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

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

29
CORPUS CHRISTI

THE sequence of late medieval religious festivals, which began in the darkness and cold of Advent and the promise of Christmas, and swelled again into the celebration of natural and divine rebirth at Easter, rose to a triumphant climax in June. The second half of the year was not empty of ecclesiastical feasts, for in addition to a host of local holy days it contained those of six apostles ( James the Great, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon the Less, Jude, and Andrew), an evangelist (Luke), and a succession of very popular saints. None the less, it was strikingly lacking in the dramatic communal rituals which were enacted in and around churches at such frequent intervals in the period between the winter and summer solstices. The last of this sequence, in the feast of Corpus Christi, was a joyous affirmation of a central point of Christian doctrine, performed in the open air and thus perfectly suited to a season of warmth, light, and celebration.

It was also a relatively late arrival in the calendar of Church festivals, having been proclaimed in 1317 by Pope John XXII in order to draw greater attention to the sanctity of the Eucharist and to the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated host. His bull prescribed a liturgy to this end, to be performed on the second Thursday after Pentecost. Within one year this had been implemented across Catholic Europe, being recorded in England at St Peter's abbey, Gloucester, and at Wells cathedral. In 1322 the archbishop of York ordered it to be kept all over his province, and in 1325 a Corpus Christi guild was founded at Ipswich with responsibility for providing a procession of the host through the streets to complement the service. Another appeared at Louth, on the Lincolnshire coast, in 1326, and a further one at Leicester in 1343. A guild was founded at Coventry in 1348, and one was processing through Cambridge in the following year. The adoption of the custom was none the less a slow one, for most of the surviving English missals composed before the mid fourteenth centurydo not contain the liturgy for the feast, and most of those kept in the archdeaconry of Norwich around 1360 still omitted it. The guilds only began to exist in large numbers in the middle decades of that century, and by 1388 had multiplied to the point at which a royal enquiry identified forty-two in existence, making Corpus Christi the third most popular dedication for such fraternities after the Virgin and the Trinity. 1 By the early fifteenth century every town corporation and urban parish which has left

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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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