by Ronald Hutton, My Review;
Charting the progress from the communal year and it’s festivals both sacred and secular towards a more centralised control and ensuing decline of festival times, holy days, rituals and revels.
The Protestant Reformation and its austere Puritanism is clearly the largest single cause which drew to a close earlier ‘Papist’ traditions of the Catholic imbued culture that had supported spiritual ritual and secular pagentry for hundreds of years.
To set the context, the English Reformation under Henry VIII had broken the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and Roman Catholic Church. From 1553, under the reign of Henry’s Roman Catholic daughter, Mary I, Henry’s Reformation legislation was repealed and Mary sought to achieve the reunion with Rome. Following Mary’s childless death, her half-sister Elizabeth inherited the throne. As Elizabeth could not be Catholic, that church considered her illegitimate, communion with the Catholic Church was again severed by Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s reign saw the emergence of Puritanism, which encompassed those Protestants who felt that the church had been but insuficciently reformed. Puritanism ranged from hostility to the content of the Prayer Book and “popish” ceremony, to a desire for church governance and inded for society at large to be radically reformed.
The Civil War broke out less than fifty years after the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603.
The English civil war was far from just a conflict between two religious faiths, it had much more to do with divisions within the one Protestant religion. The austere, fundamentalist Puritanism on the one side was opposed to what it saw as the crypto-Catholic decadence of the Anglican church on the other. Divisions also formed along the lines of the common people and the gentry, and between the country and city dwellers.
In this politically charged and religiously swaying environment, alternately pushing an oppresive new religious austerity or inclusively reinstalling the traditional milieu of sacred and secular traditions of British life, the festive, communal culture and its traditions waned and dwindled. Each fresh onslaught of punitive policy and legal measures gradually depleted the social enthusiasm which had bound the culture together in earlier times.
Charles Landseer – The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642
Among the church rituals and communal activities considered innapropriate by the changing authorities, was the ornamentation of churches with garlands at festival times such as holy and ivy at christmas, the lighting of candles below icons, boy bishops and their processions, church ales which collected money for the church rituals, rogation or blessing of fields at spring, appointment of lords of misrule to preside over festivities, morris dancers, musicians and dancing at may poles.
The time afforded such holy days and communal activities had also afforded an ocassion to gather in dissorder and this sometimes developed into protests against government restrictions and taxations.
|Village fair by Flemish artist Gillis Mostaert 1590|
The earlier potent mixture of rituals and revels, pagentry, music and costumes, wholesome earthy fun and good humour which had been accepted as such by the long interwoven traditions of populace with Catholic church, was uprooted and destroyed by the ardent and extreemly keen Protestants to such an extent that various of the ensuing Crowns sought to ammeliorate on behalf of the people and their traditions but with little success.
The decline continued under the fervant Protestant condemnation of such frivolities and lewdness as dancing, singing and even laughing – quelle horror! Protestant authors and clergy persued their ‘souless’ and mirtless New World Order replacing a sacral Catholic yearly cycle with secular and anti Catholic new Protestant celebrations such as of Nov 5th (Guy Fawkes night), and Royal birthdays/Accessions etc. The dissolution continued under the rising agrarian capitalism and nascent industrialism.
Highly recommended reading for any who are interested in the cultural connections between the ‘old religion’ (which actually meant the all embracing ‘magical Catholicism’ of early medieval England – and amongst these traditions were many pre Christian survivors ) and the Protestant modified puritanical exegesis and transformation of a formerly Merry England into a more dour, serious, self effacing, God fearing nation, under the varying vagaries of the Parlaiment and it’s often relentless officers.
It may be hard for us now to imagine the full extent of a medieval and earlier pagentry imbued Britain, alternately revelling and worshiping its way through the sacred year, with churches drawing on hundreds of years of iconography decoration to embellish and add impact to the many sacred days and rituals which were widely observed, town and merchant guilds hosting processions of costumed and robed actors, with giants, dragons and unicorns represented in huge models animated by their wearers, individuals taking part in group as well as singular traditions from the milk maids dances and green men in spring (the chimney sweeps as it happens) to finding (or capturing) a maypole for dancing, to say nothing of seasonal feasts provided by local landowners and gentry for their tenants and neighbours. I offer for comparison the more widely known religious traditions of Tibet as they until recently held communal religious and social activities which comprised thousands at a gathering, with elaborate ritualised dramas and with embroderies as large as hills, with weeks long events of one sort or another. Similar in commitment if not form were many among the earlier traditions of Merry England.
nb book priced at ₤50 pprbk is doubtless worth it for the extensive research alone, but I got my copy well thumbed from a second hand book dealer.