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The Living Stream

By James Rattue, published by Boydell & Brewer Ltd at £16.99. 128pp. Pbk 2001, originally in hardback 1995. ISBN 085115 848X (Reviewed by Jeremy Harte)

This is an exceptional book. The literature on holy wells has generally been rich in charm, but short on facts. Writers spoke of the wells as a mystical manifestation of Mother Earth, venerated by our pagan ancestors, and then kept alive in the simple traditions of country folk. It was almost heretical to suggest - as The Living Stream does - that holy wells had a history of their own, changing with the intellectual currents of the time.

Rattue casts a sceptical eye over common assumptions that the Celts had a virtual monopoly in aqueous spirituality - the shortage of holy wells in eastern England may simply be due to a lack of researchers. He tackles the thorny issue of pre-Christian origins, where so many others have come to grief. Not only is the holy well itself a somewhat nebulous category, ‘pagan site' is hopelessly so: there is a world of difference between the life-giving well of an Iron Age tribe, and the water feature dressed up as a nymphaeum by some Roman gentleman.

When the Church got interested in holy wells, it created its own, and didn't need to convert pagan ones; they are best seen as a late phase in the drive to christianise the landscape, like chapels and wayside crosses. Pilgrimages and cults at wells had their own origins, often bizarre. From the Middle Ages to the present day, sites have been created by wilful misunderstanding of place-names. And holy wells weren't particularly rural: people paid more attention to the rituals of water in towns, where it was in shorter supply.

James Rattue has a keen eye for the social history of faith: there can be few aspects of religion in Britain, from minster churches to the Oxford Movement, which haven't affected holy wells in one way or another. The Reformation was bad news for them, but it created a powerful crypto-Catholic interest in wells as places where miracles were still allowed. The same went for spas, which were often simply holy wells dressed up in the language of the age of reason. It is hard to say how many rural rituals, far from being ancient survivals, were a popular imitation of this learned discourse. The Living Stream chronicles the decline of well rituals, policed out of existence in the increasingly ordered Victorian countryside. The local diversity is fascinating, from the annual festival gatherings at wells in the north, through the well-dressing of Derbyshire, to the pharmacoepia of healing wells in Cornwall.

Today the pure waters of the holy well, bubbling up in the eternal countryside of the imagination, are valued for their contrast with the disenchanted landscape of modernity. In the original edition of 1995, James Rattue said some sharp things about this sort of pagan romanticism, and it would be interesting to know if his views have changed in the intervening years. Meanwhile The Living Stream remains a seminal book, not just as a study of holy wells, but as an attempt to put folklore in the context of history.