Here’s a clue: Staffordshire has the knot, Suffolk the horseshoe and Devon has the Topsham cross. Any ideas what I am talking about? Other local names include Maiden Cross, Boat and Turnip while in the westcountry they were often called a Neck. Today, we generally just refer to them as corn dollies.
I’ve always rather liked these intricate and rather beautiful woven shapes and have had various designs hanging on beams and on mantlepieces over the years. In fact, this blog was inspired by me finding the tattered remains of a dolly that had fallen behind an arrangement in the kitchen fireplace – oops, housekeeping fail Joanna!
It is said that the name corn dolly comes from a corruption of ‘corn idol’ and that this straw ‘idol’ was a winter refuge for the ‘Spirit of the Harvest’. Normally the spirit lived in the growing crops but when they were cut it became homeless and so the hollow straw woven corn dolly provided a winter sanctuary.
As with so many old traditions, the concept has its roots in the pagan ‘circle’ – as in everything is born, dies, and is reborn, just the harvest is sown, it ripens, the crop is harvested and then the spirit, represented by the corn dolly, is eventually ploughed back into the soil where it grows again.
Each county had its own variation on the corn dolly theme resulting in lots of different shapes and designs. In Devon, the most traditional design was the ‘neck’, which was always made from the last sheaf of corn to be cut on any farm. Linked to this was the tradition of ‘crying the neck’ in which great ceremony was displayed when cutting the last sheaf.
It appears that there were two sorts of tradition concerning the last ‘neck’, it was either taken in as it was or made into a corn dolly. Either way, the neck was kept until after Christmas and then on ‘Plough Monday’ (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) it was cast into the first furrow and returned to the soil, this would ensure a good harvest for the year. If the dolly was not ploughed under then the harvest was doomed to failure.
Wheat straw was the easiest material to plait and old varieties with long hollow stems – such as the wonderfully named Maris Widgeon, Flamingo or Squarehead Master – were used. Today, farmers grow shorter stemmed cereal varieties and modern harvesting methods cut the straw shorter. Finding ears of corn with stalks long enough to make corn dollies has become difficult and sadly they have largely faded into harvest lore. And yet, a few farmers still grow the old, long stemmed cereal varieties for thatching and some people who have retained the skills still make the dollies. So, if you are lucky, you might come across a ‘dolly maker’ at a country show and craft fair.
Well, I’m debating sneaking outside and digging a small furrow and burying the remains of this particular corn dolly specimen. I’d hate to blight the crops, and it might do my garden good. I’ve just got to manage it when Richard isn’t looking…!