Today is the beginning of the Rogation Days which run from Monday to Wednesday up to Ascension Thursday which is 40 days after Easter. Rogation Days were originally days of prayer and fasting in Western Christianity but in England became associated with two distinct ancient customs: going out into the fields to bless the new crop, and beating the bounds. The word “rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, meaning “to ask”, which reflects the ancient practice of beseeching of God for the appeasement of his anger and for protection from calamities, particularly in relation to the crops. Nowadays the Rogation Days are a minor part of the church year, although some practices are enjoying a renaissance.
The Rogation Days were introduced around 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, in France because of a particularly bad Spring that year which threatened the crops, and were eventually adopted elsewhere. Their observance was ordered by the Council of Orleans in 511, and though the practice was spreading in Gaul during the 7th century, it was not officially adopted into the Roman rite until the reign of Pope Leo III (pope from 795 to 816). The faithful typically observed the Rogation Days by fasting and abstinence in preparation for the feast of the Ascension, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest at this time. Violet vestments are worn at the rogation litany and its associated Mass.
In England it was also common on the Rogation Days for the priest, churchwardens, choirboys, and parishioners to process around the parish boundary, stopping at marker stones, and praying for the protection of the parish in the forthcoming year. This was also known as ‘Gang-day’, after the Old English word for going or walking.
The Rogation Day ceremonies are thought to have arrived in the British Isles in the 7th century. The oldest known Sarum text regarding Rogation Days is dated from around 1173 to 1220. In it, celebrations in the south of England are described, in which processions were led by members of the congregation carrying banners which represented various biblical characters. At the head of the procession was the dragon, representing Pontius Pilate, which would be followed by a lion, representing Christ. After this there would be images of saints carried by the rest of the congregation. Sarum texts from the 13th and 15th centuries show that the dragon was eventually moved to the rear of the procession on the vigil of the Ascension, with the lion taking the place at the front. Illustrations of the procession from the early 16th century show that the arrangements had been changed yet again, this time also showing bearers of reliquaries and incense.
During the reign of King Henry VIII, Rogation processions were thought to assist crop yields, with a notable number of the celebrations taking place in 1543 when there were prolonged rains. During the reign of Edward VI, after the Crown had taken much of the Church’s holdings within the country, Rogation processions were not officially condoned or even recognized as an official part of worship. However, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the celebrations were explicitly mentioned in the royal reformation, allowing them to resume as public processions.
Rogation processions continued in the post-Reformation Church of England much as they had before, and Anglican priests were encouraged to bring their congregations together for inter-parish processions. At specific intervals, clerics were to remind their congregations to be thankful for their harvests. Psalms 103 and 104 were sung, and people were reminded of the curses the Bible ascribed to those who violated agricultural boundaries. The processions were not mandatory, but were at the discretion of the local minister, and were also ascribed more importance when a public right of way needed to be protected from agricultural or other expansion.
Roman Catholic imagery or icons were banned from the processions. The Archdeacon of Essex, Grindal of London, beseeched the church to explicitly label the tradition as a perambulation, to further distance it from Italian liturgy. In the book Second Tome of Homelys, a volume containing officially sanctioned homilies of the Elizabethan church, it was made clear that the English Rogation was to remember town and other communal boundaries in a social and historical context, with extra emphasis on the stability gained from lawful boundary lines.
In England the Rogation Day processions got blended with the old custom of beating the bounds which dates from Anglo-Saxon times. The custom is mentioned in laws of Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. It may have been derived from the Roman Terminalia, a festival celebrated on February 22 in honor of Terminus, the god of landmarks, to whom cakes and wine were offered while sports and dancing took place at the boundaries. See: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/boundary-day/
At one time, before modern surveying techniques, making sure that everyone knew the boundary lines was very important to avoid disputes between parishes (and farm land). It was also a way of strengthening the community and giving it a sense of place. In 1865–66 William Robert Hicks was mayor of Bodmin in Cornwall, when he revived the custom of beating the bounds of the town concluded the event with a game of Cornish hurling. Hurling survives as a traditional part of beating the bounds at Bodmin, commencing at the close of the ‘Beat’. The game is organised by the Rotary club of Bodmin and was last played in 2016. The game is started by the Mayor of Bodmin by throwing a silver ball into a body of water known as the “Salting Pool”. There are no teams and the hurl follows a set route. The aim is to carry the ball from the “Salting Pool” via the old A30, along Callywith Road, then through Castle Street, Church Square and Honey Street to finish at the Turret Clock in Fore Street. The participant carrying the ball when it reaches the turret clock receives a £10 reward from the Mayor. Here’s an idea of Cornish hurling from St Columb (which takes place on Shrove Tuesday, not Rogation Days).
Both Ganging beer and Rammalation biscuits are mentioned in old texts as part of the festivities of Rogation beating the bounds, but both are a complete mystery. It’s possible that Ganging beer was just the regular parish beer given the name “Ganging” because of the day, rather than being a special recipe. Before the Reformation churches often had their own breweries, and brewed huge batches of beer to sell at various festivals as a prime money maker. The Reformation killed the festivities and the church breweries because the church authorities deemed them to be unseemly and unchristian. This is where the term “pagan” caught hold in relation to these festivities, leading to a lot of misunderstanding. By “pagan” the authors meant that such revels were Roman, that is, Catholic, not that they stemmed from a pre-Christian era.
Rammalation biscuits are a total mystery. Neither a recipe or even a glimmer of an idea remains despite much historical digging. Well, no matter. Let’s go with ratafias. The word starts with the same letters, and they are one of my all-time favorites. Mrs Beeton to the rescue. If you cannot find bitter almonds use almond extract.
- INGREDIENTS.—1/2 lb. of sweet almonds, 1/4 lb. of bitter ones, 3/4 lb. of sifted loaf sugar, the whites of 4 eggs.
Mode.—Blanch, skin, and dry the almonds, and pound them in a mortar with the white of an egg; stir in the sugar, and gradually add the remaining whites of eggs, taking care that they are very thoroughly whisked. Drop the mixture through a small biscuit-syringe on to cartridge paper, and bake the cakes from 10 to 12 minutes in rather a quicker oven than for macaroons. A very small quantity should be dropped on the paper to form one cake, as, when baked, the ratafias should be about the size of a large button.
Time.—10 to 12 minutes. Average cost, 1s. 8d. per lb.