Not that long ago – until only 150 years or so – if your cattle came down with murrain or foot and mouth, there was a solution. The ‘need fire’.
Each household extinguished their hearth fire, then a new, communal fire was lit using friction, either with flints or by rubbing sticks together. Damp wood was added to the fire to create a lot of smoke, then the village’s cattle and swine1 were driven through the smoke in order of age. The householders then lit a brand in the communal fire, and re-lit their domestic hearth.
The cattle-curing aspect may be the last surviving memory of something much more significant. Today, we might wonder if the smoke or the heat had some affect on the micro-organisms that were causing the illness, and hence if there was some logical, albeit hit-and-miss, basis for believing this might work. And perhaps this is true, but, of course, knowledge of bacteria is recent, and this tradition is not. Two hundred – and two thousand – years ago, people feared the cause was otherworldly.
In the 1850s, a Mr Taylor, of Sawrey, near Hawkshead, wrote2,
‘A well-to-do old farmer having lost several of his cattle by some disease then very prevalent in the neighbourhood, and being able to account for it in no way so rationally as by witchcraft, he had recourse to the following remedy, recommended to him by a weird sister in the district as an effectual protection from the attacks of the foul fiend. A few Stones were piled together in the farmyard, and wood and straw having been laid thereon the fuel was ignited by fire obtained by friction, all the neighbours for miles around attending with their cattle to go through the solemnity. The cattle were made to pass through the fire and smoke in the order of their dignity and age, commencing with the horses and ending with the swine. The ceremony having been duly gone through, the enlightened owners of the herds and flocks, along with their families, followed the example of the cattle, and the ‘sacrifice to Baal’ was considered complete; and the assembled throng repaired to their several homes in the full gratification of having performed a great deed.’
There are several other recorded instances of need fires of a similar date:
Keenground, 1836: Isaac Hodgeson recalled the fire being brought on-site in a pan.
Finsthwaite, 1837: Robert Scales reported a need fire to cure cattle murrain.
Keswick, 1841: the fire was brought farm-to-farm from Dunmail Raise.
Hollin Bank, 1847: Mr Wilson recalled the last need fire at his family farm.
Fieldhead, 1847: John Usher, ditto.
The last known need fire took place at Scaleby, during the cattle plague of 1865-6.3
It’s interesting to note that even at this late date, Mr Taylor knew that the fire was associated with ‘Baal’; this is Bel, the Celtic fire god, after whom Beltane5 – the Celtic name for May Day – is named. In old Welsh literature, Bel is said to be the father of both Lud/Lugus, and Afallach, who we’ve already met in Cumbria. Many Celtic cultures, including Cumbria, had held bonfires on May Day, midsummer and Samhain (31st October – although of course in later years this was replaced by 5th November) for a good couple of thousand years.
It wasn’t just livestock, either; note that Mr Taylor’s villagers followed the animals through the fire. There are whispers that suggest that ‘need fires’ cured sick children, although this was obviously considered un-christian, and therefore to be spoken of in muted tones, when it was reported in the 19th century.
The re-lighting of household fires from the need fire is also significant4. Even when the last need fires were recorded, fire was a capricious thing. There were no matches, firelighters and so on. Hearth fires were never allowed to go out, and if they did, you took a light from someone else’s fire. So, all fires were spawned from other fires; there was no such thing as a ‘new’ fire unless you started it the hard way with that magical ‘spark’ from friction. The need fire wasn’t just about sick cattle and old festivals; it was a ‘new start’ that cut ties with past difficulties.
So what finally saw off this ancient tradition? Was it the sneering tone of ‘educated’, urban gentlemen, like Mr Taylor of Sawrey? Was it the development of understanding of disease? Perhaps the invention of the ‘lucifer’ match took the mystery out of fire? Whatever the case, they’ve been out of fashion for 150years.
A papal synod tried to ban need fires in 747CE2. It only took 1100 years to come into effect.
- Note that sheep never seem to be involved. Is this because sheep were a Viking introduction, so not associated with a Celtic practice? Opinions appreciated.
- As quoted by Henry Swainson Cowper, Hawkshead(1899).
- The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976).
- Denham Tract, 1895. ii:50 as quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore
- Marjorie Rowling (see 3) quotes Pennant, who wrote in 1772, ‘Till of late years the superstition of the bel-tin was kept up in these parts…’ (Keswick)