Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Arm yourselves! It's Sting-Nettle Day!

Stinging Nettle Plant
A Stinging Nettle - Yesterday (just before noon)
A strange Devonshire custom on the Third of May is "Sting Nettle Day".

On this day children would arm themselves with nettles and thrash each other and any passing strangers. They would stuff their pockets with dock leaves ready to administer relief to any stings as and when they occurred.

Some say that this yearly rite occurred because they were mean little ragamuffins, whilst others say it is a re-enactment of "The Nettle and the Dock" a now obscure folk tale.

The Nettle and the Dock

One day the Prince of Fools asked his servant to make him a coat that would make him aloof and untouchable. His servant Bright Peter, wearing dock leaf gloves, set about sewing the Prince a nettle coat. When it was ready the Prince of Fools put on the coat and was stung terribly from neck to waist. He railed at Bright Peter who said that it would only sting someone who was foolish. The Prince of Fools did not want to be seen as foolish and so stopped complaining but spent the rest of the day in the most terrible discomfort. 

The Prince of Fools stood as still as he could manage, for movement meant further stings, and tried to appear calm and proud of his terrible coat. As he stood there a beautiful maiden passed by. She was more beautiful than a perfect sunset and more lovely than the blossom in May. He asked her to come over and speak with him awhile. She obliged and they stood and talked in low tones, she smiling at him and he longing for her embrace. After some time had passed she told him she had to go. He reached out to give her a farewell embrace and as he engulfed her in his arms she screamed a deafening scream and ran from him, shouting curses, before throwing herself into a patch of dock leaf and rolling about in a frenzy.

The Prince of Fools was most upset and called his servant to his side. 
"This is your fault," he said. "You made this wretched coat."
"But sir," said Bright Peter. "You wanted to be aloof and untouchable."
The Prince of Fools shook his head and demanded that the coat be removed. Bright Peter obliged, ignoring the screams of pain as the coat brushed against the Prince's already tender skin.

Oh how tender his skin was! How red! How raw! How blistered! He cried out to Bright Peter for some respite from his pain. Bright Peter told him that the only way to cure this blight was to use the very venom that had caused it.
"Five hundred lashes should do it," he said.
The Prince of Fools nodded. And so it was that Bright Peter called the pretty maiden, the children of the village and all who had been wronged by the Prince of Fools, to gather up dock leaves for themselves and nettles for the prince.

And they spent the afternoon and evening whipping the unfortunate Prince whilst Bright Peter made him a new coat from dock leaves.

This tale appears to hint that the poor and common are in touch with the land whilst the rich, landed gentry do not understand its power. It is a theme that runs through folklore throughout the world as well as tales from the Commedia Dell Arte and medieval jongleurs.

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