The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Religious Use of the Bean

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 34-36

The choosing of a person King or Queen by a bean found in a piece of divided cake was formerly a common Christmas gambol at the English and Scottish Courts and in both English Universities. "Mos inolevit et viget apud plurimas nationes, ut in profesto Epiphaniae, seu trium Regum, in quaque familia seu alia Societate, sorte vel alio fortunito modo eligant sibi Regem, et convivantes uną ac genialiter viventes, bibente rege, acclamant: Rex, bibit, bibit Rex, indicta multa qui non clamavert." See the "Sylva Sermonum jucundissimorum," 8vo. Bas. 1568, pp. 73, 246. — Douce. In Ben Jonson's "Masque of Christmas," the character of Baby-Cake is attended by "an Usher bearing a great cake with a bean and a pease." These beans, it should seem from the following passage in Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" were hallowed. He is enumerating Popish superstitutions: "Their Breviaries, Bulles, hallowed beans, Exorcisms, Pictures, curious Crosses, Fables, and Bables." Democritus to the REader, p. 29, edit. fol. Oxf. 1632. Bale, in his "Yet a Course at the Romysh Foxe," &c. Signat. L. 11, attributes to Pope Euticianus, "the blessynge of Benes upon the Aultar."

In the "Anniversary Calendar," there is an amusing extract from Teonge's "Diary" (1676), giving an account of a cake they made on board his ship off the Morea. He (Teonge) says: "The cake was cut into several pieces, and all put into a napkin, out of which every one took his piece, as out of a lottery, then as each piece was broken to see what was in it, which caused much laughter to see our lieutenant prove the cuckold." Probably the peace which contained the bean is referred to.

In "A World of Wonders," 1607, a translation by R. C from H. Stephanus, "Apologie d'Herodote," there are some curious extracts from the "Quadragesimale Spirituale," 1565. Thus, chap. 2: "After the sallad (eaten in Lent at the first service) we eate fried Beanes, by which we understand confession. When we would have beanes well sodden, we lay them in steepe, for otherwise they will never seeth kindly. Therefore, if we purpose to amend our faults, it is not sufficient barely to confess them at all adventure, but we must let our confession lie in steepe in the water of Meditation." And a little after: We do not use to seeth ten or twelve beanes together, but as many as we mean to eate: no more must we let our confession steepe, that is, meditate, upon ten or twelve sinnes onely, neither for ten or twelve days, but upon all the sinnes that ever we committed, even from our birth, if it were possible to remember them." Chap. 3: "Strained Pease (Madames) are not to be forgotten. You know how to handle them so well, that they will be delicate and pleasant to the tast. By these strained pease our allegorizing flute pipeth nothing else but true contrition of heart." "River-water, which continually moveth, runneth, and floweth, is very good for the seething of pease. We must (I say) have contritition for our sins and take the running water, that is, the tears of the heart, which must runne and come even into the eyes." The soft beans are much to our purpose: why soft, but for the purpose of eating? Thus our peas on this occasion are steeped in water.

In the "Roman Calendar," I find it observed on this day, that "a dole is made of soft beans." I can hardly entertain a doubt but that our custom is derived hence. It was usual amongst the Romanists to give away beans in the doles at funerals: it was also a rite in the funeral ceremonies of heathen Rome. Why we have substituted peas I know not, unless it was because they are a pulse somewhat fitter to be eaten at this season of the year. They are given away in a kind of dole at this day. Our popish ancestors celebrated (as it were by anticipation) the funeral of our Lord on Care Sunday, with many superstitious usages, of which this only, it should seem, has travelled down to us. Durandus tells us, that on Passion Sunday "the Church began her public grief, remembering the mystery of the Cross, the vinegar, the gall, the reed, the spear," &c.

Among the "Cries of Paris," a poem composed by Guillaume de Villeneuve in the thirteenth century, and printed at the end of the poem printed by Barbazan, Ordene de Chevalerie, beans for Twelve Day are mentioned: "Gastel ą feve orrois crier." There is a verious curious account in Le Roux, Dictionnaire Comique, tom. ii., p. 431, of the French ceremony of the "Roi de la Feve," which explains Jordaen's fine picture of "Le Roi boit." Bufalde de Verville "Palais des Curieus," edit. 1612, p. 90. See also Pasquier, Recherches de la France, p. 375.

To the account given by Le Roux of the French way of choosing King and Queen, may be added, that in Normandy they place a child under the table, which is covered in such a manner with the cloth that he cannot see what he is doing; and when the cake is divided, one of the company taking up the first piece, cries our, "Fabe Domini pour qui?" The child answers, "Pour le bon Dieu:" and in this manner the pieces are allotted to the company. If the bean be found in the piece for the "bon Dieu," the King is chosen by drawing long or short straws. Whoever gets the bean chooses the King or Queen, according as it happens to be man or woman. Urquhart of Cromarty says, ("Discovery of a most exquisite jewel, &c., 1651, p. 237): "Verily, I think they make use of Kings -- as the French on the Epiphany-day use their Roy de la fehve, or King of the Bean; whom after they have honoured with drinking of his health, and shouting aloud "Le Roy boit, Le Roy boit," they make pay for all the reckoning; not leaving him sometimes one peny, rather than that the exorbitancie of their debosh should not be satisfied to the full."

And elsewhere (Stephanus, World of Wonders, Transl. by R. C. p. 189), we read of a Curate, "who having taken his preparations over evening, when all men cry (as the manner is) the King drinketh, chanting his Masse the next morning, fell asleep in his Memento: and when he awoke, added with a loud voice, The King drinketh."

There is a great deal of learning in Erasmus's Adages concerning the religious use of beans, which were thought to belong to the dead. An observation which he gives us of Pliny, concerning Pythagoras's interdiction of this pulse, is highly remarkable. It is "that beans contain the souls of the dead." For which cause also they were used in the Parentalia. Plutarch, also, tell us, held that pulse to be of the highest efficacy for invoking the manes. Ridiculous and absurd as these superstitions may appear, it is yet certain that our Carling deduce their origin thence. Erasmi Adag. in "A fabis abstineto, Edit. fol. Aurel. Allob. 1606, p. 1906; and Spencer "De Legibus Hebręorum," lib. i. p. 1154. But the latter seems to have thought that the reason for the Pythagorean doctrine was the use of beans and other vegetables at funeral repasts, and their consequent pollution. In the Lemura, which was observed the 9th of May, every other night for three times, to pacify the ghosts of the dead, the Romans threw beans on the fire of the alter to drive them out of their houses. There were several religious uses of pulse, particularly beans, among the Romans. Hence Pliny says, "in eādem peculiaris Religio." Thus in Ovid's "Fasti," B. v. l. 435, where he is describing some superstitious rites for appeasing the dead:

"Quumque manus puras fontana proluit unda;
Vertitus, et nigras accipit ore fabas.
Aversusque jacit: sed dum jacit, Hęcego mitto
His, inquit, redimo meque meosque fabis."

Thus also in Book ii, l. 575:

"Tum cantata ligat cum fusco licia plumbo:
Et septem nigras versat in ore fabas."

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages.

See, generally, January 6 - Epiphany from William Hone, The Every Day Book.

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