Keith tells us about the history of “Beating the Bounds!”
This is NOT a letter this time. I wanted to introduce to those for whom this is new stuff and the remind those for whom this is old news of the concepts of:
HUE and CRY and BEATING the BOUNDS
They are not necessarily connected, but buried deep in my brain are memories of hearing that they were!
The Hue and Cry is at least mediaeval and is possibly earlier, going back to Anglo Saxon times. The words themselves are usually defined as coming from the Old French hu e cri – meaning ‘outcry and cry’. This would place it almost certainly as originating after the Norman Conquest. Certainly old customs with indigenous names were often happily absorbed into Norman Franglais, eventually becoming the Mediaeval English of Chaucer.
It was a process by which bystanders and villagers could be summoned by appropriate shouts to pursue a felon. It seems very likely that this would have been a useful process in pre-Norman times also, but who now knows? In 1285 under Edward I, the Statute of Winchester provided, inter alia, that anyone, including a constable or a private citizen, who witnessed a crime shall make hue and cry, and that the hue and cry must be kept up against the fleeing criminal from town to town and from county to county, until he is apprehended and delivered to the sheriff (Shire Reeve – ‘Reeve’ being an officer). All able-bodied men, upon hearing the shouts, were obliged to assist in the pursuit. [This is comparable to the posse comitatus, which most of us from pre-Star-Wars days will recognize in the Posse of every old fashioned Western, where the Sheriff called upon his fellow citizens to form a posse to pursue the outlaws.] If a hundred (this was originally an Anglo-Saxon political unit) failed to give pursuit on the hue and cry, they became liable in case of any robbery. The implication of this was that the Hue and Cry was passed from hundred to hundred as the felon ran – also the reference to ‘from town to town’ and ‘county to county’. Clearly no-one involved in the initial pursuit could carry on indefinitely! Again the USA gives some modern examples of how this work. Federal officers can pursue those guilty of breaking Federal law anywhere in the country (but not into Canada or Mexico!). For lesser (non Federal crimes), State police can only pursue criminals to the borders of their State – they have no jurisdiction across the State line. Similarly city and town police are restricted by their boundaries.
I have always known (but have no idea where I obtained this knowledge) that the Hue and Cry went to the Parish boundary and was there passed to the neighbouring Parish’s Hue and Cry.
Most of us have seen odd stones standing in the middle of a field. As often as not, such stones are ancient boundary markers. The old hundreds and parishes marked their boundaries, with natural objects – such as notable trees, ponds etc and, if appropriate by suitably placed stones. In an age when there were no maps, when no one apart from a few of the clergy, could read or write, people learned where their boundaries were by walking round them. Again there are hints of this same practice in the stories of the Old West, where ranchers would ride round their own range – and eventually fenced them.
Beating the Bounds appears to have been an ancient practice, going back to pre- Romans times – a practice that was adopted by the early Church. There are hundreds of recorded practices in England, where different routines were adopted. However, almost universally it was the practice to walk round the boundaries during the three Rogation days, immediately preceding Ascension Day in May. The bounds were ‘beaten’ in various ways. Most commonly willow sticks were used – presumably to beat down undergrowth and brambles etc where the boundary was becoming obscure, but also typically to beat the trees and stones that marked specific points on the boundary. I have read that the country dance ‘Strip the Willow’ is a stylized reference to Beating the Bounds. Also, very commonly, young boys were forced to attend the annual walk, where they were themselves beaten at various points, sometimes just tapping with the sticks, but in some cases hung upside down and their heads banged against the stones! Where an ancient boundary actually went through a more recently constructed house, the boys would have to climb over the roof in order to faithfully recognize where the boundaries were! This could be a real problem if the ecclesiastical parish of Downham Market was to seek to Beat its Bounds, as its boundaries go through the middle of several houses!
One of the reasons why the villagers would need to know their boundaries was so that they could stop running and go home, when as part of the Hue and Cry they came to the boundary stone or whatever.
In the Parishes of Whittington and Wretton with Stoke Ferry, we are going to Beat the Bounds of our Parishes on 17th May – Rogation Sunday. We are going to combine this with a (or several picnics) and see just how much of the boundaries we can cover. The first problem is to find out exactly where they are, which we hope to have sussed out well before the day. We will have at least two starting points – maybe more and no one will be expected to cover more miles than we soft moderns can easily accomplish in a few hours. It is the quietest time of the year weather-wise so all should be well on that front.
If anyone wants to contribute any knowledge or wisdom on this topic, please write to the Pump or to me. It will be very gratefully received. Just as (indeed more!) importantly, we want as many as possible to join us on 17th May. If you do want to get in touch (although you can just turn up on the day if you want) with anyone who you know goes to either of the Churches or me or any of the Church Wardens, etc, please feel very free to do so.
Licensed Lay Minister