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St Mark's Eve

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(24/5 April).

This was the night for keeping watch to see the wraiths of those who would die during the year. The practice has been recorded throughout England from the 17th century till late in the 19th century, especially in northern and western countries. The first reference to it is in 1608, when a woman in Walesbie (Nottinghamshire) was charged before a church court ‘for watching upon Saint Markes even at Nighte laste in the Church porche to presage by divelishe demonstraction the deathe of somme neighbours within this yeere’ (Transactions of the Thoroton Society 30: 12, cited in Opie and Tatem, 1989: 80). In 1673, a Yorkshire vicar said it ‘was frequently practised by those poor ignorant souls’ who waited in pairs in the churchyard to see the wraiths pass into the church, in the order in which they will dye, ‘and when they are all in they hear a murmuring noise in church for a while’ (Gutch, 1912: 44).

There are variations of detail; some sources say the watcher must be fasting, others that he must circle the church before taking up his position; some say he will see headless or rotting corpses approaching, or coffins, but most describe identifiable wraiths. ‘Those who are to die soon, enter the first, and those who will almost survive the year do not approach until nearly one o'clock.… If the person is to be drowned, his representative will come as if struggling and splashing in water, and so on for other cases of premature death,’ wrote a Yorkshire correspondent to Hone's Every-Day Book in 1827 (cols. 548–9). Those who would become gravely but not fatally ill, he added, would approach the church and peep in, but not enter. There are several tales of watchers who saw their own wraith, and died not long after.

This date was also, though less often, chosen for love divinations; in a lawsuit in 1827, a woman was reported as saying: ‘I'll tell you what I did to know if I could have Mr Barker. On St Mark's night I ran round a haystack nine times, with a ring in my hand, calling out, “Here's the sheath, but where's the knife?”, and when I was running round the ninth time, I thought I saw Mr Barker coming home’ (Hone, 1827: ii. 159).

One Lincolnshire writer says a girl who picks twelve leaves of sage while the clock strikes midnight will see her future husband, and anyone can become ‘as wise as the devil’ by catching fernseed (J. A. Penny, Lincolnshire N&Q 3 (1892–3), 209). Another was told that every year witches and others who have sold themselves to the Devil must go round the church backwards three times, look in at the keyhole, and say certain words, or lose their power (Rudkin, 1936: 73).

S. P. Menefee, in The Seer, ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson (1989), 80–99;Roud, 2003: 366–7.

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