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Image Left:The Origins of Wassail by James Goodwin, Illustrated London News1865, Dec.23
scene at left illustrates the famous early story of the Origin of Wassail.
A.L. Lloyd in his work Folksong of England suggests that Wassail songs belong to a wider group of pan-European songs he calls quete or quest, begging or collecting songs. He illustrates his point with examples from Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary,Ireland, Sweden and France.
Ronald Hutton Reports:"From the eighth century poem Beowulf to fourteenth century literature such as the conduct book of Robert of Brunne, the word "wassail" appears as a toast. It is simply the Old English for "be of good health". The bowl is first mentioned by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century, as one in which cakes and fine white bread were communally dipped. Near the end of the same century Robert of Gloucester retold the legend of the marriage of the British king Vortigern with the Saxon princess Rowena, making the latter drink to the former with the words "waes heal". When Peter de Lantoft repeated the story in the 1320s, he portrayed people drinking alternately from the same cup with the exchange "wassaille" and "drinkhaille", exactly as in Tudor England. This sequence raises the possibility that the exchange became customary around 1300, but this, again cannot be proved."- The Rise and Fall of Merry England, Ronald Hutton, Oxford,1996. p. 58.
What is interesting about the wassail custom is that those who go door to door generally bring the wassail! Sometimes they mention receiving payment for it. This may indicate that the custom evolved as a way to re-distribute apple, ale, and alcohol based resources. One function would be to preserve and re-distribute the crop but, could a concern for taxation enter into this? Certainly appearing to give away alcohol as a part of ancient tradition may be a way to avoid the revenuer!
Ronald Hutton (in The Rise and Fall of Merry England
Oxford, 1996. )reports:
Wassail, wassail, out of the
The song may have been intended to accompany the bowl on its rounds of a village, and so the inception of that custom may lie in the early Tudor period or considerably before. But the song may equally well have been part of the passage of the wassail within a household. A similar problem of projection concerns the related custom of "wassailing" orchards in the Christmas season, by wishing the trees health and abundant crops in the coming year. It is apparently first recorded at Fordwich, Kent, in 1585, and appears in Devon in the 1630s, according to the poem by Robert Herrick:
Wassail the Trees,
that they may bear
It appears to feature again in the diary of a Sussex parson in 1670 and is quite frequently recorded thereafter. The fact that traces of it are found in fruit-growing areas of England under Elizabeth and the Stuarts argues for an origin at latest in the early Tudor or medieval periods. Modern guides to English folk-customs have frequently described it as a relic of pre-Christian ritual, and so indeed it may be. It may , nevertheless, also be an extension of the custom of the household wassail, made after the end of the Middle Ages." -pp.13-14.
"From the eighth century poem Beowulf to fourteenth century literature such as the conduct book of Robert of Brunne, the word "wassail" appears as a toast. It is simply the Old English for "be of good health". The bowl is first mentioned by Matthew Paris in the thirteenth century, as one in which cakes and fine white bread were communally dipped. Near the end of the same century Robert of Gloucester retold the legend of the marriage of the British king Vortigern with the Saxon princess Rowena, making the latter drink to the former with the words "waes heal". When Peter de Lantoft repeated the story in the 1320s, he portrayed people drinking alternately from the same cup with the exchange "wassaille" and "drinkhaille", exactly as in Tudor England. This sequence raises the possibility that the exchange became customary around 1300, but this, again cannot be proved."- p. 58.
Loving Cup On the introduction of Christianity, the custom of wassailing was not abolished, but it assumed a religious aspect. The monks called the wassail bowl the poculum caritatis (loving cup), a term still retained in the London companies, but in the universities the term Grace Cup is more general. Immediately after grace the silver cup, filled with sack (spiced wine) is passed round. The master and wardens drink welcome to their guests; the cup is then passed round to all the guests. (See Grace Cup .) A loving or grace cup should always have two handles, and some have as many as four. Loving Cup. This ceremony, of drinking from one cup and passing it round, was observed in the Jewish paschal supper, and our Lord refers to the custom in the words, “Drink ye all of it.”“He [the master of the house] laid hold of the yesset with both hands, lifted it up, and said- Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, thou king of the world, who hast given us the fruit of the vine; and the whole assembly said `Amen.' Then drinking first himself from the cup, he passed it round to the rest.”- Eldad the Pilgrim, chap. ix."
Pig and Whistle The bowl and wassail, or the wassail-cup and wassail. A piggen is a pail, especially a milk-pail; and a pig is a small bowl, cup, or mug, making “milk and wassail;” similar to the modern sign of Jug and Glass- i.e. beer and wine. Thus a crockery-dealer is called a pig-wife.
Pin We are told that St. Dunstan introduced the plan of pegging tankards to check the intemperate habits of the English in his time. Called “pin-tankards.” In merry pin. In merry mood,in good spirits. Pegge, in his Anonymsina says that the old tankards were divided into eight equal parts, and each part was marked with a silver pin. The enps held two quarts, consequently the quantity from pin to pin was half a Winchester pint. By the rules of “good fellowship” a drinker was supposed to stop drinking only at a pin, and if he drank beyond it, was to drink to the next one. As it was very hard to stop exactly at the pin, the vain efforts gave rise to much mirch and the drinker had generally to drain the tankard. (See Peg.)
“No song, no laugh, no jovial
-Source=The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable., Cobham Brewer, 1894.
From: Le Neve, The Royalle Book,Henry VII.
The singers (of the chapel) may stand at one side of the hall, and when the steward cometh in at the hall-door, with the wassail, he must cry thrice "Wassail," &c, and then shall the chapel answer it aon with a good song, and thus in likewise, if it pleased the king to keep the great chamber. And when the king and queen have done, they will go into the chamber. And there belongeth for the king, two lights with the void, and two lights with the cup; and for the queen as many- antiq. Rep. 1807, Vol.i.,p.328
In Cumberland and other northern parts of England on Twelfth
Night, which finishes the Christmas Holidays the rustics meet together
in a large room. They begin dancing at seven o' clock, and finish at twelve,
when they sit down to lobscouse and ponsondie; the former
is made of beef,potatoes, and onions, fried together; and in ponsondie
we recognise the wassail or waes-hael of ale, boiled with sugar and nutmeg,
into which are put roasted apples; the anciently admired lamb's-wool.
The feast is paid for by subscription..(of the participants).-
Telescope, 1825, p. 13
The Book of DaysP55.Jan5 12th day eve.
"In Herefordshire, at the approach of the evening, the farmers with their friends and servants meet together, and about six o’ clock walk out to a field where wheat is growing. In the highest part of the ground, twelve small fires, and one large one, are lighted up. The attendants, headed by the master of the family, pledge the company in old cider, which circulates freely on these occasions. A circle is formed round the large fire, when a general shout and hallooing takes place, which you hear answered from all the adjacent villages and fields. Sometimes fifty or sixty of these fires may be seen all at once. This being finished, the company return home, where the good housewife and her maids are preparing a good supper. A large cake is always provided, with a hole, in the middle. After supper, the company all attend the bailiff (or head of the oxen) to the wain-house, where the following particulars are observe: The master at the head of his friends, fills the cup (generally of strong ale), and stands opposite the first or finest of the oxen. He then pledges him in a curious toast: the company follow his example, with all the other oxen, and addressing each by his name. This being finished, the large cake is produced, and, with much ceremony, put on the horn of the first ox, through the hole above mentioned. The ox is then tickled, to make him toss his head: if he throw the cake behind, then it is the mistress’s prerequisite; if before (in what is termed the boosy), the bailiff himself claims the prize. The company then return to the house, the doors of which they find locked, nor will they be opened till some joyous songs are sung. On their gaining admittance, a scene of mirth, and jollity ensues, which lasts the greatest part of the night."—Gentleman’s Magazine, February, 1791. The custom is called in Herefordshire Wassailing. The fires are designed to represent the Saviour and his apostles, and it was customary as to one of them, held as representing Juas Iscariot, to allow it go burn a while and then put it out and kick about the materials.
At Pauntley, in Gloucestershire, the custom has in view of the prevention of the smut in wheat "all the servants of every farmer assemble in one of the fields that has been sown with wheat. At the end of twelve lands, they make twelve fires in a row with straw: around one of which, made larger than the rest, they drink a cheerful glass of cider to their master’s health, and success to the future harvest; then returning home they feast on cakes made with carraways, soaked in cider which they claim as a reward for their past labour in sowing the grain"- Rudge’s Gloucester.
-Chambers, The Book of Days.,
UP-HELLY-AA - Lerwick, Shetland
A possible source for 12th night wassailing?:
In 1874 the custom was banned by the town council. Safety and the mess of the tar were cited as reasons- Source: http://www.whitedragon.demon.co.uk/calendar/calmain.htm
The rent-charge of 13s. 4d. was received by the corporation out of the premises alluded to until the death of Mr. Samuel Stone in 1838, when the devisees under his will objected to make any further payment, alleging that it was nothing more than a free gift. The origin and purpose of the charge had been entirely forgotten; and, the conditions of the bequest having ceased to be fulfilled, the gift would revert to the heirs of the testator or their assigns, in accordance with the terms of the will."-Source: http://www.patpnyc.com/bodmin.htm
Peter Kennedy Reports in: Folksongs of Britain and
Here we wonder why the participants are over the age of 50? Is that because of a recent qualification and formal arrangement or is it because the youth take no interest. It would be of interest to note the reasons for the latter if provided by the participants.
"The Boys consisted on this occasion of Harold Tozer (aged
52) lead singer, Thomas Jewel (aged 64) bass and Albert Jose (age 67) descant.
Mr. Tozer started going round with the Wassail Boys at the age of sixteen
and the other two began ten years prior to the year of the recording."
Kennedy also lists objects brought around with the "Boys" and notes that
they are brought for good luck. They are: a bowl, box, vessel, bouth or
evergreen branch or seasonal flowers. Kennedy suggests that the wooden bowl is used because of an old
rule of the church that banned the use of bowls of wood for holy communion.
Cecil Sharp is credited with this observation. A custom of decorating a young
child in evergreen is also noted. The child is called "Lucy Green". Kennedy
quotes Broadwood who reported on a Yorkshire version which mentioned that:
"The children carry green boughs and wave them over their heads asking
for a New Year's gift) -Broadwook, 1893, English County Songs.
"Pier, Tier, Wessel
He also refers to a custom of making a box, filling it with
greenery and an image of Christ. This "wessel" box is taken door to door
in Whitby, Yorkshire. At each stop people take a sprig of greenery out of the
box. A "Christmas vessel-cup" tradition is referenced. pp.231-2
It is not clear however if #87 Can Wassel in Kennedys work is also that known as the Truro Wassail. If you can clarify this let me know. We also regret the absence of information concerning the wooden bowl and the alcoholic drinks. It seems that the wassail bowls themselves are a very much neglected part of the record and we seek more information on them as well. Kennedy also has not mentioned how one becomes a "wassail boy" is this a formal process or is it just between friends? To send e.mail click here
Bees and Wassail
Source: The Folklore of Hertfordshire by Doris Jones-Baker, published
1977 by B.T.
WASSAIL - ROUD#209 - SANDYS CC 1833 pp50-2 from Ritson:
Ancient Songs (w/o) "A Carrol for a Wassel-bowl" - BROADWOOD OES 1843 -
BELL BSPE 1857 pp183-4/ p403 Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestersh (w/o) - SUMNER
BM 1888 - BROADWOOD Sussex 1890 - BROADWOOD ECS 1893 pp14-15 H M Bower:
Anston, Yorksh "The Wassail Bough" -REYNARDSON Sussex 1890 p6 - ADDY: "Folk
Tales & Superstitions" 1895 pp107-8 Sheffield, Yorksh "Jolly Wessel
Bough" (w/o) - BARING GOULD GCS 1895 pp44-5 Langport, Somerset & Grampound
- Ms #159 6var incl Truro & Fowey Cornwall & also from Som &
Wilts - BG-HITCHCOCK 1974 pp104-5 Michael Nancarrow - SHARP- MARSON FSS
5 1904-9 #127 pp70-79 & pp91-6 Harry Richards, Curry Rivel. Somerset/
Drayton, Somerset/ Wm Crockford, Minehead, Somerset (notes) "Apple Tree
W" "New Year's Song" - SHARP-KARPELES CSC 1974 #373 p515-528 Harry Richards/
Mrs Overd & Mrs Trott, Langport, Somerset 1909 1v/m/ Miss Quick, Drayton,
Somerset 1903/Jim Woodland, Stocklinch, Somerset 1903/ Wm Bayliss, Buckland, Gloucestersh 1909/ Wm Sparrow, Kemble, Gloucestersh 1913
1v/m/ Wm John Trenerry, Redruth, Cornwall 1913/ Wm T Passmore, Camborne,
Cornwall 1913 1v/m/ Bill Bailey, Cannington, Somerset 1907 1v/m/ Jack Barnard,
Bridgwater, Somerset 1916/ Barrington Wassailers, Hambridge, Somerset 1904/
Wm Crockford, Bratten, Somerset 1906/ Charles Ash, Crowcombe, Somerset
1908 - GILLINGTON OCCSC 1910 p5 Surrey "We are not daily beggars"/ p8 "My
shoes are very muddy"/ p10 "Now my Dorn is ended"/ pp22-23 Surrey "Here
comes poor Jack" - SHARP EFCa 1911 p55 Wm Bayliss - LEATHER 1912 p206 "Marden
Forfeit Song" - JFSS 5:18 1914 pp28-30 Sharp: W J Trenerry/ Charles Ash
- JFSS 1915 pp210-13 Gilchrist/ Kidson - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ETEC 1919 pp26-7
Hooton Roberts, Yorksh - Alfred WILLIAMS FSUT 1923 pp116-117 'Wassail'
Harvey, Cricklade (Ms#367) & E Smart, Oaksey, Wiltsh (w/o) "Thames
Head Wassailer's Song" - DUNSTAN 2nd Bk of Carols 1925 p64 Yorkshire "Vessel
Cup" - OXFORD 1928 2 var "Here we come a- wassailing" - JFSS 8:33 1929
pp120-4 J E Thomas (c): Benjamin Little, Truro/ Thomas & T Miners (c): Wm Pappin/
Mrs Carlyon 1v/m/ W J Bennetts/ Mrs Woolcock 1v/m, Camborne, Cornwall -
JFSS 8:34 1930 pp231-2 Karpeles: Edwin Ace, Llangennith, Glamorgansh 1928
8v/m (notes) - DUNSTAN 1929 p132 words from Truro area - JEFDSS 1952 pp17-19
Percy Ms c1760 unpubl Wassail with notes & refs - JEFDSS 9:3 1962 p157
Francis Collinson: Margaret Eyre, St Briavels, Gloucestersh 1958 "Brockweir
(Nr Chepstow, Monmouth) WS" - ED&S 28:2 1966 p46 Sharp: Charles Ash
- GUNDRY CK 1966 p56 Peter Kennedy: Joe Thomas, Helston, Cornwall 1956/
R Morton Nance Ms (w/o) - ED&S 32:4 1970 Carhampton - ED&S 33/4
1971 Truro (Elizabeth Lamb) - PALMER SOM 1972 p13 George Dunn, Quarry Bank,
Staffordsh - ED&S 36:4 1974 p132-3 Elizabeth Lamb: Stoke Gabriel, Devon
1969 "Apple W Song" ("Bud and blossom") (& discussion on Devon Wassailing)
- KENNEDY FSBI 1975 #87 "Can Wassel" Truro Wassaillers led by Harold Tozer
(rec Malpas) - ED&S 42/3 1980 pp2-5 Bob Patten: Charlie Showers 50
years a wassailer - RICHARDS/STUBBS EFS 1979 pp64-5 Bob Patten:
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