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

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

24
MAY GAMES AND WHITSUN ALES

COMMONERS, unlike royalty and the aristocracy, lacked large buildings in which communal festivities could comfortably be held in bad weather. During the darker and colder seasons, it was the alehouse or the private dwelling which formed the focus of merriment, and neither could accommodate crowds. The church could indeed be employed, but apart from the practical detail that it was not easily heated, there were always scruples about putting a sacred building to secular use, especially that which might conduce to inebriation and irreverence. Thus, the obvious setting for most communal celebration was the open air, or a barn or temporary structure which did not require a fire. The same considerations applied with less force to the 'church house', the permanent building acting as the forerunner of the modern village hall which became relatively common in the late Middle Ages. Nevertheless, to heat it still involved both extra cost and a risk of fire. The coming of summer, therefore, ushered in not merely a season in which the flowering of nature led minds naturally to rejoicing but one in which the clemency of the air made the implementation of that desire most practicable. The English climate usually warms appreciably during the middle and latter part of May, to the point at which outside gatherings or an unheated hall become comfortable. It was therefore in that period that the people of pre-industrial England gave themselves up to communal merry-making with particular frequency, a tendency reinforced by the fact that it lay conveniently between the heavy work of ploughing and sowing, and that of hay-making. The warm weather, and the ability to feast, dance, and play games freely, would last until September, but even for those who could spare the time from agricultural work later in the summer, this part of May offered a joyful inauguration of festive gatherings. Such gatherings were held with special frequency in the two days after the religious feast of Whit Sunday, set aside helpfully for them by the Church and known as the Whitsun holidays. They occurred, however, at any time from May Day onward, and in the early modern period were known variously as May games, summer plays, summer games, ales, or feasts. Some were also called revels or wakes, being names for a specific institution, the church dedication feast, which was much more common later in the summer and will be considered there. Under one or another of these names, however, communal celebrations are recorded in most parts of southern England during the month of May by the late Middle Ages.

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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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