Brideshand Revisited

Last Summer, I wrote about the ‘Bride’s Hand’ carved into the stonework of the south porch of St James the Great at Longdon. It’s an old tradition that brides arriving at the church would place their own hand against it, in the hope that it would bring good fortune and fertility to their impending marriage. Apparently, some twenty-first century Longdon brides-to-be still partake in this ritual.

The 'Bride's Hand' Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

The ‘Bride’s Hand’ Carving, St James the Great, Longdon

Yesterday, I was idly scrolling through Twitter when two hands, similar to the one at Longdon, grabbed my attention. The image had been taken from Timothy Easton’s article on symbols which appears in the Winter edition of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings‘ magazine (1), and the carvings themselves are to be found on the south doors of two churches in the neighbouring Gloucestershire villages of Ampney St Mary and Ampney Crucis.  Until now, I wasn’t sure whether the Bride’s Hand was just a quirky bit of history unique to Longdon but the appearance of similar symbolism, in a similar position, at churches one hundred miles south of here suggests not. Timothy Easton believes that the carvings were added to send a very definite ‘Stop!’ sign to any evil spirits attempting to sneak inside.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

South porch of St James, Longdon where the carving can be found.

As anyone who follows the Medieval Graffiti project will know, these hands are just one of the many types of markings that can be found in our churches. Some were an attempt to ward off evil spirits and no doubt some were an attempt to ward off boredom. St James the Great may be filled with beautiful carvings but I can’t help being drawn to these ones that aren’t really supposed to be there. For me, a crudely etched protective symbol and Joseph Nevill’s graffiti trump the Forster family’s weeping cherubs and marble tombs. Hands down.

Longdon graffiti

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

Longdon carvings

The Stoneywell Chapel, used as a private chapel between 1520 and 1944, by families including the Ormes and the Forsters, former owners of nearby Hanch Hall

Longdon graffiti 2

Graffiti at St James the Great, Longdon

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

The tomb of John Forster, Hanch Hall

(1) Which their press officer very kindly sent to me after I sent an excited tweet telling them I’d seen one just like that.

An Old Wives' Tale

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.

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The Bride’s Hand

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Inner door of south porch with Norman arch

 

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Green Man at Longdon

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.

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Door knocker at Hoar Cross

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’.

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Madonna’s Head in between the arches of the Stonywell Chapel, inside the church

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!

Sources:

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

http://voyseyandjones.wordpress.com/tag/fatima-hand-door-knocker/

http://israelity.com/tag/archeology/