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

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

PREFACE

'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

-vii-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements and Note xiii
  • Contents xv
  • List of Plates xvii
  • List of Maps xx
  • 1 - The Origins of Christmas 1
  • 2 - The Twelve Days 9
  • 3 - The Trials of Christmas 25
  • 4 - Rites of Celebration and Reassurance 34
  • 5 - Rites of Purification and Blessing 42
  • 6 - Rites of Hospitality and Charity 54
  • 7 - Mummers' Play and Sword Dance 70
  • 8 - Hobby-Horse and Horn Dance 81
  • 9 - Misrule 95
  • 10 - The Reinvention of Christmas 112
  • 11 - Speeding the Plough 124
  • 12 - Brigid's Night 134
  • 13 - Candlemas 139
  • 14 - Valentines 146
  • 15 - Shrovetide 151
  • 16 - Lent 169
  • 17 - The Origins of Easter 179
  • 18 - Holy Weekz 182
  • 19 - An Egg at Easter 198
  • 20 - The Easter Holidays 204
  • 21 - England and St George 214
  • 22 - Beltane 218
  • 23 - The May 226
  • 24 - May Games and Whitsun Ales 244
  • 25 - Morris and Marian 262
  • 26 - Rogationtide and Pentecost 277
  • 27 - Royal Oak 288
  • 28 - A Merrie May 295
  • 29 - Corpus Christi 304
  • 30 - The Midsummer Fires 311
  • 31 - Sheep, Hay, and Rushes 322
  • 32 - First Fruits 327
  • 33 - Harvest Home 332
  • 34 - Wakes, Revels, and Hoppings 348
  • 35 - Samhain 360
  • 36 - Saints and Souls 371
  • 37 - The Modern Hallowe'En 379
  • 38 - Blood Month and Virgin Queen 386
  • 39 - Gunpowder Treason 393
  • 40 - Conclusions 408
  • Notes 428
  • Index 519
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