Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
From 1429 at the latest, bystanders at the monastery town of Bury St Edmunds were accustomed to witness a curious annual sight on a feast day of its patronal saint. Led by monks and hung with garlands of flowers, a white bull (reared for the purpose on an adjacent manor of which the abbey was tenant-in-chief) would have been seen wending its way through the Southgate, via the edge of the Great Market, to the Great Gate of the abbey itself. The bull was accompanied each year by barren wives, who stroked its flanks as they processed, until they reached the abbey precinct. There they proceeded separately to offer at the shrine of St Edmund, ‘glorious king, virgin and martyr’, and to pray that after the performance of this ritual they might at last conceive.
Such an observance may serve as a paradigm for the mechanisms of public ritual process to be discussed in what follows. As in this case, ritual contexts invariably reflect, first, both a specific time or occasion and a particularised spatial setting, each of these features thus helping to define the relevance of the occasion. Second, the participants too are deliberately distinguished through their positioning in the ritual, often by social status or age, though in this instance the contrasts are emphasised through gender and reproductive status. These focus on the married females who are nevertheless infertile.