Many villages and regions have their own particular traditions, customs and rituals, usually originating from a specific part of their history or to celebrate local inhabitants. Many have long forgotten the truth behind these traditions, and as often happens, when the truth is lost (or unpalatable) stories are invented to entertain or connect people during times of adversity or celebration. Over time these stories gain stature and become embedded in folklore, mythology and legend.
The formation of Soddenham village itself is amongst these stories that have almost defined us as a community, with the village ‘Oppen Eve’ celebrations marking the highlight of the annual social calendar. This event began as a heartfelt celebration of the death of the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins in 1647, following the execution of 8 Soddenham women and girls in the East Anglian Witch trials just two years before. There are still three families in the village who are direct descents of the women tried for witchcraft, which has contributed to the perpetuation of the story with so much detail and helped to ensure that it is marked with appropriate solemnity and spirit during the Oppen Eve. The annual event has taken on a little more embellishment over the years, and we shall be covering this in more detail in due course.
Soddenham has other traditions, customs and rituals; we explained the origins, history and current practice of Grolling earlier this year, and we now would like to share ‘Bag Farsing’ with you; a traditional exchanging of good will between families at the beginning of the new year. At its simplest, it is the giving of a small token gift, carefully presented by the eldest of one family to the youngest of another with whom they have quarrelled during the previous twelvemonth.
Bag Farsing appears to have originated before Soddenham was an established place, when various families dwelt in hollows dug into the ground and covered with branches and foliage, the remains of which can be found across the Leam and now called Lollards Pits. These people lived on the subsistence farming of lichen, which, given the general dampness of this low lying area, was just about all that would grow with any regularity. Dampness was therefore a common issue amongst all who lived in the area and affected just about all aspects of daily life.
These people were also poor. There are no formal records of the early settlers, but it is commonly thought that outlaws and malcontents originally made camp here to escape detection from those who sought them. We do know that one of the first families were originally serfs from Essex who had fled their feudal ties (for what reason it is not known) and wished to retire from subservience and ‘live humbly from the land and disturbing none other.’ It is highly likely that others like them followed and found themselves left enough to their own devices that they too settled and took this place as their own.
The one thing that all these self sufficient and independent people valued above all else was dry tinder. The general dampness meant that very little was ever truly dry, even during periods of high summer, and things didn’t last very long; fabrics and things made of wood rotted swiftly, and any foodstuffs, either vegetable or meat could not be preserved. Other than these hardy folk the only thing that the place could sustain was lichen and so survival became something to be thankful for each and every year.
It is thought that Bag Farsing was originally a symbolic giving and receiving of dry tinder in a leather pouch made from a bull scrotum a common receptacle at the time, mainly because of its natural water repelling properties. The scrotum was filled with dry tinder infused with fragrant lichens, mosses and herbs, gathered and dried over the year – a task that was extremely difficult in this damp environment, which gave the bag a value far beyond these simple composites.
At the time of the winter solstice, each family, huddled together in their damp smoke-filled pits would talk amongst themselves about the year. this would have likely been concerned with the weather, the state of the crops and their own well-being, but would also have included a fair amount of disgruntlement over other families in the area. As mentioned, these folk were inclined to keep to themselves and had settled here to be left alone, which they largely did, but over time there must have developed a degree of kinship, which they realised was important to their survival.
In the days that followed the solstice, each family member was required to speak ‘a truth’ about their neighbours. this term was taken from Reverend T.R. Severn’s book, ‘Customs & Rutuals in East Anglia’ (1734) and is the first formal record of this practice. Although it is not clear what exactly this meant, we may speculate that a ‘truth’ may have been either a lie, a wrongdoing, or other misdemeanour, based upon the actions that followed.
This was done in turn from the youngest to the eldest, each truth spoken solemnly over the scrotum. When the eldest had spoken their own truth, the bag was drawn tightly closed with twine and sealed with weasel grease, which behaves very much like wax during the winter months. The eldest then immediately leaves the pit and makes their way to the dwelling of a family whom the elder believed had been the subject of the worst truth. At the edge of the family pit the elder would sit until someone noticed them, which may have been hours in the dead of winter. Having been noticed, the youngest of the family who was able would emerge from their pit and sit with the elder in silence. After a while, the bag would be silently passed from the elder to the younger, who would both then silently return to their pits.
The anthropologist Rev. T.R. Severn who first documented this practice, gave his understanding of the meaning of the custom, as a form of self-forgiveness combined with a gesture of goodwill and each element carries its own significance.
Although the bull scrotum was used as a common receptacle in villages and towns of the age, it would have still been an important receptacle for these poor people, for whom material possessions were hard to acquire. The giving of the bag itself represented a very serious offering in itself on this fact alone, but its contents also had much significance.
Dry tinder is a precious commodity, especially in the depths of winter and make this a significant offering. The fragrant lichen, moss and herbs are most likely part of a traditional cleansing ritual, of which there are numerous records from around that time. Also likely, this was a personal mix that would be identified with an individual family group.
Each family member in turn ‘confesses’ anything they are regretful for or repentant of directly to the tinder, intended to be burned and likely to form some sort of absolution or forgiveness; as the fire consumes the tinder, so it consumes the ‘truths’ along with it.
The ritual of it passing through each family members hands as it hears each ‘truth’ makes this a very honest and solemn undertaken and would reinforce and maintain the practice through generations and would mean that every member of the community assumes the beginning and end roles.
The passing of the bag from the eldest to the youngest requires the two most vulnerable members of each family to sit outside which probably signifies humility from the giving family and innocence by the receivers, but also acknowledges mortality and the importance of tradition and heritage.
Bag Farsing has continued to this day but inevitably it has developed over the years and carries much less solemnity than it once had. Thankfully, todays ritual no longer offers dry and fragrant tinder in a bulls scrotum pouch, but uses modern materials and is used as a symbol of intimate personal property and a desire to begin anew.
It has now become common practice to dry out a used tea bag, cut it open and discard the contents. Inside are placed some dried stalks bound together, a sprinkle of lichen and a fragment of something important, usually on paper. This is often interchanged or combined with the record of an important date. The bag is then dipped in beeswax and pressed between boards. These elements are all loosely related to the original rituals, and are still passed between families whom have not been on good terms during the year.
This year we have had some Official Soddenham Artefacts specially made in order to share our unique tradition with the wider world. They have been expertly crafted by our friends Messrs. Lestaret & Co., appointed Curiologists to His Excellency Viscount Runcible of Arbourthorne, who also produced our first Artefact last year to celebrate our lichen farming heritage.
These artefacts also come in a modest display card with notes and a certificate of authenticity.