Today is the eve of the feast of St Mark. You’ll find my post on the feast day here — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-mark/ The eve of church feasts were often fasting days (esp. Christmas Eve and Easter Eve), and in the case of many saints’ days the eve was a time of prognostication. The eve of St Agnes, for example, was the time for girls to peek into the future to see who their husbands would be (immortalized by John Keats https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-agnes/ ), but the eve of St Mark in England was much darker. I’ll get into that in a second. Let me take a moment beforehand to talk about the word “eve” because people get confused by it sometimes.
The word “eve” is a shortened form of “even” in Middle English, and in the early 13th century it was more or less synonymous with the modern “evening” (which is actually an older word, going back to Old English, and with similar etymology). By the late 13th century “eve” and “evening” had generally parted ways, with “evening” mostly having the modern meaning, and “eve” being reserved for “the day before” (and also, “on the brink of”). The thing is that the eve of a feast is the whole day before, not just the evening before. Saying something like, “Christmas Eve day” is redundant. Nevertheless it is the actual evening of the eve of a feast that tends to be important, especially for prognostication.
Various sources will tell you that it was the custom in villages in England, from the 17th century to the late 19th century, to sit in the church porch on St. Mark’s Eve. According these sources you had to keep silent between the bell tolling at 11.00 p.m. until the bell struck 1.00 a.m. (some sources say that you had to do this 3 years in a row). The belief was that the ghosts of those to die in the parish in the coming year would be seen passing into the church. I’m always skeptical concerning how widespread such “traditional” customs were because most of them are reported by 19th century antiquaries who were not very careful about their source material, and often made wild, unsupported generalizations. The latter habit is, unfortunately, still with us, and many social historians fall prey to it. There are scattered reports of the custom throughout England, but most come from northern and western counties (notably Yorkshire). Typical 19th century accounts go into detail about supposedly true tales of people seeing ghosts following this custom, and then, lo and behold, the people seen as ghosts entering the church died in the year to come. You don’t get a lot of stories of people keeping vigil and NOTHING HAPPENED.
Some accounts of the custom state that the watchers must be fasting, or must circle the church before taking up position. The ghosts of those who were to die soon would be the first observed, while those who would almost see out the year would not be witnessed until almost 1.00 a.m. Other variations of the superstition say that the watchers would see headless or rotting corpses, or coffins approaching.
Another, much less documented, tradition holds that a young woman can see the face of her future husband appear on her smock by holding it before the fire on St Mark’s Eve.
In February 1819 Keats began writing “The Eve of St Mark.” 1819 was quite a year for Keats. He wrote his 6 most famous odes that year, including my personal favorite: “To Autumn.” It was also the year that he wrote “The Eve of St Agnes.” In many ways 1819 was the year when Keats sealed his fame in perpetuity; he had really only been a recognized poet for a couple of years at that point. He spent the year with a deep sense of foreboding that he would die within 3 years, which proved to be entirely accurate. He died of tuberculosis in Rome in February 1821 at the age of 25. “The Eve of St Mark” is one of his lesser known poems, mostly because he never finished it. It seems to have been inspired by the idea of sitting up late in the churchyard on St Mark’s Eve although this custom is not specifically referred to in the poem. Instead it tells of a woman, Bertha, sitting up late, reading about St Mark. It is filled with gloomy images but because it is not finished, there’s really no sense of where he was going with it. I’ve appended the existing fragment after today’s recipe.
The Eve of St Mark is also a 1942 play by Maxwell Anderson set during World War II. It later became a 1944 film by 20th Century Fox that featured some of the same actors who reprised their stage roles in the film. I’m not entirely sure what relationship there is between the title and the play’s plot. There is a strong mystical element of love and death that conjures up the old customs, and Keats’ imagery.
The central character of the play/movie is Quizz West who joins the United States Army in late 1940 before the US enters the war. Prior to being shipped out first to San Francisco, then the Philippines, Quizz and his hometown girlfriend Janet discuss their future plans. When the US enters the war, Quizz and his friends are in the Philippines where they man a coastal artillery gun against overwhelming odds. When things become desperate Quizz communicates with his mother and Janet through dreams, where he asks them whether he and his friends should stay with their gun to sacrifice themselves by covering the withdrawing US troops or leave by boat for a chance of survival. The movie version is here. I won’t spoil it for you.
It’s a real period piece, although, unlike many contemporary war movies it does not glorify war. You’ll also recognize Vincent Price and Michael O’Shea if your hair is grey enough.
Given that St Mark’s Eve churchyard customs are best attested in Yorkshire, a Yorkshire recipe is in order. Of course you can make Yorkshire pudding, or chomp down on some Wensleydale cheese, but you might find Yorkshire curd tart a bit more enjoyable and unusual. The rosewater is what makes it. You might be able to buy curds for the tart, but making them yourself is not a problem. Make them the night before.
Put 2½ pints/ 1.2L of whole milk in a large non-reactive saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until it almost comes to a boil. Add the juice of one lemon, and gently stir over very low heat. The curds will start to form. Do not stir too quickly or you will break up the curds. When the curds and whey are visibly distinct, remove from the heat and let the curds cool in the whey. Place the cooled curds and whey in a large sieve lined with muslin or a double layer of cheese cloth over a bowl, and let the curds drain overnight. Save the whey for making scones.
If you are lazy, like me, you can use a prepared tart shell. For some reason I can make pasta from scratch with no effort, but balk at making pastry. It’s your St Mark’s Eve mystery to figure out why. The pastry recipe I give here is a traditional one for the tart.
Yorkshire Curd Tart
4½ oz/125 gm plain flour
½ oz/12 gm finely ground almonds
4½ oz/125 gm butter
1½ oz/42 gm powdered sugar
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp milk
6 oz/150 gm curd
2 oz/62 gm caster sugar
1 oz/30 gm currants
½ tbsp grated lemon rind
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
1 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
1 tbsp rosewater
½ oz/12g melted butter
First make the pastry. Sift the flour into a mixing bowl or a food processor, and add the ground almonds. Add the butter and either pulse it in the processor to make a mixture resembling coarse sand, or rub in the butter with your fingertips. Sift in the icing sugar, add grated lemon rind and mix everything together. Dump out on to a rolling board. Punch down the center of the flour mix. Lightly beat the egg yolk and milk together and pour them into the center of the dry ingredients. Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet ones with your hands until the mass just comes together. Knead gently to make a smooth dough. Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Lightly butter a 9”/22cm shallow tart tin. Roll out the pastry thinly on a lightly floured surface and line the tin with it. Prick the base with a fork several times and rest in the refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 395˚F/200˚C. Bake the pastry blind for 10 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper, turn down the oven to 355˚F/180˚C (160˚C fan oven) and return the tart to the oven for another 4-5 minutes to fully cook the base.
To make the filling, mix the curd with the currants, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon rind and rosewater. Beat the egg with the sugar then add to the curd mixture along with the cooled melted butter. Pour into the pastry case and bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes until the top is golden and the filling set.
The Eve of St. Mark
Upon a sabbath day it fell,
Twice holy was the sabbath bell
That call’d the folk to evening prayer—
The City streets were clean and fair
From wholesome drench of April rains
And on the western window panes
The chilly sunset faintly told
Of unmatur’d green vallies cold,
Of the green thorny bloomless hedge,
Of rivers new with springtide sedge,
Of primroses by shelter’d rills
And daisies on the aguish hills—
Twice holy was the sabbath bell:
The silent Streets were crowded well
With staid and pious companies
Warm from their fire-side orat’ries
And moving with demurest air
To even song and vesper prayer.
Each arched porch and entry low
Was fill’d with patient folk and slow,
With whispers hush, and shuffling feet
While play’d the organ loud and sweet—
The Bells had ceas’d, the prayers begun
And Bertha had not yet half done:
A curious volume patch’d and torn,
That all day long from earliest morn
Had taken captive her two eyes
Among its golden broideries—
Perplex’d her with a thousand things—
The Stars of heaven and angels’ wings,
Martyrs in a fiery blaze—
Azure saints in silver rays,
Moses’ breastplate, and the seven
Candlesticks John saw in heaven—
The winged Lion of St. Mark
And the covenantal Ark
With its many mysteries,
Cherubim and golden Mice.
Bertha was a maiden fair
Dwelling in the old Minster-square;
From her fireside she could see
Sidelong its rich antiquity—
Far as the Bishop’s garden wall
Where Sycamores and elm trees tall
Full-leav’d the forest had outstript—
By no sharp north wind ever nipt
So shelter’d by the mighty pile—
Bertha arose and read awhile
With forehead ‘gainst the window-pane—
Again she tried and then again
Until the dusk eve left her dark
Upon the Legend of St. Mark.
From plaited lawn-frill, fine and thin
She lifted up her soft warm chin,
With aching neck and swimming eyes
And daz’d with saintly imageries.
All was gloom, and silent all,
Save now and then the still footfall
Of one returning townwards late—
Past the echoing minster gate—
The clamorous daws that all the day
Above tree tops and towers play
Pair by pair had gone to rest,
Each in its ancient belfry nest
Where asleep they fall betimes
To musick of the drowsy chimes,
All was silent—all was gloom
Abroad and in the homely room—
Down she sat, poor cheated soul
And struck a Lamp from the dismal coal,
Leaned forward, with bright drooping hair
And slant book full against the glare.
Her shadow in uneasy guise
hover’d about a giant size
On ceilingbeam and old oak chair,
The Parrot’s cage and panel square
And the warm angled winter screen
On which were many monsters seen
Call’d Doves of Siam, Lima Mice
And legless birds of Paradise,
Macaw, and tender av’davat
And silken-furr’d angora cat—
Untir’d she read; her shadow still
Glower’d about as it would fill
The room with wildest forms and shades,
As though some ghostly Queen of spades
Had come to mock behind her back—
And dance, and ruffle her garments black.
Untir’d she read the Legend page
Of holy Mark from youth to age,
On Land, on Seas, in pagan-chains,
Rejoicing for his many pains—
Sometimes the learned Eremite
With golden star, or dagger bright
Referr’d to pious poesies
Written in smallest crowquill size
Beneath the text; and thus the rhyme
Was parcell’d out from time to time:
—’Als writith he of swevenis
Men han beforne they wake in bliss,
Whanne that hir friendes thinke hem bound
In crimped shroude farre under grounde;
And how a litling child mote be
A saint er its nativitie,
Gif that the modre (god her blesse)
Kepen in solitarinesse,
And kissen devoute the holy croce.
Of Goddis love and Sathan’s force
He writith; and thinges many mo:
Of swiche thinges I may not shew;.
Bot I must tellen verilie
Somdel of Saintè Cicilie;
And chieftie what he auctorethe
Of Saintè Markis life and dethe.’
At length her constant eyelids come
Upon the fervent Martyrdom;
Then lastly to his holy shrine
Exalt amid the tapers’ shine