sketch of the beating of the bounds

The beating of the bounds

On Thursday, many of us were reminded of the importance of the local community and the administrative ‘boundaries’ that define it. The pageantry of election day, however, can hardly be compared to the peculiarity of a ritual expected to take place this coming week.

On 9th May at 10am, the Rev. Buckley of St Michael at the North Gate will lead a procession from the church to the first of the 29 ‘boundary stones’ that mark the city’s historic parochial border. Wielding willow-sticks ready to ‘beat’, the group will pass through Brasenose College, Cornmarket Street, and even M&S (within which three parochial boundaries meet). Each stone will be prayed over and marked with chalk, before being beaten as attendees chant “mark, mark, mark!”.

This medieval tradition, observed in Oxford for over 600 years, is derived from Anglo-Saxon tradition and has been practised by the parish of St Michael at the North Gate since 1428. Scheduled to occur each year on Ascension Day, it is observed on the Thursday 40 days after Easter, and prefaced by a service to commemorate the Ascension. The beating of the bounds is a rare relic of the Church’s once-crucial civic role in the community. During the heyday of parochial governance, the parish borders were the markings of communal, religious, and political jurisdiction; to trace them was, for many, to walk the border of their world as they knew it.

Thus, beating the bounds was not just ritualistic but the ‘perambulation’ served as a mnemonic practice. Before the development of cartography, the annual ‘beating’ aimed to teach the local youth about the village’s borders, and therefore the limits to parochial jurisdiction and responsibility. Song and prayer eased the journey, and provided devices for remembering the route. Many stories survive too of pain being used to commit the borders to the youths’ memory. A child might be pushed towards some brambles, have their head dunked in a stream or, in what seems to be common practice, be lifted upside down and have their head lightly bashed against astone. 

To ‘beat the bounds’ was a ritual of community, schooling and governance, and, after 1604, of political resistance. To mark local borders was to challenge the Acts of Enclosure, first introduced by the Elizabethan government to divide the land into privatised ‘enclosures’. This disrupted formerly communal ‘open-field systems’ whereby all members of the parish might farm livestock, or cultivate the land. Parishes who had previously aligned their ‘beating’ with Rogation days (when a priest would bless all the village crops), now looked out onto the estates of newly-endowed landlords. To walk the boundaries, was to tread a thin legislative line. 

John Clare, Romantic poet and son of a farm labourer, saw the Acts of Enclosure as the ruin of the parish:

No now not een a stone can lie 

I’m just what eer they like 

My hedges like the winter flye 

And leave me but the dyke 

My gates are thrown from off the hooks 

The parish thoroughfare 

Lord he that’s in the parish books 

Has little wealth to spare 

Today, the issue of zoning and enclosure remains a contentious issue. The Independent Oxford Alliance Party (IOA), who campaigned on an anti-LTN (low traffic neighbourhoods)  platform, gained four seats on the Oxford City Council this week. The complaints levelled against the introduction of LTNs echo Clare’s anti-enclosure sentiments, fearing that local economies, democracy and community are being jeopardised. 

Whilst the procession on Thursday will only last two hours, ending at Lincoln at noon (significantly shorter than the thirteen-hour hike of 1892), the ritual’s observation will provide historic parallels and community links untouched by time.

Image credit: Eva Price