Maidens' Garlands

Researched by Rosie Morris


Background

What are Maidens Garlands.

Maidens Garlands are also known as Virgins, Crowns or Crants ( derived from the German Kranz which means wreath, garland or chaplet) are a funerary memento awarded as a testomony for " triumphant victory over the lusts of the flesh" ( Steele 1747).  At the funeral procession, they were either carried before the coffin or placed upon it.  In some parts of  the country the garland was placed in the grave; and in other parts it was hung in a prominent position inside the church.  It is unclear whether or not the person for whom it was made had to be female or betrothed; but it would appear that they marked the tragic death of a young person. ( The garland found at St Calixtus Church,Astley Abbotts Nr Bridgnorth, England was made for Hannah Phillips who died on the eve of her wedding day May 10th 1707.)

In most parts of England the garlands have been specifically for women, but in Abbotts Ann, Hampshire, England they were also made for men.

The earliest garland (1680) known to exist can be located at St Mary's Church, Beverley,Yorkshire, England.  The most recent was made in 1973, and is found amongst the 43 Virgins' Crowns at Abbotts Ann.

Early illustrations can be found in the form of woodcuts that were used to portray poems for broadsheets. Represented below is the Maid's Tragedy c.1620 (British Library)

The history of this " innocent and touching" custom is uncertain.  Many 19th century historians and antiquarians have documented the ritual, and many have spent much time locating its origins.  It is possible hat its roots lie in the customs of antiquity of Egypt, Etruria and Rome.  Maybe the Romans brought the custom to England, where, instead of being suppressed, it was absorbed and adapted by the early Christian church, using the symbolism of Mary, the 'Virgin Unspotted'. During the Reformation many of the early 'Christian' (i.e. Catholic) traditions had to go 'underground' in order to survive, and it is possible that this was one.  Most garlands that survive today are of the 18th century.  Therefore, it was possibly a tradition important and signidficant enough to revive fairly quickly, unlike the19th century revivals such as well-dressing and maypoles.

Another posssibility lies in connections with the wool trade. Merchants using trading routes with Catholic Europe may well have brought the custom to England.

Who knows? Perhaps you can help?