Fortunately, many curious customs survived in Dorset long enough to be recorded by the folklorist John Symonds Udal, who contributed a regular folklore column to the Dorset County Chronicle in the 1880s.
His book, Dorsetshire Folk-lore, was eventually published in 1922. In his chapter on marriage customs he mentions a tradition which the poet William Barnes used in his poem Mrs Mary’s Tale:
The while the slowly-clanging bell
Struck twelve o’clock, and giggling maids
Stole out to try the well-known spell
That brings their unknown husband’s shades.
Barnes is alluding to the custom, practised on Midsummer’s eve at midnight, at which time a young girl, wishing to divine who she might marry, would walk through the garden carrying a rake and scattering hemp seed by throwing it over her right shoulder, while repeating the following lines:
Hemp seed I set, hemp seed I sow,
The man that is my true love come after me and mow.
If the spell worked, her future husband would then appear behind her with a scythe.
Doubtless, this was carried out with some merriment, and local village lads were not averse to taking advantage of the custom by accosting the girls as they returned from the rite.
Thomas Hardy makes good dramatic use of this scenario in chapter 20 of his novel The Woodlanders (1897), in which the village girls go into a wood when the Great Hintock clock strikes 12, each carrying a handful of hemp seed:
Fitzpiers having heard a voice or voices, was looking over his garden gate – where he now looked more frequently than into his books – fancying that Grace might be abroad with some friends. It was not Grace who had passed, however, but several of the ordinary village girls in a group – some steadily walking, some in a mood of wild gayety.
He quietly asked his landlady, who was also in the garden, what these girls were intending, and she informed him that it being Old Midsummer Eve, they were about to attempt some spell or enchantment which would afford them a glimpse of their future partners for life. She declared it to be an ungodly performance, and one which she would never countenance.
In the mean time other inhabitants of Little Hintock had become aware of the nocturnal experiment about to be tried, and were also sauntering stealthily after the frisky maidens. Miss Melbury had been informed by Marty South during the day of the proposed peep into futurity, and, being only a girl like the rest, she was sufficiently interested to wish to see the issue.
The moon was so bright and the night so calm that she had no difficulty in persuading Mrs. Melbury to accompany her; and thus, joined by Marty, these went onward in the same direction.
As far as the listeners could gather, the particular form of black-art to be practised on this occasion was one connected with the sowing of hemp-seed, a handful of which was carried by each girl.
Hardy originally claimed the novel was set around Melbury Osmond, the village in which his mother, Jemima, had lived until her marriage, so it is interesting to speculate whether she may have had first-hand experience of this Midsummer tradition.
Perhaps she disapproved of Hardy’s depiction of the village and its inhabitants, as he later claimed in subsequent editions of the novel that Cerne Abbas was its setting, and not Melbury Osmond.