Travels with Gervase of Tilbury: 1 Haveringemere

Haveringemere (Otia Imperialia III 88)

At this point in the Otia Imperialia Gervase is reporting stories of bodies of water punishing people for inappropriate behaviour.  Gervase accepts this as a scientific phenomenon because he doesn’t have the resources to enable him to evaluate his sources.   Tales about malicious water bodies could not be ignored, as they often reflected genuine nautical hazards, personalised as dangerous spirits or monsters.

The story of Haveringmere comes from the Welsh Marches – Banks and Binns list Newton Mere, Shropshire and Hanmer, Clwyd as candidates.  It is nothing to do with Havering in London.  The place name is of standard Saxon form, meaning the people (ing) belonging to Haefer.   Mere means a lake.  Unless the Northern Marches had some really dangerous local weather, the story may reflect a surviving pagan belief in local water spirits.

Gervase writes, in mixed Latin and Middle English:

Also in the same region is Haveringemere, and if anyone crossing it shouts out ‘Phrut Haveringemere and alle tho the over the fere’ he is immediately caught up in a sudden storm and sinks with his boat.

Gervase could clearly speak Middle English, and, since this is a local tale, we presume he had connections with the area.  The modern English is ‘Phrut Haveringemere and all that travel on you.’  ‘Phrut’ may be an actual expletive or represent a rude noise, like raspberry blowing.   Gervase goes on to say that it is extraordinary that a lake should take offence in this way.

Ellesmere, Shropshire
Newton Mere, Shropshire

The North Marches has several large bodies of water, including Ellesmere, which is rich in its own lore.  The whole area is called ‘the Meres’.  While not exactly the Lake District, the area is extremely beautiful, and I understand that it is ideal for walking holidays.

Dealing with travellers’ tales like this, I always find the question ‘WHY?’ interesting.  Why did this story get into circulation?  Why did people take it seriously?  A story like this could be anecdotal.  If a boatman is hurling abuse at a lake, he may already be under some stress and very possibly drunk, which might explain him sinking in bad weather.  But this kind of explaining away may miss the point completely.  Perhaps there is or was a local weather phenomenon which made the mere surprisingly treacherous.  Perhaps the story is based on a strong local pagan tradition about that particular mere spirit and is therefore serious evidence for pagan survival.  Perhaps the whole thing started as a joke, and is just evidence for how difficult it was for Gervase to get reliable sources.  It is certainly evidence for how complex and inexplicable the Mediaeval environment could seem, even to educated observers.

In the interests of science, I am looking for a kayaker or coracler  to make the experiment.  There are two main questions to answer; do any of the meres respond, and if so, which one?   We need to know.


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