Divination on St Valentine’s Eve – Superstitions in the West Country.

On Thursday 8th February 1934 the Western Morning News carried a column by Ruth E St Leger Gordon of Sticklepath concerning plants and flowers and their association with festivals and religious days.  Nestled between Candlemas (2nd Feb) and St Valentine’s Eve she mentions both:

“the festival Candlemas, or the Feast of the Purification, on the second day of this month, besides being rich in quaint weather lore and ” prophecies,” brings to mind at least three familiar plants. 

Snowdrop purest white arraie 

First rears her head Candlemas Daie;

and as this first of our spring blossoms, so white and spotless-looking in contrast to the still bare, dark earth, begins to be in evidence at this time, its double association with the date is plain. 

“Down with the rosemary and baies”

wrote Robert Herrick in his poem for “Candlemas Eve”, which has the effect of connecting these evergreens in our minds with Candlemas, though actually it was to their final disappearance as “Christmas decorations” to which the poet referred.” 

We still sing of the Boar’s head bedecked with Bay and Rosemary in our Christmas carols.

Regards removing Christmas decorations: in the North custom suggests it must be done by New Year or risk the wrath of Goblins; in the West Country decorations are removed by Twelfth night, 6th January, which was my childhood ‘rule’; and still others remove them by Candlemas.

As readily available evergreens, rosemary and bay were associated with weddings and funerals (Rosemary for remembrance), and were probably used on many other festive occasions too, possibly covered with scented water to enhance their pleasant smell.   She tells us Sir Thomas More said : “As for Rosemarine, I lett it run alle over my garden walls, not onlie because bees love it, but because ’tis the herb sacred to remembrance. ” 

She also mentions 

“one economically-minded individual who, upon the death his first wife, was anxious fix his wedding day with the second in order that the sprigs of rosemary and bay used for the funeral might function again in the wedding feast! “

“Rosemary and bay are coupled again in an old Devonshire charm against witchcraft. Certain herbs were to collected upon auspicious dates and times, after which, 

The paper ‘arbs is to be burned, a small bit time, on a few coals, with a little Bay and Rosemary, And, while it is burning, read the two first verses of the 68th Psalm, and say the Lord’s Prayer after.”

Bays and rosemary were also employed for divination purposes on St Valentine’s Eve.   Water of course was an essential of daily life and did not come piped. Divining where one could find water was important. She does not tell us whether this was for prophesy, divining the future or for water.  There certainly is folklore about seeing your future true love in dreams or down wells in the reflections on St Valentine’s day!  The Pastons (medieval letters) and various poets mention choosing Valentines, for example by casting a name into the fire to divine which is the one for you. The Cambridge library collection blog suggests other methods of divination:

“you could try fastening a bay leaf to each corner of your pillow, and one in the middle; then boil an egg, take out the yolk, fill the space with salt, eat (including the shell) and await developments.”

Whilst these herbs were mostly plentiful and cheap Ruth St Leger Gordon tells us that 

“the year of the great plague prices rose such an extent that “Rosemary, which had wont to be sold for twelve pence an armefull, went, now for six shillings handful”.  I wonder, have we missed a trick with Covid?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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