While Catholics went about the parish on the Minor Rogation Days, reciting prayers and litanies, after the Reformation the parish perambulations often took place on Ascension Day and were called “The Beating of the Bounds”. By the time the Rev. Francis Kilvert wrote of his experience at Oxford in 1876, it had become an enjoyable excursion (especially for the boys) in which prayer and supplication had little or no part:
“We suddenly became aware that the peace of this paradise was being disturbed by the voices and laughter and trampling of a company of people and immediately there came into sight a master and a bachelor of arts in caps and gowns carrying a ladder on their shoulders assisted by several men, and attended by a number of parish boys. Every member of the company bore in his hand a long white peeled willow wand with which they were noisily beating and thrashing the old City walls and the Terrace Walk… The ladder was let down over the city walls at two places where the walls were crossed by the parish bounds and at certain important points which it was desired that the boys should keep in mind they were made to scramble for sweetmeats… It seemed to be an ancient custom here that those who beat the bounds should be regaled with bread, cheese and ale from the private buttery of the President of Corpus. Accordingly we gathered under an old archway while the customary dole was handed out to us… Here Knox took occasion to remark with a sidelong look at Mayhew and myself that all those who beat the bounds were expected to contribute towards the expenses of the Church. The proposed offertory however produced nothing… Here there was a grand uproar in the quadrangle, the men threw out to the boys old hats (which were immediately used as footballs), biscuits were also thrown out and hot coppers, and the quadrangle echoed with shouting and laughter and the whole place was filled with uproar, scramble, and generally licence and confusion…”
William Plomer, editor. Kilvert’s Diary, 1870-1879. (1947) pp. 363-365.
Robert Chambers in his 1863 Book of Days discusses the tradition in more depth under the topic “Parochial Perambulations”:
“The Gange Days are the same as the three Rogation Days, and were so called from the ancient custom of perambulating the boundaries of the parish on those days, the name being derived from the Saxon word gangen, to go. In Roman Catholic times, this perambulation was a matter of great ceremony, attended with feastings and various superstitious practices. Banners, which the parish was bound to provide, hand bells, and lights enlivened the procession. At one place the perambulators would stop to feast; and at another assemble round a cross to be edified with some godly admonition, or the legend of some saint or martyr, and so complete the circuit of the parish."
"The ancient custom of perambulating parishes in Rogation week had a two-fold object. It was designed to supplicate the Divine blessing on the fruits of the earth; and to preserve in all classes of the community a correct knowledge of, and due respect for, the bounds of parochial and individual property. … It was appointed to be observed on one of the Rogation days which were the three days next before Ascension Day. These days were so called from having been appropriated in the fifth century by Mamercus, Bishop of Vienne, to special prayer and fasting on account of the frequent earthquakes which had destroyed, or greatly injured vegetation. Before the Reformation, parochial perambulations were conducted with great ceremony. The lord of the manor, with a large banner, priests in surplices and with crosses, and other persons with hand-bells, banners and staves, followed by most of the parishioners, walked in procession round the parish, stopping at crosses, forming crosses on the ground, 'saying or singing gospels to the corn,' and allowing ‘drinkings and good cheer’; which was remarkable, as the Rogation days were appointed fasts."
"At the Reformation, the ceremonies and practices deemed objectionable were abolished, and only ‘the useful and harmless part of the custom retained.’ Yet its observance was considered so desirable, that a homily was prepared for the occasion; and injunctions were issued requiring that for ‘the perambulation of the circuits of parishes, the people should once in the year, at the time accustomed, with the rector, vicar, or curate, and the substantial men of the parish, walk about the parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church make their common prayer. And the curate, in their said common perambulations, was at certain convenient places to admonish the people to give thanks to God (while beholding of His benefits), and for the increase and abundance of His fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the 104th Psalm. At which time also the said minister was required to inculcate these, or such like sentences, ‘Cursed be he which translateth the bounds and doles of his neighbour’; or such other order of prayers as should be lawfully appointed.'"
[A ‘holy oak’ in Herrick’s “To Anthea” is one such convenient place:
…Dearest, bury me
Under that holy-oak or gospel-tree;
Where, though thou see’st not, thou may’st think upon
Me, when thou yearly goest procession;]
"This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents. If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water. Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places. If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it."
"A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present [19th] century. As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, &c, followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St George's, Hanover-Square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman's coach was standing just across the boundary line. The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house. The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way. “I won't!” said the sturdy coachman; “my lord told me to wait here, and here I'll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!” The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers."
"The writer recollects one of these perambulations in his earlier days. The vicar of the parish was there; so were the ‘substantial men,’ and a goodly number of juveniles too; but the admonitions, the psalm, and the sentences, were certainly not. It was a merry two days' ramble through all sorts of odd places. At one time we entered a house by the door, and left it by a window on the opposite side; at another, men threw off their clothes to cross a canal at a certain point; then we climbed high walls, dived through the thickest part of a wood, and left everywhere in our track the conspicuous capitals, R. P.. Buns and beer were served out to those who were lucky enough, or strong enough, to get them."
"The custom of perambulating parishes continued in some parts of the kingdom to a late period, but the religious portion of it was generally, if not universally, omitted. The custom has, however, of late years been revived in its integrity in many parishes, and certainly such a perambulation among the bounties of creation affords a Christian minister a most favourable opportunity for awakening in his parishioners a due sense of gratitude towards Him who maketh the ‘sun to shine, and the rains to descend upon the earth, so that it may bring forth its fruit in due season.’ "
Robert Chambers, The Book of Days (1863), Vol. 1, pp. 582 - 585.
Beating the Bounds in London, found in Robert Chambers, The Book of Days (1863), Vol. 1, p. 584.