“Where is the black bull? Where is the black bull?” Or, The Ragdoll Effigy of Aveton Gifford….

Something came up in the Quarter Sessions cataloguing today that can only be described as weird. At the midsummer sessions 1739 most of the inhabitants of Aveton Gifford were presented for rioutous assembly with over a hundred other people unknown to the jurors. They had apparently gathered outside the home of one Charles Jones, gentleman in Aveton Gifford, and were indicted for making an assault on his wife, Mary. That would be a bit unusual in itself, but the assault isn’t all they were indicted for, because here’s where it all gets a bit Wicker Man….

The crowd all had blackened and disguised faces, and ran up and down asking Charles Jones ‘where is the black bull?’ Two of the crowd, John Macy and Jon Pinwell, were riding back to back on an ass, dressed in ‘ludicrous and antic’ costume and wearing habits, and the crowd carried a large pan filled with rams horns with tips of gold, adorned with flowers, and a mock child made of rags and other materials. There they remained for the space of five hours, throwing lighted squibs, beating drums, winding hunting horns, reading ‘scandalous and libellous papers’ and ‘making loud huzzars, hellooes, terrible noises and outcryes, issuing scandalous, injurious and reflective speeches and menaces, contemptuous and immodest jokes and derisions and other wicked and indecent and ludicrous gestures and behaviour.’

Pretty weird! So what was going on? My first thought, given the midsummer date, the motifs of the ram’s horns adorned with flowers, the questioning about the bull and the mock child made of rags was that this was some sort of annual village midsummer festival held as a propitiation for a good harvest that had got out of hand, and that perhaps Charles Jones had denied the villagers the use of his bull for the celebrations that year, so that perhaps they’d decided to hold the festival on his doorstep, pointedly. The motifs involved are all commonly associated with pagan fertility rituals and ideas, and are often part of the ancient origins of celebrations that became, eventually, some of the more unusual village festivals held today in peaceful hamlets up and down the country.

But what might be more likely is that this is a very graphic description of a bone fide Skimmington Ride, a practice which was apparently common in the West Country, and occurred in various forms in other parts of the country and is depicted by Thomas Hardy, among others. A ‘Skimmington Ride’ usually involved the local community gathering together to express their disapproval of a moral failing in the community, frequently involving husbands being cuckolded by their wives, and often took the form of a procession with many of the elements described here, sometimes with a very pointed stop on the doorstep of the person at which the procession was aimed. Apparently the targets of such events were often forced to join in the festivities. Had Mary Jones caused scandal and outrage by becoming pregnant with another man’s child? Was that perhaps the reason for the mock child made of rags? Or was there some other motivation for the gathering?

As with many things that come up at random in the Quarter Sessions material these events leave more questions than answers. I can tell you that uniquely so far in my cataloguing, this case was taken to a higher court by those being prosecuted, who secured a writ of certiorari to have the Quarter Sessions’ verdicts reviewed. But before I head off for the weekend and go and buy a copy of The Wicker Man, spare a thought for the poor Jones family.

There you are in eighteenth century rural Devon, with no electric lighting, no phones, no police force, and a torchlit procession gathers outside your house. Through the flickering light of the torches you can make out two men in grotesque costume, and the whole village with disguised faces crying out ‘where is the black bull?.’ Dimly, you can see something being carried by the crowd….is that….yes, that’s an effigy of a child, and someone’s holding a pan with ram’s horns dipped with gold…..the air is abuzz with the sound of hunting horns, drums and revelry, revelry with a very pointed edge.

Whatever the Jones’ offence, or perceived offence had been, the message, dressed up in festivities as it might have been, was clear: ‘we know, and we don’t approve of you, whatever convention says has to be said and done the rest of the time. We don’t approve, and we’re just letting you know, so you don’t ever forget.’

Freaked out much? So was I when I read the document!

And with that, I’m off to watch the Wicker Man and feel glad that I don’t live in 1739, have a great weekend!

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