Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The contentious origin of well dressing

I've just returned from a trip to Derbyshire, where I visited Chatsworth House. Seeing as though I generally try to document a bit of folklore for every new place I go, I did some research and some observations when I was down there.

Probably the most popular tradition the county is known for is well dressing, which is the practise of decorating water sources such as wells with a wooden frame covered in flower petals, often depicting a scene, usually religious (Christian).

I stayed in the tiny village of Pilsley, which hosts well decorating in July, so unfortunately I didn't get chance to see any while I was out there. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the practise and how it got its start in Derbyshire so I dug deeper. I found that there are really two conflicting origins for the tradition, but I have a theory. You see, one version puts it down to Celtic roots, as a celebration of water. This makes sense, as much of the land there is made from limestone which quickly absorbs water, meaning it was quite precious to the inhabitants of the land. Of course, water was also worshipped in this pre-Roman age and it was common practise to make offerings to wells, bogs and lakes, as it was said to appease the spirits therein. So well dressing probably came about as an amalgamation of those two reasons.

However, the second origin story puts the tradition forward hundreds of years, 1348, when the black death struck. A source of fresh, "non-contaminated" water would have been venerated, so it's easy to see why people think this may have marked the beginning of the tradition. It is said the practise was born in Tissington, which remained untouched by the plague. But I suspect that this origin wasn't the case and the people in these times just 'hopped on' the well dressing tradition as it were. We can see this happen throughout history and this smacks of 'folklore assimilation'. This is the same thing I suspect happened to Bonfire Night, which was tacked on to the Celtic harvest festival.

Although well dressing almost became extinct in the 1950s, it was revived due to renewed interest in Derbyshire from tourists. The well dressing ceremony signifies the beginning of the Wakes, or a week of celebrations in the area, ending in a carnival.