Inside the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon, above the inner door which leads in to the rest of the church, there is a Norman archway. There’s a Green Man (more information on him and his mysterious origins here) here, carved onto one of the capitals, and below this is the ‘Bride’s Hand’, a rough carving of a hand, with a heart in its centre. According to the church’s visitor guide, the name relates to the old tradition that women arriving at the church to be wed would place their own hand on the carved one, in the hope that it would bring happiness and fertility to their marriage. Apparently, some Longdon brides still observe this custom.
Until I did some reading on the subject, I had no idea how much the rite of marriage has changed over the centuries. I understand that until the Reformation, the majority of the wedding ceremony, including the exchanging of rings and vows, would take place here at the doors of the church and it seems it was only after the couple were husband and wife that they would enter the church, for a nuptial mass.
The Staffs Past Track site has a photograph of the ‘Bride’s Hand’ taken in 1950 and as well as mentioning the above custom, the caption also says that it is believed to be a talisman against the evil eye. Until a fortnight ago, I knew nothing of the symbolism that could be contained within a hand. In Hoar Cross, I came across a hand shaped door knocker, something I assumed meant nothing more than a quirky taste in door furniture. However, when Joss Musgrove Knibb, of the Lichfield Gazette, told me that a similar style of knocker was popular in the Mediterranean, I did more reading. I know that jumping to conclusions about ancient beliefs based on an hour of googling is not advisable. But I’m going to do it anyway.
It seems that the symbol of a hand predates the three Abrahamic religions, but that it appears in all three. In Islam, it is the ‘Hamsa’, sometimes known as ‘the hand of Fatima’ and in Judaism it is known as ‘Hamesh’,or ‘the hand of Miriam’. Although the symbol seems less popular in Christianity, it is apparently known as ‘the Hand of Mary’.
So, it seems this symbol is associated with women, and I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times, although admittedly only on Wikipedia and a couple of other non-academic sites, that it has connections to fertility and pregnancy. I’ve also read that an eye was sometimes added to the centre of the palm, to make its power to avert the evil even stronger. Here at Longdon, in place of an eye, we have a heart. Don’t we?
Of course, the hand at Longdon may ‘just’ be a bit of graffiti, that’s been adopted as a bit of superstition, but who carved it here at Longdon, and when and why? I’ve been to a fair few churches, and have never come across this before. The positioning and the known use of the hand as a protective symbol, does make you wonder….gives the concept of a ‘hand in marriage’ a whole new perspective!
The Parish Church of St James the Great – A Guide for the Visitor
For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present by John R. Gillis