We like to think we live in such settled, civilised and rational times. It wasn’t so long ago though – up to the 19th Century – that farmers feared the effect of evil spirits on their livestock and made Land Sacrices to appease them. And perhaps it’s still going on in England today.
While searching for something else (about which I have long forgotten) I stumbled upon a very old paper in the Jounal of the British Agricultural History Society called “The untilled Field”. Curious, I read on, and discovered a fascinating story about just how long pagan rituals survived in Britain, despite the best efforts of the Church to suppress them.
In the far north-east of Scotland, where the Norse influence was strongest, farmers were punished by the Church, from the 17th to 19th century, for leaving small patches of land untilled and ungrazed, as a sacrifice to spirits unknown. Although these sacrifices were blamed as the Devil’s work by those of the Protestant Faith, the local farmers knew them as Goodman’s Field, Goodman’s Croft, Halyman’s Croft, Cloutie’s Craft, Devill’s craft or Gi’en Rig. These names suggest something that goes back far before Christian Influence came to bear on this distant part of the Kingdom.
The farmers believed that by leaving a piece of good land untouched, and throwing stones into it (to indicate to the spirits that the farmer had abandoned all plans to farm the field), they would appease the spirits that brought disease to their Cattle. The disease was called Murrain – this is the fifth plague that appears in Exodus. There were also widespread beliefs that any crofter who did try and till, manure or graze a piece of Goodman’s land, would die on the spot. In one recorded case crofters would pour milk onto their Goodman’s field (known as the Cheese Hillock) every year on the first April to appease the spirits or Faeries.
The Church prosecuted farmers for this pagan practice, and in several cases took action for Sorcery and Witchcraft against farmers who refused to farm such plots. Censure by the Church in those days was extremely serious, and could lead to complete social ostracism.
Now some of these sites were known as Goodman’s Fields for a very long time, and were characterised by the presence of many flints, hearths, heaps of stones and ash. It would make sense to assume these were what we would now call prehistoric archaeological sites; though of course then no such things were known. These places were instintively venerated and feared, as places with supernatural powers, but also places of the dead.
One particularly bad outbreak of Murrain happened as a result of a farmer cultivating a Faerie plot (or Goodman’s field) in Caithness. So severe was the outbreak of disease, that need-fire was used to overcome it. Need Fire or Force Fire was a ritual fire created using the age old method of friction. Need is derived from Neat a In this case, magical friction fire could only be created at a particular place in the parish and with certain other rituals in place (such as described in the The Golden Bough).
Bonfires kindled from the magical Need or Neat ( derived from the Old English word for Horned Oxen) Fire were used to cleanse Cattle by driving them through the flames. This is the origin for our November 5th (or more accurately November 1st Beltane) Bonfire Night celebrations.
While we all enjoy letting off some fireworks or having a bonfire (well I do) to celebrate Beltaine, or Bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, we may get a fleeting glimpse into the lives of our forebears. Whether any farmers these days leave much land “for the faeries”….well it seems rather unlikely. But perhaps leaving patches of land on farms (or elsewhere) “for nature” is much closer to maintaining this tradition, than we might think. One could apply the Ecosystem Services approach to Goodman’s Fields and ascribe spiritual value to them. I also think the idea of self-willed land, which I have commented on here before, may be a modern parallel to such ancient beliefs.
But a far stronger modern parallel with Goodman’s Fields may be the Badger Cull. A mysterious and deadly cattle disease which appears as if from nowhere (up from the soil) to wreak havoc on farmers livelihoods and lives – this is the modern version of Murrain. A sacrifice must be made to expiate whatever gods, spirits or faeries have been angered. But this time, it’s not Goodman’s Fields which are created, but it’s Badgers which are scapegoated and sacrificed in a modern “transference of evil” ritual.