Hawthorn

(Crataegus monogyna) A sacred tree, treated as such long before Christian tradition associated it with the Crown of Thorns. It was said that the tree groans and sighs on Good Friday (Wilks). In some parts of France it was not unknown for mothers to kneel before the tree, and pray to it for a child's good health. If they lived a long way from the church, they would go and say their prayers to the tree (Devlin). In medieval times rosaries made of thorn wood were in great demand, and were treated as if they were jewels. But in Ireland particularly, ancient and solitary thorns, known variously as fairy thorns, gentry or gentle (gentry or gentle being fairies - the gentle people) thorns, skeaghs, or lone bushes (E E Evans), were always held in great veneration. It was nothing less than profanation to destroy them or even to remove a bough. A lady dressed in a long white robe (the banshee, perhaps) was often supposed to come from them, and elves and fairies were seen among the branches. Hedgerow thorns are newcomers (even though they are said to date from Roman times (Cornish), so they may be hacked with impunity, but woe betide the man who damages one of the solitary fairy thorns, that is, one not planted by man, but growing on its own. Not even fallen dead branches that would serve as firewood should be removed. There have even been examples of branches accidentally broken being carefully tied back in position ( E E Evans). The cult of these thorns in Ireland was apparently just as strong in the Protestant north as in other parts of the country, but the belief was not confined to Ireland, for in Somerset too the tradition was that you should never cut down hawthorn trees to build your house, for if you did you and yours would never live long (Tongue). In Galloway too, solitary thorns were left and preserved with scrupulous care. There is a story of two lads who were ploughing a field that had one of these thorns in it, and they carefully ploughed in a circle round the tree. They found a green table placed at the end of the furrow, heaped with cheese, bread and wine (Cromek). Similar beliefs were held in the Isle of Man; it was not advisable to sit too long under one of these trees, and certainly not to sleep under one (Gill). The fairies danced round these thorns at night (Beard), and:

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.

(William Allingham, a stanza from The fairies 1850).

A further result of the fairy thorn belief is the superstition that if thorn bushes are ploughed up, all goodness leaves the land (Tongue). A correspondent of Notes and Queries; 1941 told a story then current at Berwick St John, in Wiltshire, of the consequences of cutting down a solitary thorn that grew on a prehistoric earthwork nearby. The result was complete loss of fertility over the area, taking in poultry and cows as well as women. Fertility was only restored when the perpetrator planted a new thorn in place of the old one. Another Irish belief is that hawthorn trees grow over graves or hidden treasures (O Suilleabhain); similarly there is a Cornish tradition that those who buried treasure always planted a hawthorn over it (Wilks). Solitary thorns are often associated with the dead, and they often mark graves, or they mark a spot where a coffin was rested, or where a death had taken place in the open (J J Foster). They are often associated with death cairns, too, for the thorn was sometimes planted where a death had taken place. These are often called Monument Trees (M Mac Neill. 1946). In Galway, Ireland, these thorns were said to have sprung from dead men's dust scattered through the world (Fitzgerald). Hence the idea that the soul becomes a tree. Some thorns are dedicated to Irish saints, and these figure in burial ceremonies. When funerals pass by, they halt, and stones are placed beside the thorn until they become cairns. On thorns at crossroads it was the custom in County Wexford to hang small crosses, made of coffin wood, as the funeral procession passed by (E E Evans). One of these dedications to the saints is St Leonard's bush (Cran san Lionairt) at Dunnamag-gan, County Kilkenny, held in such veneration in the nineteenth century that no native would emigrate without carrying a chip of the tree with him as a protection against shipwreck (Lucas). Another function of these thorns was to mark a well, and they were very common. One near Tinshally, County Wicklow, was known as Patrick's Bush. Devotees attended on 4 May, rounds were made about the well, and offerings were made to the thorn (Wood-Martin), if that is the right way to describe the ritual of hanging rags or trinkets on the tree that is companion to the holy well. The same inviolability applies to these thorns. One growing beside St Laghteen's Well, Knockyrourke, County Cork, is said to be impervious to fire, and the men who tried to cut it down were seized with violent pains. There is a decorated tree at Appleton Thorn, in Cheshire, where there is the well-known ceremony of "bauming the thorn", bauming being a dialect word meaning adorning. The ceremony takes place in July, when an old thorn tree in the village is decorated with red and white flowers and ribbons, and the children dance round it (Baker).

Another aspect of the hawthorn is as an abode, not just of fairies, but of witches, too. It was an accepted belief in the Channel Islands that witches used to meet under solitary hawthorns (MacCulloch), and there used to be quite a widespread superstition that it was dangerous to sit under a hawthorn on Walpurgis Night, May Eve in our terms, because it was then that a witch was most likely to turn herself into a thorn tree (Jacob). On the other hand, and quite in accordance with accepted belief, hawthorn would also protect against witchcraft. In Monmouthshire (Gwent) tradition, one of the commonest ways of breaking a witch's spell was reckoned to be putting a cross of whitethorn (or birch) over the house door (Roderick); far from there, the Serbs believed that a cradle made from hawthorn wood would be a most powerful protective device (Vukanovic), and in the same area, a small hawthorn peg may be driven into a grave, to prevent the corpse from turning into a vampire, or a stake of the same wood was used in Serbia to "kill" the vampire (P Barber). To "drive witches out of milk" by beating it with hawthorn used to be a Pennsylvania German saying (Fogel).

The "authority" of hawthorns is illustrated in another aspect, that of justice. In the Lake District, they were apparently associated with places of trials and courts of justice. Two at least, so it is claimed, still survive where courts were held (Rowling). They were markers of meeting places, too, and the existence of "thorn" in a place name, especially an old hundred name, is often taken as an indication of such a hawthorn tree there. The old Hundred of Spelthorne, in Middlesex is an example. Some Irish thorns were known as "Mass bushes", the marks of assembly for Catholic congregations during the persecutions of the 17th and 18th centuries (Cornish). Until the early 19th century, a thorn stood as the "Luck" of Earlstoun, or Erceldoune, in Scotland. Thomas of Erceldoune prophesied that:

This thorn tree, as lang as it stands, Earlstoun shall possess a' her lands.

A further range of hawthorn folklore arises from its inclusion in the band of lightning plants, presumably because of its red berries. In many parts of England, hawthorn gathered on Holy Thursday (whether that means Maundy Thursday or Ascension Day, both of which bear the name, is not clear), was used as a protection against lightning (Burne). It is peculiarly a Shropshire tradition to gather your hawthorn on Holy Thursday to protect the house. In Touraine it was cut, fasting, on May morning, for the same purpose (Sebillot), and the Greeks too hang hawthorn blossom from their doors on May morning (Wilks). "The white thorn is never stricken with lightning", said Langham in 1578, and Mandeville had "White thorn hath many virtues: for he that beareth a branch thereof upon him, ni thunder nor tempest may hurt him; and no evil spirit may enter in the house in which it is, or come to the place that it is in". There are many folk rhymes to remind one of this, most of them very similar. This particular version was recorded in Fittleworth, in Sussex:

Beware of an oak,

It draws the stroke;

Avoid an ash,

It courts the flash.

Creep under the thorn

It can save you from harm (Opie & Tatem).

In Normandy, they still say that a twig of hawthorn will protect him who carries it (Johnson). On the other hand, and as is often the case, the direct opposite is sometimes found, as with Cornish people, who thought it dangerous to stand under a whitethorn during a thunderstorm (Deane & Shaw). And there is a Welsh belief that the tree itself, or at least one particular tree, will cause the storm. The tree is the old thorn at Ffynan Digwg, Caernarvon, and thunder and lightning would be the result if it were cut down (F Jones). This would be a guardian tree of a holy well, so perhaps it was not the tree, but a higher entity, that would answer the sacrilege.

Mandeville's remark that "no evil spirit may enter the house in which it is" has already been noticed; it is an ancient belief, and even in Roman times a sprig of hawthorn was attached to the cradle of a newborn baby (Palaiseul). Burgundian mothers would carry their sick child to a flowering hawthorn, for they believed their prayers would ascend better to heaven in company with the fragrance of the flowers. At the other end of life's span, there is a recorded superstition from Portslade, in Sussex, that a dying perrson can recover if carried three times around, and be bumped three times against, a particular ancient thorn (Sussex Notes and Queries. Vol 7; 1938-9). But in spite of all this, it is an unlucky tree, particularly unlucky to bring indoors. It "brought illness, etc.,' with it, according to Devonshire belief (Devonshire Association. Report and Transactions; 1971), and in Somerset, may well cause death in the house into which the blossom is brought (Elworthy). Cheshire children are forbidden to bring it indoors, the belief being that their mother will die if this is done (Hole. 1937):

May in,

Coffin out in fact (Igglesden). It has been suggested that the ill-luck may be something to do with the May-goddess. The hawthorn was sacred to her, and the may that can be taken inside on May morning perhaps represents a ritual breaking of the taboo on the May goddess's festival (Graves). In any case, a tradition in some parts of Ireland is that you should never bring hawthorn flowers into the house in May, for it would bring bad luck with it. You must wait till June ( O Cleirigh). A superstition recorded in Suffolk says that sleeping in a room with the whitethorn bloom in it during the month of May will be followed by some great misfortune (Gurdon). Here there is confusion between the month and the name of the tree (May); the month of May is always an unlucky one. There is a Devonshire belief that it is unlucky for hawthorn to be in bloom before 1st May (W Jones), not that that is likely to happen. And 'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out' means do not put on any new clothes till the unlucky month of May is over, the month being represented by the tree:

Hawthorn tree and elder flowers

Will fill the house with evil powers.

No wonder that the haws were called poires du diable in Brittany (Sebillot).

There was a tradition in some places in England that hawthorn flowers preserved the stench of London during the plague. They contain trimethylamine, and this is an ingredient of the smell of putrefaction (Grigson). It is often said that the hawthorn has "a deathly smell". The scent has another interpretation - that of sex. It was said to arouse sexual desire (Anderson), and the tree itself was used constantly in medieval love allegory. It is the arbor cupidatitis, the symbol of carnal love as opposed to spiritual love, and was used as such throughout the literature of the Middle Ages (Eberly). Like the hazel (another lightning plant), hawthorn has from early times been connected with marriage rites, either, as in Greece and Rome, as an ingredient of the bridal wreath, or as decoration for the altar. Even in this country we find traces of hawthorn propitiation at the time of a marriage. At Polwarth, in Berwickshire, newly-weds, with their friends, had to dance round the two ancient thorns in the parish (Spence. 1947). But at May-tide it was associated with young girls generally. In France, for instance, it was set outside the windows of every young girl (Grigson). And note Herrick's verse from Corinna going a-Maying:

and coming, mark

How each field turns a street, each street a park

Made green, and trimm'd with trees; see how

Devotion gives each house a bough,

Or branch; each porch, each door, ere this,

An ark, or tabernacle is

Made up of whitethorn neatly enterwove ...

"Dew from the hawthorn tree" has special properties at this time (in fact, any May dew has):

The fair maid who, the first of May Goes to the fields at break of day, And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree, Will ever after handsome be.

In Suffolk, any maidservant who could bring in a branch of hawthorn in full bloom on May morning (it would surely have to be old style), was entitled to a dish of cream for breakfast:

This is the day, And here is our May, The finest ever seen, It is fit for a queen,

So pray, ma'am, give me a cup of your cream.

There are love divinations involving hawthorn, but first, something more direct - there was a belief in the south of Somerset that a girl should dance barefooted round a whitethorn on old Midsummer Day before sunrise to charm her lover into marrying her that year

(Tongue). The divinations themselves include one that involved a girl hanging a flowering branch at a crossroads on May Eve. She should go there next morning, to see in which direction the wind had blown it. From that direction would come the destined husband. Another was for her to partly break a branch on May Eve, and leave it on the tree. In the morning she must fetch it home, and then would hope to see an image of the future husband on the way (Eberly).

One piece of weather lore is very well known - if there are a lot of haws, there is a hard winter to come. The belief is expressed in succint rhymes, such as the Scottish:

Mony haws

Mony snaws or,

A haw year

A snaw year

(Swainson), and so on. The haws, though, have a reputation in folklore for being useless, being "unprofitable, and sour to eat, and fit for nothing". In fact, by Chaucer's time they had given rise to a common expression, "not worth a haw". Chaucer had the Wife of Bath, commenting on her husband's moralizing, say:

But al for noght, I setts noght an hawe

Of his proverbes n'of his old saws ...

But it is another matter when medicinal usages are studied. Russian folk practitioners always treat angina pectoris with an infusion of haws (a glassful three times a day, at meals) (Kourennoff). In Germany, the infusion in alcohol is considered to be the only effective cure for angina. A tea made from haws was also said in Wiltshire to be good for heart disorders, and so are the flowers (Leete). A decoction, taken instead of tea or coffee, is used for high blood pressure (Kouren-noff), for it helps to prevent arterioslerosis - this is a traditional medicine in Scotland (Beith). Herbalists warn, though, that the effect is noticeable only after a prolonged course of treatment (Fluck). Haws were at one time prescribed for stone. Of course, this may very well have been from the doctrine of signatures -the stone fruits to destroy the stone. One usage that was almost certainly doctrine of signatures was this very early (14th century) recipe: "For to draw oute a thorne: tak the barks of the hawthorne and stamp him wele in red wyne" (Eberly). To use a thorn to get rid of a thorn is true homeopathic medicine.

In County Clare, people used to pick and chew the bark of an ancient hawthorn at a holy well as a cure for toothache (Westropp), a practice that could be classed either in the same category as the willow bark as a primitive aspirin, or else simply as a charm, because of the connection with the holy well. One that is certainly a charm, and a transference charm at that, is this French prescription to get rid of a fever. The patient is advised to take bread and salt to a hawthorn, and say:

Adieu, buisson blanc;

Je te porte du pain et du sel

Et la fièvre pour demain.

The bread has to be fixed in a forked branch, and the salt thrown over the tree. Then he has to return home by a different road to that from which he set out. If there was only one door, then the patient had to get back in through a window (Sebillot).

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