To the stern eye of the 17th-century Puritans, the medieval maypole, the epitome of innocent merry-making, was conducive to nothing but sin, while an activity as plainly unerotic as morris dancing was lewd and suggestive. By the time Charles I went to the scaffold, the new moralists had written even Christmas pudding off the menu.
Ronald Hutton traces the late-medieval ritual year, which, with its packed schedule of revels and observances, amounted to almost constant celebration from December to June. The cycle began with an abstemious Advent (not a time for mulled wine and mince pies), rewarded by the Twelve Days of Christmas and a welcome spate of indulgence. As well as feasts, there were plays and ceremonies, often featuring a 'Lord of Misrule' or a 'Boy Bishop'. Both were inversions of authority - a local servant would be 'crowned', invested with mock authority and furnished with the trappings of kingship, or a young chorister would be got up as a bishop.
After Christmas, festivities continued with Plough Monday, Candlemas and St Valentine's Day. Shrovetide was a three-day orgy of football, violent without teams or rules, cock-threshing, and bingeing on rich foods forbidden in Lent. 'A day of great gluttony, surfeiting and drunkenness,' was how one disapproving Protestant preacher described it in 1570. Worn out and hungover, the revellers returned to the very straight and narrow path of Lent on Ash Wednesday, having their heads daubed with ashes and water.
The solemnity of Easter was countered by merry-making at Hocktide, when men could capture and tie up a woman and release her for a fee donated to the parish funds. The next day the women turned the joke on the men - and usually made more money. The season continued with semi-secular festivals in honour of St George, May Day, Whitsun and Midsummer, again featuring plays - Robin Hood was a favourite subject - and dancing around the maypole. And these were just the principal festivals - minor saints' days and 'church ales' (fundraising parish parties) were celebrated the whole year round.
Hutton argues that this festive calendar, in which the religious, secular and even pagan mingled harmoniously, had grown more elaborate from about 1350, and began to be whittled away from 1520. It's a pattern recognised by other historians, though, to his own surprise, he rejects previous explanations which held economic factors responsible. Drawing on churchwardens' accounts for hundreds of parishes, he examines the prevalence and decline of all sorts of customs, and finds the Reformation the prime cause of change in the ritual year.
This makes good sense: many rites of the old church, such as crawling to the cross at Easter (Henry VIII saved his knees with a carpet) and ringing bells for the poor souls stuck in purgatory, clearly had no relevance to the Protestant faith. Protestantism, with its disdain for superstition and the 'Papist' trappings of religion, abolished most saints' days. Rood screens, images of Mary and John, altars and candles could hardly keep up with the latest liturgy. Torn down by Edward VI, they were resurrected with a vengeance by Mary and tolerated, in degrees, by Elizabeth.
The theological earthquakes of the 16th century had more effect on rituals inside church than those outside on the village green. But the Stuarts faced critics who had in their sights not only further reform of the church but also a draconian curtailment of secular revelry. Sabbatarians called for an observance of Sunday so strict that it would proscribe virtually everything - work and play. Both James and Charles defended traditional pursuits, not out of fondness for morris dancing and the maypole - at which Charles, with his refined and humourless tastes, would surely have turned up his nose - but because the calls for their abolition came from Puritans.
By 1647 Puritan Sunday had triumphed, and more: Parliament ruled Christmas, Easter and Whitsun illegal. All that remained was a Protestant
innovation: the commemoration of James's escape from the Gunpowder Plot. But a good deal of the traditional church calendar reappeared with the merry monarch. Fittingly, Charles II's succession was celebrated in London by raising a new maypole in the Strand.
The story would seem to have come full circle, but Hutton is too scrupulous to leave it here. The neat ends are illusory: irrevocable changes had taken place over the previous 150 years, and many customs were gone for good. This is a thoughtful, ground-breaking study, whose appeal to the general reader is inhibited only by the author's unwillingness to let his pen run ahead of the evidence. This is admirable, but when a book is so well endowed with scholastic integrity you feel it could afford to brighten its narrative with some informed speculation.
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