Saturday, December 08, 2007

Adventures in Virgil’s Georgics at Bourne

One of the great, unsung heroes of Bourne has to be the Rev. J. Bennison who, according to Thornber’s ‘History of Blackpool and its Neighbourhood’, inherited the estate in 1762 and:
“…ruined his property in an attempt to cultivate it on the plan laid down by Virgil in his Georgics.”
Yes, well, we’d never heard of Virgil’s Georgics either (it sounds like some sort of disease to be honest) so we acquired ourselves a copy translated by J. W. MacKail and attempted to work out exactly where the good reverend went wrong. Would-be farmers please take note.
The Georgics opens with the line:

“What makes the cornfields glad; beneath what star it befits to upturn the ground, Maecenas, and clasp the vine to her elm; the tending of oxen and the charge of the keeper of a flock; and all the skill of thrifty bees; of this I will begin to sing.”
Perhaps not the most auspicious start to an agricultural manual, it must be said, but apparently not enough to set alarm bells ringing for Rev. Bennison.
Following his prosaic introduction Virgil launches himself into a diatribe, warning of:

“…the villain goose and Strymonian crane”
and imploring potential farmers to beware of how:
“…the tiny mouse builds his house and makes his granaries underground, or the eyeless mole scoops his cell; and in chinks is found the toad, and all the swarming vermin that are bred in the earth; and the weevil, and the ant that fears a destitute old age.”
Advocating a pension scheme for ants seems like sound advice, we’re sure you’ll agree, but not as significant, perhaps, as planting crops by moonlight whilst making certain, once a month, to:
“Shun the fifth, the birthday of pale Orcus and the Eumenides.”
The fifth, of course, wasn’t the only monthly date to bear agricultural significance:
“The seventeenth is lucky for setting the vine, for catching and breaking oxen, for stringing loops in the loom; the ninth favours runaways, but thwarts the thief.”
Already the telltale signs of how Rev. Bennison’s fortune came unstuck are starting to show, but let’s press on and see how Virgil’s informative manuscript connects with our own archaeological discoveries.
“For the field is drained by flax-harvest and wheat-harvest, drained by the slumber-steeped poppy of Lethe, but yet rotation lightens the labour; only scorn not to soak the dry soil with fattening dung, nor to scatter grimy ashes over exhausted lands.”
And what do we have at approximately fifteen centimetres in depth in virtually every trench we’ve dug on Bourne Hill so far? A layer of cinders and cannel coal, that’s what, some pieces of which are illustrated in a typical scan below.

Presumably these remnants originated in Rev. Bennison’s hearth. In the same layer of marl we generally find seventeenth/eighteenth century clay pipe stems (again shown in the scan) which, all things considered, most likely belonged to our eccentric minister and were, even more likely judging from the fact that he continued to follow the Georgic’s recommendations to the bitter end, filled with the previously mentioned ‘slumber-steeped poppy of Lethe’.
Marling fields, of course, was a fairly sensible practice. Unfortunately most of Virgil’s advice wasn’t so practical. For example, take his guidelines for guaranteeing a decent crop of vines or apples every year.

We know that Bourne Hall had an orchard through which, apparently, the Danes Pad ran, shown in the photograph above, so imagine the good reverend, if you would, amongst the apple trees dressed in a toga and dog-collar following this snippet of agricultural wisdom:
“Meetly shall we recite Bacchus’ due honour in ancestral hymns, and bear cakes and platters, and led by the horn the victim goat shall stand by the altar, and the fat flesh roast on spits of hazelwood.”
Shades of the Wicker Man spring to mind. Animal sacrifice isn’t exactly the sort of behaviour you’d expect from a member of the clergy and his long suffering spouse, especially wearing, as Virgil informs us:
‘frowning masks of hallow cork’
‘disporting with rude verses and careless jest.’

However, if Virgil’s attitude towards hapless goats was worrying then it was nothing in comparison to how he felt about the lusty goings-on between cows and bulls:
“Banish the bull far into the lonely pasturage, behind a mountain barrier and across broad streams, or keep him shut indoors by the rich farmyard; for the female gradually wastes his strength and consumes him in gazing and allows him not to remember woodland or meadow; yes and often her sweet allurements drive her proud lovers to let their horns decide the rivalry. On broad Sila grazes the shapely heifer.”
Her sweet allurements? The shapely heifer? The poet protests too much, methinks.
Always assuming that Rev. Bennison followed Virgil’s text to the letter, he wouldn’t be the first person on the Fleetwood Peninsula to bother the livestock. In 1228 Henry the Third ordered the Sheriff of Lancaster not to interfere with the Abbot of Duelacres’ sheep at Rossall. Exactly what the sheriff was up to with the local ovine population we can only speculate…although, perhaps, not for too long.
Here’s some more of Virgil’s advice concerning the deviant habits of farm animals:
“That clammy fluid, rightly named hippomanes in shepherd’s language, oozes from the groin: the hippomanes that wicked stepmothers often gather, and mingle with herbs and baleful spells.”
A stern warning to the good reverend there never to taste-test his stepmother’s porridge without checking what she’d put in it first.
Then there’s first aid for bees:
“Straightway their colour changes in sickness; they lose their looks and grow thin and haggard, and carry out of doors the bodies of their dead and lead the gloomy funeral train; and either hang clutching by their feet at the doorway, or shut their house and idle within, spiritless with hunger and benumbed by a cramping chill.”
Sounds like some sort of hive party might be in order, possibly helped along by that aforementioned slumber-steeped poppy of Lethe.
So, all matters considered, what exactly drove the Reverend Bennison into bankruptcy, bringing an end to his experiments in eighteenth century agriculture? Well, between the ‘bloodied entrails’, the ‘trees strewn with talismans’ and the ‘midnight ploughing’ it’s difficult to determine, but Bourne Hall must have been an interesting place to visit back then, especially for those unsuspecting bishops who just happened to drop by unannounced.


John said...

That Virgil... what a kidder!

Oh sure, he has some good advice about planting, but putting in all that other stuff just to see what his friends would do? Classic humour... :0)

Thanks for another great post! Now how about something seasonal? Anything odd or humorous occur at Christmas time in the Fylde of olde?

And I'm not talking about that time you singed your eyebrows off, looking for Santa in the chimney... :0)

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Funny you should mention that. I was just mulling the very same topic over with Michelle and, providing we can find ourselves a bit of spare time between now and then, we'll do our best to throw a specially festive article together for Christmas Day...or thereabouts.

JahTeh said...

The bees, the bees, won't someone think of the bees!
Actually sounds like a couple or three parties I've been to in my life.

Brian Hughes said...


I'm so tempted to say 'What? Vicar and Tart parties?" but that would be just unpleasant and uncalled for. The sort of thing you'd expect Bobbie to come out with, really, only wittier and meant with irony.

Besides...I can't imagine you dressed as vicar.