10,11,12 May Beating the Bounds on Rogation Days

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

From ‘Little Gidding’ by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The origins of this Church practice are very ancient and definitely non-Christian. The word ‘rogation’ comes from the Latin ‘to ask’ and the practice on Rogation Days was to ask for a blessing on the growing crops. Professor Ronald Hutton in ‘Stations of the Sun’ believes Rogation developed from the Roman practice of ‘Ambarvalia’ which may have been practiced during the Roman occupation of Britain and which is exactly the same – priest and people processing round the fields of a given area, praying for a good harvest.

The processions had a practical use in a time before maps, because they reinforced the boundaries of a parish and the agricultural holdings within it, in the community consciousness. ‘Beating the Bounds’ as it came to be known, is mentioned by Alfred the Great and by Athelstan, but by the reformation the practice had become a target of official opprobrium because of the raucous behaviour which supposedly accompanied it. These boundary walks were also known as ‘gang days’ from the Anglo Saxon word ‘gangen’- to go.

What is unusual and strange though is the practice of beating not only the boundaries and markers, but also beating the young boys in the procession! They were sometimes whipped with willow branches or deliberately bumped against the boundary stones or trees which marked the way. This was supposedly to imprint the boundary on their young minds. I have an image of a rather nasty church warden beating up the local youth as a punishment for sins not yet committed, so I hope the beatings were notional rather than real.

"Beating the Borough Bounds" at Alverton Penzance - oil painting by J T Blight, 1853

Rogation Days were also ‘grass days’ – i.e. fasting days when no meat or fish could be eaten and the parish walks would end with a feast of ‘gang ale’ and Rammalation biscuits or cakes. I love the idea of a Rammalation feast – the name has to be a rural corruption of ‘perambulation’. Gang ale signifies not a particular type of ale but one made for the occasion of the ‘gangin’. Rammalation biscuits or cakes however are mysterious. They certainly existed, but in all of my hundreds of recipe books and the vastness of cyber space, receipt there is none. So I’ll just have to invent one. It may be of course, like the ale, Rammalation cakes were nothing special, just any cake presented for the occasion. There is a clue however in this extract from an old will.

‘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.’

Poor child! I hope the will wasn’t a long one. Processions to beat the bounds are still made in some parishes such St Ives in Cornwall where the harvest of the sea is also blessed.

Seriously Inauthentic Rammalation Cake
I have made this up - truly. I wonder how long before it appears across cyber space as an authentic traditional English Rammalation Cake? – lets hope it starts a sort of culinary Chinese whispers. The spiral shape symbolises the circuit of the parish boundary, the icing dots are the boundary markers and the prunes are as required by Edward Wilkes’ will.

I made a sweet enriched bread dough with:
500g strong white flour,
75g sugar,
75g cooled melted butter
1 egg
I tsp salt
I tsp vanilla extract
1½ tsp dried yeast
Enough milk to make a soft dough – start with about 100ml and add more as you combine the ingredients.

For the middle:
500ml pitted prunes
75 g sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Egg, glace icing, icing sugar and cinnamon to decorate.

Mix the dough ingredients together and knead well, leave to rise in a warm place for about 90 minutes. Soak 500g dried prunes then simmer until soft and add 75 g sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Mash it or blitz it to a smoothish puree. Roll out the dough quite thinly until it is about 24 inches long and 8 inches wide. Spread on the puree leaving the edges clear. Dampen these and then roll it up into a big sausage with the seam underneath. Form into a circle or spiral and put on a baking tray. Brush with beaten egg and leave to rise for another hour. Bake for 40 minutes, initially at 200c, turning the oven down to 180c after the first 10 minutes. Leave to cool then decorate.

Millie did a design in glace icing dots to symbolise the meandering route to the various boundary markers, then sprinkled the loaf with icing sugar and cinnamon.

'There is a joy in every spot, made known by times of old
New to the feet, although the tale a hundred times be told.'

John Keats (1795-1821) ‘Lines Written in the Highlands’

Many thanks to my wonderful niece Millie, who is promising to be as thoughtful and creative in the kitchen as everywhere else, and who helped a lot with both design and implementation of this cake.


Gerry Snape said...

This is just a wonderful blog. Thankyou for all the information that you must have to research so much for. Love the rammalation cake!

Choclette said...

Really like the theme of your blog. Another great post - thank you. I've only done a "beating the bounds" once, but it was really interesting. The loaf looks and sounds delicious.

Liz said...

Thanks both of you for the kind words. I'm having a lot of fun with this and it's great to know people enjoy it.

sprhoyle said...

Beating the bounds always makes me think of the Monty Python sketch, with which your wonderful Rammalation Cake (which sounds like something out of Hardy) can have nothing at all to do. I have been away and missed the latest additions to this most delicious of blogs, and am now working my way backwards through what I have missed. Lucky me!

midwinter jo said...

Hi Liz, Found your blog today - what a great idea. Looking forward to reading old and new posts. I will be making a rammalation cake, and spreading the whispers.

Liz said...

Thank you Jo - glad you like it - and that the word is spreading...