The Lord of Misrule, the Boy Bishop. dancing the Morris and May games. A little about the celebrations of the ritual year, and how things changed.
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Last time we talked about the all important little Commonwealth, the household. It strikes me that we have talked rather a lot about work and difficult stuff and functional get up work go to bed get up go to work, um, die stuff, but there has been something lacking in this story, there has been a definite absence of F-U-N fun. Was there any, is the question, or were you essentially just fulfilling your biological function, and then waiting for death?
The short answer of course is that there was lots of fun and laughter in the late middle ages and EM England, if you didn’t happen to be dying of plague at the time. To be more po faced about it, what we are talking about here today is an aspect of Popular culture, the sorts of things folks got up to I the parish and around the ritual year, and how that changed up to the start of Elizabethan days.
The very phrase ‘popular culture’ is of course a tricky one. What is popular culture against any other kind of culture? I now feel required therefore to give you a definition of popular culture. I am sorry for this, because in common with most sensible English people, I am well aware that in definition and clarity lies chaos and despair, but I feel an uncontrollable urge. It is not my definition of popular culture I must say, to make up my own would be hubris of the highest order especially when there is a veritable smorgasbord of definitions available lying on the historian’s shelf of meaning. The one I have selected belongs to a chap called Peter Burke. Peter Burke defined culture as
‘a system of shared meanings, attitudes and values, and the symbolic forms (performances and artefacts) in which they are expressed or embodied’.
Has that helped? Probably not, but essentially, we are talking about a very wide range of activities, events, objects, images and so on which everyone would at least recognise and interpret in a similar way, because they are based on values they all understand and broadly accept. It is worth noting that those values might be expressed in very different ways in different circumstances, or so it seems to me. This is important I think, for the idea we will come to, that elite and popular culture, begin to become separated. The poor could not take any part in buying pictoral art, for example. But the ideas of status and religious belief in a viciously expensive painting of a civic dignitary, for example, would have messages entirely comprehensible to both rich and poor, and furthermore that message would be generally accepted by all, however irritating. Though of course in the list of universally comprehensible cultural activities and objects, we would, of course, we need to exclude Opera. And cucumbers. Just joking about Cucumbers. Ok, go on then, and Opera, before you all write in.
But there is a historical debate all of this, as it happens, of which I should make you aware. The general story, the big picture, is of a rise in the frequency of church and village festivals in the late middle ages, as the economy delivered a greater individual prosperity to its inhabitants at a time of low or indeed no population growth. Historians such as Ronald Hutton developed and catalogued the growth and richness of these festivals. He had expected to find festivals rooted in old and possibly even pagan tradition, but was surprised to find that many actually originated only in the 15th century. Which is a bit disappointing in a way I suppose for the idea of age-old ancient folklore, but does re-emphasise the strength of village life in the late medieval period.
But then, so the story goes, as the 16th century advanced, the tapestry of parish life became increasingly threadbare, festivals are closed down or stop. The cause was those horrid protestants, miserable lot, and specifically the hotter type of protestant. Essentially, during the reign of Elizabeth it becomes clearer and that there were many in the reformed church that felt religious reform had not gone far enough, and sought to push the church further; they often described themselves as the Godly; others would describe them with rather less enthusiasm as Puritans; and Puritans began to be associated with this reformation of manners. The Reformation of Manners is not restricted to minding your Ps & Qs, though minding your Ps & Qs is indeed a thing for Puritans, or indeed to holding your fork in the left hand. It is about manners in the wider sense, of how you live your life. So the idea is that after the reformation lemon sucking takes over and festivals all die out, leaving a dull grey parish replete with tumbleweed. I exaggerate for effect. Oh, and culminating of course, in the widely known and most infamous puritan of them all, Oliver Cromwell, who of course cancelled Christmas. Except of course, Oliver Cromwell did no such thing, it was parliament in 1644 and 1647 that banned Christmas. Just in case you were not aware and someone says it, you can now put them right. Gently and with restraint and understanding.
Well, as we will see, there is no doubt something happens, and as we will see there is a bit of die back; there is an increased focus on controlling behaviour of the village inhabitants and especially many of these festivals which could be undeniably raucous and alcohol fuelled. But there other views available, which suggests that Catholics might be every bit as horrid as the protestants. Or to put it another way that there are other reasons why change occurs, which has much less to do with religion than we might think. The leading contender is population change and the economic and social distress that came with it; that with a wave of vagrants, an explosion in the crime rate, and widespread poverty, there was a reaction to control excess against a fear that things could get out of hand.
It’s been proposed also that this had a class aspect; that economic change created greater divisions between classes – and as we have seen, economic change did indeed have very different impacts on those with land and those without. Under the pressure of population growth, the rise of vagrancy and the seemingly endless stream of poor, the attitude towards the poor on the part of the better tends to change to one of fear, and with fear came denigration. Where once the language of poor relief is one where the poor are closer to God because of their poverty. Now a new language begins to appear, as social elites begin describe the poor with words such as ‘rustics’ or ‘rude…silly ignorants’.
It is also argued that these differences drove an increasing wedge between popular culture and elite culture. Some historians, such as Barry Reay, saw popular culture in terms of resistance to authority; that popular activities were ‘weapons of the weak’. So, festivals and local events presented an opportunity for the poorer members of the parish to express their own defiance to the increasing condescension of the better Off. We talked about this in connection with the Parish last time; about how resistance might be expressed by working slowly or poorly; or expressed more directly in mockery of the haves in authority. I mentioned the kind of Rhymes that could be used in Skimmingtons and Rough Rides last time – these sort of poems could find themselves pinned to a gate of a knight’s manor, mocking those in power who might have been caught with their pants down or the subject of a spot of cuckoldry.
So the idea that festivals begin to get closed down might be seen as part of a growing divide in society between the haves and have nots. Social elites of course do not like being mocked and defied, and the temptation therefore was for social elites to control and manage popular celebrations, or snuff them out. So hence the idea that popular culture changes as economic and social differences grow, or indeed becomes either banished or controlled.
There are counter claims; Wrightson argued that although even well into Elizabeth’s reign, English parishes shared a set of common cultures and beliefs, which were shared across different groups; there was no great social cultural divide; but he also claimed though that by the mid 17th century, this had indeed changed; and that there was much polarisation between the elite and the poorer members of the parish, the culmination of a general social trend that started in the early 16th century. There is also a very fine historian called Martin Ingram, who argues that the idea of shared values survives much, much longer. He looked at the tradition of the Charivari or Skimmington that we heard about last week; he traced the approval and involvement of social elites all the way through to the 18th century.
The answer as in all these things, is probably that it’s messy, and that the process plays out in different ways and speeds depending on where you are or the specific ceremony. But what is probably inarguable is that greater separation between social groups is on the way. You can present that story positively or negatively; so you could say ah, the better off peasants, yeomanry and husbandmen, identify much more closely with the gentry and nobility, and are able to share in the management of both parish and state. Or you can emphasise the negative and point out that the better off peasant desert their poorer neighbours, and so the poor of the parish loser the support of those who had so often the leaders and supporters of the poor in protest such and enclosure riots or the Commotion Time of 1549.
Anyway, in what follows we’ll see change and as part of that many festivals get lost; but we’ll also see that much of that comes bottom up as much as top down, and that popular culture had plenty of vitality and ability to reinvent itself. This is a theme that will stay with us as we work out way through the reign of Elizabeth, but what we can do at the very least in this episode is to understand a bit about village pastimes before the Reformation and in it’s immediate wake; and understand if the Reformation of Manners really was a phenomenon of the Protestant reformation, or more the renewal and continuation of existing themes. At some point ladies and Gentlemen, we will then need to take you to the bawdy courts. As part of that we can go to Winchester, and meet the likes of Agnes Haycroft and Frideswide Hodgson, fine upstanding goodwives of that fine and upstanding city, but we’ll do that next week so you’ll have to be patient.
For this week though, let us start with a bit of a romp, if podcasts are able to romp, through the village of English festivities and pastimes, starting off with the ritual year. And since we have got through several minutes of podcast without a warning, let’s issue the card of regionalism and note that one of the glories the medieval and early modern world is the plethora of local customs and rituals; I have no doubt of course that this applies to the world generally.
Let us take the blessing of the rush harvest as an example; the rush was an important resource for floor covering in particular, and so was worthy of a spot of congratulation of course. But the congratulation was offered only in the northwest and Derbyshire – it’s a regional thing. I might anachronistically make the same point with regards to some of the utterly bizarre regional customs that continue today in rare and exclusive locations. On Shrove Tuesday every year in the town of Atherstone in Warwickshire there is a genuinely terrifying 2 hour struggle for possession of a big ball, a ceremony thought to celebrate a similar match in 1199 between Warwickshire and Leicestershire. That original match was obviously fixed as it happens, and we know this because Leicestershire lost, which obviously could not have happened honestly, I mean seriously, yah right. Anyway, have a look on YouTube, the Atherstone Ball Game, and then look me in the eye and tell me that you would not immediately join the ranks of the Godly and start reforming manners at a canter.
Rather less confrontational of surviving traditions is the traditional cheese rolling at Brockworth, Gloucestershire, although the frankly suicidal nature of the event has led to strenuous attempts have it banned, and it survives on an unofficial basis. One of my favourite quotes of the day comes from Wikipedia, so I hope it is accurate, but it is from former winner, Helen, who defiantly proclaimed ‘No-one’s going to stop us doing it. They say it’s not official, but we are all Brockworth people, and we’re running the cheese today, so it is official.’ What a great expression, running the cheese. I of course strongly approve, and in their honour I shall be running the cheese tonight. I shall only be running it across my table towards a cracker and onion marmalade, but none the less it will be rolling in Brockworth’s honour.
Quite a few of these regional events happen still, though of course a fraction of what used to occur; and some of them are probably the old relic of celebrations that might have once been quite general across the country. One example is the hock tide celebration that survives at just Hungerford and used to be more general; Coventry used to have a Hock Tuesday play on the 2nd Tuesday after Easter. This was based on a widespread custom that women would raise money for the church by capturing men and holding them ransom for a fee. This followed Hock Monday when Men captured women for ransom.
So, warnings about regionalism delivered, we should start our romp through festivals at Christmas I guess, a 12 day ceremony rather different from the modern idiom; I would guess this is the sort of thing that comes up on the interweb quite often, and I am sure we have discussed wassailing before so we’ll be brief. Advent was a time of fasting, with no cheese, rolling or otherwise, meat or eggs. Once the 12 days of Christmas were launched the celebrations didn’t carry on at the same high level, there were peaks and troughs; some of those days and events might be an occasion for the grander Gentry to fling open their doors to their tenants, but Christmas was not necessarily the opportunity for interclass celebration. New Year’s Day was not in fact the start of the New Year – the New year started on 25th March, the feast of the Annunciation. 1st January was a roman tradition, but it was most relevant here because it was the main day for gift giving. Gift giving at the top of society was often a subtle and nuanced process of lordship and subordination, a question of choosing the right level of gift for your lord – not too extravagent or they’d bang up the rent or mark you as a parvenu, not too little so they’d think you a nobody. Lords could reject it too; in 1571, Elizabeth would refuse a gift from the Duke of Norfolk, and from that moment Norfolk knew that he was heading toastwards. Lords would go through similar agonies when choosing presents for their tenants – important not to over do it, important not to underdo it unless you had a message to convey. Further down the social scale we could all just have a good time, so that was OK. 
Then, the biggest feast of the year was 12th Night and at the court everyone went potty with display and dancing and so on; it was not simply an occasion to rather gloomily take down the decorations for another year and turn to face the mist and snow of January, and start counting down the 355 days to Christmas.
One of the more intriguing rituals over Christmas were inversion type ceremonies, and inversion ceremonies are something of a theme; you might think of them as a way of letting everyone escape the normal rules of hierarchy and behaviour for a while, before re-placing the head in the noose the following morning. Anyway, one of these at Christmas was relatively controlled, the tradition of the Boy Bishop. A boy from the choir would be chosen to be the Bishop, and in some way to lead the community for a short period, or even a procession. Much more raucous and widespread was the Lord of Misrule, somebody appointed to lead and organise the celebrations. This was generally done in as wild and rowdy a manner as possible, that being their role. Henry VIII loved these and played them with gusto and interestingly so did Edward VI; oddly Mary was less keen, which is a bucking of the normal trend. Because Generally speaking, in line with what we said earlier, the profile is of the fun and festivities coming under pressure during Henry’s reign, being really squeezed under the protestant reformation of Edward, enjoying something of a revival under Mary and then gradually residing under Elizabeth over quite a long time. There are many exceptions but that’s a handy rule of thumb; though alongside this was the arrival of secular, national and patriotic ceremonies such as the celebration of the Coronation of Elizabeth, and Bonfire Night from 1605. The Boy Bishop for example, was banned by Henry VIII, probably since now he was supreme head of the church and should take this sort of thing seriously. The Boy Bishop indeed revived under Mary, but had basically lost its force and died out under Elizabeth. The Boy Bishop celebration was replaced by the Lord Mayor’s Show in London. So fine, there was pageantry to be had, but it was much less participatory – everyone got to watch essentially, the fun was controlled.
Back to the lord of misrule then, as an example of the kind of popular culture which attracted some elite disapproval, but actually survived though did not exactly thrive through the period, and gives some good examples of why popular culture changes over time. The month of May was an even more popular time than Christmas for lords of Misrule to appear in English villages up and down the country, very popular and a tradition which survived through the Tudors. There’s a famous description in 1583 by a chap called Philip Stubbes, which describes a lord of misrule who
chuseth forth twentie, fortie, threescore or a hundred lustie Guttes like to him selfe to waighte uppon his lordly Majestie, and to guarde his noble person. Then everie one of these his men, be investeth with his liveries, of green, yellow, or some other light wanton colour. And as though they were not (baudie) gaudie enough I should say, they bedecke them selves with scarfs, ribons & laces hanged all over with golde ringes, precious stones & other jewels; this doon, they tye about either leg xx or xl bels, with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid a crosse over their shoulders and necke, borrowed for the most parte of their pretie Mopsies & looving Belles, for bussing them in the dark.’
Stubbes goes on to describe the ceremony, of the young people sent out to ‘make the May’ by going to woods and collecting greenery while wearing garlands of flowers, and then the erection of a maypole, and the building of summer halls and bowers.
And horribly enough there was dancing. Actually delightfully enough there was dancing, for obviously as I am sure you will agree, while dancing freeform is merely an opportunity to demonstrate a general lack of rhythm, dancing where you are told what to do is something of a triumph. Country dancing if you like to call it that, played a very critical role as something that crossed social and sexual boundaries, bringing together groups of people in both public and private spaces. It was cheap and it had a strong bias towards the young, who could have a hooley together, released to some degree from the repressions and social mores that governed sex and relationships. Dancing would be accompanied by Pipe and drum, the pipes being often bagpipes; not the Highland pipes of modern Scottish fame, but a simple pan-European version with a single drone pipe to make the accompanying buzz, a bag to supply the air pressure, and a chanter pipe with finger holes to play the tune upon. Dances might be nice and simple, performed in circles holding hands, and so perfect for the maypole and all of that.
Though there is also reference to performance stuff – solo jigs and that my friend, allows me to introduce the Morris. Ah the Morris, which has a distressingly dodgy reputation when really it ought to be celebrated and even more popular than it is. I intend to learn how to dance the Morris, you heard it here first. Just after I have run the cheese, probably. Anyway there are various views about the origins of Morris dancing, and included in those theories appears to be the requisite amount of chaff. In the late 19th century the whole of Europe began to get very, very interested in understanding, cataloguing and explaining folk customs, and they tended to want to find interesting and ancient origins, and if they couldn’t find any evidence, well they did what any self-respecting podcaster does and they speculated wildly. So, Morris is supposed to have derived from some Moorish influence, possibly along with the armies of John Of Gaunt, and indeed the OED has that as the origin of the word. But it seems agreed that if the word does indeed mean Moorish, i.e. pertaining to the moors as in Othello, the moors of Spain and North Africa rather than of boggy areas, then it’s back formation, people inventing a history, and that there’s nothing Moorish about it at all. Nor does there seem to be any pagan influence, which is really annoying if you happen to be making a Wickerman or watching Brit entice Edward Woodward or whatever. In fact, even more annoyingly, the origin of the Morris seems to be in the 15th century aristocratic courts; that the original morris dancers were highly acrobatic, spectacular professional players, there to wow the wealthy; they wore colourful, fancy costumes with pendant sleeves and bells. So as an example, on of the dances seems to have been a circle around a “maiden” for whose favours the dancers then compete. I say maiden, they’d probably be a man in women’s clothing in EM times. The earliest written reference is 1448. By the early 16th century they were a common part of village festivals, and thrived until the 19th century when suddenly people decided – it wasn’t cool anymore. I think I have mentioned already the jolly famous Will Kemp, a Shakespeare player, who danced the Morris all the way from London to Norwich in 1600. Will caused a bit of a stir and people joined in along the way. Including a Suffolk butcher, apparently, who did such a rubbish job and lasted such a short time that a local woman gave him a fair amount of disrespect.
‘If I had begun to dance, I would have held out one mile though it had cost my life.’
She declared. Obviously, the crowd said ‘go on then’, so, she hitched up her skirts, tied on some bells and danced all the way beside Kemp to the next town. The reputation of Butchers and their dancing skills has never recovered. Gerry tells us that from city to City is 400 miles, but from London to Norwich is about 118 miles and dancing the Morris between the two is such a superbly fab thing to do that a quick search reveals at least two others more recently who have at least tried to do the same, one of them this very year. Good on them.
Gosh, where was I? Morris, May festivals, and dancing, yes dancing. So, the popularity of the dance and its music might be reflected in the easy availability of players; one commentator moaned about this, as people will, and moaned about the quality at the same time, in 1579:
‘London is so full of unprofitable Pipers and Fidlers, that a man can no sooner enter a tavern, but two or three caste of them hang at his heeles, to give him a dance before he departe.’
Which does sound tiresome. Bah, Humbug. Also in June 1606, one alehouse keeper in Yorkshire got into trouble for holding Sunday dances that were attracting over a hundred young people to dance to the music of the piper and drummer. Dances could often take place in Churchyards, because there were not in those days tombstones all over the shop and they were a good open area. So, the current trend toward flexible use of church spaces is not a new thing then, which is good.
May celebrations are a good example of the struggle between different viewpoints – possibly between elite and popular if you like, though hold that thought. As you may possibly perhaps have guessed from the quote above about the Lord of Misrule, our Stubbsy cannot be said to entirely approve. There is an implied lemon in the quote. Mr Stubbs also referred to the another triumph of these events, which was to drink significant quantities of alcohol, provided, mark you, by the church and therefore raising a tidy sum
The church wardens with the consent of the whole parish provide half a score or twenty quarters of mault…which mault, being made into very strong ale or beere, it is set to sale
This sounds great, but no, not according to Stubbsy. All that gathering of May boughs, he grumbles was just an excuse for the young whippersnappers to slip away into the woods for a bit of nookey. Which on an English morning at the end of April sounds optimistic to me, but you lot may be made of sterner stuff. To be more understanding and professional, the point is that Protestant reformers, and particularly puritans, had a much greater worry about mixing up the sacred and profane; dancing and flirty looks in the churchyard just didn’t seem right to them. And all that drink and dancing and chaos; in the context of visible, growing poverty, of unemployment, of the spectre of the many headed monster of the poor and fear of riot, all that lack of control was worrying.
Hutton also traced a general decline in the traditional church ale; a church ale being a parish hooley, with ale, and probably hence the name, and probably with dancing that sort of thing. Essentially out of church warden accounts of 700 parishes identified one surviving with certainty into the 17th century. It’s an analysis that has been challenged, on the basis that this is 700 out of 9,000, that with the separation of sacred and profane CW accounts were no longer a good place to look. And there are plenty of examples of the church ale surviving well enough; the village of Winterslow for example where the kings Ale as it was called carried on right though the century; but began to become more intermittent as time went by. There’s that example from Yorkshire 1606 is another, where the celebrations survived, but in that case, the ale was organised by the tavern rather than the church. The conclusion is probably that Hutton well over stated the case, but that the number and frequency of church ales did reduce over time.
Anyway I started off with the ritual year and then did not finish the job, and jumped from Christmas to May. Mea culpa, but before I go backwards, Mayday remained a shared celebration across all social groups; in June 1559 chronicler Henry Machyn recorded the May celebrations for their new Queen, Elizabeth
There was a May game…with a gyant and drums and guns and IX worthies, with speehys and a goodly pageant with a quen…and dyvers other, with speechys; and then sant Gerge and the Dragon, the morres danse, and after Robin Hode and Lytll John and Maid Marian and the fere Tuke, and they had spechys round a-bowt London
Quite a few good traditional English themes in there; but while this qualifies as shared culture, the example also leads to a demonstration that a more controlling spirit was at hand. For while London laid on a show at the same time, so that’s OK; but again, which public shows were OK, the Corporation was very wary now of locals doing their own thing, and possibly getting out of hand.
So in 1575, an apprentice was sharply questioned about May games suspected to have been ‘brought into London’ He was interrogated:
What sporte was about this town in the hollie daies?
And the Apprentice nervously replied that
‘he knew of none but two or three … shewes in Southwerke.
Tsk, that’ll be naughty Southwark for you then.
Now maybe London was a rather extreme case and more than usually suspicious, given the number of authorities that ruled it, but as you can see, there was pressure on these events, and there’s no doubt their frequency was in decline and it was harder to escape the controlling hand of the town authorities or Parish worthies.
OK, so back to the holy days about which our Nervous Apprentice was being quizzed specifically. First Monday after 12th night would have been Plough Monday, to celebrate the start of the ploughing season. The communal plough would have been kept in the Church, with a candle flickering on the Rood. Some lads would then pull the plough around the village asking inevitably, for a bit of dosh, and would plough up the ground in front of the doors of any of the Scrooges who refused. This tradition did not survive the reformation – candles had been sent to the great recycling bin in the sky by Henry VIII, Edward VI got rid of both rood screens and Plough Monday by 1548.
Next up was Candlemas but in addition to a lot of candles, there was a lot of what reformers deemed to be superstition; if you count as superstition the idea that witches dropped wax from the candles into the footsteps of anybody they hated, causing their feet to rot. Which, yah, thb probably does qualify as superstition. Though apparently, we don’t use the word superstition anymore as perjorative and I guess imposing the views of today on the views of the past. Though hopefully I’m OK since some contemporaries thought of it as superstitious too. Eitherway, gone in 1548.
Then St Valentine’s day – pretty popular in the Paston letters as it happens, but more generally a lowkey occasional sort of thing. Valentine was supposed to be an early Christian who helped persecuted Christians I believe; a story added much later was that he had sent the very first valentine’s message to his jailer’s daughter. One version of the surviving tradition then was that you chose names from a hat as to who was your valentine, and that person then bought you a gift which is nice. As you dipped, I don’t think you thought of a romantic attachment but hoped you picked the boss, on the assumption you’d get a higher grade pressie. Anyway, no one bothered to ban that one, which brings us to Lent and Holy week. Before Lent all the remaining goodies in the house needed to be eaten up, so there was plenty of shrovetide fun before everyone began to be dour for Lent. Obviously to many of us English this is Pancake Day, which is as thorough going a secularisation as you can care to think of; first mention of PD given in OED as 1700.
I have to say that as well as nice eaty traditions there used to be back in the day some reasonably nasty animal related ones. The early moderns were sadly imperial in their attitude to animals; officially animals had no soul and people had dominion over them and all that. I have no doubt that in the relationship between human and animal, since we relied so much on animals for our survival there is a vast storehouse of love, companionship and encouragement on the plough and wherever, even if the things do whoof at unfortunate moments outside the shed. Of course, such things don’t survive so well, and what does survive are the records of many brutal traditions. Some of those took place on Shrove Tuesday, and do you know, I am never going to cover these things on the history of England. I am going to give myself a break on that particular score. Without going into detail, though you should not forget them, because it does give a distressing window on the contemporary soul which could be made hard hearted by the vagaries of daily life.
Easter itself was a treasure house of elaborate ceremonies such as the washing of the altars, and creeping to the cross, and although Easter of course remained the most important of occasions for the reformed church too, most of those ceremonies did not survive. Some of the traditions that were not actively banned around Easter did keep going for a while until they faded out for lack of interest – cutting greenery and bringing it into the house on palm Sunday for example lasted until the 18th century. Easter Monday remained a favourite time for sports and fairs too, which the Premier League preserves.
St George’s day 23rd April, was chopped by Edward VI too – a celebration that has been revived in a secular sense more recently, which is good, cry England Harry and St George, that sort of thing, and always good to flay the flag in an inclusive sort of way – and now I am back in order because we’ve done May Day. Corpus Christi in June was an absolute mega event in Towns in particular, and although I think that
- We have discussed this way back because I am getting that Deja Vue Feeling all over again and
- I am aware that this podcast is becoming a bit list-y and
- Corpus Christi had been proclaimed in 1317 by Pope John XXII in order to remind Christians of the holy nature of the Eucharist. As far as the Protestants were concerned, the Eucharist was just bread and wine, and done in remembrance of him. We are back to transubstantiation and so Corpus Christi was first up against the wall come the reformation.
However, Corpus Christi does allow us to discuss plays, because that is one of the things that happened pre reformation in some towns – though the main event was of course the big procession, with each guild preparing their float and all that. In some places, plays were not part of Corpus Christi – London for example would have none of it. But Coventry did – Coventry it turns out was a bit of a happening place, no sign of the ghost town in the 15th century. Although since you mention it, the later 16th century will be economically very hard on the place. But anyway, while in its prime, Coventry rocked. Famously York also did a cycle of 52 plays which would have taken 21 hours end to end. By 1570, these Mystery plays and the play cycles – were gone, nothing more than a memory. And yet, here we are at the very start of the golden age of English drama, which will produce the bloody Bard no less. So…what’s going on? If the Reformation killed the cock robin of drama, how did said robin magically turn into the Phoenix? Well, in the best tradition of cliff hangers, and to escape my quite appalling metaphor, tune in next week to see if Cock Robin was shot at all, and to hear some small coverage of plays in late 16th century England; and we’ll then continue our walk through entertainments in EM England and their part in the Reformation of Manners. And we’ll finally hear what Goodwives Agnes Haycroft and Frideswide Hodgson had to say to each other and to the Winchester bawdy courts.
 Ingram, M: ‘Transformations in Popular Culture’ in Doran Ed: ‘The Elizabethan World’ p468
 Sim, Alison. Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England. The History Press. Kindle Edition.
 Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life (p. 202). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.