Monday, 4 April 2011

Clypping the Church

Robert the Hermit enters.

Robert: Is this a time for clippings and embracings?
Kneeling in prayer were meeter; know'st thou not
What threatens thee, and hear'st thou not thy knell?

[St. Clement's Eve, Henry Taylor (1800-1886)]

St Brelade's Church recently saw a service of "Clypping the Church" where - as part of the service - the congregation linked themselves around the church, with rope, and a prayer was "passed" three times around the church round from person to person.

The word "clipping" is Anglo-Saxon or Old English in origin, and is derived from the word "clyp-pan", meaning "embrace" or "clasp" and thus is an expression of devotion to the Mother Church, although the tradition is sometimes held on Easter Monday or Shrove Tuesday.

This practice takes place at a number of churches in England, for example at Painswick, where it is noted in the "Yearbook of English Festivals"(1954) that:

Painswick celebrates the patronal feast of St. Mary's, its fifteenth century parish church, with a "clipping" ceremony which, some think, originated in pre-Christian pastoral ceremonies to protect the lambs from wolves. The Church of St. Mary's, which stands on the site of an earlier Norman sanctuary, is famed throughout England for its aged clipped yews, traditionally numbering ninety-and nine, but being about a hundred and five by actual count. The word "clipping" has nothing to do with cutting the trees, however, but derives its origin from the old English meaning, to "embrace." For on the annual Feast Sunday, local children express reverence and affection for their church by embracing it in this charming manner.

But where exactly does it originate from? There is a common thread running through a lot of folklore, no doubt in part as a legacy of Fraser's Golden Bough, which looks at customs and assumes they came "from pagan times", even though the evidence for that is quite scarce.

The word "clip" meaning to embrace (as a verb) or embrace (as a noun) comes from Old English.

The earliest is probably the Lindisfarn Gospels, dated around 950 AD, where Mark 9: 36 "Taking a child, He set him before them, and taking him in His arms" renders "taking him in his arms as "clippende waes".

Ælfric of Eynsham in his "Preface to Genesis", writing around 1000 AD has Genesis 29:13 "As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister's son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things." rendered in part as "Da aras he togeanes and clypte hine".

Thomas Becket's life and martydom, dating from around 1300 has a mention of the King who came to Becket and "Hi custen hem faste and clupte"

Chaucer makes mention of clipping, in his usual baudey manner. In the Merchant's tale (1386 AD), we are told that "He kisseth hire and clippeth hire ful ofte." In a similar secular use, Shakespeare, in 1616 AD, has "Let
me clip ye In Armes as sound, as when I woo'd in heart." in Coriolanus.

In the 14th Century. Wyclyffe's bible renders Ecclesiastes - "a time to embrace and a time to refrain" as a "Time of clipping and time to ben maad aferr fro clippingus"

But what I can't find are any sources which use the term with relation to a church ceremony. There are lots of sites which give details of the practice, and sometimes of reviving the practice, but the only one I've found with a date is  St. Peter's Church, Edgmond church (near Shrewsbury), which claims to have the oldest uninterrupted clipping ceremony in the UK. It dates from the 1867 when it was "revived". Up until 1939 this was followed by the Edgmond Wakes - small fairs used to visit the village and the village Flower Show took place.

The "Shropshire Villages" book  notes that:

"A custom originating in medieval times was revived in Edgmond in 1867, called the Church Clipping, meaning Clasping of the Church. There are only two other churches in England where this still takes place, one being Rushbury in Apedale"

but "The Every-day Book"  of 1825 has this on "Clipping the Church at Easter" which pre-dates the St. Peter's Church revival:

 'L. S., a Warwickshire correspondent, communicates this Easter custom to the Every-Day Book:

"When I was a child, as sure as Easter Monday came, I was taken 'to tee the children clip the churches.' This ceremony was performed, amid crowds of people and shouts of joy, by the children of the different charity-schools,  who at a certain hour flocked together for the purpose. The first comers placed themselves hand in hand with their backs against the church, and were joined by their companions, who gradually increased in number, till at last the chain was of sufficient length completely to surround the sacred edifice. As soon as the hand of the last of the train had grasped that of the first, the party broke up, and walked in procession to the other church, (for in those days Birmingham boasted but of two,) where the ceremony was repeated."

In the "Calendar of customs, superstitions, weather-lore, popular sayings, and important events connected with the county of Somerset" (1920) by W.G.W. Watson we also read that:

A writer in the " Church Family Newspaper "  for February 27th, 1903, stated that not many  years before it was a custom at Beckington,  Somersetshire, for the children on Shrove Tuesday  to meet in the Churchyard and blow trumpets.  Then all joined hands, and formed a ring round  the outside of the church and the trumpets were again blown. We believe, however, that this  custom had gone entirely out of use at Beckington for many years prior to 1903, if it ever existed  there. One of our correspondents made enquiries in that year from the Vicar of Beckington, who stated that he had, at that time, resided in the parish over 30 years, and had never even heard of such a custom having been practised there.

The custom seemed to have spread to other churches. In Tankersley, for example, there is a note that:

Every year the church has a tradition of 'yclepping' or 'clipping' the church. It is an ancient custom that seems to have been introduced in Tankersley in the 1920s and revived in the 1970s. Villagers embrace the church, forming a circle by holding hands, on St Peter's Day.

There is little documentary evidence for any church ritual dating back to pagan times, and I suspect that like a lot of old customs, such as Morris dancing, this is a supposition which does not bear critical scrutiny. What does seem to have been the case is that some kinds of ceremony took place at various churches, but not necessarily a religious one, more a folk-custom, perhaps dating from the Middle Ages (like Morris Dancing and many other customs). This can be seen in the story of the trumpets and embracing the church, which doesn't mention any kind of prayers or clergy involvement. The same can be seen in the account in the "Every-Day" book. These early customs don't have any religious ceremonial, and they are not led by the clergy.

The reason for the custom seems to have been lost, much as the Musgrave Ritual continued in the Conan-Doyle story, although it may have had something to do with warding off evil. A comparative loss of history comes with the Morris dancing, which originated as a kind of Courtly Dance, perhaps in Italy, but whose history was forgotten and replaced with a Victorian reconstruction.

The custom seems to have faded away, to be later revived by Victorian priests, and it is at this point that it was given a distinctly religious emphasis, and the back story that it dated from paganism times was added (to add a frisson of excitement), although there is no evidence of anything of the kind. That doesn't really matter; creativity is part of folk traditions, and it is certainly well worth introducing in Jersey.



James said...

There is to my absolute and certain knowledge a photograph of a Clipping ceremony at St Mark's church in 1939 - so the event at St Brelade would be a re-introduction.

(This came about because FW Killer was one of the early adopters of the revival of Mothering Sunday in his previous parish in Nottingham. There is an article in the Jerripedia (I wrote it) on this subject.

TonyTheProf said...

Are you sure it wasn't the centenary service held in 1944 during the Occupation? Having spoken to my mother, she said it was the centenary, and she took part in it (being here and going to St Mark's as a young girl)

James said...

No, the photo definitely says 1939.

And if you'd care to think about it, it could hardly have been taken in 1944, when possession of a camera was a criminal offence which would have earnt the owner of the camera at least some time in jail, and possibly deportation to a concentration camp.

TonyTheProf said...

He must have done it for the centenary as well then and not taken a photo. She definitely remembers it. Did you go to St Marks' during the period 1939-1945?

I agree that a photograph from the Occupation was most unlikely - but photographs were still taken even if forbidden, e.g. Hitler's Fortress Island by Carel Toms - "The first photographic history of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands from 1940 -1945. They were taken by the Islanders themselves at great personal risk of imprisonment, punishment and even death. The story is told with a revealing text."