Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sheepishly Heading for Easter and Springtime

Easter, and the run up to it, brings to mind a rhyme I used to repeat, long ago and far way near the north-eastern coast of England:
Tid, Mid, Miserai (or Misere)
Carlin, Palm, and Paste egg day.

Reciting it as a child, gobbledegook-wise, I didn't care what it meant, I just wanted to get at those chocolate Easter eggs! I later grasped that it had something to do with the Sundays of Lent, and customs attached.

Carlin(g)s are black peas, eaten on Passion Sunday, On Palm Sunday sometimes dried palm leaves were handed to members of church congregations, and Paste eggs (possibly a corruption of Pasch) eggs were what all the kids eagerly anticipated.

As for the mysterious first line of the rhyme, there are two explanations:
'Tid' was the second Sunday in Lent when, it seems, the Te Deum was sung/chanted in church; Mid could refer to a hymn 'Mi Deus', sung on the third Sunday of Lent; Miserai/misere might be the psalm 'Miserere Mei', sung on the fourth. But there's also a very slight possibility, because the purpose of the rhyme was to count Sundays before Easter, that Tid, Mid was a variation of an ancient Celtic-based method/language once used in the north of England for counting sheep. Exact spelling varies with dialects of northern England, but one, two three, four, five = yan, tan, tithera, mithera, pip. Could 'tithera', 'mithera' equal 'tid' 'mid'? I'm not confident about this, it doesn't really fit snugly. Interesting though. It has been noted that even in parts of the United States the old sheep-counting method is not not unknown, possibly brought across the Atlantic by early immigrants.

The full ancient sheep-counting method went like this, with spelling variations.
(My grandmother and neighbours of her generation always pronounced "one" as "yan", by the way.)


The sheep were counted up to twenty, the shepherd then closed one finger and repeated the count until all his fingers of one hand were down = a hundred sheep. Next he would close a finger on his other hand and begin anew. So up to 500 sheep could be counted using this method.

Regarding the mysterious custom of eating black carlin peas during Lent: there's no religious significance, but the tradition is said to be linked to the civil war of 1644. Royalist Newcastle in the north-east of England was under siege from the Scots. People were dying of starvation. The story goes that, either a French ship docked in Newcastle with a cargo of Maple Peas which were distributed to the people out of charity; or that a French ship was wrecked off the coast near Newcastle and containers of peas were washed ashore, much to the relief of starving inhabitants. Either way, a custom was born! Carlin peas are soaked overnight in water, boiled well then fried in butter and served with vinegar and bread and butter. My East Yorkshire grandmother used to prepare carlins that way, each year around Easter time.

Here's the late and much lamented Jake Thackray with one of his self-penned ditties, very appropriate to this post.

When I first posted on this old counting method, 4 years ago, some comments received added more interesting tid-bits:

David: "Hickory, dickory dock the mouse ran up the clock" is from the same counting scheme

Hi! I didn't know that - but now you've mentioned, of course! The rhythm is the same and..."hovera dovera dik" - Wikipedia: Westmorland shepherds in the nineteenth century used the numbers Hevera, Devera and Dick.

JD : Still used by shepherds in Cumbria (it was on the BBC's 'Country File' not so long ago). Base 20 counting system goes way back to the Babylonians, I think, and was used by the Maya.

Twilight: I suppose 5, 10 or 20 counting methods were an inevitable consequence of humans finding themselves with 5 fingers on each hand - and 5 toes on each foot. :-)

Kaleymorris: This reminds me of a 10-based counting method called Chisanbop. Yours seems a bit more efficient.

Twilight: Hmm - I'd never heard of that one - clever stuff!
Looking for generally related information on finger counting, I came across the fact that, well into the Middle Ages, the Greeks and Romans seem to have used fingers for computations. The Homeric term for counting = "pempathai", which means to count by fives. It's interesting that in the sheep-counting language in my post the word for five is "pim", so it could possibly be a left-over derivation from words used by the occupying Roman legions back in the mists of time?


Wisewebwoman said...

Very interesting post T. It got me thinking about rosary beads, the pocket short one and the biggie for church. 5s and 10s also. Perhaps they had other uses too.

Love the sound of the sheep counting of old.


Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~ Thanks, WWW. Oh - I didn't know there were two sizes of rosary beads - but I see what you mean! Maybe so! It'd be a shame to let a kind of pocket abacus go to waste. ;-)