Wednesday, June 13, 2007

An Ancient Custom

(An excerpt from Extraordinary Places…Close to London)

Little Dunmow lies about eight miles south of Thaxted. It is an ancient village rich in history. Domesday Book records of 1086 show Ralph Baynard as Lord of Little Dunmow. In 1104, either Baynard’s wife or sister built a priory and started a custom that is still in effect today: giving a flitch (side) of bacon to any couple who can swear to marital harmony for twelve months and a day.

The custom began with the idea of promoting marital harmony to a couple by offering them a prize and jubilant praise from the village folk. To qualify for the prize, the couple had to swear by means of reciting a rhyme while kneeling on two pointed stones in the churchyard. If the couple could convince the congregation of their commitment to each other, they were awarded the flitch of bacon and carried through the village seated on a chair. The custom has been revived and one can still witness this event.

The following Ancient Rhyme describes the ceremony:

You shall swear by custom and confession,
That you ne'er made nuptial transgression,
Nor since you were married man and wife,
By household brawls, or contentious strife
Or otherwise, at bed or board,
Offend each other in deed or word:
Or, since the Parish Clerk said, Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again;
Or in a twelvemonth and a day,
Repented, even in thought, any way;
But continued true, in thought and desire,
As when you joined hands in holy quire.
If to these conditions, without any fear,
Of your own accord, you freely swear,
A whole flitch of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho' the pleasure be ours, the bacon's your own.

The church in Little Dunmow is quite small and narrow. It was formed from the south aisle and several arches from the nave of the original priory church. There is a chair in the church, which is said to have carried the winners of the Flitch of Bacon, although this has yet to be validated.