May 27, 2020
Discover the folklore behind hawthorn trees in early medieval Europe.
How are hawthorns connected to the dead?
Why is it dangerous to bring them inside?
Can I say thrimethylamine? (no).
I had a bit of an issue with the sound at the end of this episode - sorry! I will do my best to get it sorted for the next episode.
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Carey, F., The Tree: Meaning and Muth (2012).
Castleman, M., The New healing Herbs (2009).
Eberly, S., A Thorn Among the Lilies: The Hawthorn in Medieval Love Allegory, Folklore (1989)
Roud, S. A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles (2005).
Schneidu, L., Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland (2019).
Stocke, L., The Two Mayings in Chaucer's 'The Knight's Tale': Convention and Invention, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology (1986).Struthers, J. Red Sky at Night: The Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom (2009).
Watts, D.C., Dictionary of Plant Lore (2007).
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!
By the craggy hillside,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn trees
For pleasure, here and there.
Is any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night.
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs have shaped people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at hawthorn trees and the folklore associated with them.
Hawthorn has been in the British Isles for over 20,00 years, and is one of only 33 trees that are native to Britain. Probably because of this, it has a central place in British folklore and is seen as a sacred tree to be respected.
One of the strongest associations that hawthorns have is with spring, particularly May Day. As part of the May festivities, on the night before May 1st young people would go into the woods and return with hawthorn blossoms, stems and branches to turn into garlands and ‘may trees’ - hawthorn branches that would be set up outside the house and decorated with wildflowers. Crosses made of hawthorn would also be hung over home and stable doors to protect the inhabitants and in Suffolk any servant who was able to bring back a branch of hawthorn on May morning was rewarded with a bowl of cream for their efforts.
Hawthorn was such a sign of the change of seasons that it was actually used as a way measuring of time in some parts of the British Isles. In Scotland, farmers would say that ‘harvest follows thirteen weeks after hawthorn scents the air.’ The use of hawthorn at May Day celebrations became less common after the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorain calendar in 1752. This is because May Day was shifted to be about two weeks earlier, making hawthorn blossoms difficult to find. Despite this, the tree still has a strong association with spring and is still called the May Tree in some parts of Britain.
It is probably unsurprising that due to its link with spring and new life, that hawthorn has a number of other positive associations.
In Europe hawthorn symbolised hope, marriage and fertility. In England, it is often incorporated into the ‘Green Man’ figure and in Ancient Greece brides would carry hawthorn boughs and wear the blossoms in their clothes. In medieval literature hawthorn was used regularly in medieval literature to allude to courtship, fertility and carnal love.
After the Inclosure Act in England, which saw common land being divided up into smaller private fields, hawthorn was used as a common hedging plant and also became associated with boundaries and protection. Planting hawthorn in your garden was said to keep witches away from your home, or at least severely diminish their power. Including hawthorn in hedging plants was also said to ward away fairies, and any cattle kept in the field would flourish. Similarly, May blossom placed on the cowshed door on May morning would ensure the milk supply for the coming year. In Cambridgeshire, hawthorn was also thought to bring luck to the harvest and a branch would be added to the last hayrick. The protective nature of hawthorn extended to the point where it was said that a sprig of it in a hat would protect the wearer from lightning strike.
In Serbia, hawthorn was very closely associated with vampires and driving a hawthorn branch into a graveside would prevent the dead from returning as a Vampire.
However, there was definitely a darker side to hawthorn in folk practice and belief. A popular saying that references the tree states that ‘hawthorn bloom and elder flower fill the house with evil power’ and if hawthorn was brought inside the house then a person inside was likely to die. In certain areas the death would be specified, with children being told that bringing hawthorn into the house would kill their mothers - an early version of ‘don’t step on the cracks or you’ll break your mother’s back’ rhyme that’s sung by schoolchildren in England today. But like all good rules there are exceptions, and in Staffordshire hawthorn could be brought into the house if it was gathered on Holy Thursday and laid in the rafters by someone who was not part of the family who lived there. In that case it would protect the house from lightning strike because apparently ‘under a thorn our saviour was born.’
This superstition may have arisen from the fact that, apparently, the blossoms ‘smelt like death’, or more precisely, like the plague. This comparison goes back to before the Great Plague of 1665 and Francis Bacon refers to it in 1627 as an already existing piece of knowledge. The flowers do decay quickly once picked and let off a strong smell. It turns out that the comparison is an accurate one, as trimethylamine (sorry if I haven’t pronounce that properly - I am definitely not a science person - if you know how it should be pronounced please let me know) anyway trimethylamine is one of the first products formed when animal tissues start to decay, is present in hawthorn flowers. So if you want a budget interactive history experience, pick some May blossom and you can transport yourself to a seventeenth century house afflicted by the Great Plague.
There is a clear difference in historical attitude between hedgerow hawthorns, planted by humans, and lone hawthorn trees, sometimes called ‘sentry’ trees, which were said to either be planted and inhabited by fairies, or to have sprung from the ashes of the dead scattered through the world.
In England these solitary thorns were often used to mark places of administrative meetings or trials. The inclusion of ‘thorn’ in an English place name is assumed to be evidence that such meeting trees once stood there as a place of administration and justice.
However, in Ireland a ‘sentry thorn’ was a fairy trysting place. It was reported that a woman wearing white could be seen entering and leaving a lone hawthorn tree, and fairies would be seen in their branches. It is thought that this woman could be a fairy queen, or potentially a banshee. Their association with death, and the scattered ashes of the dead is quite interesting in this instance, as there are instances in Icelandic and Scandinavian folklore associating elves with the reincarnated souls of the dead, which makes me wonder if a similar belief used to exist in Ireland and other Celtic nations, or if its just a coincidence.
Because of their association with fairies, lone hawthorn trees demanded great respect and were especially dangerous on May Day, midsummer or halloween - the times of greatest fairy power. It was particularly unlucky to go to sleep under one of these thorns, and Thomas the Rhymer was said to have met the Queen of Elfhame after falling asleep under one, was taken to the realm of the fairies for 7 years, and was returned with the gift of prophesy. While this may have sounded like a great outcome, there were stories of people not returning until their friends, families and all who knew them had died, so you might not want to take your chances.
Farmers would cultivate around lone thorns that lay in their fields, and as late as 1968 there was local opposition to plans to remove a thorn that lay in the way of a road in Donegal. In the end, the road was realigned at great expense to avoid the tree. Again, this mimics legends in Iceland of elf stones, with roads being diverted even now to avoid rocks where elves are said to reside.
Damaging one of these thorns was seen as incredibly reckless. A farmer in Worcester became so annoyed at the people coming to his lands to visit the thorn that stood there that he chopped it down. Shortly after he broke an arm, a leg and his farm burnt down. Another man reported that he saw blood coming from the tree as he tried to fell it, and so stopped, which he was probably grateful of if he knew of the fate of the first farmer.
Again there is evidence of ritual rule breaking in these instances, and saying a prayer before felling the thorn may save you from harm. This would only be true if the reason for felling was absolutely necessary, though, usually for ritual or healing purposes - never to tidy a farm or for convenience. On of the more alarming stories was when Walter Grove, son of a manor house in Dorset, cut down a thorn when firewood ran short one winter. After this, the entire village became infertile. No chickens laid eggs, no calves and no babies were conceived. It was only after the tree was replaced that this was remedied and things returned to normal, but it shows how an entire community could be punished for the thoughtlessness of one individual.
Fairy or sentry thorns did not always bring ill fortune, though, if you treated the tree and fairies with the respect they deserved. An account of two men who carefully ploughed a field, taking great care to avoid the hawthorn tree in the middle, were rewarded at the end of their work with a table overflowing with food and drink. A particularly lovely story from the Isle of Man tells of a girl who had always left offerings out for local fairies. When she needed help completing her spinning work in time she told a nearby hawthorn of her troubles, and the fairies came to complete her work as well as leaving her a beautiful shawl of wildflowers as a parting gift.
The importance of hawthorns easily passed from pagan to Christian law. In the first episode about elves, I talk about how the early Christian church was keen to keep the trappings of old religions and folk beliefs, while changing the meaning for them to a more Christian one so as to ease the transition between religions.
In England, this is particularly true in the case of the Glastonbury Thorn in Somerset. After conversion a legend grew around the tree that said that it came into being after St Joseph of Arimathea struck his staff into the ground, where it immediately rooted and grew branches, to the amazement of the watching crowd. This miracle gave people a justifiable reason to continue venerating the tree after conversion, and it was said that the tree would burst into bloom every year on December 25th to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the winter of 1752, after the calendar change, the tree failed to do so and apparently a large crowd gathered around it on January 5th, Christmas Day on the old calendar, to see if it bloomed then. It did, which was seen as proof that the old calendar was the correct one. Sadly, the Glastonbury Thorn was cut down by Cromwellian troops, who saw it as a relic of old superstitions, in the English civil war. Although it was later replaced by another, said to be from a cutting of the original tree.
Other lone thorns retained importance to their local communities in their own ways. In Ireland, some became ‘mass trees’, dedicated to saints, associated with holy wells or incorporated into burial customs. In France hawthorns were seen as an acceptable alternative to church to pray if someone was a long way from church, and it was traditional for mothers to pray at these trees for the health of their children.
Hawthorn wood was seen as
particularly holy as it was said that the crown of thorns at Jesus
crucifixion was made of hawthorn and in the medieval era rosaries
were often made of this wood because of this . It was believed that
this link made hawthorn particularly effective in healing. A charm
for a festering wound instructed the practitioner to pass a thorn
over the wound while saying the phrase ‘Christ was of the Virgin
born, he was pricked by a thorn, it never did bell and swell, I
trust in Jesus it never will.’
Hawthorn was seen to have a number of healing properties and in the seventeenth century the herbalist Thomas Culpeper claimed it was a singular remedy for kidney stones and dropsy, which caused tissue swelling. It is still used in modern medicine to treat a variety of ailments including high or low blood pressure, congestive heart failure (which can lead to edema, formerly known as dropsy) and high cholesterol.
As well as medicinal uses,
hawthorn berries and leaves have been used for food for thousands
of years, either straight from the tree or made into jams and
jellies. The leaves were often called ‘poor man’s bread and cheese’
due to their distinctive taste. If you do choose to try a leaf,,
obviously make sure it definitely is hawthorn and safe before you
eat one, but maybe also leave an offering out in return for the
fairies that live there, just in case.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode I would really appreciate it if you could follow me on Facebook at History and Folklore Podcast or Instagram at history and folklore, where you will be notified of future episodes and also discover lots or random history and folklore facts.You can also get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening, and I hope to see you for the next episode.