Beating the bounds


Beating the bounds

Beating the Bounds is an ancient custom still observed in many English parishes. The community would walk the boundaries of the parish, to share the knowledge of where they lay, and to pray for protection and blessings for the lands.

Ceremony

In former times when maps were rare it was usual to make a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries on Ascension Day or during Rogation week. The priest of the parish with the churchwardens and the parochial officials headed a crowd of boys who, armed with green boughs, usually birch or willow, beat the parish boundary markers with them. Sometimes the boys were themselves whipped or even violently bumped on the boundary-stones to make them remember. The object of taking boys is supposed to ensure that witnesses to the boundaries should survive as long as possible. Priests would pray for its protection in the forthcoming year. Hymns would be sung, indeed a number of hymns are titled for their role, and many places in the English countryside bear names such as 'Gospel Oak' testifying to their role in the beating of the bounds.

The ceremony had an important practical purpose. Checking the boundaries was a way of preventing encroachment by neighbours; sometimes boundary markers would be moved, or lines obscured, and a folk memory of the true extent of the parish was necessary to maintain integrity of the borders.

Origins

In England the custom is as old as Anglo-Saxon days, as it is mentioned in laws of Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. It is thought that it may have been derived from the Roman "Terminalia", a festival celebrated on February 22 in honour of Terminus, the god of landmarks, to whom cakes and wine were offered, sports and dancing taking place at the boundaries. Similar practices, of pagan origin, were brought by the Vikings. [http://www.cholesbury.com/beatbounds.htm "Beating the Cholesbury Bounds"] (retrieved August 3, 2007)] In England a parish-ale or feast was always held after the perambulation, which assured its popularity, and in Henry VIII's reign the occasion had become an excuse for so much revelry that it attracted the condemnation of a preacher who declared "these solemne and accustomable processions and supplications be nowe growen into a right foule and detestable abuse."

Beating the bounds had a religious side in the practice which originated the term Rogation, the accompanying clergy being supposed to beseech ("rogare") the divine blessing upon the parish lands for the ensuing harvest. This feature originated in the 5th century, when Mamertus, Archbishop of Vienne, instituted special prayers and fasting and processions on these days. This clerical side of the parish bounds-beating was one of the religious functions prohibited by the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I; but it was then ordered that the perambulation should continue to be performed as a quasi-secular function, so that evidence of the boundaries of parishes, etc., might be preserved. [Gibson, "Codex juris Ecclesiastici Anglicani" (1761) pp. 213-214] Bequests were sometimes made in connexion with bounds-beating. For example, at Leighton Buzzard on Rogation Monday, in accordance with the will of Edward Wilkes, a London merchant who died in 1646, the trustees of his almshouses accompanied the boys. The will was read and beer and plum rolls distributed. A remarkable feature of the bequest was that while the will is read one of the boys has to stand on his head.

Contemporary observations

Although modern surveying techniques make the ceremony obsolete, at least for its secular purpose, many English parishes carry out a regular beating of the bounds, as a way of strengthening the community and giving it a sense of place [ [http://www.england-in-particular.info/parishmaps/m-boundary.html A Sense of Place - Common Ground website] Retrieved 06 04 2008] .

Perambulation of the town borders is a traditional duty of town selectboards in the American state of New Hampshire. [http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/rsa/html/III/51/51-2.htm "TITLE III TOWNS, CITIES, VILLAGE DISTRICTS, AND UNINCORPORATED PLACES CHAPTER 51 TOWN LINES AND PERAMBULATION OF BOUNDARIES Section 51:2"] (retrieved March 7, 2008)]

ee also

Leyton Marshes (example of an area where the custom has been revived).

[http://www.commonground.org.uk/ Common Ground Website]

References


*1911


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