What Fools These Mortals Be…?

Parish Ritual and Popular Memory in Late Tudor London

 In the moneth of May, namely on May day in the morning, euery man, except impediment, would walke into the sweete meadows and greene woods, there to reioyce their spirites with the beauty and sauour of sweete fouwers, and with the harmony of birds, praysing God in their kind

~ John Stow, Survey of London 

But fancie then, by serche of selfe deuyse,
Renouncyng thus to spende the pleasaunt Maye
So vainly out with sport of fruteles Pryce

Barnabe Googe Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonettes

Seasonal feasts and festivities were an integral part of early modern English life. They not only marked changes in the calendar year, but also served to unite communities in observation and celebration of shared beliefs and values. But festive rituals were to undergo a profound and dramatic transformation in the sixteenth century in the wake of the Reformation. Ritual traditions that had flourished in urban parishes in the early decades of the century had all but disappeared by the century’s end only to be replaced with the emergence of one of London’s greatest cultural legacies – public theatre.

It was not only the myriad saints and holy days that came under attack, but also the semi-secular holidays such as May Day and Midsummer which celebrated and ritualized the turning of the seasons. By the late sixteenth century these parochial rituals connected with summertime celebrations were in an advanced state of decline, however it is not necessarily the case that these traditions were abandoned altogether. Elements of these former parish-based ritual activities were preserved in public theatre in such works as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This work, along with other works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, makes use of ritual language and reference, which suggests there must have been a popular demand for such material. Taking this a step further, it can also arguably be used as an indicator of religious conviction and conformity in late Elizabethan London.

It was in the parish that the customs and rituals of the liturgical and calendar year were most frequently enacted.  The great sacred seasons and holy days, such as Christmastide and Eastertide, and the other important moments including the dates allocated to patron saints were the primary focus of parish celebration.  But woven into the cycle of Christian fasts and festivals were the semi-secular traditions whose roots were often quite ancient.  The Christian calendar was closely related to the turning points of the seasonal year, which meant the many observations that were not exclusively Christian were incorporated into the Christian framework.   In order to accommodate semi-sacred seasonal celebrations the church often allocated to them a Christian identity to make their observance more acceptable.  Midsummer Eve, which was the last possible date on which the moveable feast of Corpus Christi could fall, and which was one of the most celebrated holidays in early modern London, was also the eve of the nativity of St. John the Baptist.  Less successful in incorporating a Christian identity was the appointment of Saints Philip and James the Apostles’ observation to 1 May and the celebrations at the start of the summer season, but these saints were rarely recognized on this day. These dates allowed for the blending of secular entertainment and parochial ritual into a mixture that was widely accepted and practised in pre-Reformation London.

Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edwin Henry Landseer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is absolutely riddled with reference to festive rituals associated with spring and summer, and virtually every action and character refers in some way to the ritual customs of May Day. The lover’s flight to the woods and the mischievous disorder that ensues speaks to countless pseudo-pagan rites of May; Oberon and Titania are clearly the Lord and Queen of Misrule, with Puck playing the former’s mischievous Robin Hood-esque sidekick; the play-within-a-play featuring Bottom and his fellow laborers with Philostrate as the Master of Revels harkens to the tradition of Mummers plays, as does the donkey head bestowed upon Bottom during his transformation; the progression from the night of lascivious opportunity to a day of moral redemption thru a triple marriage is the reintegration back into society with its stricter rules and norms – even the insult ‘thou painted maypole’ are examples of links between the play and the popular traditions practised in London during the first half of the sixteenth century.

Numerous literary scholars have drawn these parallels, and the connections, and clearly should be no surprise given the title of the play, but the context of when it was created and staged for the first time makes the play interesting.

The swinging pendulum of Tudor religious policy did of course have a significant impact on ritual celebrations, as did the influence of zealous Protestant reformers. By the 1590s when the play was written England was established as a Protestant nation, parish administration had been made more exclusive and professional, and the majority of parish-based rituals had virtually disappeared. Opponents to festival rituals writing in the 1570s and 1580s such as Barnabe Googe, William Harrison, and Edmund Spenser who had actively denounced the idle, self-indulgent sinfulness and lascivious temptations of seasonal festivities could have found some comfort in that. But there were those who openly lamented the loss of their traditional summer festivities, some going so far as to say that the Reformation destroyed a happy society, such as William Warner and John Stow.

So what then does A Midsummer Night’s Dream tell us about the sentiments and attitudes of Londoners in the last decades of the sixteenth century? It is clear that May Day and Midsummer served as a vital source of inspiration for this Shakespearian comedy. That Shakespeare chose to write a play based upon bygone seasonal rituals is not evidence in itself of a popular demand for the revival of such pastimes, but it does strongly indicate a pre-Reformation nostalgia for these ritual traditions, and these festivals must have lived on in popular memory. The public theatre in London was a commercial enterprise, and it was therefore important for the material presented to appeal to as broad an audience as possible to ensure the greatest profit.  The existence of supply indicates that there must have been a demand.

May Day and Midsummer were both holidays that had been traditionally celebrated at the parish level by a wide range English society in fairly universal ways, and so all who attended a performance would have understood the substance of the play. The parish had the locale in which community and communal identity were constructed, and parochial rituals were the means by which it was reproduced, and it was in the parish that the customs and rituals of the liturgical and calendar year were most frequently enacted. Protestant evangelism combined with changes to parish responsibilities and administration led to a sharp decline in festive communal rituals within parishes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrates the ways in which the communal rituals of the parish, which had also united diverse social groups, were transferred to the public theatre in London.  But although the theatre attracted a broad range of people from society, it was an activity of observation rather than participation, and it did not therefore replace the direct social bonding of parochial rituals, but at the very least it provided a nostalgic reminder.

Does the fact that so many citizens still found pleasure in their old pastimes, if only as spectators, suggest that their private sentiments were sympathetic to the old faith?  It is possible, but given the absence of major uprisings in the capital in response religious change, and the fact that the festivities brought to life on the stage were semi-secular in nature it is likely that the majority of Londoners who were attracted to works such as this had generally accepted the reforms of the Elizabethan church.  Although they were Protestant, they were not as enthusiastic as the evangelicals preaching and publishing against these much-loved customs.

Further Reading

Googe, Barnabe Eglogs, Epytaphes and Sonettes (1563)

Googe, Barnabe The Popish Kingdom (1570)

Harrison, William The Description of England (1587)

Overall, William Henry The Accounts of the churchwardens of the parish of St. Michael, Cornhill, in the city of London, from 1456 to 1608 (London, 1871)

Spenser, Edmund The Shepherd’s Calendar (1579);

Stow, John A Survey of London (1603)

Stubbes, Phillip Anatomie of Abuses (1583)

Archer, Ian The Pursuit of Stability (Cambridge, 1991)

Archer, Ian ‘Reordering rituals: ceremonies and the parish 1520-1640’ in Paul Griffiths & Mark S.R.Jenner (eds.), Londinopolis (Manchester, 2000)

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: a study of dramatic form and its relation to social custom (Princeton, 1959)

Brigden, Susan London and the Reformation (Oxford, 1989)

Bristol, Michael D. ‘Theatre and Popular Culture’ in John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan (eds.) New History of Early English Drama (New York, 1997)

Bucknell, Peter A. Entertainment and Ritual 600-1600 (London, 1979) pp. 71

Burgess, Clive ‘London Parishioners in Times of Change: St Andrew Hubbard, Eastcheap, c. 1450-1570’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 53, No.  I (January 2002)

Clark, Peter & Paul Slack (eds.) Crisis and Order in English Towns 1500-1700 (London, 1972)

Collinson, Patrick ‘Merry England on the Ropes: The Contested Culture of the Early Modern Town’ in Simon Ditchfield (ed.), Christianity and the Community in the West (Aldershot, 2001)

Collinson, Patrick The Birthpangs of Protestantism: religious and cultural change in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (New York, 1988)

Cressy, David Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989)

French, Katherine L. Gary G. Gibbs & Beat A. Kümin (eds.), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997)

Gibbs, Gary ‘New duties for the parish community in Tudor London’ in Katherine L. French, Gary G. Gibbs and Beat A. Kümin (eds.), The Parish in English Life 1400-1600 (Manchester, 1997)

Griffiths, Paul& Mark S.R.Jenner (eds.) Londinopolis (Manchester, 2000)

Haigh, Christopher The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987)

Hassel, R. Chris Faith and Folly in Shakespeare’s Romantic Comedies (Athens, Georgia, 1980)

Hindle, Steve ‘A sense of place? Becoming and belonging in the rural parish, 1550-1650’ Alexandra Shepard & Phil Withington (eds.), Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2000)

Hutton, Ronald ‘The Local Impact of the Tudor Reformation’ in Christopher Haigh The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987)

Hutton, Ronald The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford, 1994)

Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford, 1996)

James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (London, 1961)

Kümin , Beat A. The Shaping of a Community: the rise and reformation of the English parish, c.1400-1560 (Aldershot, 1996)

Laroque, Francois Shakespeare’s Festive World (Cambridge, 1991)

Shepard, Alexandra & Phil Withington (eds.) Communities in Early Modern England (Manchester, 2000)

Thorne, W. Barry ‘Folk Entertainment and Ritual in Shakespeare’s Early Comedies’ (MA thesis University of British Columbia, September, 1960)

Vlasopolos, Anca ‘The Ritual of Midsummer: A Pattern for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1. (Spring, 1978) pp. 21-29

Wright, Susan J. Parish Church and People (London, 1988)


2 thoughts on “What Fools These Mortals Be…?

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