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

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

28
A MERRIE MAY

IT has always been appreciated by social historians that Christmas was, as said earlier, substantially recreated by the Victorians. What has been far less well understood till recently is that the old May games underwent a parallel transformation. This was because, whereas nobody pretended that the Christmas tree or Christmas card were anything other than innovations, the alteration in the summer festivities was presented as a revival, a self-conscious quest for authentic tradition. Like the redevelopment of the great winter festival, it was a response to the emotional needs of its age; but the summer merry-making became far more bound up with the politics of nostalgia, which have remained a potent force in national culture until the present. Only from the 1970s onward did a combination of a new rigour in folklore studies, and a new sensitivity among intellectuals to what has been termed 'the invention of tradition', make possible an objective consideration of what had occurred; in this development the work of Roy Judge has been pre-eminent.

Whereas Christmas was essentially redefined as the supreme festival of the family, the May games were viewed as an expression of the community, and especially of the village community. An acute anxiety about the weakening of traditional social bonds first seems to have manifested itself in the 1810s, when the end of the Napoleonic wars left England prey to economic difficulties which brought to the surface tensions long developing from changing patterns of industry and trade. One form in which it was expressed was a hankering after an idealized past, characterized by order and harmony; a sentiment which bonded easily with the new interest in the natural, the primitive, the organic, and the creative associated with what is vaguely termed the Romantic Movement. 1 This impulse could feed upon the burgeoning scholarly interest in traditional popular customs, itself largely a product of the widening gulf between classes and between town and country, exemplified by the work published between 1800 and 1815 by Joseph Strutt, Francis Douce, John Brady, and John Brand. 2

Of the writers who worked with it in the early nineteenth century, the most popular and influential was probably Sir Walter Scott, who characterized the Middle Ages as a time of aristocratic chivalry and a strong bond between rulers and ruled. He lauded its feasts and festivals as a means of bringing all ranks of society together in celebration, and giving a 'happy holiday to the

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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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