Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Synopsis

From the twelve days of Christmas to the Spring traditions of Valentine, Shrovetide, and Easter eggs, through May Day revels and Midsummer fires, and on to the waning of the year, Harvest Home, and Hallowe'en; Ronald Hutton takes us on a fascinating journey through the ritual year in Britain. His study encompasses the whole sweep of history in all the British Isles from the earliest written records to the present day. Treating rituals ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, Hutton's colorful and absorbing history debunks common assumptions about the customs of the past and the festivals of the present. Stations of the Sun is the first complete scholarly work to cover the full span of British rituals. Challenging the work of specialists from the late Victorian period onwards, the book reworks our picture of the field thoroughly and illuminates the history of the calendar we live by.

Excerpt

'There is a peculiar charm to be found in the reading of a book such as this. It is redolent of the English countryside, its inarticulate love of ancient things, its immemorial speech, its stubborn resistance to the encroachments of changing Time.' So wrote the reigning president of the Folk-Lore Society, Professor S. H. Hooke, in 1936. The work which he was commending consisted of a large collection of information about English calendar customs made by a former president, A. R. Wright, edited after his death by a colleague and published by the society in three volumes. A comparable edition for Scotland was brought out during the following few years. The result was a huge, though very far from complete, amount of raw material for a history of the ritual year in Britain, presented in individual entries according to source and almost devoid of comment or analysis. Today, over half a century later, they still represent the staple work on the subject. No attempt to employ and to assess the data comprehensively, and to write such a history, has ever been made.

There have, on the other hand, been a great many studies of individual calendar customs or groups of them, and until recently almost all embodied the attitudes expressed by Professor Hooke. First, such activities were 'of the countryside', part of an agricultural society much older than, and being destroyed by the expansion of, urban and industrial culture. Secondly, they were 'immemorial', preserved unchanging over the centuries. Thirdly, they were 'inarticulate', the people who performed them often being incapable of explaining their true significance, so that this task had to be undertaken by scholars. Fourthly, they were 'ancient', a term which was most often taken by folklorists to mean that they were survivals of pre-Christian religious practices, which could in large part be reconstructed by a study of them. All of these notions enjoyed some academic respectability at the beginning of the twentieth century, having been propounded in England most prominently by Sir Edward Tylor, Sir Laurence Gomme, and Sir James Frazer. By the 1930s the consensus among historians and anthropologists had turned decisively against them, but those disciplines did not evolve new conceptual approaches to the study of folklore. Instead, they abandoned the whole subject to enthusiasts from other disciplines (or none), who continued to interpret calendar customs in the old terms, and who dominated the discussion of folk rites and practices, and the public perception of them, until the 1970s. In that decade the very popular series of books on county folklore edited by Venetia Newall, for Batsford, treated seasonal customs as survivals from an almost wholly amorphous past, with virtually no sense of chronological perspective. So did coffee-table volumes upon the subject like those by Homer Sykes, Brian Shuel, and the Reader's Digest team. Other works from these years, such . . .

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