Joining the 400 Roses Morris Side has been a bit like running away with the circus. I’ve always loved Morris Dancing– to see Brits dancing, in the streets no less, ringing in the spring and seasonal festivals is one of the highlights of living in England. The 70s folk revival has brought Morris traditions new life and with it the forms have evolved.
The 400 Roses is a uniquely Yorkshire side– founded by Christ Ogden, it’s a fusion of tribal belly dance and Morris formations with its own band T’Thorns playing traditional Morris tunes. The dances are done outside in the streets, in the wilds of village fetes, folk, waterways, steam trains and sheep festivals.
When I told my husband Mike that I’d been invited to join the Roses he exclaimed, “That’s one of the greatest honors in Yorkshire!” And he wasn’t wrong.
It took me some time to assemble the costume which is a reference to trad Morris gear and mummers coats. Chris generously lent me her bustle belt until I could make one of my own. You can’t hear the bells in the picture, but they are there en masse, heralding spring.
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.
― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
York is a city only in name, it gets this honor from its grand Minster. Beyond it there is the countryside. Farms, moorland, with all their mysteries and cruelties, fresh to this city girl. How like Mole I am in my reveries of this landscape, which is a hard-working one as well as a place of beauty. And this work, it’s harsh and full of penalty.
I was leaving Bolton Castle when I saw a peculiar thing just outside, tied to the fence– they had the look of cloth scraps. On closer inspection these things were tiny corpses, in various degrees of decomposition. Full of pathos, these bodies were no longer recognisable creatures– penal indeed was the display, like some ancient ritual meant to warn off trespass, ye olde heads on the stakes at the city gates. It wasn’t until I had a good look at the last one, bloated, distended, but the pink-nosed blindness and cunning little hands were a giveaway. These were moles– a whole labour of them.
Some Googling later, I found that this is how the mole catcher gets paid, per mole. The display is an economic transaction. Writing in the 19th century, John Clare “Northamptonshire’s Peasant Poet” describes it as an ad for the molecatcher’s services or, more strangely, as a warning to other moles.
And as a triumph to his matchless skill,
On some grey willow where a road runs by,
That passers may behold his power to kill,
On the bough’s twigs he’ll many a felon tie;
On every common dozens may be met,
Dangling on bent twigs bleaching to the sun,
Whose melancholy faces meet no regret,
Though dreamless of the snare they could not shun.
A couple hundred years ago, a mole was a mouldywarp or “dirt tosser”. These chthonic beings are suspect, or so says Leviticus. They are counted among the unclean “creeping things that creep on the earth.” Apollodorus of Athens tells us that the ancients believed eating the heart of a mole would give one the gift of divination– the ability to metaphorically see into darkness, and Pliny the Elder claims moles can hear you talking about them. Moles are of the dark company, the sort that make pacts with witches. Isaiah tells us enlightened men will toss their idols of gold and silver to the moles and bats.
In Germany they are a protected species but in the UK they are considered a pest, molehills supposedly ruining the lawns of golfcourses and gardens and disrupting fields. They are one of the demonised of the countryside, along with the badger and fox, our sins projected onto such creatures with “science” in tow, justifying culls and exterminations.
The Molecatcher is an old profession in Britain. There is a “British Traditional Molecatcher Register”. There’s also the Association of Professional Molecatchers and The Guild of British Molecatchers. It’s like something from a Pratchett novel.
Ancient superstitions are knitted into folk ways, come to us in bawdy songs like The Molecatcher. I’m quite taken by this ghostly, melancholy version of the tune by Harp and a Monkey, its lament a fitting soundtrack to my recent discovery.
Who is that at the door? A horse skull for a face, with green bottle-glass eyes, covered in a sheet, draped with motley ribbons. Is there a man beneath? You almost recognize the shoes, the only human thing about him, as your neighbor’s, but not really. And now, singing. The spring hinged jaw opens and shuts. The company he keeps is familiar, you know them from the village, they carry his jingling reins. They had started out at dusk, you heard them farther out by the church, singing through the night, door-to-door. asking permission. And now it is midnight, and they are here.
In many UK folk traditions, the festival of Christmas carried on for 12 days after, and in Welsh tradition this is when Mari Lwyd, Grey Mary, Grey Mare or simply the Mare went wassailing. Though today it may be seen as some kind of artifactual party-bringer, it is not hard to see in this strange being a skeletal, ghostly remnant of the “Great Mare” Epona, the ancient Roman-Celtic horse goddess once widely worshiped on this island.
This track has haunted me for years. It’s from the fascinating CD, Songs of Witchcraft and Magic compiled by the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall. The delicate shifting harmonies of the two women’s voices seem to mimic the shimmering silver mackerel darting in the sea, or the twisting bulk of the worm or serpent that was once a boy. In the Northumbrian version of the story, the wyrm is a cursed girl named Margaret and she is saved by her brother’s kiss. He has come to slay the serpent that has menaced his people when at the last minute he recognizes his sister as the creature and saves her with a kiss.
But in this version the serpent sings of his transformation and that of his mackerel sister Maisry– so close to misery, and strung out in the ballad as a three-pearl-syllable. The mackerel consols the wyrm every Saturday at noon– in this verse they have knees and comb each other’s hair, suggesting at that one moment they may be human again. The witch who has transformed them is as usual a wicked step mother. Once caught, she calls the mackerel with a silver horn and all the fish in the sea come to her (what an image!). But the mackerel refuses to obey, and stays a fish. “No more will I be changed by thee!” It cries.
The song closes with the terse couplet–the father goes to the “merry green wood” to gather hawthorn to build a “good bonfire to burn his lady in”.
I highly recommend this CD not only for its rousing strangeness but for the intelligently written booklet with lyrics and notes.