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A Rogationtide Toast with “Ganging Beer”

From St. Stephen’s News XXII 21

Rogation Sunday (the Fifth Sunday After Easter) and the three Rogation Days that follow tend to be treated with short shrift by most churchgoers today. If they are observed at all it is merely in the singing of hymns such as “We plough the fields and scatter” and antique-sounding prayers for a plentiful harvest.

But until very recently Rogation Sunday and the subsequent Rogation Days played a major role in parish life. Indeed, they were among the jolliest times of the church year—enlivened by processions, parties and all manner of celebrations.

Rogationtide didn’t start out that way, of course. It originated in Vienne, France (not to be confused with Vienna, Austria), in AD 470 after a series of natural disasters that had caused great suffering in the locality.

In response, St. Mamertus, Archbishop of Vienne, proclaimed a fast and ordered special litanies to be said as the population processed around their fields, begging God’s protection and seeking his blessing on the newly germinating crops.

Rogationtide was, thus, a specially designated occasion for asking God’s aid and predictably, perhaps, its name is derived from the Latin word rogare, which means “to ask.”

It takes no time at all for good customs to spread—especially in societies closely connected with the soil and highly dependent on the vagaries of nature. Soon Rogation was being celebrated all over Europe, including the British Isles.

Technically, of course, Rogationtide was a time of fasting. Indeed, Rogation Days were originally nicknamed “Grass Days,” because the eating of meat was forbidden.

But people have always adored parades, and it didn’t take long for Rogationtide to develop into a popular festival, celebrating the arrival of spring and the planting season.

New nicknames for it abounded. Just as some Americans call Thanksgiving “Turkey Day,” in England some folks dubbed Rogationtide the “Gang Days,” from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, “to go.” Others called Rogation the “Cross Days.” Both names refer to the fact that Rogation was celebrated with processions toting crosses and banners around the countryside.

In some parishes, the procession took more than one day and the whole business became an occasion for several days of picnics and parties of all sorts-–not exclusively of an entirely religious nature.

In Britain, the parish was not merely an ecclesiastical term. It was also the basic unit of government. Vestries or parish councils were responsible not just for the upkeep of the church, but for the civil administration of the village as well.

Rogation processions, which generally circled the entire parish, were useful for teaching people, particularly the young, the parochial boundaries. This was vital knowledge in days when the parish was responsible for maintaining the roads within its boundaries, for keeping the peace and relieving the poor.

The custom of “beating the bounds” was in part an educational process. The processions customarily stopped at boundary marks and other significant landmarks of the parish, such as a ancient tree, or a rock, or perhaps a pond.

After the priest read the Gospel and perhaps placed a cross on the landmark, tradition required the boys of the parish to be beaten with willow wands or subjected to some other indignity to help them to remember the parish borders.

In later, gentler times, the boys were allowed to beat the boundary markers with the willow wands rather than being beaten themselves.

The annual beating of the bounds also afforded a natural opportunity to resolve boundary issues. This, in turn, led to a tradition of settling personal disputes during Rogationtide.

Making up quarrels being a cause for celebration, the participants ended the Rogation processions by sharing a tankard or two (or three or four or more) of specially brewed ale, called Ganging Beer, and munching so-called Rammalation Biscuits.

All in all, it sounds an awful lot more fun than just singing “We plough the fields and scatter” and heading to McDonald’s for a burger. (No disrespect to that fine Scottish restaurant intended. Ed.)

But if anyone should have a recipe for Ganging Beer or Rammalation Biscuits to hand, drop it off at the Church Office and see what the Silly Summer Supper chefs can do. GPH✠

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