St Martin’s Land -
Could the name of the humble bird the 'House Martin' offer clues to a lost belief in a supernatural realm bordering our own?
I'm reposting this newly edited version of this piece from my website in honour of Garner's 'Boneland' which is heavily concerned with the medieval poem 'Pearl' which was one of the inspirations for this piece.
A few years ago I began a novel (subsequently mostly lost) entitled ‘St Martin’s Land’ in which I voiced the idea that the origin of the name of the House Martin, a bird that arrives on our shores each year as a summer migrant, somehow answered the question that must have often puzzled our ancestors – where did these birds go in Winter? It was an answer more prosaic than the simple truth (Africa) and one that had its foundations in folklore concerning another, more mysterious, realm that was once thought to border our own.
I had put this book and its ideas aside it must have been six years ago, but then last summer I stumbled again upon a few lines of a medieval poem known as ‘Pearl’, written by the same anonymous 14th century poet who penned ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ – which seemed to support a theory I’d come up with concerning certain sacred earthly rivers and the Milky Way, but which I’d seemed to have missed on past readings. It was this that brought back to mind my lost book which had been indirectly based on this poem, as I shall explain. With my head now buzzing with the ideas I’d presented in this book (in which the appearance of these birds was key) I resolved to put my ideas on paper at some point.
Why, then, are House Martins so called? If one seeks to discover the origin of the name of this bird (and its cousin, the Sand Martin) one tends to draw a blank. In H Kirke Swann’s "A Dictionary of English & Folk Names of British Birds" the author states that ‘The... name, "Martin," occurs in Merrett (1667) and Willughby (1678).’ And that ‘Turner (1544) calls this species "rok martinette or chirche martnette….Martinet is French for the swift.’ The name, then, we can presume, was known before this date – but as to what the name Martin refers we are left ignorant. It may be of French origin, in which case we have the probability that it was brought to England by the Normans. But why Martin(ette)?
Here’s where my eclectic reading of old folklore and literature comes in. My book ‘St Martin’s Land’ was prompted by three main sources – the first being the medieval poem ‘Pearl’ mentioned above, the second being the medieval story of the Green Children of Woolpit and the third from an old ballad named ‘The wife of Usher’s well’ all of which provide, in their own ways, clues to the naming of the bird. But I shall start with the Green Children, for it is in this tale we first hear of this mysterious land of St Martin. The tale, told as historic fact, is to be found in the Chronicles of William of Newbury, who was writing in the second half of the twelfth century – and I make no apologies for printing his account in full:
In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities, called "Wolfpittes," that is, in English, "Pits for wolves," and which give their name to the adjacent village. During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food. But, when they were nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, it happened, that some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately seized with avidity, and examined the stalk for the pulse, but not finding it in the hollow of the stalk, they wept bitterly. Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread.
 At length, by degrees, they changed their original colour, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. It seemed fitting to certain, discreet persons that they should receive the sacrament of baptism, which was administered accordingly. The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say.
 Moreover, after they had acquired our language, on being asked who and whence they were, they are said to have replied, "We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth." Being further asked where that land was, and how they came thence hither, they answered, "We are ignorant of both those circumstances; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father's flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund's, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping." Being questioned whether in that land they believed in Christ, or whether the sun arose, they replied that the country was Christian, and possessed churches; but said they, "The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river." Book One, ch 27
Again, analysis of the Green Children is a fascinating topic in itself and to which I will return in another article, but all I feel I need to say at this moment is that green was the colour of both death and the fairy folk in medieval tradition, so we are not to see these children as mortals like us, but more as otherworldly beings, and this is surely what St Martin’s land is – an Otherworld. In Celtic lore the Otherworld bordered ours, and often it was said that summer in that world was winter in ours (a belief expressed in the Welsh word for the Otherworld, Annwfn, which means literally ‘not-’ or ‘anti-world)’. What’s more the condition of eternal twilight shows that this was a kind of ‘liminal’ realm, a border-land, a place of ‘neither nor’; it was neither day nor night – and this, too, is a condition often spoken of ‘faerie’, the land of enchantment that bordered our own. This ‘liminality’, the state of being on the boundary – neither day nor night – we shall see as being increasingly important as we go on.
If there were any doubts as to the ‘otherliness’ of this location mentioned as the origin of the green children then confirmation of its supernatural quality is given in the description of the broad river that separated it from a ‘luminous country’ – for to medieval minds this could not be seen as anything other than the river of death that separates us from Paradise, (and thus suggesting to contemporary ears, no doubt, that St Martin’s land may have been some kind of ‘purgatory’).
As I stated at the start, I was reminded of all of this when I happened to re-read some lines from ‘Pearl’ last summer, for ‘Pearl’ makes mention of this self-same river. For those who don’t know, the Pearl referred to in the title begins, it seems, as a precious object that the poet has lost in an orchard and searches for, but as the poem commences we realise that this is a symbol for something more precious – his daughter – who he lost to death when she was very young. The poet describes how lying in the orchard he sinks into a dream or vision and finds himself walking through a wonderful country until he finds himself faced with a broad river, of which:
In the founce ther stonden stones stepe,
As glente thurgh glas that glowed and glyght,
As stremande sternes, quen strothe-men slepe,
Staren in welkin in winter nyght
In the depths stood dazzling stones aheap
As a glitter through glass that glowed with light,
As streaming stars when on earth men sleep
Stare in the welkin in winter night
(Illustration from the Pearl poem manuscript)
The connection between this river on earth and the river in heaven, the Milky Way (and the appearance of shining quartz in a number of rivers linked etymologically with the heavens), will be explored in a future posts – but it is clear in this poem that the river has a heavenly aspect for it borders Paradise. For there, on the yonder shore of this stream, stands a girl:
A mayden of menske, ful debonare;
Blysande whyt was her bleaunt;
I knew hyr well, I had sen hyr ere
She wore a gown of glistening white,
A gentle maid of courtly grace,
Erewhile I had known her well by sight…
The poet, we discover, had known her well by sight because this girl is his lost daughter. What follows is a heart-breaking exchange between the two that speaks of loss but also ultimately of hope that one day both will be united again in Paradise. I won’t paraphrase it because it should certainly be read in the original. Failing that read Alan Garner's 'Boneland' which deals with the same theme, and which contains numerous nods to the poem.
The Pearl poet makes it clear that for to cross the river would be death, and though the grieving father may feel tempted, he chooses not to follow his daughter. No such constraints, it would seem, were placed upon the green children who were able to cross from the borders of Paradise.
My third source for the lost book which has bearing on the name ‘martin’ presents us with three more individuals who made this journey, not from the borders of paradise, but from paradise itself, though their sojourn back on earth lasted but a night. These are the three sons found in the traditional English ballad ‘The wife of Usher’s well’ a ballad which provides us with our final and most revealing ‘Martin’ reference – one that is key to untangling the name’s origin.
There lived a wife at Usher's Well,
And a wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And sent them over the sea.
They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carline wife,
That her three sons were gane.
"I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood."
It befell about the Martinmass,
When nights are long and mirk,
The carlin wife's three sons came hame,
And their hats were o the birk.
It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o Paradise,
That birk grew fair enough
Her sons have come from Paradise – they even wear hats made of the bark (or birch, the two words are related) of the Tree of Paradise as a sign of their origin; they have crossed that river of death though unlike the green children it is clear that once the cock crows the following day they must return to paradise. (And here I use the ‘Steeleye Span’ version, rather than the original, just because I like it)
Then up and crowed the blood red cock
And up and crowed the grey
The oldest to the youngest said
It's time we were away
For the cock does crow and the day doth show
And the channerin worm doth chide
And we must go from Ushers Well
To the gates of Paradise
The crux of my lost book had been the point when the son of the old lady in whose house the hero was staying returned home – in military gear from WWI even though the year was 1945, returning home from an earlier war after a sojourn across that same gleaming river as divided the maiden from her father in Pearl, and to which the protagonist of my book, following the dead son home after the crowing of the cock, was to seek out his own wife and child, killed during the Blitz. But I digress… It is the date of the return of the sons in this ballad that is important – it is Martinmas, the feast day of St Martin of Tours, the French Saint, which falls upon the 11th November.
What, then, is the importance of this date? It is quite clear from folk-customs throughout Europe that this festival marked the start of winter. In other words it lay on the border of summer and winter, that ‘liminal’ point between the two polarities that was the feature of the Celtic otherworld. On a practical level it was the point in the year when cattle that were not to be overwintered were slain and the meat eaten or salted. But it also marked the end of the All Souls festivities and is clear that much of its origins lay in the nearby Celtic feast of Samhain. Now Samhain (‘summer’s end’) is traditionally celebrated on 31st October/1st November so Martinmas falls less than two weeks later. This festival saw the opening of the doors between the worlds – when fairies were abroad or man could stumble into fairyland and it seems obvious that the sons of Usher’s well return home at Martinmas thanks to a similar quality of that feast: the doors to paradise/the land of the dead stand open.
What I would argue is that, yes, the feast of Martinmas was to be seen as a time that the gateway to this other realm was accessible; and this being the case might not the realm itself be named after the festival – the gates of St Martin? Was not St Martin’s land the land that was opened on this feast day? And were not the qualities of that land perhaps suggestive of that time of year: ‘neither nor’ in the manner of the Celtic otherworld? But as I said above, the Celtic otherworld was not just ‘liminal’ but opposite to our world: day when here it was night, hot when our land was cold; these were the ‘summerlands’, or the ‘summer country’. Which finally brings me on to the birds…
Where else would the birds of summer go when they vanished in the winter but to this land of sunny winters? Here, I believe, the possible French origin of the word Martin comes to the fore. Let us say that in France these birds leave the shores of the Mediterranean a fair bit later than they do in Britain. The last of them to leave the south of France would probably depart around the end of October. And where would they be headed? One must imagine that some travellers or merchants brought back knowledge that these birds in fact travelled to the south – to the southern hemisphere, in fact, where the seasons were reversed and what was winter here was summer there. These birds, departing just before Martinmas and travelling to a strange southerly land with alternate seasons to our own, no doubt began to accrue folklore associated with such another ‘underworld’ with opposite climates – the otherworld of native beliefs. This otherworld, we have seen from the tale of the Green children of Woolpit was a liminal realm bordering Paradise, and it took its name, we could argue from ‘The wife of Usher’s Well’ from the date of that liminal festival, that hinge in time between summer and winter. Somehow or other the knowledge of the journey of these birds to the southern-hemisphere melded with the folkore of a land that was summer when winter held sway in the real world, and thus the birds were thought to disappear through that liminal door, crossing the sparkling river of death, and entering St martin’s land; and thus they were named: the birds of Martin.
Now, if this seems fanciful we must listen to the words of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who as a child in Germany questioned where Storks vanished to in the winter; he tells how a local man tied a parchment to one of the poor bird’s legs with a question written upon it, asking, if it were found, whether the finder could please reply as to their location so that they could uncover the truth. Sure enough the next spring the stork came back, a new parchment on its leg bearing an enigmatic answer – that they had never heard of the land mentioned in the letter (Germany), but the stork had overwintered in St John’s land...
Clearly the migrant storks were seen to vanish into a strange country that had never heard of our land, much as the Green children had never known ours. Like the green children and the sons of the wife of Usher’s well, the birds of England were thought to journey to/from another realm – the land known as St Martin’s land after the feast on which its doors lay open, and it was after that land the birds, I believe, were named.