BOOK REVIEW / Pre-Reformation: those were the days: The Rise and Fall of Merry England - Ronald Hutton: Oxford, pounds 19.95

Share
PLOUGH Monday, Candlemas and Hocktide, Rogation day, Midsummer and Lammas, hognells, apple wassails, boy bishops and lords of misrule: these days and festivities were once as important as Christmas and Easter, as pancakes and chocolate eggs.

Indeed the rituals of seasonal celebration, Ronald Hutton shows in this fascinating study, reached a peak in the later Middle Ages, before England's break from Roman Catholicism threw them all into chaos. Most of the festival customs survived Henry VIII's breach with the papacy - suggestive evidence that few desired the religious revolution that was to follow. But for 150 years after Henry's death the fate of popular customs was often a barometer of the impact of the Reformation on the parish.

Within 18 months the radical Protestants of Edward VI's reign had all but demolished the seasonal rituals of the Catholic Church. Queen Mary revived the St George's Day and Corpus Christi celebrations and, had she lived longer, may have been able to reinstitute the full ritual Catholic year. With the succession of Elizabeth I, however, the erosion of old customs continued. Though the queen and her bishops enunciated no official prohibitions, the force of evangelical Protestantism in town corporations and rural elites led an assault on Catholic and pagan festivals, backed in places by less godly magistrates who feared the popular disorder to which they often gave rise.

By the end of the Tudor century, the calendar was beginning to look very different, as secular celebrations, most famously Elizabeth's Accession Day, replaced the old religious holidays and rites. But, interestingly, the fin de siecle also witnessed a revival of ceremony and tradition in the church, especially at local level. Thereafter, as different parties tried to seize control of the Church of England in the early 17th century, calendrical festivals became a site of religious and political contest. Differing attitudes to the Sabbath, May Day, church ales and Sunday sports expressed a conflict within the national culture.

The divisions over seasonal festivals did not follow simple party lines: Puritan leaders sponsored revels and Christmas holly reappeared in some puritan parishes. Attitudes to maypoles were not a litmus test of political allegiance, but the interregnum and memories of republican regimes that outlawed Christmas made them so. The Restoration was greeted with a revival of old customs and maypoles - in 1661 the king's brother helped to erect one 130ft tall in the Strand. Under the 'Merry Monarch', maying and rushbearing again flourished, but by the end of the 17th century it was the secular rather than religious festivals which were more celebrated.

Hutton's study is engagingly frank about the limitations of evidence, and adept at weighing the probabilities when it is not conclusive. Through areas of the greatest controversy, he moves respectfully and critically, eschewing simplicities, lucidly summarising and adding incisive suggestions of his own. At times, as he freely acknowledges, the larger questions remain unanswered.

While the rise and fall of festivities (like American university fraternities or formal balls in England) announce broader ideological shifts, Hutton cannot finally pronounce what they were. But as well as being readable and enjoyable, his splendid book is rich in suggestions - about elite and popular pageantry, politics and pastoral poetry, and most of all about the 'rich and complex local political culture' of the early modern village.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Benedict Cumberbatch attends a special screening of his latest film The Imitation Game  

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: What's the actual difference between 'coloured' and 'person of colour'?

Matthew Norman
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy