 1600), with singers and lutenist sitting at a table. Indeed, the pieces in Dowland’s First Booke of Songs and Aires were printed one per double page spread, with the parts angled so that each performer could see his or her own part the right way up.

Dowland is one of my all-time favourite musicians. Although reports say he knew how to be jolly, his music is filled with melancholy, appropriate for the season perhaps. His motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens, and indeed the song titles such as “Flow my teares” (the most famous), “Alas, what a wretched life this is”, or “In darkness let me dwell” are uniformly gloomy. (My favourite Dowland song, which they didn’t perform, is “Come heavy sleepe”, a song about insomnia, the singer lying awake and thinking thoughts of death. Benjamin Britten used a single phrase from the lute part as the basis of a set of variations for guitar depicting a night of disturbed sleep.) The concert included Italian madrigals, but for me the best bits were the songs with a single singer accompanied by a single lute.

The concert provoked a couple of thoughts. First, in this performance, and every other that I have heard, the singer and lutenist are different people. Did Dowland sing his songs and accompany himself on the lute? It seems very natural that he would have done so.

The other was inspired by three of a set of six pieces composed by John Cooper (or Giovanni Coprario as he called himself, being a lover of all things Italian) on the death of Prince Henry, eldest son of James VI (or James I of England). Henry died at the age of 17, and subsequently his younger brother Charles came to the throne (and to a bloody end). Charles was never punished for anything; he had a whipping boy, as I reported earlier. Did this contribute to Charles’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings (i.e. that everything he did was right in God’s eyes)? Was Henry brought up in the same way? Would he have been a better king than Charles had he survived?

On Sunday, a cold but clear day, we went for a walk, from St Andrews to Cupar via Craigtoun Park and Cameron Reservoir. In Craigtoun park they were preparing for Halloween, with ghosts hanging in the branches of the trees and various other scary things in evidence. I’ll say a bit more about Halloween shortly. It was also a time when the best of the autumn leaves had gone but some good displays remained. There was also a lot of evidence of trees and plants fooled by the very mild autumn into budding and even flowering; several wild roses had flowers as well as soggy rosehips.

Autumn scene

Last night, we went to the 90th Andrew Lang Memorial Lecture. The lectures series was established by Scott Lang, Regius Professor of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews for 42 years (and, we were told, no relation to Andrew Lang, despite being born in the same town, Selkirk in the Scottish Borders).

Andrew Lang was many things: “novelist, literary critic, […] contributor to the field of anthropology [, …] collector of folk and fairy tales” [Wikipedia]. It was as the last of these that he was discussed by the lecturer, Dr Lizanne Henderson, University of Glasgow. The lecture was entitled Andrew Lang and the Folkloristic Legacy of “The Forest”. “The Forest” denoted both Ettrick Forest, around his birthplace Selkirk, or more metaphorically the source of folklore about fairies, witches, etc. Appropriate stuff for Halloween.

Lizanne Henderson’s research involved (among other things) reading accounts of Scottish witch trials. It seems that the women who were accused of witchcraft were imprisoned and tortured; unsurprisingly, they told their interlocutors what they thought they wanted to hear, which was stories of witches which they may have heard in their childhood; so a lot of folklore is recorded there, some of it almost worthy of inclusion in one of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books.

Nowdays, Halloween involves plastic figures of ghosts and bats bought from the supermarket; this is driven by commerce and in some people’s view is an American import. But it is clear that this time of year was traditionally regarded as one where the barrier between this world and the other was low, and supernatural manifestations were to be expected. The Celtic pagan festival of Samhain occurs around now; it was a time when surplus cattle were slaughtered for winter supplies, bonfires built, and cleansing rituals undertaken.

But back to Lang. He argued against the “diffusion” theory of folklore propounded by Max Müller, which apparently stated that it originated in north India and had been brought here (along with Indo-European languages) by movement of peoples. Lang claimed that folk stories were indigenous to the cultures in which they are found, and are survivals which if studied carefully can give information about our ancestors’ beliefs.

Fittingly, today’s news reported the reconstruction, using forensic software, of the face of Lilias Adie, who was accused of witchcraft and died in prison in 1704 before she could be sentenced. Her skull was in the St Andrews University Museum until it “disappeared” in around 1930, and the face was reconstructed from photographs; she was buried under a stone slab on the Fife coast and the burial spot was only recently rediscovered.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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2 Responses to Around All Hallows Eve

  1. Pingback: Cameron on All Saints’ Day « Log24

  2. Further on witchcraft trials: This month’s St Andrews in Focus has a horrific story from the late 16th century. The Archbishop of St Andrews was not a well man; his symptoms suggest dropsy to a modern doctor, but all medicine could do for him at the time was to bleed him and make him weaker. Agnes Melville and Alison Peirson, healers who used medicinal plants, offered to treat him, which they did successfully. Then Alison made the mistake of asking the Bishop for payment for the cure. Instead of paying up, he threw the women in prison on witchcraft charges; both were executed by burning, watched by the ungrateful Archbishop, and those who had helped them were flogged. Christian charity??

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