Ireland’s books: Observations on Popular Antiquities

One of the books on Ireland’s shelves was John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities. This is a fascinating collection of ceremonies and customs, with all sorts of little nuggets contained within. For example, laurel was an emblem of peace, joy and victory, and Saturn was worshipped by pagans. On May Day there was a custom to go to the woods the night before, break down branches and adorn them with flowers in honour of the goddess Flora.

The folklore in this book finds its way into Ireland’s music, most notably in these two piano works:

The Boy Bishop

‘Boy bishop’ was a name for a custom common from medieval times whereby scholars/choristers elected three of their number. One had to play the role of the bishop, the other two the deacons. The ‘boy bishop’ was escorted by other boys in solemn procession to the church where he wore a mitre and presided over worship. The boys then went singing from door to door, demanding money as the Bishop’s subsidy. The custom was widespread across Europe. In England the boy bishop was elected on Saint Nicholas Day, his authority lasting until Holy Innocents’ Day.

Month’s Mind

The wistful little piano piece, Month’s Mind, is prefaced by a quote from Brand’s book, referring to an ancient custom whereby it was possible to arrange for a special service, a ‘Month’s Mind’, to be said a month after death.

John Brand (1744-1806) published his Observations on the popular antiquities of Great Britain: Including the Whole of Mr. Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1777, the work generally abreviated to Popular Antiquities. Into it he incorporated the earlier (1725) complete Popular Antiquities of Henry Bourne. Brand’s volume was added to and revised a number of times, eventually reworked by William Hazlitt as an alphabetical dictionary in 1905, becoming Brand’s popular antiquities of Great Britain : faiths and folklore ; a dictionary of national beliefs, superstitions and popular customs, past and current, with their classical and foreign analogues, described and illustrated. It is almost certainly this edition that Ireland owned and used.

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