On St Agnes Eve, traditionally girls and unmarried women wishing to know more of their future husbands perform a variety of sometimes “bizarre” acts to see who the man might be. Some of these rituals include walking backward upstairs to bed while not looking behind you, pulling out a row of pins from a sleeve and saying a Pater for each, eating a yolkless boiled egg with salt filling the cavity where the yolk once was, fasting all day, or eating a dumb cake with friends. All these are to ensure that the the woman’s future husband will bring her water to drink in the her dream. That way her “dream man” will be known to her. Some women put a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme and sprinkle them with water and put one in each of their shoes and place the shoes on either side of the bed-head. Then they are to recite “St. Agnes, that’s to lovers kind/ Come ease the trouble of my mind.” Afterwards, they are supposed to dream of their future husbands.
And speaking of that Dumb Cake as one of the rituals, you may not wish to eat it, for it is made with equal parts flour, salt, and water (but the water is the maker’s own urine). The cake must be baked with other maidens in attendance and no one may say a word. (I imagine gagging is permissible, however!)
In Scotland, girls would meet in a field of crops at midnight, throw grain onto the soil and pray:
‘Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me.’
An old book called “Mother Brunch’s Closet Newly Broke Open” speaks of this St. Agnes Eve custom:
“There is, in January, a day called Saint Agnes’s Day. It is always the one and twentieth of that month. This Saint Agnes had a great favour for young men and maids, and will bring unto their bedside, at night, their sweethearts, if they follow this rule as I shall declare unto thee. Upon this day thou must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must not eat or drink all that day, nor at night; neither let any man, woman, or child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure, at night, when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou mayst speed; and thou must have clean cloaths on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean cloaths when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and both thy hands are laid underneath thy head, then say
Now good St. Agnes, play thy part,
And sent to me my own sweetheart,
And shew me such a happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss.
“And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst, and before thou awakest out of thy first sleep thou shalt see him come and stand before thee, and thou shalt perceive by his habit what trademan he is; but be sure thou declarest not thy dream to anybody in ten days, and by that time thou mayst come to see thy dream come to pass.”
So who was St Agnes? She was a Christian girl in Rome in the early part of the 4th Century. Deciding to devote herself to religious purity, she supposedly refused a Roman prefect who wished to marry her. The man denounced her to Roman authorities as a Christian. For her punishment, she was thrown into a public brothel. However, she remained unscathed. One legend says all the men who attempted to rape her were immediately struck blind or paralyzed. Another claims that God protected her with a firestorm of thunder and lightning.
As the first punishment did not work, she was sentence to be burnt at the stake as a witch. However, the wood surrounding her would not burn. A guard then beheaded her with his sword. When her parents visited her tomb on the 8th day, they were met by a chorus of angels, including their daughter Agnes, with a white lamb at her side. The lamb’s color is a symbol of purity, and St Agnes is often depicted with a white lamb nearby. She reportedly died on 21 January 304. In the Catholic church, she is the patron saint of chastity, girls, engaged couples, rape victims, and virgins.
It is surprising that the medieval Catholic fast on the eve of her feast, and prayers seeking her intercession, should survive, even in a mangled form, into Protestant England. But in Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Durham, little rites, such as the herbs in shoes continued to be acted out, well into the late 19th century.
Now that you know more of St Agnes, enjoy this scene from A Dance with Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary.
Five years earlier, Darcy had raced to Hertfordshire to soothe Elizabeth’s qualms after Lady Catherine’s venomous attack, but a devastating carriage accident left him near death for months and cost him his chance at happiness with Elizabeth Bennet. Now, they meet again upon the Scottish side of the border, but can they forgive all that has transpired in those years? They are widow and widower, but that does not mean they can take up where they left off. They are damaged people, and healing is not an easy path. To know happiness they must fall in love all over again, but with the same person.
“I cannot believe you convinced me that this is wise,” Elizabeth grumbled as Lydia tugged her along the dark path. “I should be in my bed. Resting. Tomorrow will be another busy day.”
“I think it is exciting,” Lydia professed, as she half skipped along the path like some schoolgirl. “Why did we never participate in something this adventurous when we were in Hertfordshire?”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes in amusement. “Likely because Vicar Williamson would first have an apoplexy and then have shown up to drive us to our homes with a switch in one hand and a silver cross in the other.”
“Mr. Williamson might not have approved, but I imagine Mama would have,” Lydia countered.
Elizabeth laughed. It was the first time she had done so since Mr. Darcy’s withdrawal. “I hold no doubt Mrs. Bennet would have turned this ritual into a grand affair.”
The path widened, and she was surprised to find more than a dozen girls waiting along the edge of a roughly turned field. “My goodness,” she whispered to Lydia. “I did not expect so many would participate.”
Clara clung close to Elizabeth’s side. “Not be enough men in the area, ma’am, that not be spoken for. We’s got to do what we kin.”
“I suppose,” Elizabeth allowed. Looking about her, she recognized many women she encountered occasionally when she did business with them at the inn: the daughters of shopkeepers and farmers, widows, and spinsters.
“It is almost midnight,” Mrs. Schiff called. “If you did not bring grain with you, Mr. Keener left a sack sitting by the elm tree. Claim what you need and join me at the field’s edge. Hurry, ladies.”
Despite her earlier feeling of acting the role of fool, Elizabeth could not help but to be caught up in the enthusiasm. It felt wonderful to be away from the responsibilities of the inn for a few minutes. Mr. Darcy had purchased Mr. Charles’s services for a month, and so she knew the inn would not suffer in her absence. As Mr. Darcy had provided the man a half-year’s wages, Mr. Charles made the effort to please.
She scrambled to claim two fistfuls of grain to wrap in a handkerchief she carried specifically for that particular purpose. Laughing, she jostled with two of the village girls before the bag. With her share wrapped tightly in the cloth, she joined the other women.
Mrs. Schiff instructed, “Line up at arm’s length apart. Leave your lanterns here to guide your return.”
Elizabeth took up a position beside the Widow Schiff, who was likely fifty in years. When Lydia had insisted that Elizabeth attend tonight, she had assumed she would be the eldest in the group, but there was a mix of young girls just coming into their womanhood and women in full bloom. The other women followed Mrs. Schiff’s orders. Elizabeth noted that Lydia was further along the line, as were Clara and the other two girls employed by the inn.
Mrs. Schiff’s voice silenced the chatter. “Do not permit the grain to fall too quickly from your fingers. We are planting the roots of love. One handful of the seeds to cross the field and the one handful on our return to these spots. Everyone knows the chant?”
Elizabeth did not, but she was a quick learner. With giddy anticipation, she gathered a handful of the grain. Mr. Keener’s field would receive an early planting.
“Drop the seed before you step upon it to drive it into the loose dirt,” Mrs. Schiff instructed. “We must plant the seeds on St. Agnes Eve, which means by midnight. Only then can the blessed saint send us the men we deserve. That being said, we should begin.” The Widow Schiff squared her shoulders and stepped forward.
Elizabeth followed, concentrating on dropping the seeds. Around her a chorus of voices took up the required chant:
Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
the lad who is to marry me.
Elizabeth smiled at the chant’s simplicity, but soon she too was saying the lines as she dropped the seeds and firmly stepped on each. Reaching the other side of the field, she turned to match her steps to those of Mrs. Schiff and the girl upon her left. She could hear Lydia giggling, but Elizabeth ignored the urge to join her sister’s merriment; instead, she embraced the idea that a young Christian girl from 4th century Rome could be the answer to her prayers. She knew she would absolutely dream of Mr. Darcy, as she had done every night since she realized he was the man who would most suit her in temperament. With each step, she became more convinced that this girlish ritual was God’s way of telling her what she already knew: Happiness is not finding the right person, but being the right person. Her life had not ended with her marriage to Forde McCaffney, but rather she had found completeness. She had fulfilled her purpose, which was to save her family. Although she did not require Mr. Darcy to complete her, she desired the man above all others. In Genesis the scriptures said, Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. But the halves did not equal the whole, which is what Mr. Darcy meant in his speech regarding his half life. If a person enters a marriage as a “half,” then the marriage will be doomed.
Upon their return to the inn after the planting of “seeds of love,” Clara reminded their group, “Do not forget to add a sprig of rosemary and another of thyme to yer shoes and place thum on either side of the head of yer bed.”
Lydia still danced along the road ahead of them. “I left rosemary on the kitchen table for each of us,” she announced with glee.
Elizabeth caught her sister’s hand and tugged Lydia closer. “So long as you did not also leave dumb cake upon the table for us to consume, I will be happy to claim my warm bed marked by rosemary-filled shoes,” she teased.
Lydia shivered in disgust. “Even to know my true love, I would not eat dumb cake.”
Elizabeth slid her arm around her sister’s shoulders. “It is excellent that Mrs. Bennet knew nothing of dumb cake, or she would have fed it to us yearly.” Her words were laced with amusement.
“Oooh!” Lydia pretended to gag. “We should send her the receipt. Perhaps Kitty requires a bit of St. Agnes’s kindness to know a gentleman’s regard.”
“If you tell Mama to bake a cake of equal parts flour, salt, and Kitty’s bodily waste, our sister will walk from Hertfordshire to Scotland, if need be, to exact her revenge.”
Lydia sobered in reflection. “It might be worth the trouble just to see Kitty again. I sorely miss her and Jane and Papa and Mama, and even Mary.”
Elizabeth understood perfectly. “It is a shame we have yet to view Jane’s children or to take the acquaintance of Mary’s young man. There was a time I thought never to leave Longbourn, and now we have been gone some five years. It would be wonderful to return to those innocent days when the worst to happen to us was a spat with another sister over a ribbon.”
Lydia slid her arm about Elizabeth’s waist so they could more easily match their strides. “I would like to be aware of my choices if we could return to the past. I cannot help but think that if I had waited, God would have crossed my path with that of Sir Robert. The gentleman is not so handsome as was Mr. Wickham, but he is ten times the man my husband proved to be.”
Although Elizabeth did not speak the words aloud, she wondered if either of them would ever know happiness. Only a quarter hour earlier, she had thought the planting of seeds symbolic of the blossoming of a great love, but now she was not so certain. More than likely, both she and Lydia would again know disappointment.
Now for the GIVEAWAY. I have two eBook copies of A Dance with Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary available. To be entered into the giveaway, please comment below. The giveaway will end at midnight EDST on Thursday, March 30.