The last of my recent visits to English turf mazes was in the village of Wing, in Rutland. Like all these ancient mazes that I’ve explored, this one was deserted, sitting quiet and empty on the Village Green. And there were the usual questions. Is the maze just old, or is it very old? And was its purpose religious or secular, for pleasure or penance?
How Old is the Wing Maze?
The Wing Maze is thought to date from the Middle Ages. Monks from the nearby Thorney Abbey owned land in the village, and they could have been involved in constructing the labyrinth. However there is an alternative theory that it is much older. “Wing” is a Norse name and it is possible that early Nordic settlers built a maze to remind them of the stone labyrinths that were scattered across Scandinavia. But this is only speculation; there is no evidence of an earlier maze.
The Old Maze, as it is known locally, is cut in the Standard Chartres design, similar to the famous labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France. Local plans from the 19th century show a slightly different pattern, suggesting that it was changed at some point. But now the path follows the classic pattern of eleven circuits, ultimately leading to the centre. Unusually, the track is along the raised turf rather than the earth between the grass.
Another curiosity is the stone outside the parish church carved with a pattern of the maze. This looks modern but I couldn’t find any information about it.
Penance or Pleasure?
If the maze was the work of medieval monks, the original purpose was almost certainly religious. It is said that the monks would use it in a ritual manner, following the path (possibly on their knees) and stopping to pray at certain points. An information board beside the maze goes further, suggesting that the maze became a substitute for the Christian Crusades. “Instead of travelling to Jerusalem people walked or maybe even went on their knees around a maze as part of a spiritual journey.” Alternatively, monks (or parishioners) might have been compelled to traverse the maze, not by choice, but as part of a penance.
But it is known that labyrinths were later used for secular purposes (a ban on maze games during the Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-1660 suggests that such activities were well established by that time). In Wing a 19th century directory makes reference to the “ancient maze, in which the rustics run at the parish feast”. And elsewhere it is claimed that spectators would sit on a nearby mound to watch the games.
Today there are no monks crawling around on their knees, or rowdy youths running races. The maze is a place of peace and mystery. But for me it was a pilgrimage of sorts, part of my quest to visit as many ancient mazes as possible.