Tuesday, May 31, 2016

'Oak Apples' and ink for England

For reasons of shortage of time, no doubt in common with much of the rest of the country, this blog failed in two respects to mark the 29th of May, last Sunday.  Firstly, it was mysteriously silent on the subject of Chesterton, whose birthday it was.  Then the second unmarked occasion was Oak Apple Day, one of those English traditions that deserve vigorous revival.  It marks the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and was in fact a public holiday from that date until 1859.  The 'oak apples' of the name are a kind of plant gall, and these or sprigs of oak were worn to recall Charles II's escape from the Roundheads, hiding himself inside an oak tree after the Battle of Worcester.  Oak Apple Day traditions still survive in some English towns and villages — and it was a delight to wake up and hear it mentioned on Radio 3's Breakfast programme — but there's no reason why every parish should not cast off care and cynicism and keep this (and other) traditions unashamedly alive.

The previous week I had happened to learn that a particular kind of oak gall has an significance to English history even greater than this tradition.  There is a particular species of wasp which, when it lays its eggs in an oak tree, induces a unique kind of gall.  This can be ground and mixed with iron sulphate and water to produce an ink that is both cheap and, importantly, indelible.  This 'iron gall ink' was used in this country in important documents from the ninth almost to the twentieth century, not least in the Magna Carta.  And this ink has lasted to our own day, as explained in the the extract from Oak Tree: Nature's Greatest Survivor (B.B.C. 4) below:

So it turns out not only that oak apples owe their festival to an episode of English history, but that English history itself owes its survival largely to oak apples.  Is this perhaps an even better reason to reclaim the 29th May for them?