This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Since the Middle Ages, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, much in “Engelond” has changed. All that’s left of the Tabard Inn, the staging area for Chaucer’s pilgrims, is a historical marker.
But a nuptial custom referenced by the much wed Wife of Bath has survived from the 12th century to the 21st. The Dunmow Flitch Trials, set for July 9, award a flitch of bacon—half a pig, cut lengthwise—to the couple who can best convince a jury that they haven’t wished themselves unmarried for the past year and a day. (The Wife of Bath implied her browbeaten husbands would not qualify.)
Legend says that the custom originated in 1104. Now the trials, in Great Dunmow, northeast of London, take place every leap year. Flitch owners and contestants are represented by counsel. Winners are paraded through town on the shoulders of costumed folk and must then kneel on sharp stones to receive the Flitch Oath. When Americans Jeff Dotts and Erin Albers won the flitch in 2008, the oath was read “incredibly slowly,” Dotts recalls, “in a sort of sadistic, British jab” at the unpleasantness of 1776. He says the trials are taken “very seriously” but with a wink.
Indeed. Take the selection of counsel: “This year,” spokesperson Helen Haines reports, “we have three actual barristers and one stand-up comedian.”