The Tradition of  Beating the Bounds

Beating the Bounds has taken place in a variety of forms in Britain for over 2000 years and has developed from many different cultures from across Europe and beyond.

Prior to the Roman invasion, and well before the arrival of Christianity in Britain, Celtic rituals that recognised the passing of the seasons were of great significance. Springtime was important, particularly for rural communities, dependent on the fertility of crops or plentiful supplies of fish. The festival of Beltane, which coincided with May Day, marked the second half of the Celtic year and included elements closely associated with the marking of boundaries. Birch trees, one of the first to come into leaf, were especially significant. It is suggested that Maypole dancing is derived from the tradition of dancing round a birch tree to celebrate Springtime.

The Romans worshipped a number of gods associated with fertility and the purification of the land. In a festival called Robigalia they worshipped the god of boundaries called Terminus and would lead a procession around their fields.

Scandinavian tribes in Britain influenced and modified some of the Celtic traditions and involved the worship of gods such as Eostre, the goddess of Spring, from which the name Easter derives.

Later, the Anglo Saxons changed a largely lawless society, and through land ownership, established a new rule of law that needed periodic enforcement. It was crucial that demarcations between neighbouring communities were clearly recognised to avoid boundary disputes breaking out. Beating the Bounds would have played an important part in reinforcing Anglo Saxon charters.

Such ceremonial processions served to establish the power the charter-holder had over tenants and serfs and was an important means of asserting the law, defining the rights of tenants and the exercise of feudal power by the landowner. Adolescent boys might also be “switched” (hit with willow wands), thrown over hedges, into brambles or ponds, or, where a boundary had been built over, required to climb up chimneys or over roofs. The custom also involved young boys being held upside down and having their heads bumped on a marker or “Boundstone” at certain points along the boundary.

At a time when maps were neither common nor accurate, all these actions made sure the exact location of the boundary was imprinted on successive generations of the community.

Although Christianity first began to arrive in Britain around the 5th Century,  it would have existed alongside Pagan traditions. The celebration of “Rogantide” as part of the Church’s litany probably reached England around the 8th Century and was introduced as a Christian substitute for the Roman pagan celebration of Robigalia.

The festival of Rogantide appears to have originated in 467AD in France when the Bishop of Vienne was desperate to seek God’s intervention, following a series of devastating events that plagued the inhabitants. His action resulted in “Beating the Bounds” becoming a Christian ceremony. Rogantide derives from the Latin rogatio meaning to intercede, ask or beseech. “Rogation days” were fixed in the Church’s calendar to coincide with the time of the year when God’s blessing was sought for the seeds sown in Spring; it also coincides with Ascension Day, which is five weeks after Easter. It became a major event in the church calendar and evolved into a walk led by the priest.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian jurisdiction became entwined with that of the manorial estates, as land was often granted by the Lord of the Manor to the Church. Literacy was limited to the clergy and a few educated estate owners. Therefore processions made sure that boundaries were recognised by parishioners and had not been encroached on by neighbouring landowners.

In 1548 the protestant reformers prohibited the carrying of banners in processions by the clergy although Queen Mary later rescinded this particular church law. During the reign of Elizabeth 1 the unification of Church and State led to the annual Rogation festival becoming a more subdued affair once again. In the 1640s, Oliver Cromwell banned all such celebrations as part of the Puritan’s prohibition of religious ceremonies.

The restoration of the monarchy and the re-establishment of Church festivals led to a revival of Rogantide as an important feast day and processions once again walked around the boundaries of the parish. However the tradition died out towards the end of the 19th Century, largely as a result of the impact of the Enclosure Acts and the transfer of church parish jurisdiction to local government.

Pictures of walks to celebrate
Beating the Bounds of the Village
can be found by clicking here.