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

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

36
SAINTS AND SOULS

BY the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian feast of the dead, known as Hallowtide, Hollontide, or Allantide, had developed into a spectacular affair, for which there are ample records in England. The book of ceremonial for the court of Henry VII specified that upon All Saints' Day the monarch would dress in purple and his attendants in black, the colours of mourning. 1 For that evening, as the parish accounts indicate, many churches laid in extra supplies of candles and torches, to be carried in procession and to illuminate the building. Some in London arranged unusually elaborate entertainments as part of the service on that night; one such was St Mary Woolnoth which in 1539 paid five maidens wearing garlands to play harps by lamplight. Each mayor of Bristol in the 1470s was expected to entertain the whole council and other prominent citizens and gentry, to 'fires and their drinkings with spiced cakebread and sundry wines', before they dispersed to their respective parish churches for evensong. There they presumably prepared for the most famous ritual of the night, the ringing of church bells to comfort the souls in purgatory after the congregation had offered prayers for them. In the chapel of the fifth earl of Northumberland, in the 1510s, the peals rang out from the moment that the liturgy ended until midnight, and so it probably was in the parishes. In a few places the rites were repeated, or took place on the following evening, the feast of All Souls. 2 In this way the opening of the season of darkness and cold had been made into an opportunity to confront the greatest fear known to humans, that of death, and the greatest known to Christians, that of damnation.

The concept of purgatory, the belief that the living could assist the condition of the dead by praying for them, and the notion that saints could function as intercessors between humans and Christ or the Christian god, were all doctrines condemned by Protestants, and so this complex of rituals was bound to run into trouble as soon as the latter took control. It precariously survived the reign of Henry VIII, the ringing for the dead being one of a number of ceremonies which Archbishop Cranmer tried to abolish in January 1546. He actually drafted a letter for the royal signature, but Henry refused to provide it, apparently because a more conservative adviser, Stephen Gardiner, warned him that to do so would imperil a hoped-for rapprochement with the Catholic powers of France and the Empire. 3 The custom was therefore un-

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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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