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

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The Independent Online
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.