Beating the Bounds: The Story behind the tradition
At a time when we are celebrating the formation of the Lynsted with Kingsdown Society with a ‘Marking the Bounds’ event (2003 and 2004), it is perhaps timely to consider the ancient tradition that lies behind it. Images of the Day.
Beating the Bounds
At a time when we are celebrating the formation of the Lynsted with Kingsdown Society with a ‘Marking the Bounds’ event, it is perhaps timely to consider the ancient tradition that lies behind it.
In the beginning.
In the mists of time, family groups would have spread out from their initial settlement, clearing the wild wood as they went with fire and flint axe, and cultivating the virgin soil. Eventually they would have run up against the neighbouring community, coming the other way. The need for a recognised territorial boundary was thus born.
Natural features such as rock outcrops, streams and solitary trees (in later times some were ‘Gospel Oaks’) were often used as boundary markers. To avoid boundary disputes, it was important that the location of the boundary line was understood. Before the coming of the Ordnance Survey, with its precise maps in the nineteenth century, the position of town and parish boundaries were passed on by word of mouth. Often this was not enough, and recourse was had to the process of the ‘Beating of the Bounds’.
The Beating of the Bounds is an age-old ritual, possibly having its roots in a fertility rite, traditionally carried out in Rogation Week, between the fifth Sunday after Easter and Ascension Day. In the case of a rural parish, the parson, accompanied by village worthies and a throng of inhabitants, young and old, walked around (‘perambulated’) the parish boundary. He would preach and give blessing at the various markers around the route. In some communities sprigs of tree foliage (oak) were carried, in others elm or willow wands were used to do the ‘beating’ of the boundary markers. This communal occasion was lubricated by liberal quantities of food and drink. But there was a serious purpose: to keep fresh in the local collective memory the exact location of a boundary that may never have been written on any kind of map. To reinforce the message, young lads in the procession (the elders of the future) would often be given a ‘memorable’ experience at particular points on the circuit. For instance a boy might be told to ‘feel the heat’ of a certain boundary stone. As soon as he had touched the stone, he would be grabbed and his finger given a mighty wrench - as a reminder of the stone and its importance. In another recorded instance a boy had his ears pulled and was ‘set on his head’ upon a marker-stone.
The importance of the boundary.
Understanding the position of the boundary was of vital importance to an individual in his relationship to his community, his parish church and local government. It had economic significance in defining common rights (to land, or firewood collection, for instance). In mediaeval times, the church had a right to a ‘tithe’: a tenth of all crops and produce went to the parson as a tribute to the church. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, however, the right to a tithe could be bought and sold, leased or sub-let. The position of a boundary would determine the value of a tithe, and be of great significance. Disputes about boundaries were common, and often heated.
A local ‘beating’
The Norton Church Register records: ‘This is to certify, in future, to all those whom it may concern that the Rector and other substantial men went the twenty eight day of May 1769, the perambulation of the circuit of Norton in the County of Kent. Witness our hands this day and the year above written.’
The benefits of Beating the Bounds.
The process Beating the Bounds was a mixture of community party and official ceremony, no doubt enjoyed by (almost) all. George Herbert, Rector of Bemerton, summed it up: ‘A blessing of God for the fruits of the field; Justice in the preservation of bounds; Charity in living, walking and neighbourly accompanying one another’.
Unfortunately, because of lack of access, and danger of trespass, it is not readily feasible to walk around the exact perimeter of the Parish of Lynsted with Kingsdown today. But perhaps the spirit of the good rector will buoy us along on our celebration event in 2003, as we ‘neighbourly accompany one another’!
- Winchester, A. Discovering Parish Boundaries. Shire Publications, 1990.
- Mabey, R. Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson,1996.
- Hill, W. St Mary, Norton, the church in the orchards. History.
© R Baxter, 2003 Created: 6 August 2003