Popular Superstitions, by Washington Irving

Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists

  Farewell rewards and fairies,
    Good housewives now may say;
  For now fowle sluts in dairies
    Do fare as well as they;
  And though they sweepe their hearths no lease
    Than maids were wont to doo,
  Yet who of late for cleanlinesse
    Finds sixpence in her shooe?

—BISHOP CORBET.

I have mentioned the Squire's fondness for the marvellous, and his predilection for legends and romances. His library contains a curious collection of old works of this kind, which bear evident marks of having been much read. In his great love for all that is antiquated, he cherishes popular superstitions, and listens, with very grave attention, to every tale, however strange; so that, through his countenance, the household, and, indeed, the whole neighbourhood, is well stocked with wonderful stories; and if ever a doubt is expressed of any one of them, the narrator will generally observe, that "the Squire thinks there's something in it."

The Hall of course comes in for its share, the common people having always a propensity to furnish a great superannuated building of the kind with supernatural inhabitants. The gloomy galleries of such old family mansions; the stately chambers, adorned with grotesque carvings and faded paintings; the sounds that vaguely echo about them; the moaning of the wind; the cries of rooks and ravens from the trees and chimney-tops; all produce a state of mind favourable to superstitious fancies.

In one chamber of the Hall, just opposite a door which opens upon a dusky passage, there is a full-length portrait of a warrior in armour; when, on suddenly turning into the passage, I have caught a sight of the portrait, thrown into strong relief by the dark pannelling against which it hangs, I have more than once been startled, as though it were a figure advancing towards me.

To superstitious minds, therefore, predisposed by the strange and melancholy stories that are connected with family paintings, it needs but little stretch of fancy, on a moonlight night, or by the flickering light of a candle, to set the old pictures on the walls in motion, sweeping in their robes and trains about the galleries.

To tell the truth, the Squire confesses that he used to take a pleasure in his younger days in setting marvellous stories afloat, and connecting them with the lonely and peculiar places of the neighbourhood. Whenever he read any legend of a striking nature, he endeavoured to transplant it, and give it a local habitation among the scenes of his boyhood. Many of these stories took root, and he says he is often amused with the odd shapes in which they will come back to him in some old woman's narrative, after they have been circulating for years among the peasantry, and undergoing rustic additions and amendments. Among these may doubtless be numbered that of the crusader's ghost, which I have mentioned in the account of my Christmas visit; and another about the hard-riding Squire of yore; the family Nimrod; who is sometimes heard in stormy winter nights, galloping, with hound and horn, over a wild moor a few miles distant from the Hall. This I apprehend to have had its origin in the famous story of the wild huntsman, the favourite goblin in German tales; though, by-the-by, as I was talking on the subject with Master Simon the other evening in the dark avenue, he hinted that he had himself once or twice heard odd sounds at night, very like a pack of hounds in cry; and that once, as he was returning rather late from a hunting dinner, he had seen a strange figure galloping along this same moor; but as he was riding rather fast at the time, and in a hurry to get home, he did not stop to ascertain what it was.

Popular superstitions are fast fading away in England, owing to the general diffusion of knowledge, and the bustling intercourse kept up throughout the country; still they have their strong-holds and lingering places, and a retired neighbourhood like this is apt to be one of them. The parson tells me that he meets with many traditional beliefs and notions among the common people, which he has been able to draw from them in the course of familiar conversation, though they are rather shy of avowing them to strangers, and particularly to "the gentry," who are apt to laugh at them. He says there are several of his old parishioners who remember when the village had its bar-guest, or bar-ghost—a spirit supposed to belong to a town or village, and to predict any impending misfortune by midnight shrieks and wailings. The last time it was heard was just before the death of Mr. Bracebridge's father, who was much beloved throughout the neighbourhood; though there are not wanting some obstinate unbelievers, who insisted that it was nothing but the howling of a watch-dog. I have been greatly delighted, however, at meeting with some traces of my old favourite, Robin Goodfellow, though under a different appellation from any of those by which I have heretofore heard him called. The parson assures me that many of the peasantry believe in household goblins, called Dubbies, which live about particular farms and houses, in the same way that Robin Goodfellow did of old. Sometimes they haunt the barns and outhouses, and now and then will assist the farmer wonderfully, by getting in all his hay or corn in a single night. In general, however, they prefer to live within doors, and are fond of keeping about the great hearths, and basking, at night, after the family have gone to bed, by the glowing embers. When put in particular good-humour by the warmth of their lodgings, and the tidiness of the house-maids, they will overcome their natural laziness, and do a vast deal of household work before morning; churning the cream, brewing the beer, or spinning all the good dame's flax. All this is precisely the conduct of Robin Goodfellow, described so charmingly by Milton:

  "Tells how the drudging goblin sweat
  To earn his cream-bowl duly get,
  When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
  His shadowy flail had thresh'd the corn
  That ten day-labourers could not end;
  Then lays him down the lubber-fiend,
  And, stretch'd out all the chimney's length,
  Basks at the fire his hairy strength,
  And crop-full, out of door he flings
  Ere the first cock his matin rings."

But beside these household Dubbies, there are others of a more gloomy and unsocial nature, that keep about lonely barns at a distance from any dwelling-house, or about ruins and old bridges. These are full of mischievous and often malignant tricks, and are fond of playing pranks upon benighted travellers. There is a story, among the old people, of one that haunted a ruined mill, just by a bridge that crosses a small stream; how that, late one night, as a traveller was passing on horseback, the Dubbie jumped up behind him, and grasped him so close round the body that he had no power to help himself, but expected to be squeezed to death: luckily his heels were loose, with which he plied the sides of his steed, and was carried, with the wonderful instinct of a traveller's horse, straight to the village inn. Had the inn been at any greater distance, there is no doubt but he would have been strangled to death; as it was, the good people were a long time in bringing him to his senses, and it was remarked that the first sign he showed of returning consciousness was to call for a bottom of brandy.

These mischievous Dubbies bear much resemblance in their natures and habits to those sprites which Heywood, in his Heirarchie, calls pugs or hobgoblins:

  "———Their dwellings be
  In corners of old houses least frequented
  Or beneath stacks of wood, and these convented,
  Make fearfull noise in butteries and in dairies;
  Robin Goodfellow some, some call them fairies.
  In solitarie rooms these uprores keep,
  And beate at doores, to wake men from their slape,
  Seeming to force lockes, be they nere so strong,
  And keeping Christmasse gambols all night long.
  Pots, glasses, trenchers, dishes, pannes and kettles.
  They will make dance about the shelves and settles.
  As if about the kitchen tost and cast,
  Yet in the morning nothing found misplac't.
  Others such houses to their use have fitted,
  In which base murthers have been once committed.
  Some have their fearful habitations taken
  In desolate houses, ruin'd and forsaken."

In the account of our unfortunate hawking expedition, I mentioned an instance of one of these sprites, supposed to haunt the ruined grange that stands in a lonely meadow, and has a remarkable echo. The parson informs me, also, that the belief was once very prevalent, that a household Dubbie kept about the old farm-house of the Tibbets. It has long been traditional, he says, that one of these good-natured goblins is attached to the Tibbets family, and came with, them when they moved into this part of the country; for it is one of the peculiarities of these household sprites, that they attach themselves to the fortunes of certain families, and follow them in all their removals.

There is a large old-fashioned fire-place in the farm-house, which affords fine quarters for a chimney-corner sprite that likes to lie warm; especially as Ready-Money Jack keeps up rousing fires in the winter-time. The old people of the village recollect many stories about this goblin, that were current in their young days. It was thought to have brought good luck to the house, and to be the reason why the Tibbets were always beforehand in the world, and why their farm was always in better order, their hay got in sooner, and their corn better stacked, than that of their neighbours. The present Mrs. Tibbets, at the time of her courtship, had a number of these stories told her by the country gossips; and when married, was a little fearful about living in a house where such a hobgoblin was said to haunt: Jack, however, who has always treated this story with great contempt, assured her that there was no spirit kept about his house that he could not at any time lay in the Red Sea with one flourish of his cudgel. Still his wife has never got completely over her notions on the subject, but has a horseshoe nailed on the threshold, and keeps a branch of rauntry, or mountain ash, with its red berries, suspended from one of the great beams in the parlour—a sure protection from all evil spirits.

These stories, however, as I before observed, are fast fading away, and in another generation or two will probably be completely forgotten. There is something, however, about these rural superstitions, that is extremely pleasing to the imagination; particularly those which relate to the good-humoured race of household demons, and indeed to the whole fairy mythology. The English have given an inexplicable charm to these superstitions, by the manner in which they have associated them with whatever is most homefelt and delightful in nature. I do not know a more fascinating race of beings than these little fabled people, that haunted the southern sides of hills and mountains, lurked in flowers and about fountain-heads, glided through key-holes into ancient halls, watched over farm-houses and dairies, danced on the green by summer moonlight, and on the kitchen-hearth in winter. They seem to accord with the nature of English housekeeping and English scenery. I always have them in mind, when I see a fine old English mansion, with its wide hall and spacious kitchen; or a venerable farm-house, in which there is so much fireside comfort and good housewifery. There was something of national character in their love of order and cleanliness; in the vigilance with which they watched over the economy of the kitchen, and the functions of the servants; munificently rewarding, with silver sixpence in shoe, the tidy housemaid, but venting their direful wrath, in midnight bobs and pinches, upon the sluttish dairymaid. I think I can trace the good effects of this ancient fairy sway over household concerns, in the care that prevails to the present day among English housemaids, to put their kitchens in order before they go to bed.

I have said, too, that these fairy superstitions seemed to me to accord with the nature of English scenery. They suit these small landscapes, which are divided by honeysuckled hedges into sheltered fields and meadows, where the grass is mingled with daisies, buttercups, and harebells. When I first found myself among English scenery, I was continually reminded of the sweet pastoral images which distinguish their fairy mythology; and when for the first time a circle in the grass was pointed out to me as one of the rings where they were formerly supposed to have held their moonlight revels, it seemed for a moment as if fairy-land were no longer a fable. Brown, in his Britannia's Pastorals, gives a picture of the kind of scenery to which I allude:

  "———A pleasant mead
  Where fairies often did their measures tread;
  Which in the meadows make such circles green,
  As if with garlands it had crowned been.
  Within one of these rounds was to be seen
  A hillock rise, where oft the fairy queen
  At twilight sat."

And there is another picture of the same, in a poem ascribed to Ben
Jonson.

  "Bywells and rills in meadows green,
    We nightly dance our heyday guise,
  And to our fairy king and queen
    We chant our moonlight minstrelsies."

Indeed, it seems to me, that the older British poets, with that true feeling for nature which distinguishes them, have closely adhered to the simple and familiar imagery which they found in these popular superstitions; and have thus given to their fairy mythology those continual allusions to the farm-house and the dairy, the green meadow and the fountain-head, that fill our minds with the delightful associations of rural life. It is curious to observe how the most beautiful fictions have their origin among the rude and ignorant. There is an indescribable charm about the illusions with which chimerical ignorance once clothed every subject. These twilight views of nature are often more captivating than any which are revealed by the rays of enlightened philosophy. The most accomplished and poetical minds, therefore, have been fain to search back into these accidental conceptions of what are termed barbarous ages, and to draw from them their finest imagery and, machinery. If we look through our most admired poets, we shall find that their minds have been impregnated by these popular fancies, and that those have succeeded best who have adhered closest to the simplicity of their rustic originals. Such is the case with Shakspeare in his Midsummer-Night's Dream, which so minutely describes the employments and amusements of fairies, and embodies all the notions concerning them which were current among the vulgar. It is thus that poetry in England has echoed back every rustic note, softened into perfect melody; it is thus that it has spread its charms over every-day life, displacing nothing, taking things as it found them, but tinting them up with its own magical hues, until every green hill and fountain-head, every fresh meadow, nay, every humble flower, is full of song and story.

I am dwelling too long, perhaps, upon a threadbare subject; yet it brings up with it a thousand delicious recollections of those happy days of childhood, when the imperfect knowledge I have since obtained had not yet dawned upon my mind, and when a fairy tale was true history to me. I have often been so transported by the pleasure of these recollections, as almost to wish that I had been born in the days when the fictions of poetry were believed. Even now I cannot look upon those fanciful creations of ignorance and credulity, without a lurking regret that they have all passed away. The experience of my early days tells me, that they were sources of exquisite delight; and I sometimes question whether the naturalist who can dissect the flowers of the field, receives half the pleasure from contemplating them, that he did who considered them the abode of elves and fairies. I feel convinced that the true interests and solid happiness of man are promoted by the advancement of truth; yet I cannot but mourn over the pleasant errors which it has trampled down in its progress. The fauns and sylphs, the household sprite, the moonlight revel, Oberon, Queen Mab, and the delicious realms of fairy-land, all vanish before the light of true philosophy; but who does not sometimes turn with distaste from the cold realities of morning, and seek to recall the sweet visions of the night?