How did people in the British Isles tell fortunes before the advent of tea-drinking?  (And after the Romans; presumably in Roman Britain, they practiced augury with entrails and birds flying overhead and so on.)


Coming soon: a follow-up post to my last.

4 thoughts on “a pre-modern question

  1. The Romanised ones would have done the Roman-style entrails etc. thing, but there was plenty of Britain that was not even nominally Roman, and plenty of Brits who clung to their trousers and roundhouses and folkways, and didn’t Romanise… and who would have included a mixture of peoples, celts and picts and britons of various kinds (and scots in Ireland), probably with variety in their prognostication, just as there is regional variety in folk tales and superstitions now, despite the fragmentation and erosion of those…

    Sorry, not very helpful!

  2. Brewer’s Phrase and Fable has plenty of folkloric ones… things that were around enough for me to pick up as a child included things like peeling an apple in one continuous strip and throwing it over your shoulder then interpreting the shape as letters (for which boy you’d marry, if done at the right time, which might be May Day or midsummer or some other time), dropping hot tallow in water and interpreting the shapes it formed, lots of weather-prediction stuff, naming chestnuts (boys names again, usually) and lining them up on the hearth to see which would pop first. But whether that means anything for the Middle Ages…

  3. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic has a LOT on this. As I recall, there’s palmistry and other kinds of physiognomy-based methods, astrology, obviously, but I was most struck by the huge and diverse range of ways of casting lots.

  4. Second to Keith Thomas. And there were the fairies who would tell you on Midsumer’s Eve. My bet is that the methods based on flora that I learned as a child have a long history: daisies (he loves me, he loves me not) and the apple stem (the number of times you turn it before it comes off says the letter of the man you’ll marry.)

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