WELLS IN DEPTH - Tristan Gray Hulse
Francis Jones made several references to Ffynnon Ddeier (Jones 1954, p.90, p.105, p.178), but offered nothing which is not already covered in the above, and even then he missed the true import of one of his sources. Despite Jones' assertion that Ascension Day was a, or even the, time of particular resort to Ffynnon Ddeier (Jones 1954, p.90), Bishop Maddox's note, already quoted, cannot be made to yield up such an interpretation.
During the pre-Reformation period, Ascension-tide was one of the times when Rogation processions were made, to implore blessing and protection upon the parish and its crops and livestock. Regularly these made their way around the parish boundaries, and after the Reformation they became part of the ceremony or custom known as Beating the Bounds, though, as here, the religious dimension of the ceremony often survived for centuries. The Major Rogation of twenty-fifth April is a Christianized version of the pagan observance of the Robiglia, which took the form of processions through the cornfields to pray for the preservation of the crops from mildew, while the Minor Rogations, properly observed on the three days preceding Ascension Day, derive from the processional litanies ordered by St Mamertus of Vienne, circa 470, when his diocese was troubled by volcanic eruptions. First adopted in England circa 800, they were universally observed across Europe throughout the Medieval period. After the Reformation, the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I, 1559, ordered the perambulation of the parish at Rogationtide (Cross 1957, p.1172: article Rogation Days). In the post-Reformation period, the rite gradually came to be observed particularly on the feast of the Ascension itself, and in traditionally-minded parishes the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer replaced the singing of the Litanies of the Saints which, with the carrying of the parishes' relics, crosses, and banners, had accompanied the processions since at least the time of Pope Gregory I. For the period here under consideration, the general purpose of the Rogationtide perambulation was neatly summarised by George Herbert, in his Country Parson (1652):
Water being one of life's essentials, stations were often made at wells in the course of the processions, when the waters were blessed and prayers offered for rain in due season. Ffynnon Ddeier was not the only sacred well visited in the course of such a Rogation procession. In a gossipy letter on twenty-ninth May 1701, Humphrey Foulks, the rector of St George/Llansansiôr, just over the county border, in Denbighshire, wrote to his friend Edward Lhuyd:
Here, too, Jones misses the point about the Rogationtide procession (Jones 1954, p.90). The folk-religious use of closely-similar blessings at other sacred sites, such as at Ffynnon Gynfran, Llysfaen, Denbighshire (Lhuyd 1909, p.40) and at Pennant Melangell, Montgomeryshire (Pryce 1994, p.35), perhaps argues for an origin in a precise liturgical formula for the benediction of animals. The groat (four old pence) from the records seems to have been almost a standard form of offering in the post-Reformation period in North Wales. For example as part of the involved curative ritual at Ffynnon Degla where They give the Clerk a groat at ye Well, and offer another groat in ye Poor's Box (Lhuyd 1909, p.146). Similarly, after visits to Ffynnon Eilian, Llaneilian, Anglesey, groats were offered in the saint's church in order to obtain a blessing upon cattle and corn and for the cure of agues, fits, scrofula and other ills (Jones 1954, p.102).
In the instances of Bodfari and St George, the recognition that it is to a Rogation procession that the texts refer, prevents one from following Jones' mistake; a visit to a well on Ascension day during the beating of the bounds does not imply that it was not visited at other times. In other instances, the documentary evidence suggests that Jones was right to argue for Ascension Day being the special time to visit certain wells. Thus, in the nineteenth century women visited Ffynnon Saint, on Mynydd y Rhiw, in Caernarfonshire, on that day to wash their eyes and to offer pins (Jones 1954, p.153). Lhuyd recorded of Ffynnon Barruc, on Barry Island, Glamorganshire, that it was famous for ye cure of the King's Evill by lotions & ye fever by Potations (Lhuyd 1911, p.45) adding elsewhere agues...paine in ye Head &...sore eyes (Lhuyd 1911, p.73). But by the nineteenth century its cult was an exact duplicate of that at Ffynnon Saint, and was similarly associated with Ascension Day, though the well was also reputed to reform drunkards, who threw their empty bottles into the well, at any time (Jones 1954, p.98, p.180).
Possibly the above two examples may be explained as residues of obsolete Rogationtide customs (especially as Lhuyd, writing upwards of one hundred years earlier, knows of no particular date for visiting Ffynnon Barruc). But the same explanation is certainly inadequate for the complicated curative ritual, reminiscent in some ways of the sacred incubation observed in association with visits to saint's wells and their churches at Llandegla, Clynnog Fawr, Llanddwyn, Llangelynin, Llangeler, Penmynydd and other such sites in Wales, which Lhuyd records at Ffynnon Gybi, at Llangybi, in Cardiganshire.
And elsewhere he writes that after washing in the well they put ye sick under ye Lhech where if ye sick sleeps it is an infallible sign of recovery, if not of death (Lhuyd 1911, p. 68). Llech Gybi, which was an excavated chamber tomb, was once regarded as St Gybi's house, and Jones notes that this body of traditions was still alive in Llangybi in 1911 (Jones 1954, p.159).
The incidence of sacred incubation at so many Welsh shrines so long after the Reformation is noteworthy. The practice, as an integral element of the cults of numerous saints, was still widely in use throughout the Christian world at the time of the conversion of the Celtic nations. At that period, they adopted a fully-developed cultus of the saints, including sleeping for cures at the saints' tombs. Exactly similar practices were to be observed until recently in Brittany and Ireland (countries which never renounced their original Catholicism), and it seems to be the case that the natural religious conservatism of the Celts preserved the cult practice of incubation long after it had ceased to be a major component of continental sanctoral cults; an ancient Christian custom sufficiently deeply embedded in the Welsh religious psyche for it to survive the Reformation by several centuries. The reason why the pilgrimage to Llangybi should have fixed itself on the feast of the Ascension must remain an open question.
For some account of the comparable cults at the other six named places, cf. the entries, respectively, for St Tegla, St Beuno, St Dwyn, St Celynin, St Celer, and St Gredifael in Baring-Gould and Fisher 1907, p.1908, p.1911, p.1913. There is a circumstantial account of the cult at Llangeler in Lhuyd 1911, p.76.
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