Thursday 8 April 2021

Extract from The Secret People by Melusine Draco

Here is an excerpt from a superb book by Melusine Draco: The Secret People. This extract is taken from ‘The Parish Healer’ chapter under Old Wives’ Tales - a dismissive expression normally used to indicate that a supposed truth is actually a superstition to be ridiculed. Melusine explains that such ‘tales’ were considered to be unverified claims with exaggerated and inaccurate details, often focussing on ‘women’s concerns’, discouraging unseemly behaviour in children, or folk cures for ailments ranging from a headache to in-growing toenails. 

Old Wives’ Tale
Old Women’s Sayings was a song published on ‘Broadside’ by a number of 19th century printers, the earliest being John Pitts and James Catnach. A broadside was a large sheet of paper printed on one side only. They were usually posters announcing events or proclamations, or simply advertisements. Broadsides are difficult to date accurately since all the printers copied each other’s work as a matter of course, but the earliest versions seem to date from c.1835. 

Draw near and give attention
And you shall hear in rhyme
The old women’s saying
In the olden time.
High and low, rich and poor
By daylight or dark
Are sure for to make
Some curious remark
With some foolish idea
Your brains they will bother
For some believes one thing
And some believes another.

These are odds and ends
And superstitious ways
The signs and tokens
Of my grandmother’s days.

The first thing you will see
At the house of rich or poor
To keep the witches out
A horseshoe’s o’er the door;
Bellows on the table
Cause a row by day and night
If there’s two knives across
You are sure to have a fight;
There’s a stranger in the grate
Or if the cat should sneeze
Or lay before the fire
It will rain or freeze.

A cinder with a hole
In the middle, is a purse
But a long one from the fire
Is a coffin – which is worse;
A spider ticking in the wall
Is the death-watch at night
A spark in the candle
Is a letter, sure as life;
If your right eye itches
You’ll cry till out of breath
A winding sheet in the candle
Is a sure sign of death.

If your left eye itches
You will laugh outright
But the left or right
Is very good at night;
If your elbow itch
A strange bedfellow found
If the bottom of your foot itch
You’ll tread on strange ground;
If your knee itch you’ll kneel
In a church, that’s a good ’un
And if your belly itch
You’ll get a lot of pudden.

If your back should itch
I do declare
Butter will be cheap
When the grass grows there
If the dog howl at night
Or mournfully cry
Or if the cock should crow
There will be someone die;
If you stumble up stairs
Indeed I’m no railer
You’ll be married to a snob
Or else to a tailor.

A speck on your finger nail
Is a gift that’s funny
If your hand itch in the middle
You will get some money;
Spilling of salt
Is anger outright
You will see a ghost if the doors
Should rattle in the night;
If your sweetheart
Dreams of bacon and eggs
She’ll have a little boy
That has got three legs.

The cat washing her face
The wind will blow
If the cat licks her foot
It is sure to snow;
Put your gown or your jacket
On, inside out
You will change your luck
And be put to the route [sic]
If your nose itches
You’ll get vexed till you jump
If your great toe itch
You’ll get a kick in the rump.

If a girl snaps one finger
She’ll have a child it seems
And if she snaps two
She’s sure to have twins;
And if she snaps eight
Nine, ten, or eleven
It’s a chance if she don’t
Have twenty and seven;
If you lay with your head
Underneath the clothes
You’ll have an ugly old man
What has got no nose.

If you see a star shoot
You’ll get what you wish
If a hair gets in your mouth
You’ll get as drunk as a fish;
If your little toe itch
You’ll be lost in a wave
If you shiver there’s somebody
Going over your grave;
If you go under a ladder
You’ll have bad luck and fall
And so say bad luck
Is better than none at all;

So to please outright
I have told you in rhyme
The great superstition
Of the olden time.

Many of these sayings passed into family use although some differed around the country. For example, an itchy palm was said to show money was on the way, but some believe it’s the right hand, while others say: ‘Left hand receive,’ and rub the palm against wood. The explanation for the latter was that the receiver shook hands with the right hand, as they were receiving the ‘gift’ with their left. ‘It works every time,’ admitted one country woman. ‘It might only be a penny found in the street, but it has to be unexpected.’

In recent years, research has show that more and more of these old superstitions have more than a grain of truth in them, or have detected the logic behind the casual warnings. Whether they are fact or fiction, most people have grown up with their use within the family.

You can view The Secret People on Amazon. It is published by Moon Books, and you can see Melusine Draco's author page.

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