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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32

V.—Lic, Lich, Lichfield, Lichgate

V.—Lic, Lich, Lichfield, Lichgate.

The Saxon word for a dead body is lic. In later Saxon times the sound of the final c was probably softened to ch in order to distinguish it from lic = like, for the word for the living body is lichoma. The word lic (or lich) is entirely lost in modem English, having been superseded by the Romance word corpse. The word is found in the Gothic Gospels of Ulphilas, date 360, or about three centuries older than our oldest specimens of Saxon. Its form is there leik, and it has descended to the modem Germans in the word leiche, which is more Gothic in form than the Saxon. But although this word has entirely dropped out of the common English tongue, and indeed had disappeared before the time of Chaucer, it is still found embedded in a few compound words and names.

There is still a superstition among the peasantry of England that when the screech-owl is heard, death is foreshadowed. I page 24 believe the screech-owl is called the lich-owl in some parts of England to this day; and certainly, in the time of the poet Drayton, who died in 1631, the ill-omened bird was so called. I have already cited Drayton for another purpose, and I will now give the whole passage, which I then quoted only in part:—

The shrieking lich-owl, that doth never cry

But boding death, and quick herself inters

In darksome graves and hollow [unclear: supulchres]."

The poet suggests that the name of the city of Lichfield is so called from a traditional massacre or battle upon the spot; but I shall presently suggest another and, I think, a more probable etymology.

Thus Drayton writes:—

A thousand other saints, whom Amphibal had taught,

Flying the pagan foe, their lives that strictly sought,

Were slain where Lichfield is, whose name doth rightly sound,

There of those Christians slain, dead-field, or burying-ground.

However plausible this etymology may appear, I have reason to doubt whether Lichfield has any connection with lic—a corpse. In Lye's Saxon and Gothic Dictionary, I find an explanation, of which the following is a translation, under the word Licedfeld:—

"The name of a city and Episcopal See in Staffordshire. Licetfeld, Sax. Chron., A.D. 716, 731. Liccet-feld, Beda, 523. At the present day, Lichfield. Some derive the name from lic—a dead body; q.d., the field of corpses (Lambard Die). Others from leccan, to irrigate; q.d., the irrigated field. Others, lastly, would call it Laecet-feld—i.e., the field of the Leeches, or medical men, from Laece—leech or curer."*

In Benjamin Thorpe's edition of "Six of the Saxon Chronicles," the name occurs five times as Licetfeld, and once as Licced-feld. Licetfeld may, therefore, be accepted as the oldest form of the name. In the "Chronicle" A.D. 710, the entry stands thus : "In this year Ceolred, the King of Mercia, died, and his body resteth in Licetfeld."

In 731, we have a reference to "Aldaine, the Bishop of Licetfeld."

Now the difficulty in adopting Lic as the etymology of Lichfield arises from the presence of the letter t or d, which seem to indicate the participial form of a verb used adjectively, and not a noun. If Lichfield be compounded of two nouns (like day-light),

* In the original:—Licedfeld, nomen urbis et sedes episcopalis in agro Staffordiensi. Licetfeld, Sax. Chro., 716, 731, Liccetfeld, Beda, 523. Hodie vero Lichfield, nomen autem deducunt nonnulli a Lie = Cadaver, q. d., cadavorum campus (Lamb. Die) alii [unclear: a] leccian = irrigare; q. d. irriguus campus. Alii denique, Laecet-feld appellavi volunt—i.e., Sanatorum campus a Laece = Sanitor, medicus, Lidg. Mon, in Vita, S. Alb.

page 25 there are two modes of compounding the word in Saxon—one is by putting the first word in the genitive, like reste-daeg—day of rest = Sabbath; Ængla-land—land of the Angles = England. In this case the word would have stood Lice-feld. The other is by dropping the genitive inflection, as we do in day-light, in which case the word would have been Lic-feld. All the compounds of Lic are thus constructed :—Lic-burh, a sepulchre; Lic-man, a man who conducts funerals; Lic-leodth,* a funeral song or elegy. Thus the presence of the t or d seems to drive us farther a-field for an etymology.

A similar difficulty besets us in the case of Laece, a curer or leech. We have Laece-hus—Leech-house = hospital; Laece-craft—Leech-craft = the art of the curer; Laece-sealfe—Leech-salve = Ointment; Laece-seax—Leech-knife = a lancet.

But if we adopt the second of Lye's derivations from leccan, to water or irrigate, the difficulty vanishes; the t is the termination of the past participle, and in Licet-feld is used adjectively for the watered field, or as we should now say, the water meadow. This, moreover, well agrees with the character of the country close round Lichfield, at least in the winter season. In the Saxon version of the Psalms, vi. 6—"I water my couch with my tears," the verb leccan is employed; and in King Æfred's translation of "Boethius, xxxix. 13), the verb leccan is used to express that "hail and snows and frequent rain water the earth in winter—lec-ath tha earthan on wintra."

It seems to me, therefore, that the conclusion is irresistible—that Lichfield is neither Drayton's dead field or field of corpses, nor the Leech-field or hospital close, but is simply the water (ed) field or water meadow—a solution which accords with the aspect of the country, and probably did so in a much greater degree 1000 years ago. Thus, it needs no myth to account for it.

In the County of Kent, certainly, and possibly in some other parts of England, the principal entrance to many of the churchyards is ornamented by a very picturesque roofed gate. Two of these, at least, are standing to this day—one at Bromley and the other at Beckenham. They consist of a sloping or pent-house roof, tiled with red pantiles, the framework massive and supported with strong posts. It is underneath these gates that the corpse is halted to enable the funeral procession to collect, and wait for the clergyman. These gates were called lich-gates, and I am by no means certain that the name is yet lost to the local dialect of that county. Some of the village churches lie at a little distance from the main road, with a vacant spot in front usually called "the green." The lich-gate in such cases is reached

* The soft th, as in those, and the sharp th, as in think, were marked by two distinct letters in Saxon-English, which, I believe, are not to be had here.

page 26 by a short-cut from the main road. This was called a lick-way, because of its most prominent use. A road to the church of greater length, and hedged on both sides, was called a lich-lane. Waking or watching the corpse was not confined to the Celtic people. The word wake is Saxon, and the watch over the corpse was called lich-wake. Lich-fowl is said to be a name of the night raven, and as fowl is a generic word, lich-fowl might stand for any bird about which there was any superstition connecting it with death or the dead body. The only other word that I have found with licit embedded therein is lich-wort. Wort means root, or herb, and lich-wort is the name of a plant supposed to possess some poisonous quality. The eight names—lich-owl, lich-fowl, lich-field (?), lich-gate, lich-way, lich-lane, lich-wake, lich-wort—are all that I am aware of as existing still, or up to a recent period, in the English language. Such as do exist are local and provincial, and even they have long since ceased to suggest the idea of a corpse, for the very plain reason that the first syllable having slipped out of our language as a living and significant word, has also lost its significance in the compounds. It has become, in short, what Marsh calls fossilised. Lich may possibly still lurk in some other local names, but I do not happen to know of any, and the above being enough for my purpose, the chance of disinterring others was not worth the labour of the search.