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“The forgotten art of gayety”: The Puritans and Merry Old England

“The forgotten art of gayety”: The Puritans and Merry Old England

by Professor Emeritus William R. Heath
Department of English
Mount Saint Mary's College
January 19, 2016.

William R. Heath, Professor Emeritus, Mount Saint Mary
William R. Heath, Professor Emeritus, Mount Saint Mary's University, Emmitsburg, Maryland

What was “Merry Old England”?

Toward the end of The Scarlet Letter, in a chapter entitled “The New England Holiday” (emphasis added), Hawthorne notes sardonically that “the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity” into “a single holiday.” He then goes on to say that this had not always been the case:

The persons now in the market-place of Boston had not been born to an inheritance of Puritanic gloom. They were native Englishmen, whose fathers had lived in the sunny richness of the Elizabethan epoch; a time when the life of England, viewed as one great mass, would appear to have been as stately, magnificent, and joyous, as the world has ever witnessed. Had they followed their hereditary taste, the New England settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets, pageantries and processions…. Their immediate posterity, the generation next to the early emigrants, wore the blackest shade of Puritanism, and so darkened the national visage with it, that all the subsequent years have not suffered to clear it up. We have yet to learn again the forgotten art of gayety.1
As this important passage shows, Hawthorne’s sympathies are not with his stern Puritan forefathers, but rather with the flourishing culture they left behind in Elizabethan England. He suggests that their “Puritan gloom” has blighted their lives as well as the lives of their descendants, including his own. What exactly was the “art of gayety” which he implies must be learned again? What do we mean when we speak of “Merry Old England”?

Laments for the loss of Merry Old England differ over when it took place. Some would locate it all the way back in a legendary Arthurian Golden Age prior to the Norman conquest: “Twas never merry world since the gentry folk came up.”2 John Selden, in 1689, declared that “There never was a merry world since the Fairies left Dancing, and the Parson left off Conjuring,”3 without specifying exactly when that was. John Aubrey asserted that “the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries.”4 The Oxford dictionary’s first citation, “the crown of mery Yngland” is from 1436.5 An early biographer of Henry IV located it in the 15th century: “England was then ‘Merry England,’ and sad and sober pleasure was not the people’s creed.... The gildsmen lived for mirth, joy, sweetness, courtesy and mery disports.”6 Probably referring to the 15th century as well, Dr. John Caius in 1552 mentioned “the old world, when this country was called merry England.”7 Most commentators, however, would place Merry Old England during the reign of Elizabeth I, Good Queen Bess. William Warner’s Albion’s England (1586) “celebrated the whole traditional round of seasonal revelry” as a distinctive feature of English life which belonged to everyone.8 Of this period Edmund Spenser wrote: “Then our age was in its prime.../ A very merry, dancing, drinking,/ Laughing, quaffing and unthinking Time.”9 The great age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was beginning: Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets” were passing among his friends and his first festive comedies were performed. Playwrights, poets, and prose writers were discovering that the English language was a cornucopia to feast upon. New Worlds were opening up, both in space and in the human heart and mind. The English Empire was being born and the English Renaissance was achieving fruition. And, after the defeat of the Armada in 1588, a relative peace prevailed.

Elizabethan England was deemed “merry” because of its heritage of holidays and folk festivals; its prodigious repertoire of pageants, processions, plays, songs, dances, sports, games, feasts, toasts, jests, and simple good cheer. The traditional Catholic observances, many of which were modified or abolished by various Tudor monarchs in the sixteenth century, formed the basis of English festive life. Founded on a Christian calendar of saints’ days and ceremonies that had been layered over pagan rites and rituals, the English year was marked by seasonal celebrations, each with its own rules for being unruly, its own prescribed codes and customs, which were designed to enrich life and give it resonance. Rather than threatening and undermining society, these sanctioned festivities served to consolidate the traditional order—at least that was the going assumption—but holidays also had a way, during a period of social transformation, of tapping into deeper and darker forces that could, on occasion, erupt out of control: “The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450, and the Prayer Book Rising of 1549 all broke out during the Whitsun holidays.”10

A composite picture of the festivities associated with Merry Old England in the 16th century would be as follows: The ritual or sacred half of the English year began with The Twelve Days of Christmas. This was a time to deck the halls with holly and ivy, feast on roast beef or boar’s head, pass the wassail bowl of spiced ale, don costumes (a custom called “mumming”), and engage in dancing. Rowdy bands of wassailers, often young peasants in disguise, visited the local manor houses expecting and sometimes demanding good hospitality—not small beer but the strong stuff, white bread, and the best roast meats—in return singing bawdy songs and vowing their good will for the coming year. In more genteel circles gifts were exchanged, carols sung, and a Master of Revels orchestrated the various festivities, including masques and plays for the court. No one disapproved more, or described better, these jollifications than Philip Stubbs: “Then march this heathen company towards the church, their pypers pyping, their drummers thundering, their stumpes dauncing, their belles jyngling, their handkerchiefes fluttering aboute their heades like madde men, their hobbie horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng: and they go to the church...wherein they feast, banquet, and daunce all that day.”12 These festivities derive from the Roman Saturnalia, a topsy-turvy time of license when masters and servants switched places; December 25th was the major festival honoring Mithras while Epiphany, on January 6th, was the birthday of Osiris; but as Sir Gawaine and the Greene Knight suggests, Christmas customs also drew upon Anglo-Saxon Yule festivities in defiance of the winter solstice.

Immediately following these twelve days of festivity came Plough Monday, a time of “the ploughmen yoking themselves together and drawing about a plough”13 to signal the start of farming for the year. February (from the Latin word for purification) brought Candlemas on the 2nd, which included the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, a procession carrying candles, and the blessing of the candles. The day also marked “the beginning of carnival and the end of the bear’s hibernation.”14 In mid-February came St. Valentine’s Day, “a promiscuous festival,”15 as Ophelia well knew (“Young men will do’t if they come to’t,/ by cock they are to blame”). Shrove Tuesday, the seventh Sunday before Easter, usually fell in early March. “A day particularly renowned for its gaiety,”16 it was called “Pancake Day,” after a typical treat of the time. As Master Silence puts it in Henry IV Part II:“Tis merry in hall when beards wag all,/ And welcome merry Shrove-tide.” It was also “a day of great gluttony, surfeiting and drunkenness,”17 featuring such rough-and-tumble sports as football (“nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence”18), throwing at cocks, and cock-fighting. Another peculiarity of this day was that gangs of young men, to take vengeance on the pleasures they must leave behind for Lent, “put Playhouses to the sacke and Bawdyhouses to the spoyle.”19 Sometimes the dislodged prostitutes were dragged about the streets in carts.20

On March 25th the Annunciation, popularly known as Lady Day, marked the beginning of the year. Ash Wednesday initiated the forty days of fasting leading up to Easter. With a reminder that without Christ we are all “dust to dust,” ashes were placed on foreheads, the sacred images in the rood loft were veiled, and meat was renounced in favor of fish. From the beginning of Lent until the end of May all marriages were forbidden. On Passion Sunday, the fifth in Lent, the clergy exchanged their white robes for red; on Palm Sunday, there was a blessing of the foliage and the “Creeping to the Cross.” It was also reported that in some parishes “maydes who receive the Sacrament...walke about the Corne to bless it.”21 Then came Maundy Thursday, when the king or queen washed the feet of selected commoners, Good Friday, and finally Easter itself on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. The name was derived from the Germanic fertility goddess Eostre (the Anglo-Saxons’ name for April was Eosturmonath), and the significance of eggs was tied to a Roman fertility rite.22 Easter was a time for blessing the church, house-cleaning, dressing-up in one’s best finery, and feasting. Hocktide came about ten days later; a period of gender games where men and women pulled each other about the town with ropes or in carts and money was raised for charities. St. George’s Day, April 23rd, often overlapped with Easter festivities; it featured tilting matches and the procession of the Knights of the Garter, whose Order was then received by the reigning monarch. The feast of St Mark followed on April 25th.

The holiday that epitomized Merry Old England, in Elizabethan times as in ours, was May Day and its maypole. On May 1st before daybreak young people went into the woods to gather greenery and bring back a sturdy maypole to decorate and dance around, accompanied by much feasting and drinking. Palinode, in The Shepherd’s Calendar, describes the first part of the process:

Yougthes-folk now flocken in everywhere
To gather May buskets and smelling briar,
And home they hasten the posts to dight,     (adorn)
And all the kirk pillars ere daylight,
With hawthorn buds and sweet eglantine,
And garlands of roses and sops-in-wine:
Such merry-make holy saints doth queme.    (please)
But we here sitten as drowned in a dream.23
Although Spenser’s spokesperson in the poem, Piers, does not approve of May Day pagan practices, the poem captures much of the festive “joysaunce” of the holiday. Of particular note here is the association of May and hawthorn; indeed “May” is a synonym for “hawthorn,” something Nathaniel Hawthorne must have been aware of. Part of the symbolism of the day was that the pre-dawn greenery brought back from the forest should be moist with may dew, which was “believed to have curative and restorative powers.”24 Indeed this “consecrate”25 dew was to Nature what Holy Water is to the Church, only its function was to foster down-to-earth fertility, not a disembodied spirituality. Many Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, most notably Robert Herrick, made the joys of going a-Maying one of their standard themes. The Puritan Phillip Stubbes once again vividly describes what he personally deplores:
Against May-day, Whitsunday, or some other time of the year, every parish, towne, or village, assemble themselves, both men, women, and children; and either all together, or dividing themselves into companies, they goe some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains...where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch boughs and branches of trees to deck their assemblies withal. But their chiefest jewel they bring from thence is the Maie-pole, which they bring home with great veneration.... And then they fall to banqueting and feasting, to leaping and dauncing about it, as the heathen people did at the dedication of their idols. I have heard it crediblie reported, by men of great gravity, credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home againe as they went.26
While Stubbes no doubt exaggerates the amount of deflowering that accompanied this day “consecrated to the goddess of Flowers”27 (the Roman goddess Flora), illegitimate May babies (Hester’s Pearl was one) had a way of entering the world in February, just in time for Lent. A favorite trope for these May­Day erotic tussles was the image of the “green gown.” Herrick, for example, says in “Corinna’s Going a-Maying” that “Many a green gown has been given,“28 and John Aubrey quotes a limerick of the time: “To sport it on the merry downe/ to dance the Lively Haye;/ To wrestle for a green gowne/ In heate of all the day.”29 On May Day the chimney sweepers would parade in London; milkmaids in country towns. Queen Elizabeth herself, no doubt with an eye to her rural supporters, declared that she wished she could spend all of May as a milkmaid.

Stubbes was sure that the “grand captain (of mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule,” was Satan incarnate, who assembled “a hundred lusty guts like himself [and] they bedeck themselves with gold rings, precious stones and other jewels...tie about either leg twenty or forty bells with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across over their shoulders and necks, borrowed for the most part of their pretty Mopsies and loving Bessies, for bussying them in the dark.” Supported by “hobby horses, dragons...bawdy pipes and thundering drummers,” they then “strike up the Devil’s dance withal.”30 This was commonly called the “morris dance,” because it probably derived from the Moors of Spain; it was danced around the maypole, often set up in the churchyard. During these drunken revels, it was not uncommon to see youths, like those at Dartmouth in 1634, who “could not stand so steady as the pole did.”31 Along with the Lord of Misrule, other “outlaw” figures associated with May Day were Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and Robin’s merry men. Robin, commonly dressed in green, carried a quarter—staff—a symbol of his potency and a cudgel against his foes. Another “Robin” associated with May Day was Robin Goodfellow, a prankish elf or fairy associated with forests and fields who was also known as Puck. In Germany, April 30th was walpurgisnacht, a witches’ Sabbath and Black Mass; in contrast, English spirits and sprites of May were assumed, for the most part, to be benign. Robert Burton, in Anatomy of Melancholy (1651), states some English beliefs about “Wood-nymphs, Foliots, Fairies, Robin Goodfellows..: These are they that dance on heaths and greens... and leave that green circle, which we commonly find in plain fields, which others hold to proceed from a meteor falling, or some accidental rankness of the ground; so Nature sports herself.”32

May Day festivity was not confined to May 1st alone; for the next two months it was not uncommon to see “Damsels tripping deftly about Maypoles” or “Meege, Madge and Marion, about the pole to dance.”33 Clearly, the maypole ceremony derives from prehistoric phallic worship and sympathetic magic: the “primitive” belief that like produces like; in this case, that an outdoor orgy will ensure abundant crops. The erotic power of such merrymaking is supported by the fact that Elizabethan conception rates were seasonal (higher in the spring but not specifically tied to May 1st) and that one in five brides was pregnant, two patterns that carried over to cavalier Maryland but not to Massachusetts,34 a difference the Puritans attributed to the fact that “New England men came hither to avoid anniversary days.”35 Thus in 1627 when Thomas Morton set up his maypole in Massachusetts Bay, it was a potent symbol indeed—a red flag to enrage all Calvinists and a lightning rod to draw their thunderbolts.

During Rogationtide in early May the people would make a perambulation of their parish boundaries and treat themselves to freshly baked bread and a barrel of beer. Another popular festival that fell either in May or June, depending on the moon, was Whitsun or Pentecost. This was considered a good time for baptisms, wakes, pastorals, and church ales, which “were a major source of parish revenue.”36 Stubbes, as usual, was not amused, but he makes our mouths water: “they feast, banquet and dance all that day and (peradventure) all the night too.... Another sort of fantastical fools bring to these hell-hounds...some bread, some good ale, some new cheese, some old, some custards, and fine cakes.”37 Lady Bomwell, in James Shirley’s The Lady of Pleasure (1637) captures the atmosphere: “How they become the morris, with whose bells/ They ring all into Whitsun ales, and sweat,/ Through twenty scarfs and napkins, till the hobbyhorse/ Tire and the Maid Marion, dissolved to a jelly,/ Be kept for spoon meat.”38 At Whitsuntide the Cotswold Games took place and June was when the shepherds did their sheep-shearing. The second Thursday after Whitsun was the feast of Corpus Christi. Since the Middle Ages this holiday had been celebrated by processions through the streets, which, over time, led to pageants (originally a moving platform for the carrying of religious images or tableaux) and the presentation of plays and masques. These fostered the development of English drama, with the cycle of plays at Coventry and York attaining a particular fame. As the Devil of the miracle plays yielded center stage to the Vice of the morality plays a more comic note was struck, and “minstrels, jugglers, tumblers, dancers...jesters ”39 added to the festive spirit. During Corpus Christi employees were invited to dine with their employers as a gesture of good will and genuine hospitality.

June 24th was the feast of John the Baptist; Midsummer Eve, the June solstice and the shortest night of the year, revived much of the spirit of May Day. In fact, the two holidays were often conflated and shared many of the same festivities and beliefs. In this period of “midsummer madness,” prophetic dreams, and metamorphosis, the spirit world was thought to be very close and supernatural happenings were considered possible. John Aubrey reports: “It was a Custome for some people that were more curious then ordinary to sitt all night in their church porch of their Parish on Mid somer-eve; and they should see the apparitions of those that should die in the parish that yeare come and knock at the dore.”40 Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream captured the essence of this holiday, presided over by “Oberon, prince of fairies...the May king...an aristocratic garden god,”41 who is assisted by Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow. Hawthorne was very fond of this play and it is quite significant that he chose “Oberon” as his artistic pseudonym for several of his early stories. Midsummer festivities were marked by huge bonfires in the streets, symbolizing the triumph of summer over winter and light over darkness. In London and a few towns processions were held featuring giants, devils, and dragons.

The secular or profane half of the year began after Midsummer; during this time the traditional festivals revolved around crops and livestock much more than religion. The “high summer” was the period when the royal court made its “progresses” through the shires with an expectation of being richly entertained (sometimes beyond people’s means, thus Hamlet’s bitter remark about “a king making a progress through the guts of a beggar.”) Aubrey in a much lighter mood describes how Parson George Ferraby of Bishops Cannings in Wiltshire entertained Queen Anne at Bath: “He made severall of his neighbours good musitians, to play with him in consort, and to sing. Against her Majestie’s coming, he made a pleasant Pastorall, and gave Her an entertaynment with his fellow songster in shepherds weeds and bagpipes, he himself like an old Bard.”42 On July 1st came Saint Swithin, known as Rush-Bearing, with rushbearers, cakes and ale. One eyewitness described it as “a country rush-bearing, or morrice-pastoral is his festival; if ever he aspire to plum-porridge, that is the day.”43 August 1st marked the beginning of the harvest season with Lammas designed to give a respite to wheat farmers: “You sunburned sicklemen, of August wear,/ Come hither from the furrow and be merry.”44 August 15th, Harvest Home, was a time to celebrate the year’s agricultural bounty: “Their last load of corn they crown with flowers...riding through the streets in the cart, shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn.”45 Ten days later was the famed Bartholomew’s Fair at Smithfield, London, the annual cloth fair and a major pig market; but its mass appeal probably hinged on its streets lined with booths where barkers cried their wares, sold savory “fare,” and lured the rubes to freak shows. Ben Jonson’s play by the same name has made this fair immortal; Ursula the pig-woman embodies the fair’s vulgar vitality, while Zeal-of-the-Land Busy is a parody of Puritan hypocrisy: he wants to gorge on roast pig before he scorns gluttony: “I will eat exceedingly, and prophesy.” When Wasp asks him “What are you sir?” He replies, “One that rejoiceth in his affliction, and sitteth here to prophesy the destruction of fairs and May-games, wakes and Whitsun-ales, and doth sigh and groan for the reformation of these abuses.”46 By the 1640s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy would have his reforming way, but the Puritans never did succeed in shutting down the Bartholomew Fair.

At the end of September came Michaelmas, a time to feast on roast goose and for scholars to return to Oxford and Cambridge. After crops were sold for cash, rents were paid and legal bills came due; as one wag put it, “The careful client has his harvest done/ And now the lawyer’s reaping is begun.”47 Many village patron saint festivals were held in October, followed a week later by a village wake featuring heavy eating and drinking; this was also a period of christenings, weddings, and funeral feasts, as well as the Charlton Fair, in Kent, on St. Luke’s Day, October 18th. All Hallows Eve came at the end of this month, “when ghosts and spirits walked the earth.”48 This was a night to propitiate the dead so that they would not haunt the living. On All Saints, November 1st, church bells were rung for the dead, the monarch “dressed in purple velvet and his courtiers in black,”49 and the feast of All Souls was celebrated. November 11th was Martinmas, “a paradise for gluttons and drunkards,”50 when the people feasted on “Martinmas beef, ” as farmers slaughtered their stock and salted it for the winter. In an effort to substitute for the Saints’ Day celebrations that her father had banned, Queen Elizabeth added her Accession Day to the festive calendar on November 17th and James I did the same with Guy Fawkes’ Day on November 5th. The month concluded with Saint Andrew’s Day (Advent).

December 6th was St. Nicholas Day; traditionally, a Boy Bishop was selected as a comic inversion of church hierarchy and sometimes schoolchildren would bar the door against their schoolmaster. The season of Christmas frolic began on December 21st, Saint Thomas Day (the winter solstice); soon the Twelve Days of Christmas would muster their energetic festive protest against, and defiance of, the longest nights of the year and the dominance of winter gloom. Thus in Merry Old England a festive ending blended into a festive beginning (“Then, heigh-ho, the holly!/ This life is most jolly! ”); and so, as Storm Jameson aptly put it, “the year is round.”51

Tudors, Stuarts, and the Mutations of Merriment

A seasonal cycle of festivities implies a cyclical notion of time. The waxing and waning of the moon, the equinox and solstice of the sun, the lengthening and shortening of days and nights, the sowing, growing, and harvesting of crops, the raising and slaughtering of livestock, the passing generations of the human family—all are based on patterns that repeat themselves in a predictable way. But when time is figured by a linear, more precise method; when clocks and watches are invented and people move from country to city, abandoning agriculture and livestock for jobs with regulated hours; when a feudal subsistence economy yields first to a mercantile and then to a capitalist one—it becomes increasingly difficult for local communities to sustain the old festive calendar and its folk customs. Furthermore, when England switched from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic, then to Protestant again, followed by civil war, radical reform, and the “restoration” of the monarchy, the resultant disruptions in festivity were catastrophic. Perhaps what is most remarkable is how much of Merry Old England managed to survive even after the Puritans gained strength in the 1640s, the country was torn apart by Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell took command in the 1650s.

The festivities associated with Merry Old England were never, at any given time, exactly as I have described them above. Throughout the Elizabethan and early Stuart period they were in a state of flux, undergoing profound change. When Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England, he also shattered the Catholic festive calendar. The cults of the saints were abolished, as was the “misrule” of Boy Bishops; Archbishop Cranmer, in 1546, forbade the ringing of bells for the dead upon All Saints’ Night, the veiling of images during Lent, and the ritual called “Creeping to the Cross.” All across England church roods or lofts were pulled down. The monasteries were destroyed and their land confiscated; Henry was able to finance his court by selling off church properties. During the reign of young Edward VI, these reforms were carried further by Lord Protectors Somerset and Northumberland. Shrines and pictures of the saints were obliterated; the high alter was limited to two candles: all saints’ days, except those for apostles, were abolished. Specific rites, such as the blessing of candles at Candlemas, placing ashes on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, and carrying foliage on Palm Sunday, were discontinued. The Easter ceremonies of the sepulcher, the paschal candle, and the hallowing of the fire ceased. In the name of uniformity, the Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549. The coffers of the royal court were filled by expropriating funds for church charities, religious guilds, and perpetual obits. Many of these reforms were met with stiff resistance in the West Country, but in general England complied. Ronald Hutton, whose The Rise and Fall of Merry England is the best study of the changes I have been summarizing, recounts what was lost and left: the reforms had “abolished all days of individual saints except apostles, evangelists, Stephen the first martyr, and the archangel Michael. To these it added only Sundays, New Year’s Day, Twelfth Day, Candlemas, the Annunciation, Ascension Day, Midsummer Day, All Saints, Holy Innocents, and the two days after Easter and Whitsun as permitted times for worship and recreation. Popular holy days such as those of St. Nicholas and St. George were consigned to oblivion.”52

When Mary, a devoted and determined Catholic, attained the throne, she proceeded to reverse the reforms of Henry and Edward. Parliament restored the church service to where it was in 1546 and revived the Catholic festive calendar; Corpus Christi processions and the cult of St. George returned; roods were rebuilt, images refashioned, and the queen’s Master of Revels resumed his importance during major holidays. Those who resisted Mary’s wishes were treated harshly—some 300 were executed—and their sufferings, recounted in grisly detail by John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, earned her the epithet “Bloody Mary.” In general, England adapted easily to the return of the old calendar, but certain things were lost forever: pilgrimages, the cult of the saints, and the rites associated with a belief in Purgatory. When Mary died in 1558, and the Protestant Elizabeth assumed the crown, the English people viewed the beginning of her rule with considerable trepidation. Now what? How long would her reign last? How radical would be her reforms? Would the old faith return? It was, after all, expensive to keep tearing down and rebuilding the church roods. And torture and martyrdom might well await the person who misread which way the wind blew. During this period, Shakespeare’s predominantly Catholic family, struggling with the issue of whether to accommodate or keep the old faith, epitomized the anxious adjustments going on all over England.

Queen Elizabeth loved pageantry and festivity and distrusted evangelical zeal; she feared, on the one hand, the threat of Catholic power and so acted to eliminate Catholic rites and rituals (as well as her Catholic rival, Mary Queen of Scots); on the other hand, as her reign progressed, she faced a new challenge from iconoclastic church reformers who came to be called Puritans; they wanted to strip England of its former merriment in the name of a more “precise” piety, a more regularized work week, and a sanitized Sunday. To settle one issue, in 1561 Elizabeth ordered all church lofts cut down to the beam, and much of the Catholic calendar restored by “Bloody” Mary was prohibited again. The Thirty-Nine Articles were established as the basis of the official faith. There were, of course, people who protested, and before long Elizabeth had the blood of martyrs on her own hands. For the most part people complied and the repression was not nearly as harsh as it might have been. To replace the cults of the saints, Elizabeth created a cult to her own person; by the end of the 16th century, the “Virgin Queen” had superceded the Virgin Mary. “By the time she was forty,” Storm Jameson asserts, “she had made herself a legend, which all England believed.”53 November 17th the day of her ascension, became a major national holiday, which grew more fervent over time: “The twelfth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth being now happily expired...all good men through England joyfully triumphed, and with thanksgiving, sermons in churches, multiplied prayers, joyful ringing of bells, running at tilt, and festival mirth, began to celebrate... the beginning of her reign.”54 The queen’s Master of Revels not only sponsored festivities but also began to foster the fine arts, especially drama, poetry, and music. In part because of the queen’s patronage, the great age of English literature had begun. Elizabeth herself made it quite clear that she favored merriment and wished to be amused; like her father she enjoyed dancing; her jewels and sumptuous gowns were legendary, as was her fondness for more “masculine” sports such as hunting and bear-baiting. The queen’s royal progresses through the countryside, announced by the vigorous ringing of church bells, were designed to encourage festivity every place she went, the more spectacular the better. It was during her reign, for example, that fireworks came into fashion. “The queen’s masterly political handling of festivals,” Francois Laroque concludes, “made it possible, at least to some extent, to make her contemporaries believe that the period of her reign truly did coincide with a return of the Golden Age.”55 At Highgate in 1601, two years before her death, a horseback-riding Elizabeth was still “fetching in the May.”56

On her deathbed, Elizabeth had left the succession unclear, which only added to King James’s difficulties in taking the place of so magnificent a monarch. Of course her reign had not been one long triumph; there had been major failures as well as the usual incompetence and corruption; the country was still at war with Catholic Europe; Ireland seethed under its quasi-colonial status; social injustice and filthy living conditions were the rule; recurrent plagues decimated London, sturdy beggars stalked the land, and socio-economic forces largely out of anyone’s control were transforming the country both for better and worse; but in nostalgic retrospect, she was a towering figure: “‘Queen Elizabeth of famous memory’ became a rival with whom no living kings could compete.... Elizabeth may have been a crotchety old woman presiding over an exhausted kingdom, but in death she assumed all the ‘Gloriana’ virtues of Deborah, Hester, Judith, Diana, Minerva, and the ‘Faerie Queene.’”57 James, in sad contrast, had a set of mannerisms that were easy to mock, as Sir Anthony Weldon did in his notorious description of him as “the wisest foole in Christendome,” picturing a man so afraid of assassination (not without reason, as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 would show) that he padded himself out in quilted doublets reputed to be both stiletto- and pistol-proof, rolled his large eyes suspiciously at any strangers, slurred his speech because of an outsized tongue, drooled when he drank, refused to wash his hands (only his fingertips with a wet napkin), wouldn’t change his clothes until they were rags, walked awkwardly in unsteady circles, and was forever fiddling at his codpiece.58 The King, who was indeed very well educated, prided himself in his knowledge of theology and delighted in disputations over obscure doctrinal points. He even wrote a book about demonology, which helped ignite a witch scare in Scotland and England that he came to deplore. Although November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, became a national holiday that encouraged anti-Catholic sentiment, James judged the Catholics to be less of a threat to his reign than the Puritans; the former were asked only to sign an Oath of Allegiance, but the latter he vowed to “harry... out of the land” if they did not conform to the Church of England. In actual practice his policy was much more moderate; as he confided to Francis Bacon, it was one of “No torrent of blood: poena ad paucos ” (penalties for the few).59 Since the strength of the Puritans was in the rising and striving middle classes of London, with a provincial stronghold in East Anglia, James attempted to create an anti-Puritan alliance among the royal court, landed gentry, loyal Anglicans, urban workers, and rural peasantry based on the traditional festivities of Merry Old England.

The Book of Sports, first issued by James in 1618, made merriment mandatory and tied it to royalist politics. This declaration was directed at “Puritanes & precise people” who had objected to “lawfull Recreations, and honest exercises upon Sundayes and other Holy dayes.” James stated that barring people from “honest mirth” deprived “the common and meaner sort of people from using such exercises as may make their bodies more able for Warre.... And in place thereof sets up filthy tiplings and drunkenness, and breeds a number of idle and discontented speeches in their Alehouses.” Therefore, he declared that “harmelesse Recreation” after Sunday services, such as “having May-Games, Whitsun Ales, and Morrisdances, and the setting up of Maypoles and other sports,” were not only lawful but ought to be encouraged.60 James reiterated his approval of traditional merriment on numerous occasions, exhorting his people to “in Gods name leave thes forreine toyes, and keep the old fashion of England,”61 and he did his best to foster festivity as well as learning and the arts. At the urging of the Puritans, he sponsored an Authorized Version of the Bible, a perfect blending of eloquence and inspiration that proved to be the most influential book ever published in Engish. His wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, deserves the most royal credit for supporting the London theater; during her husband’s reign Shakespeare, Webster, Ford, and Middleton wrote their greatest tragedies. The dramatic form with which James is most associated, however, is the court masque, especially those written by Ben Jonson and designed by Inigo Jones. These extravagant spectacles, which were very popular with Queen Anne and her female attendants, combined dancing, singing, and dramatic scenes (often of an allegorical nature) enhanced by instrumental music, lavish costumes, and elaborate sets. Jacobean masques were clearly intended for a rather jaded aristocracy and, unlike Shakespeare’s plays, were far removed from the common people—no groundlings need apply. In these sumptuous masques it was sometimes hard to say where high art ended and decadent affectation began.

By politicizing merriment and the arts, James created a dilemma for English authors, who found themselves maneuvered into backing the authority of the monarchy and taking only one side of a national debate. Shakespeare discreetly retired to Stratford in 1611, but a merry band of other writers stepped forward to sing the praises of festivity. Michael Drayton and his fellow bards issued an anthology, The Shepherd’s Pipe (1615), celebrating “Whitsun ales, village revel days, maypoles, Ladies of the May, harvest queens, summer flowers, garlands, and songs and dances on village greens.”62 Anti­ Puritan satire became fashionable. Thomas Heywood’s Toia Britanica (1609) summed up the indictment: “The Puritan is precise, hypocritical, sour, ignorant, and overbearing. He hates all learning, all beauty in the church service, and all pastimes which may give pleasure, such as ’Huntng, Hawking, Cockes, and plaies.”’63 Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch’s denunciation of Malvolio anticipated these satires—“Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”—and Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, with his sanctimonious hypocrisy, epitomized the type. James’s support may have been growing among the poets but it was certainly slipping in successive Parliaments, increasingly reluctant to fund his “popish” pastimes.64 The frugal Elizabeth had managed to keep her spending in check, but James was prodigal by nature and his love of festivity came with a high price tag. The aptly named Addled Parliament of 1614 provided him nary a farthing. Renaissance beliefs expected munificence from a monarch, whose bounty validated his nobility, but the Puritans gaining strength in Parliament believed in counting their pence.

The great accomplishments of King James I came in the early years of his reign. His motto was Beati Pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers, and, for the most part, he was able to achieve this both at home among his “three kingdoms” and abroad. Unlike his son and successor Charles, he had the good sense not to promote the virulently anti-Puritan William Laud; rather he favored such outstanding preachers as Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne. Although he added fuel to the fire by his ill-advised efforts to marry Charles to the Infanta Maria of Catholic Spain, and by steadfastly insisting on a policy of “no bishop, no king,” he did manage to keep the simmering religious kettle from boiling over. Ironically, Charles’s return from Spain unmarried in October 1623 set off a prodigious popular celebration, perhaps the largest of the seventeenth century in England.65 King James made peace with Spain and kept England out of the Thirty Years War that began in 1618 on the continent, thus providing the needed interlude to establish a colonial foothold in North American—the British Empire had begun. Militarily, England made the crucial strategic shift from the infantryman’s longbow to the naval broadside and soon Britannia would rule the waves and the new trade routes. With peace came prosperity, at least for the mercantile class, as well as a revival of festivity and an astonishing outpouring of creative work, not only in drama and poetry, but also in the fine arts and the emerging sciences: Francis Bacon, William Harvey, Thomas Hariot, Edmund Halley, and others began to disclose the secrets of everything from the circulation of the blood to the orbits of comets. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the true golden age of Merry Old England was during the reign of James, not Elizabeth. “The Englishmen of the next twenty years,” Machette Chute argues, “could look back to the lost tranquility of the Jacobean age as to something that had happened in a dream.”66 But many of the king’s contemporaries did not feel that way (like Othello, they feared that “chaos is come again”), especially after rumors of war and sordid scandals rocked the second half of his reign.

Why should the reign of King James, characterized as it was by peace and a relative prosperity, be seen by the people living in it as a dark time of anxiety, doubt, and despair? In Jacobean tragedy, featuring sinister villains and hideous deaths, the key word is “confusion,” with its period connotations of a descent into anarchy and evil. The characteristic masterpieces of the age may well be Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malji. Thus was “the native hue of Elizabethan resolution sicklied o’er with the pale cast of Jacobean melancholy.”67 This is a curious outcome for a monarch who devoted so much effort to promoting festive merriment and general good cheer. As E. M. W. Tillyard demonstrates in The Elizabethan World Picture, the people of that time had an intense investment both socially and psychologically in a set of elaborate ideas about the natural and supernatural order of things. They still clung tenaciously to the medieval concept of the great chain being, which posited hierarchies in everything from the heavenly angels to the lowliest insect. Even different rocks and trees had their various merits and rightful place. Elizabethans felt enormously threatened by any challenge to this meticulous system that ordered and made sense of their world: Shakespeare, as usual, said it best: “Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And hark what discord follows.” King Lear profoundly dramatizes the metaphysical and ethical fears of the time that disorder could sunder the bonds between heaven and earth, parents and children, and cause humanity to prey upon itself “like monsters of the deep.” Yet this is not the whole story; as Mikhail Bakhtin convincingly argues in Rabelais and His World, the carnivalesque spirit of European festivity gave the common people a means of mocking the very beliefs they supposedly held most dear. Carnival kept alive an alternative way of experiencing life that subverted the official pieties. Tillyard, by neglecting this significant dimension of the Elizabethan world, oversimplifies the picture. “The Elizabethan theory of total conformity,” Marchette Chute points out, was often at odds with “the Elizabethan practice of lively individualism.” The great playwrights of the period, trained in school to adhere to rigid classical rules, often did the opposite in their finest works, producing instead “the tangled, loose, barbaric magnificence of the Elizabethan drama.”68

Part of King James’s problem was one of perception; unlike Elizabeth, he lacked tact and the common touch. Keeping his royal distance from his subjects, he preferred to write out his edicts, rather than address people face to face. Although he officially favored festivity, rarely did he personally participate in communal festivals. He was an active sportsman; in fact many felt he devoted an inordinate amount of time to the chase; but he did so in the seclusion of his favorite hunting lodges, not in public view. And the extravagance of his court masques and entertainments not only brought him into conflict with Parliament and the Puritans but it also was a sore point even among his supporters. While Elizabeth had used her “virginity” as an instrument of foreign policy, skillfully playing off various European suitors to her nation’s benefit, James’s sexuality was a matter of national embarrassment. He fathered seven children with Queen Anne, but his strongest affections, flaunted in public, were lavished on his court favorites, most notably Robert Carr, soon made Earl of Somerset, and his successor George Villiers, the future Duke of Buckingham.

The plot thickened when Somerset fell in love with the court beauty Frances Howard, wife of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. In an effort to have her marriage annulled, Frances insisted that her husband of several years was impotent, and sought the services of the notorious necromancer Doctor Simon Forman, and his witch-like associate Anne Turner, to keep him so. Frances lay claim to her long-lost chastity while carrying on her torrid affair with Carr, which, as this popular ditty shows, was no secret: “There was at court a lady of late/ That none could enter, she was so strait./ But now with use she is grown so wide/ There is a passage for a Carr to ride.”69 Nonetheless, loose ends nagged: namely, one Sir Thomas Overbury, who knew too much about Frances’s machinations. He had been conveniently confined to the Tower by James, who suspected him of insinuating that the king did Carr’s bidding. Now the problem for Frances was which poison to employ; eight were tried, mixed with various tarts, jellies, sauces, and seasonings, “wherewith he might languish away little by little.”70 Before long, the man died. That same year, an annulment was granted; Frances and Carr were married; the king blessed the nuptials; poets sang their praises; they did not live happily ever after. Rumors spread; suspicions grew; a trial was held; the truth, of sorts, came out; a few complicit underlings were executed. Frances and Carr were imprisoned; eventually, the king pardoned them. In rural exile, they came to loathe the sight of each other, and died miserable deaths. I summarize this, the scandal of the age, because it cast a dark cloud over the last half of James’s reign, blotting out many of his achievements. Note how far we have come from the world of Merry Old England; but note, also, how easily—with its sinister intrigues, love philters, lethal poisons, and cast of suspect characters—this story resembles the plot of a Jacobean tragedy. Hawthorne was intrigued by the Overbury case, which significantly influenced The Scarlet Letter, his novel about failed merriment and the lost art of gaiety.

Before he died in 1625, James told his son and heir Charles that “he would live to have his bellyful of parliaments,”71 and that, certainly, came to pass. His first Parliament was sufficiently in the control of the Puritans that a strict Sabbatarian bill passed and, when the Long Parliament convened in 1640, it banned traditional merriment entirely. Personally, Charles was the opposite of his affected, fun-loving father; he was “temperate and chaste and serious.”72 Charles “transformed a raucous court into a decorous one, and, if there was no lack of masques, balls and state dinners, a refined sensibility now characterized them: ’the fools and bawds, mimics and catamites of the former court now grew out of fashion.’”73 A short, shy, stammering man, with a long nose, a weak mouth, and skinny legs, Charles played tennis and preferred to be seen on horseback. As a patron of the arts, especially painting, he was unsurpassed among English royalty.74 He positioned his reign unequivocally on the side of merriment by reissuing the Book of Sports in 1633. ”When shall the common people have leave to exercise,“ Charles asked, ”if not upon the Sundays and Holidays, seeing that they must apply their labor and win their living in all working days?”75 The unofficial poet laureate of merriment, Robert Herrick, published his Hesperides during Charles’s reign. In “The argument of his book,” he announced

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers;
I sing of may-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes;
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness... 76
For the Puritans, of course, “cleanly wantonness” was an abhorrent contradiction in terms. In an effort to compel the Puritans into conformity, Charles made the crucial mistake of unleashing Archbishop Laud, whose policy of “the beauty of holiness,” sometimes referred to as “thorough,” proved to be thoroughly counterproductive and polarized the nation. Laud’s renewed insistence on the ecclesiastical calendar was not without its eloquent apologists, especially among the Anglican clergy. Richard Hooker, for example, argued that “the days which are chosen out to serve as public memorials of such his mercies ought to be clothed with those outward robes of holiness whereby their difference from other days may be made sensible,” and Lancelot Andrewes added that “Every thing is now turning, that we also would make it our time to turn to God.... Though it never be out of season to speak of Christ, yet even Christ hath his season.”77 But to a Puritan like Henry Burton, all this fuss over certain holy days and festive occasions was merely “rubbish of Romish relics, [because] every day to a true Christian is a day of sobriety, and all his life a Lent, while all along his life is seasoned and sanctified with a conscionable keeping of the Lord’s day.”78 If there was any hope of reconciling these polarized positions, Charles was not the person to do it. On the road to civil war, he “blundered abroad, offended at home, and forced confrontation and division with every important institution.”79 Although thousands of Puritans fled to Massachusetts Bay in the Great Migration of the 1630s, thousands more took their place, augmented by Presbyterians and Independents, until the Long Parliament was in their hands. Cavaliers and Round heads approached their day of reckoning. Malvolio would soon be revenged on the whole pack of his detractors. The Root and Branch petition of December 1640 presaged the reforms to come. On 2 September 1642 stage plays were suppressed. On 8 April 1644 all maypoles were ordered cut down and theaters closed. In 1646, the apprentices of London presented a petition requesting “lawful recreations for the needful refreshments of their spirits, without which life itself is unpleasant and an intolerable burden.”80 Instead of blessed relief from their labors, on 10 June 1647 Parliament issued a declaration: “Forasmuch as the feasts of the Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and other festivals commonly called holy days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed, be it ordained by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the said feasts be no longer observed as festivals of holy days.”81

Merry Old England was officially a thing of the past.

The Meaning of Merriment

What is the meaning of merriment? Where did it come from and what purpose does it serve? Is there such a thing as too much or too little festivity? What is the proper balance of the sacred and the profane, of work and play, of joy and sorrow, in human society? Is there a middle way that leads to health and happiness for individuals and communities alike? These questions were at issue, as we have seen, in Tudor and Stuart England, dividing Catholics from Protestants, Anglicans from Puritans, Cavaliers from Roundheads, even families from each other. Eventually, these conflicts led to Civil War. Englishmen shed their countrymen’s blood. Whatever can be said in support for or condemnation of the new government and society that emerged in the late seventeenth century, the nation would never be the same. It is during this turbulent period, of course, that the English colonies in America took root and established their character; they, too, were transformed by the controversy over the meaning of merriment.

For centuries the Catholic Church had sanctioned seasonal celebrations, many of pagan origin, that blended religious and secular activities, and from Henry VIII on so had the Church of England. This accommodation dates from the decision of Pope Gregory the Great to convert the Anglo-Saxons. In 601 he wrote to the English mission at Canterbury about the best strategy: Do not tear down their temples, he advised, but rather destroy their idols, sprinkle their shrines with holy water, built altars, set up relics, and thereby turn them into temples of the true God. Instead of letting them slaughter cattle as sacrifices to their “devils,” hold festivals devoted to the Church’s “holy martyrs,” building huts out of tree branches on church grounds where the people can “celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts.” By preserving these “outward rejoicings...they will be able more easily to share in inward rejoicings.” This was the best way, Gregory insisted, because “it is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds.”82 Thus the practice known to religious scholars as syncretism began in Britain, with many setbacks but considerable long-run success. By the late Middle Ages, the English people were among the most devoutly Catholic in Europe, without losing, as Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims show, their distinctive individuality and joie de vivre.

Since we know so little about Anglo-Saxon beliefs, or the lives of the people being converted, it is impossible to say exactly what took place. There are some tantalizing details, however, such as two Catholic edicts in the 3rd century banning “the use of a drinking-horn as a chalice for...the Eucharistic wine” and “prohibiting monasteries from being the resort of poets, harpists, musicians and jesters,” which apparently was not always obeyed, since archeologists at the Whitby monastic site have discovered “wooden tuning pegs for a stringed instrument.”83 The legend of Lady Godiva’s nude ride through the streets of Coventry to absolve the town of a tribute demanded by foreign invaders, to cite a popular folkloric example, apparently derives from “an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess known as Cofa or Goda.”84 Indeed, scholars from Henry Adams on have argued that the cult to the Virgin, which flourished during the Middle Ages and inspired Gothic cathedrals, filled the void left by the banning of the fertility goddesses. Some peasant communities carried images of Mary into their fields to bless them and ensure good crops.85 The Church, of course, not only had a gloved hand but also an iron fist. Several parts of Europe were converted by sheer force. The Saxon Capitulary of the 3rd century made refusal to be baptized and eating meat during Lent, among many other offenses, capital crimes. “This tearing apart of Saxon society was deliberately intended,” Richard Fletcher argues, “the measures were framed by persons who knew how to inflict the maximum damage.”86 Once a people were converted, the Church was ever on the alert to repress heresies that appeared to revert to the pagan past or forge new paths that threatened its power, as demonstrated by the punishment of the Albigensians of Southern France, the Knights Templar returned from the Holy Land, suspect conversos in Spain, or witches and warlocks in Germany, as well as high-minded rebels such as Joan of Arc and Jon Hus. Yet “so long as...the nymphs and satyrs disguised themselves as ‘the good folk’ and Robin Goodfellow, the Church was willing to let the compromise stand.”87

Seventeenth-century Englishmen like John Aubrey acknowledged that the sacred and profane festivities of his beloved Merry Old England were not “pure,” but derived from various sources:

In the Infancy of the Christian Religion it was expedient to plough (as they say) with the heifer of the Gentiles, i. e. to insinuate with them and to let them continue and use their old Ethnick Festivals which they new named with Christian names, e. g. Floralia, they turned to the Feast of St Philip and Jacob, etc, the Saturnalia into Christmas. Had they donne otherwise, they could not have gain’d so many Proseltytes or established Doctrine so well, and in so short a time. The Gentiles would not perfectly relinquish all their Idols; so, they were persuaded to turne the Image of Jupiter with his thunderbolt to Christ crucifixus, and Venus and Cupid into the Madonna and her Babe, which Mr. Th. Hobbes sayth was prudently donne.88
For the Puritan there was nothing “prudent” about such a mishmash of pagan and “popish” practices. David had danced before the Ark of the Covenant, and in his psalms urged the people to exaltate (dance ye)89 and sing praises unto the Lord; Moses had proclaimed that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath;” Ecclesiastes said “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart;” Proverbs tell us that “a merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance” and “does good like a medicine;” in Luke the prodigal son’s father killed the fatted calf in order to “eat and be merry,” and those who turn a deaf ear to the gospel are chided as children who hear the piper’s music but refuse to dance.90 Jesus turned water into wine and presided at a famous supper; but the Puritans viewed all merriment with suspect eyes. This world was a vale of tears, each day a pilgrimage toward salvation; Sunday was for sermons; a few days might be set aside for fasting and humiliation, some even for recreation; but there could be no lawful time or place for rituals, festivals, sports, and pastimes contrived by heathens and countenanced by the Antichrist in Rome.

The Elizabethan festive calendar was a palimpsest of superimposed notions about how time was to be measured and what it meant. Seasonal celebrations were based on solar, lunar, pagan, Christian, rural, urban, legal, dynastic, cyclical, linear, magical, rational, sacred, secular concepts, some of which complemented each other while others stood in strict opposition. The names of the days of the week combined references to Saturn, the sun, and the moon, with four Anglo-Saxon gods and goddesses—Twi, Woden, Thor, and Frig replacing Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. The Julian calendar of the 1st century BC based the names of the months on Janus, Mars, and the fertility goddess Maia, the emperors Julius and Augustus Caesar, the words for five Roman numerals, and reference to a purification ritual (februum). This blending of unholy connotations compelled some Puritans, as well as the Quakers, to substitute numbers for the traditional names of days and months. We don’t know all the Anglo-Saxon terms for the months, but one is revealing: November was Blodmonath, “Blood month,” a time when animals were sacrificed to the gods.91 As mentioned above in relation to Merry Old England, Martinmas, November 11th, featured a feast to celebrate the season when livestock were slaughtered. Clearly, the onset of winter dictated these similar rituals.

The old solar and even older lunar calendars were tied to the rhythms of getting food, whether by farming, herding, hunting, or fishing. As such, they clearly dated back to pre-history; certain times for celebrations, such as Christmas, Easter, May Day, Midsummer, and Halloween, must be of ancient origin although the specific festivities have changed. Therefore, on one level, seasonal festivals are an experience of “deep time”—they go back thousands of years and put us in touch with moments our most distant ancestors also commemorated. On a more practical level, they helped rural people know when to plant, tend, and harvest crops, sheer sheep, cull herds, and do all the other seasonal chores; but festive observances made these communal activities, thus giving them reinforcement and resonance. Hard work and liberating play were synchronized in a way that enriched everyone’s life. Francois Laroque has argued that the seasonal regularity of these celebrations was especially reassuring for Elizabethans, salving their fears of “mutability” and giving order to their world: “Festivals thus seemed to achieve the impossible synthesis that the Renaissance Neo-platonists so yearned for, namely the fusion of the one and the many which was supposed to set the seal upon Pan’s union with Proteus.”92 The traditional festive calendar took a cyclical view of time, seeing it as discontinuous and uneven; some moments, such as Midsummer Eve, were more magical than others and might be of longer, or more intense, duration. Holiday festivity occurred in “a mysterious space in which forces, now benevolent, now malevolent, interacted;”93 for a giddy, topsy-turvy time ordinary hierarchies and activities were suspended; and, when regular workdays resumed, people would feel refreshed and reconciled with their place in the communal and cosmic order.

In England first the Catholic then the Anglican Church enforced an ecclesiastical calendar, which each year commemorated the life and teachings of Christ, honored his apostles, and unified the faithful around a set of shared stories, beliefs, and rituals. This calendar was cyclical, in the sense that it followed a yearly cycle, but it was also linear and historical—even beyond history in its warnings of the end of the world and its promises of eternal life. An attentive Anglican, as William Harrison noted, might over the years come to know the Prayer Book and the Bible by heart: “There is nothing read in our churches but the canonical Scriptures, whereby it cometh to pass that the Psalter is said over once in thirty days, the New Testament four times, and the Old Testament once in the year.”94 As we have seen, the specific dates selected to mark the Christological cycle were almost always those that had previously been devoted to pagan rituals—thus the odds that Jesus was born on December 25th are 365 to 1 (that he was born of a virgin somewhat slimmer). These pagan beliefs trace back to pre-history: in northern Europe to the Paleolithic hunt and in the Middle East to Neolithic fertility goddesses. Judeo-Christian beliefs came out of that same ancient Mediterranean world: When Hebrew herders posited one God on high and the spirit above the body, they were opposed by farming peoples who worshipped Mother Earth in many sacred forms and avatars. The story of Adam and Eve—with its serpent goddess, fruitful tree, and woman born of man—is a myth designed, among other things, to subvert the older religion. A fateful pattern was set: stop playing in the garden and get to work.

Another dimension to the meaning of festive time was added when Tudor and Stuart monarchs reshaped the calendar to fit their dynastic goals, and men of an emerging capitalist society—such as lawyers and rent collectors—used the traditional festive calendar for their own commercial purposes. Queen Elizabeth transformed her accession, November 17th into a day of jubilant patriotism: a minister named Isaac Colfe noted “the cheerfulness of our countenances, the decency of our garments, the songs of our lips, the clapping of our hands, our melody on instruments of music, the making of bonfires, the ringing of bells, the sounding of trumpets, the display of banners, the shooting of guns” and all because this was a “special day ordained of the Lord...for the happiness of England.”95 James I and Charles I tried to kindle the same popular enthusiasm for their accession days with limited success. The victory over the Armada, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, and Prince Charles’s return from Spain sans spouse were certainly days of national celebration, although only the second, called Guy Fawkes Day, became an annual event. In these ways, David Cressy asserts, the English calendar was “used to foster a Protestant national character.”96 More ironic is the fact that the traditional calendar of Merry Old England also designated when bills came due, courts convened, or loans might be obtained. Even the Anglican ecclesiastical courts cited the days of long-banned Catholic saints to date their sessions.

Holidays served as a kind of social safety valve, giving working people a designated amount of time off from their chores in order to rest their bodies and refresh their spirits: “Come from your labours when Wealth bids you play,/ Sing, dance, and keep a cheerful holiday.”97 The festive celebrations that characterized each holiday were communal; the established social order was put aside and everyone, for a time, was equal; the sports and pastimes, the eating, drinking, dancing, and singing were enjoyed across class lines. A limited period of license and misrule was permitted in which the established hierarchies and workaday obligations were suspended: “Here is no distinction of persons, but master and servant sit at the same table, converse freely together, and spend the remainder of the night in dancing, singing, etc., in the most easy familiarity.”98

This traditional festive world was based on common sense, sound psychological principles, and the wisdom to face the tragic facts of existence. C. L. Barber reminds us that holiday vitality was made possible when “the energy normally occupied in maintaining inhibition was freed for celebration.”99 These interludes for relief and release, however, were positioned within the larger context of a workaday world and human mortality. The Elizabethans understood present mirth and laughter in relation to future suffering and sorrow. “Holiday affirmations in praise of folly were limited by the underlying assumption that the natural in man was only one part of him, the part that will fade.... ’from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe/ And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot’.” Holiday, Barber argues, provided a method for “mastering passionate experience.” The festive comedies of Shakespeare dramatize both “the need for holiday and the need to limit holiday,” but the Puritans could never grasp that “holiday gave a license and also set a limit.”100 The purpose of holidays was to provide a temporary respite from everyday drudgery and demands—that they were transitory added spice to the occasion. “We are so made,” Freud observed, “that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”101 As Shakespeare’s Prince Hal put it, “If all the year were playing holidays/ To sport would be as tedious as to work;/ But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come... ” Thus in a traditional world with a set social order, especially in rural farming communities dependent on the changing seasons, festivity could serve to reconcile people to their place in the great scheme of things. A period of misrule, which even allowed for mockery of those who ruled, reinforced established rule: “The festive burlesque of solemn sanctities does not seriously threaten social values in a monolithic culture, because the license depends utterly upon what it mocks: liberty is unable to envisage any alternative to the accepted order except the standing of it on its head.”102

The Elizabethan world was undergoing profound changes; the old social order was breaking up and new economic forces were coming into play. Enclosures were driving peasants off the land. Individual advancement was taking precedence over communal wellbeing. Many people, from all social classes, were moving to London and other commercial centers seeking to “better” themselves. Thus the Stuart resort to “the politics of mirth” in order to “renew a sense of community between the highest and lowest elements of society” was doomed to failure.103 King James found himself begging the citified gentry in vain “to live in the country, and keepe hospitalitie.”104 Keith Thomas notes that “The new cult of decorum thus meant that it was only the vulgar who could go on laughing without restraint.”105 The poor are different from you and me. New ideas, a new skepticism, a product of England’s complex interaction with what was emerging as a much larger world, put the old pieties and practices, including festivity itself, into question. By the Elizabethan era sacred, cyclical time embodied by festive calendar customs was in direct conflict with a more historical and linear concept of time based on the idea of progress. An economic calendar, or should we say clock, was emerging that wanted to rationalize time, workers, and the work place. Simultaneously the growing Puritan movement wanted to purify English society of all vestiges of pagan and “popish” practices, which they saw as a waste of time that could be better spent seeking salvation (or a fat profit). Holidays became suspect; while workdays became longer, more frequent, and more regulated.

People of various persuasions began to view England’s festive culture not as sustaining the social order but as downright subversive of it. Happy faces and loud laughter contained a latent threat. Mikhail Bakhtin has argued that the carnival spirit and its “grotesque realism” were radical all along, representing what the peasants truly felt and even, in the frank language of the marketplace, freely spoke. Bakhtin details how “a millennium of folk humor” invigorated the literature of the Renaissance, which cannot be understood without first understanding what carnival meant to “the laughing people of the Middle Ages.”106 Although Carnival in France was celebrated differently from England (Shrovetide was no match for Mardi Gras) and countries on the Continent had more ways of mocking ecclesiastical authority—with their Feast of Fools, Feast of the Ass, History of Nemo, and other sacred parodies—still Bakhtin asserts that festivity was not a social safety valve but rather the display of a revolutionary consciousness. The ultimate goal was not merely to subvert official seriousness but rather to overthrow it. Out of carnival degradation, the downward turn to the lower stratum of the human body, would come the birth of a new “completely fearless world.” 107

At the center of his argument is the image of a fleshy faced peasant with a gaping mouth giving a hearty belly laugh or guffaw. This laughter, Bahktin tells us, “is the laughter of the people,” which is profoundly ambivalent: “it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives. Such is the laughter of carnival.” This laughter, above all, represented a triumph over fear and an acceptance of the basic facts of life. It scorned all dogmas, mocked authority, and glorified in the gross truths of the body; the spiritual was trumped by the physical; the higher yielded to the lower; human beings were not fallen angels but aspiring, and perspiring, animals who ate, drank, and defecated, danced, sang, fornicated, and were born only to die; yet during festival the folk could celebrate their situation and laugh out loud at their predicament. At a feast a person could be the eater not the eaten (Hamlet’s “convocation of politic worms” would have to wait): “Man’s encounter with the world in the act of eating is joyful, triumphant; he triumphs over the world.... The limits between man and the world are erased, to man’s advantage.... The victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed.”108 Thus the perfect carnival food was tripe, the intestines of another animal. Physical features and bodily excretions, normally concealed or repressed, were openly accepted and even flaunted; protuberances such as the nose, mouth, breast, belly, genitals, or buttocks were on display and subject to comment; sweating, sneezing, burping, farting, pissing, shitting, and various sex acts were seen as all part of the fun. Thus “the victorious body” ruled supreme at carnival time, celebrating “a world dying and being born at the same time.”109 Bakhtin’s insightful study reminds us that the medieval world believed in Christ and Carnival, which makes the whole issue of exactly what they did and did not believe much more complex and ambiguous. In a sense, the Feast of Fools, for example, was necessary because the folk were not altogether fools; they knew in their heart of hearts, or in their guts, that the official doctrines of the church were open to doubt. Thus holiday might not be an escape from, but a rare engagement with, the reality of the human condition—dust to dust was no metaphor.

Bakhtin posits a utopian element in folk culture that assumes the future triumph of the people: “festive folk laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat of a power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts.” He quotes with approval Herzen’s statement that “laughter contains something revolutionary.... Voltaire’s laughter was more destructive than Rousseau’s weeping.” And he asserts that “laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people.... Laughter created no dogmas and could not become authoritarian; it did not convey fear but a feeling of strength.”110 While Bakhtin’s hostility to authoritarianism is a healthy sign, his insistence that laughter can only be benign is questionable. In places he appears to be a quasi Marxist looking for the proper “masses,” and finding them in the laughing peasants of the medieval marketplace; modern man, in his view, is alienated not only from working with his hands and the profits of his labor, but also from festive laughter and being at one with the folk. More troubling is Bakhtin’s claim that the cruelty sometimes associated with carnival is all for the good: “Bloodshed, dismemberment, burning, death, beatings, blows, curses, and abuses—all these elements are steeped in ‘merry time,’ time which kills and gives birth, which allows nothing old to be perpetuated and never ceases to generate the new and the youthful.” All the victims during carnival, at least in terms of Rabelais’ works, are seen as “the king, the former king, the pretender...as individual incarnations of the dying truth and authority of prevailing thought, law, and virtues.” In sum, they are all symbols, and the “Mardi Gras dummy that the laughing crowd rends to pieces in the marketplace” should not disturb us, because “Rabelais does not torture living persons.” This argument turns a blind eye to the dangers of carnival violence in favor of a very problematic “liberated” future when “the people” will be “immortal, indestructible” and “triumphantly gay and fearless.”111 Thus “carnival” begins to resemble “revolution,” with the masses committing revolutionary violence in the name of a better world. Carnival may not be as millennial and revolutionary in its implications as Bakhtin suggests. The essential concept of time during this period was cyclical rather than progressive; “killing” the old year was rather like killing the old cow, not because one expected the new year or the young calf to be “better,” but simply because that was what was done at a certain time in the cycle of a year and of a life. More convincing is Bakhtin’s insight that “the laughing people of the Middle Ages,” during the topsy-turvy period of carnival, were in touch with a deeper and ultimately subversive wisdom that freed them from their burdens and allowed them to laugh at themselves and their world, at least for a time.

Perhaps the ultimate truth about the meaning of merriment lies in its ambivalence. Under certain circumstances it was a safety value that served to reaffirm traditional society, under others it was an excuse for excess and a threat to the established order. Festivity contained both these conflicting elements and more in an uneasy balance: Sometimes it served as a solemn ratification of boundaries, points of reference and dividing lines; at other times, it gave a community license to transgress those boundaries and abolished those dividing lines.112 The dialectical confrontation of opposites, philosophers know, is often the way to try to synthesize a larger truth; likewise the debates of contrasted characters, from Don Quijote and Sancho Panza on, have been the novelist’s way to dramatize the world’s ambiguities. Such debates at the origins of fiction, Bakhtin notes, have folkloric roots in “popular-festive debates of time and age, as well as the dialogues in pairs, of face and buttocks, top and bottom.” He also notes that the literature of the Renaissance was “born on the boundaries of two languages”113— in the case of Britain, English and Latin. The language of official seriousness yielded primacy of place to the vital vernacular of the people.

Shakespeare exemplifies the fruits of this lexical phenomenon; his plays dramatize all the ambiguities of the festive world. The comedies, for the most part, celebrate “cakes and ale,” his histories, with mixed success, try to “banish fat Jack,” while his tragedies take a dire view of those, like Antony, who refuse to leave their “lascivious wassails.” In his tragedies Shakespeare shows the dangers of merriment run amok; festivity “is no longer beneficent but harmful, no longer an antidote to the forces of darkness but their accomplice.”114 Hawthorne’s stories and novels, two hundred years later, reveal a similar ambivalence at the heart of merriment. In sum, festivity is rather like the bonfire often lit during celebrations. As David Cressy observed, “bonfires were dangerous and exciting. They created light in the darkness, warmth in the cold, and a vibrant visual focus for the crowd.”115 They symbolized all that was bright, cheerful, and communal about festive ceremonies; but should the mood turn ugly and the crowd grow out of control, then flaming fagots became weapons in the hands of the unruly, persons and property were at risk, and who knew where it would end? For better or worse, festivity was a form of playing with fire.

The Puritan Attack on Merry Old England

The Puritans were hardly the first to find fault with public festivities. “From Anglo-Saxon times...date the first decrees to discourage excessive or unruly merriment upon Sundays.”116 Because holidays brought large crowds together, they could serve to kindle popular discontent that might ignite into local riots or even widespread rebellion. To cite only a few examples: Watt’s rebellion in Kent was tied to May Day, and the Comish rebellion of 1549, as well as Ket’s rebellion in Norfolk that same year, took place on festive occasions.117 The bloody Peasants’ War of 1525 in Germany, which one scholar has called “the mightiest mass movement in European history before 1789,” began “with such small­beer protests as refusing the feudal service of picking wild strawberries on a holiday.”118 Only rarely did festivals lead to civil unrest, but quite frequently they strained the civic order. Tudor and Stuart administrators, for the most part, wanted to protect sports, pastimes, and festivities, but they knew that some people would offend moral standards by their excessive conduct and would have to be punished. Carnal sins often accompanied merriment, bringing in their wake deflowered maidens and illegitimate children (not to mention the pox). Intoxication and public brawls were not uncommon; too many wives and children found, after the party was over, that they had to deal with a drunken, abusive husband and father. William Harrison has captured these Elizabethan alcoholics in memorable verbal images: “Certes I know some aleknights...not daring to stir from their stools, sit still pinking (blinking) with their narrow eyes as half-sleeping till the fume of their adversary be digested, that they may go it afresh.... It is incredible to say how our maltbugs lug at this liquor, even as pigs should lie in a row lugging at their dam’s teats till they lie still again and be not able to wag.... These men hale at huffcap till they be red as cocks and little wiser than their combs.”119 Men, of course, were not the only culprits, as Sir John Harrington, at a Jacobean masque, noted: “The ladies abandon their sobriety and roll about in intoxication.... The entertainment went forward and most of the presenters went backward or fell down, wine did so occupy their upper chambers. Now did appear Hope, Faith and Charity. Hope did assay to speak but wine rendered her endeavors so feeble that she withdrew.... Faith...left the court in a staggering condition. Charity...returned to Hope and Faith who were both sick and spewing in the lower hall.” Harrington concluded, “I did never see such lack of good order, discretion and sobriety as I have now done.”120

Not surprisingly, critics of James I blamed what they saw as the decline of English culture on his fostering of the kind of merriment that encouraged excess: “To keepe the people in their deplorable security till vengeance overtooke them, they were entertained with masks, stage plays, and sorts of ruder sports. Then began Murther, incest, Adultery, drunkennesse, swearing, fornication and all sort of ribaldry to be not conceal’d but countenanced vices, favour’d wherever they were privately practis’d because they held such conformity with the Court example.”121 Certainly there were many flaws in the way the king conducted his court, but the evidence that he had unleashed an age of vice is, at best, anecdotal. The Puritan critique did not depend on statistical analysis; rather, in their view, it came straight from the word of God. Merriment was pagan, papist, and profane. If these sinful customs were to be eradicated root and branch, then a multi-pronged attack was called for. The Church must be purified of popish practices; the stage and other immoral, idolatrous arts must be abolished; and the festive calendar, with all its classical and Catholic associations, must be radically curtailed and revised: fasts must replace feasts, Carnival must yield to Lent.

This is not the place to engage in a sustained analysis of the similarities and differences between Anglicanism and Puritanism; each side had its doctrinaire, moderate, and lackadaisical members, and both groups held many beliefs in common: an omnipotent God, whose revealed Word was to be found in the Bible, had given his only son to save a remnant of sinful humanity. By the seventeenth century both faiths were strongly patriotic and saw the Pope in Rome as anathema if not the Antichrist. Both believed that God’s Providence decided their individual fates and guided the fortunes of their beloved England. But from the middle of Queen Elizabeth’s reign on the term Puritan became attached to those people who were more “precise” about things mainstream Anglicans considered “indifferent, ” which one minister defined as “a custom which had long prevailed in his parish and which he thought inoffensive, in itself neither good nor bad, as many received customs were.”122 But for the Puritans nothing related to religion was absolved from scrutiny. They were particularly preoccupied by polity, doctrine, liturgy, and piety. It is difficult to determine in retrospect exactly what specific issue was the crucial wedge separating them from other Anglicans. Was it the authoritarian role of bishops and the inability of a congregation to select its own clergy? Was it the question of who was a saint and who a sinner and how a person was to know if he or she was “justified ” and of the elect? Was it that Anglican ministers were expected to wear a surplice and make the sign of the cross at a baptism? Or was it that the Anglicans did not honor the Sabbath and keep it holy as they should? Certain it is, however, that the more precise the individual Puritan, the more sharply the battleground was defined. And when the Anglicans countered with Archbishop Laud, who thought the only solution to the dispute was to impose uniformity on everyone, the battle was joined and Civil War became almost inevitable. A choice between conformity and resistance made the blood of even lukewarm Puritans boil. God’s cause called for bold spirits. Cromwell’s New Model Army would not be known for its mercy.

That Merry Old England and the Anglican Church could coexist comfortably during various Tudor and Stuart reigns implies that the typical Anglican did not put all his eggs in a doctrinaire basket. In general, mainstream Anglicans seem to have had a higher tolerance for the vagaries of human nature than their Puritan contemporaries. When Sir John Oldcastle, a precursor of Falstaff, says in a play of 1599 “I am neither heretike nor puritane, but of the old church; ile sweare, drinke ale, kisse a wench, go to masse, eat fish all Lent, and fast fridaies with cakes and wine, fruite and spicerie, shrive me of my old sinnes afore Easter, and beginne new afore whitsontide,” Anglicans in the audience probably laughed at his lines even if they did not approve of his behavior. But it is difficult to imagine a Puritan cracking a smile—of course it is equally difficult to imagine a Puritan at a play in the first place. Such rigidity may be unappealing to contemplate, but there was a laxity among the Anglicans that had its negative side as well. Elizabethans report that their clergy often left a lot to be desired, although the situation seems to have improved by the reign of James I. In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost a parish priest is described as “a foolish, mild man, an honest man look you and soon dashed. A marvelous good neighbor, faith, and a very good bowler.” William Harrison praises “the thirsty desire of the people in these days to hear the word of God,” and notes that this intense interest in scripture kept the clergy on their toes and at their books, “which otherwise (as in times past) would give themselves to hawking, hunting, tables, cards, dice, tippling at the alehouse, shooting of matches, and other like vanities.”123

The Puritans placed great importance on the quality of their ministers; to teach God’s word properly they needed to be well-educated and able to speak the gospel truth in a plain style that would edify the congregation. They needed to be capable of “great and diligent teaching because men are made of a dull metal, and hard to conteine spirituall and heavenly things.”124 So important was the sermon that one of the defining social behaviors of Puritans was their habit of “gadding” about on Sundays to other parishes in search of the best preachers. Those ministers not capable of edifying eloquence were dismissed as “dumb dogs.” In an effort to cut down on such practices, which undermined the established clergy, magistrates warned that “If you can trot to [hear] sermons, we will make you trot to the courts.”125 Another Puritan social pattern was that of the laity “conventicling” in private homes at night in order to separate the true preachers from the false “praters.” Given the importance of preaching to the Puritans, they objected vehemently to Archbishop Laud’s prohibition of certain “deep points” from parish sermons, such as “predestination, election, reprobation, or of the universality, efficacy, resistibility or irresistibility of God’s grace” and other “questions of obscurity and speculation.”126 Since the sermon was the be all and end all of Puritan worship, it was no wonder that they were offended by the Anglican church: “The service of God is grievously abused by piping with organs, singing, ringing and trawling of psalms from one side of the choir to the another; with the squeaking and chanting of choristers, disguised in white surplices...imitating the fashion and manner of Antichrist the Pope, that man of sin and child of perdition, with his other rabble of miscreants and shavelings.”127 Puritan churches, Christopher Hill points out, were designed to be nothing more than “auditoria for the pulpit,”128 and from this central fact follows much of the Puritan efforts at reform.

The Puritan attack on the Anglican clergy, service, and churches in the seventeenth century followed in the footsteps of the Anglican attack on the Catholic Church during the previous century. William Harrison, during the reign of Elizabeth, noted that “our churches themselves, bells and times of Morning and Evening Prayer remain as in times past, saving that all images, shrines, tabernacles, rood lofts, and monuments of idolatry are removed, taken down, and defaced.” Thus “our holy and festival days are very well reduced also unto a less number, [and that] the apparel... of our clergymen is comely, and in truth more decent than ever it was in the popish church.... To meet a priest in those days was to behold a peacock that spreadth his tail when he danceth before the hen; which now, I say, is well reformed.”129 But none of these reforms were enough to satisfy the Puritans. They wanted to remove ritual and ceremony from the service; they wanted a plainly dressed and spoken clergy, who never deviated from Puritan doctrine and were not under the control of “unpreaching prelates”; and they wanted to strip their churches of idolatrous images.

The dispute over vestments, for example, seems in retrospect a trivial exercise, but to Puritans it was appalling that a minister should wear “a ragged smock of the whore of Rome, called a surplice.”130 Patrick Collinson has suggested that in these matters it was often the laity who took the lead, urging their clergy to be nonconformists and reject the “popish rag.”131 Church music was also a problem: “Polyphony was associated with Catholicism, ornament, ceremonies, luxury,” and so the Puritans by the 1640s “sang psalms and destroyed organs.”132 They were not about to tolerate a situation where “piping” might “put down preaching”; thus they banned all musical instruments and confined themselves to the “monotonous chanting of metrical psalms,” with a limit of one note per word.133 Storm Jameson may overstate the case when she asserts that by the time of the Restoration, “English music, which had been the admiration of all Europe, was dead,”134 but many music lovers would have reason to lament, along with Shakespeare, the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”

The Puritans also found a series of “popish practices” in church services that cried out for reform. Baptisms should be in front of the congregation and the priest should not make the sign of the cross over the child’s forehead; rings, “a circle for the Devil to dance in,” should be dispensed with at weddings, which should be performed by a civil magistrate not a minister, and the words “with my body I thee worship” should be stricken forthwith; the “churching” of women following a successful delivery should not involve kneeling, or veils, and probably should not be performed at all; there should be no preaching or ceremonies associated with funerals, and so forth. In the words of William Bradshaw, “Anything that cannot be justified by scripture is unlawful in worship.”135 Of course the Anglicans insisted that their service, too, was based on holy writ; as William Chillingworth, one of their chief apologists put it, “The Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of protestants.”136

The Puritans may have believed in the Word, but their choice of what passages in the good book to emphasize was, shall we say, cavalier: somehow the harsh code of Leviticus won out over the Sermon on the Mount; we hear much of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” and little of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” or ”Blessed are the peacemakers.“ The Puritans often cited the Old Testament (see Deuteronomy xii. 5.) to justify their iconoclasm. It was a grim time for graven images. “The very notion of beauty in connection with holiness savored of idolatry, heresy, and Romanism. Aesthetics had nothing to do with theology.”137 Rarely did they pause to consider the lilies of the field. In truth, the Puritans had their own spare sense of aesthetics, but they were deeply offended by and reacted violently to Archbishop Laud’s insistence that “the beauty of holiness” was what religion was all about. Although the sixteenth century had already witnessed “a holocaust of religious imagery,” the Puritans of the mid­seventeenth century ushered in a “secondary wave” that destroyed most of the church art that was left.138

Since few if any believed in art for art’s sake, the accounts of the iconoclasts show no trace of remorse for the havoc that they wreaked. They were determined to cleanse the church of all its “Romish furniture,” with a particular focus on stained-glass windows. Pastor John Bruen, for example, “presently took order, to pull down all these painted puppets, and popish idols, in a warrantable and peaceable manner, and of his own cost and charge, repaired the breaches, and beautified the windows with white and bright glass again.” The women of Middlesex were less “peaceable” in their methods: “We desire...that profane glass windows, whose superstitious paint makes many idolaters, may be humbled and dashed in pieces against the ground; for our conscience tells us that they are diabolical, and the father of darkness was the inventor of them, being the chief patron to damnable pride.”139 At St. Edmunds Church in Salisbury, the church recorder, a Mr. Shervill, “out of Zeale came, and brake some of these Windowes about 1631; and clambering upon one of the Pews (to be able to reach high enough) fell downe and brake his Legg,”140 which proves that there is such a thing as poetic justice if not Divine Providence. Sir Robert Harley reduced “the churchyard cross at Wigmore to dust with a sledgehammer” and at Leintwardine cast “the shivered ‘idols’ he had hammered out of church windows into the River Teme.”141 Some men, such as William Dowsing and Richard Culmer, were notorious for destroying priceless treasures, and the situation became worse during the Civil War when the laity were given a free hand to obliterate whatever they deemed offensive. John Aubrey, who lamented “the World of rare Manuscripts” that perished during the desecration of the churches, once observed a Mower using one of the arms of a smashed religious statue “to whett his syth.”142 Storm Jameson noted that after the assault on the churches in the sixteenth century, “only the choir stalls still stood, and carried the carvings of some local craftsman genius; a fox with the neck of a goose in its mouth, the carcass thrown over his shoulder; a leash of running hounds; a grinning devil; the head of a bibulous old man.”143 By the 1650s these local woodwork masterpieces were gone, too, and the holocaust was complete.

The ultimate result of all this iconoclasm was the ascendancy of what G. M. Trevelyan terms “the English Sunday,” which was “already at war with the idea of ‘Merry England.”’ Even after the Restoration of 1660, “the Puritans left their sad mark on the ‘English Sunday’ in permanence.”144 They insisted that Sunday was a time for sermons, meditation, and family devotions. For a true believer like John Geree, Sunday was set aside exclusively for religion; lawful recreations were “unseasonable,” unlawful ones “abominable.” Thus sabbatarianism became one of Puritanism’s “most visible defining features.”145 A face to face confrontation at Northhampton aply epitomized the early Stuart period: a Puritan matron was informed by her maid that “she must play upon the Sabbath days and holidays and obey the king’s laws in that point or else be hanged,” only to be told by her mistress that “she hoped there was no such law, but if there were...whether hadst thou rather the king should hang thee, or the devil burn thee.” Such were the either/or issues that were dividing Anglican from Puritan and dooming Merry Old England. The “cure” for this tragic situation, William Holden suggests, was “not Anglicanism,” but “simply the balance which a religious zealot cannot have, a Christian should have, and a man of reason must have.”146 Unfortunately, far too many people of mid-seventeenth-century England were not amenable to reasoned moderation and the middle way.

The Puritans and English Literature

No single figure sums up the Elizabethan golden age and Merry Old England better than Shakespeare; if as playwright and poet he is a towering figure, it is not because he was standing knee-deep in midgets: a goodly number of his contemporaries—from Marlowe to Middleton and Webster in drama, from Spenser to Donne and Marvell in poetry—were masters in their own right. Few things redound with greater discredit on the Puritans than their dogged attack on English literature, resulting by the 1640s in the closing of the London theaters and the labeling of minstrels, tale-tellers, playwrights, players, and poets as rogues and vagabonds subject to public whipping. Although the Restoration brought back poetry and plays, it was too late. Shakespeare and company were gone; we shall not see their like again.

Ironically, opposition to miracle and morality plays in the early sixteenth century—citing the blasphemy of anyone “playing” Christ and the impropriety of audiences laughing at the antics of Beelzebub and the Vice—was a boon to the English stage, compelling dramatists to drop Biblical tableaux and moral allegories in favor of portraying real people in historical or contemporary settings. By the 1570s secular theaters were operating in the London “liberties,” or suburbs, and very quickly they began to draw hostile fire from critics, not all of them Puritans. William Harrison, a devout Anglican, stated in 1572, “Would to God these common plays were exiled for altogether as seminaries of impiety, and their theaters pulled down as no better than houses of bawdry.”147 William Crashawe, the father of the poet, lamented, “The ungodly Playes and Enterludes so rife in this nation, what are they but a bastard of Babylon, a daughter of error and confusion, a hellish device (the devils own creations to mock at holy things) by him delivered to the Heathen, from them to the Papists and from them to us.” Perhaps the most ingenious of the attacks was made in a 1577 sermon at Paul’s Cross by the minister Thomas White: “The cause of plagues is sinne, if you look at it well: and the cause of sinne are playes: therefore the cause of plagues are playes.”148

A war of pamphlets and books quickly erupted, with those opposed to the theater going on the offensive. Plays, they argued, were the devil’s sermons, and playhouses the devil’s chapels. John Northbrooke’s Vaineplayes or Enterludes (1577) complained that “Many can tary at a vayne Playe two or three houres, when as they will not abide scarce one houre at a Sermon.” Two years later Stephen Gosson issued The Schoole of Abuse...a plesaunt invective against Poets, Pipers, Plaiers, Jesters, and such like caterpillars of a commonwealth..., accusing theatergoers of attending plays on Sunday in order to “keepe a general market of bawdrie; by which means...they make the theater a place of assignation, and meet for worse purposes than merely seeing the play.”149 Philip Stubbes’ The Anatomie of Abuses (1583) contained a few pungent pages entitled “Of Stage-playes and Entereluds, with their wicedness”: plays, he wrote, “are...the doctrine and invention of the Devill” and persons attending the theater do so “to worship devils and betray Christ Jesus.”150 Henry Crosse described a London audience as “for the most part the lewdest persons in the land, apt for pilfery, perjury, forgery or any roguery—the very scum, rascality and baggage of the people, thieves, cutpurses, shifters, cozeners; briefly, an unclean generation and spawn of vipers.”151 Other than that, Mr. Crosse, how did you like the play?

Although the Bankside theaters often ran afoul of London authorities, they had the support of Queen Elizabeth and the patronage of King James. This encouraged writers to defend plays and poetry by taking the moral high ground. Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, written in 1581 but not published until 1595, was the most distinguished of these defenses. His central thesis was that the “delightful teaching” of poetry was designed to move men to “virtuous actions,” and his prime example was the heroic poem, whose “final end is to lead and draw us to as high a perfection as our degenerate souls, made worse by their clayey lodgings, can be capable of.” To do this poets create an ideal “golden” world, surpassing Nature’s “brazen” one, and depict not what is but what “should be.” Sidney discusses the theater briefly, praising how tragedy inspires noble behavior while comedy warns us to avoid “the common errors of our life,” but he is essentially critical of the Elizabethan stage, which fails to observe the unities and creates a “mongrel” tragicomedy by “mingling kings and clowns” and casting “sugar and spice upon every dish that is served to the table.”152 Thus he finds fault with the very elements that soon would distinguish Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Thomas Heywood spoke up for his fellows in An Apology for Actors (1612), making the melodramatic argument that plays teach us to applaud virtue and abhor vice. He notes that although Seneca and other classical dramatists were contemporaries of Christ and his apostles, the scriptures say nothing in condemnation of the Roman theater. It also became increasingly fashionable to satirize Puritans in plays—Shakespeare’s Malvolio and Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy being the most notorious. Usually the Puritan was caricatured as a hypocrite who used a show of piety as a front for his lust and greed: “There is a sort of purest seeming men,” one anonymous poet put it, “by whose apparent shew/ of sanctity doe greatest evils grow.” John Taylor coined a series of rhymes mocking Puritan sabbitarianism: “Suppose his Cat on Sunday killed a Rat,/ She on the Monday must be hang’d for that,” and “Upon the Sabbath, they no phiscke take,/ Lest it should worke, and so the Sabbath breake.”153 Laughing at Puritan hypocrisy might bring relief from their relentless attacks on the theater and other forms of merriment, but, as Marchette Chute has pointed out, these caricatures were at best half-truths that missed the mark: “They were not hypocrites. Theirs was rather the contrary fault of the self-righteous, that of being too fiercely and narrowly in earnest.”154

No book better epitomized Puritan intolerance than William Prynne’s eleven-hundred-page compendium of pedantry Histrio-mastix, or a Scourge for Stage Players of 1633, whose subtitle suggests his tone: wherein it is largely evidenced...that popular Stage plays (the very Pompes of the Divell, which we renounce in baptism, if we believe the Fathers) are sinful, heathenish, lewd and ungodly Spectacles, and more pernicious corruptions. Plays were “wholly composed of or at least fraught with ribaldry, scurrility, unchaste and amorous strains and passages; obscure and filthy jests which inquinate the mind, corrupt the manners, and defile the souls of men, yea, pollute the very places and common ayre, where they are acted.”155

Needless to say, historians who have slogged through Prynne’s massive diatribe do not come away convinced. “The book is singularly unfair in its presentation of evidence,” “a crude, ill-written book, full of learned ignorance, on a topic which had been trite since Tertullian,” “To us, it seems half pathetic and half ridiculous, a gigantic monument of misplaced energy and zeal, a pyramid left gaunt and useless on the sands of time.”156 But upon its publication Prynne’s books was a bombshell that rocked his contemporaries and exploded in the author’s face. A few months after the queen had performed in a pastoral, Prynne had labeled women actors nothing more than “notorious whores.” Archbishop Laud brought the offensive passage to the king’s attention, and for his ill-tempered words Prynne was twice summoned before the Star Chamber. He was fined, disbarred, pilloried, had his ears cropped off, was branded on both cheeks for being a Seditious Libeller with the letters S. L. (which he interpreted as Stigmata Laudis), and was imprisoned for life in Carnavon Castle. This harsh punishment of a man who was by profession a lawyer made Prynne a martyr of the Puritan cause, and, upon his liberation in 1641, he quickly sought revenge as one of the chief instigators calling for Laud’s execution.157 When Hawthorne named his rebellious heroine Hester Prynne, a branded martyr of a quite different sort, he could hardly have chosen a name with more ironic connotations.

When the ordinance of 2 September 1642 that shut down the theaters became law, it would be a mistake to assume that several masterpieces were in production at the time. Shakespeare had been dead for twenty-six years, his successors had already written their best work, and the stage was in sharp decline. But it would also be a mistake to assert, as Robert M. Adams does, that the “hundreds of plays” that “must be pronounced ‘lost’ [represents] no great misfortune,” because “they enjoyed no great popularity even in their own day.”158 That argument is no more valid for the Elizabethan period than it would be to argue that best sellers represent the “best” of contemporary literature. On the contrary, if hundreds of plays disappeared during that period, it is probably safe to assume that a few of them had real merit. The Puritans, of course, were not solely to blame for this sad state of affairs, but they certainly were instrumental in killing stage plays; in 1648 Parliament passed further legislation “ordering all players to be apprehended and publicly whipped, all playhouses to be pulled down and any one present at a play to pay a fine of five shillings.”159 Similar legislation prohibited wandering minstrels, tale-tellers, and other disturbers of the peace. The Puritans shut down the public theaters—a process that, in effect, brought the golden age of English literature and a key part of Merry Old England to an end—substituting in its place the drama, or rather the melodrama, of private conversion. This emphasis on inwardness would, in time, yield its own literary dividends in writers such as Hawthorne, whose yearning for a lost Merry Old England is matched, and sometimes checkmated, by his keen interest in what Henry James termed “the deeper psychology.”

The End of Merry Old England

The Puritans wanted a community of visible saints; they saw no reason why the elect should celebrate with the unregenerate. Their attack on merriment fit a pattern followed by other reformers in continental Europe; popular festivity came to be seen as a threat to public decorum; the sacred and profane, the sophisticated and the vulgar, were sharply differentiated; sexual morality was more strictly regulated and class divisions widened; deviants from social norms, such as witches and vagabonds, were punished; and work was seen as far more significant than play—the triumph of capitalism had begun.160 When Charles I was compelled to call the Long Parliament (1640-1649), the Puritans seized the opportunity to impose their strictures on England. “By God! You have asked that of me never asked of a king,”161 Charles protested, while the Earl of Stafford and Archbishop Laud were sent to the Tower to await their executions—a fate the king himself would share. On 30 January 1649 Charles walked through the royal banqueting hall—designed by Indigo Jones, its ceiling painted by Rubens—out a second-story window onto the scaffold. When his head fell, England became an outlaw state.162

All through the 1640s the Puritans and their allies passed bill after bill to reform the Church of England and English society. Charles I’s Declaration of Sports was publicly burned in May of 1643. On 8 April 1644, maypoles were banned as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness,” and all “Feasts, Church-Ale, Dancing, Games, Sport or Pastime whatsoever” were prohibited on Sundays. In 1645 the Directory for Public Worship, in addition to reforming the Anglican service, stated that “Festival days, vulgarly called holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” Instead, Parliament proposed that the second Tuesday of every month be set aside as a period of rest, while the last Wednesday of every month would be a national day of humiliation, where people would fast and refrain “from all worldly labour, discourses and thoughts, and from all bodily delights.” Provision was also made for national days of thanksgiving at “a communal midday meal,” accompanied by the warning to “beware of all excess and riot, tending to gluttony and drunkenness...and to take care that their mirth and rejoicing be not carnal, but spiritual.”163 Such killjoy caveats left little room for true gaiety.

What the Puritans were attempting was nothing less than “a cultural revolution which contemporaries called ‘the reformation of manners.’”164 The question is whether the Puritan attempt succeeded and what, if any, were its lasting effects. Christopher Durston, in a fine essay on the subject, argues that “by 1660...the puritan cultural revolution had already failed, and the Restoration merely delivered the coup de grace to a generally discredited experiment,” a finding supported by David Underdown’s study of Dorchester under Puritan rule, which demonstrated the “obstinate tenacity of popular cultural traditions.”165 There is, however, considerable anecdotal and scholarly evidence to the contrary, suggesting that English society was irrevocably changed by Puritan rule.

As the maypole was the symbol of Merry Old England at its prime, so the destruction of maypoles was the subject of many poetic laments. In 1619, more than twenty years before all maypoles were abolished, William Fennor captured the sense of loss:

Happy the age and harmlesse were the dayes,
(For then true love and amity was found,)
When every village did a May-pole raise,
And Whitson-ales, and May-games did abound:
And all the lusty Yonkers in a rout
With merry Lasses daunc’d the rod about,
Then friendship to their banquets bid the guests,
And poore men far’d better for their feasts...
Then Lords of Castles, Mannor, Townes and Towers,
Rejoyc’d when they beheld the Farmers flourish,
And would come downe, unto the Sommer-Bower
To see the country gallants daunce the Morris...
But since the Sommer-poles were overthrowne,
And all good sports and merriments decayed,
How times and men are chang’d... 166
For the Puritans, of course, the maypole brought back memories of backsliding Hebrews dancing around the Golden Calf; if Moses felt justified to slay 3,000 people for practicing such an abomination, they were not troubled by chopping down these idols to Baal. But the poem suggests that more than just wooden poles fell, rather “times and men are chang’d” for the worse, because castle lords no longer feed the poor or care whether country gallants dance or not. Thomas Randall can barely contain his rancor at what he considers wrong-headed Puritan self-righteousness:
These in a Zeale, t’express how much they doe,
The Organs hate, have silenc’d Bagpipes too,
And harmless Maypoles, all are rail’d upon,
As if they were the tower of Babilon...
The author of “Pasquil’s Palinodia” echoes this sense of outrage at what has been done to destroy maypoles and the joy of Merry Old England:
Alas, poore May-poles! What should be the cause
That you were almost banish’t from the earth?
Who never were rebellious of the lawes;
Your greatest crime was harmless honest mirth.167
It is no surprise that when Charles II returned to England in 1660, his Ascension Day in London was celebrated by putting up maypoles and by troupes of morris dancers. Thus, during the Restoration, maypoles enjoyed something of a short-lived revival. But the essential communal spirit had gone out of the custom. John Aubrey records in 1672 that “maypoles, which in the Hypocritical times ’twas sin to sett up, wee now sett up...at the Strand, near Drury Lane...the most prodigious one for height that (perhaps) was ever seen,” yet he adds that “the Juvenile and rustique folks at that time had so much their fullnese of desires in this kind that I think there must have been very few sett-up since.”168

The Puritans longed for the Second Coming; what they got was Oliver Cromwell. A century and a half before Napoleon, Cromwell set out to prove that God was on the side of the big, or at least the fierce, battalions. What he vindicated was not the Bible but the sword, which proved more powerful than the Word. Might makes right and determines rites. As one poet put it, the Civil War would “Decide all controversies by/ Infallible artillery.”169 “Warres doe not only extinguish Religion and Lawes,” John Aubrey observed, but also folk customs and superstitions, since nothing “is a greater fugator of Phantasmes, then Gun-powder.”170 “To many contemporaries,” Leah Marcus argues, “the England of the Civil War period was itself a grim festival run rampant—a world ‘turned upside down’ like the inverted world of carnival, overturning established hierarchies and mocking images of Power—except that the topsy-turvydom failed to right itself according to the proper holiday pattern.”171 What happened instead was Cromwell’s Protectorate, the fracturing of his forces into competing camps, and government by the Rump and the Praise God Barebones Parliament. These anomalous entities legislated the Puritan concept of virtue in spite of a growing groundswell of disapproval. Prohibitions on church weddings, religious funerals, and Christmas celebrations were ignored by a significant minority, especially in rural areas. A death penalty for adultery was established, but almost never executed, since juries refused to convict. Minstrels, barred from taverns, continued to sing. An Act for the Better Observance of the Lord’s Day of 1657, which even banned “vainly and profanely walking,”172 had little effect on the Sabbath perambulations of the English people. The Puritans had abolished festivity, in spite of its popular appeal, and in the place of communal jollity could only offer individual piety, hard work, and a dark theology of gloom. Two hundred years later, a writer like Hawthorne, a product of his Puritanic heritage, had an abiding sense of no longer belonging to the human community; instead he felt trapped in his solitary (and secretly sinful) self.

What the Puritans attempted to enforce may have been theologically sound, at least from their point of view, but psychologically it was highly questionable. Festivities of such ancient origin must have served deep human needs; to abolish them could only create problems. He who would be an angel might end up playing the Devil. “When the Divines would have us an inch above Virtue,” James Harrington was wont to say, “we fall an ell belowe it.”173 Francois Laroque makes a similar point: “If you chase Carnival out through the door, it flies back in through the window. No sooner are festivity and pleasure outlawed than they gather to haunt men’s minds as if they derived new power from being proscribed.”174 Mikhail Bakhtin quotes a 15th century analogy that provides an eloquent justification for “the human soul’s need for joy and gaiety”: “Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together, which would burst from the wine of wisdom, if this wine remains in a state of constant fermentations of piousness and fear of God. We must give it air in order not to let it spoil. This is why we permit folly on certain days...”175 It follows, then, that a ban on holidays might snuff out the essential spark of human community, as John Trussel’s poem suggests:

All Publike merriments, I know not how,
Are questioned for their lawfulnesse; whereby
Societie grew sick; was like to die. 176
The Puritans, then, in their striving to impose piety, ended up cutting the taproot of social vitality. “It was a better world,” Richard Baxter lamented, “when we had but a short service read on Sundays, and played and merrily talked together the rest of the day!” John Aubrey cited a friend’s impression of England in 1652 after being away for many years: “I remember he told me that when he first came into England (which was a serene time of Peace) that the people, both poore and rich, did looke cheerfully, but at his returne, he found the Countenances of the people all changed, melancholy, spightfull, as if bewitched.” Aubrey himself looked back with nostalgic regret on his own childhood in Merry Old England: “Such joy and merriment was every Holiday; which dayes were kept with great Solemnitie and reverence. In Hereforshire and parts of the marches of Wales, the Tabor and pipe were exceeding common. Many beggars begd with it: and the Peasants danced to it in the Churchyard on Holy dayes and Holy-day-eves. Now it is almost lost; the Drumme and Trumpet have putt that peaceable Musique to silence.”177

The Restoration of Charles II was greeted with bonfires, bells, maypoles, and public pageantry, but many historians who have studied those events conclude that Merry Old England did not return with him. Although the so-called Clarendon Code tried to enforce uniformity, the future belonged not to the Anglicans, or the Puritans, but to religious toleration. “The old center of the nation’s culture,” Leah Marcus notes, “the vital spring from which public mirth had been envisioned as flowing out to the nation, became empty and dry.”178 Some traditional customs were revived with the return of Charles, but the country would never be the same. After the agonizing experience of Cromwell’s rule, for example, the Lord of Misrule, who perhaps conjured up too many unhappy memories, never returned as a festive figure. Ronald Hutton, in his extensive study of these matters, concludes that in spite of the restoration of Anglican ceremonialism, “the link between merry-making and religious buildings and funds was finally broken. Civic ritual was likewise detached from that of the ecclesiastics.”179 Festivity lost both its communal spirit and its religious sanction. Public merriment yielded to private entertainment.

Storm Jameson, whose pro-Anglican bias undercuts some of her arguments, strongly asserts that the English became a different people after the death of Merry Old England: “For fifteen years, the Puritan tried to make over England on his own plan. The city conquered the country.... By brutal dragooning, by muzzling criticism, they changed the life of the country. And they changed it so thoroughly in those years, that, when the Restoration came, none had the skill to retransform it.... Puritanism did more than break a system. It broke a tradition, and for that we are still paying.” Jameson, a novelist herself, is especially harsh in her judgment of what Puritanism did to the artist: “The Puritan, by attempting to force upon England a restraint upon the imagination, bent and injured, if he could not kill, the vital spirit: he thinned its blood and weakened its vigor. After the Civil War, the artist becomes less capacious.... He may deal in manners or metaphysics, never in both.”180 Part of Jameson’s critique hinges on the debatable notion that the decline of Merry Old England and the rise of Capitalism went hand in hand. This is too complex an issue to go into here, but some of R. H. Tawney’s comments aptly fit both the Puritans and Anglicans of the Restoration: “A society which reverences the attainment of riches as the supreme felicity will naturally be disposed to regard the poor as damned in the next world, if only to justify itself for making their life hell in this.”181 T. S. Eliot called attention to another aspect of permanent change when, in speaking of John Donne and the metaphysical poets, he said “In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.”182 Hawthorne was expressing his view that Puritan New England was also changed for the worse when he lamented “the lost art of gayety” in The Scarlet Letter. Even though literature survived the Puritan Interregnum—which, after all, produced John Bunyan and John Milton—the English people were not the same and this was reflected by the nation’s writers. The licentiousness of Restoration drama was a mere parody of the license of the Elizabethan stage. Although the lyric would revive with the Romantic poets, and the great days of the realistic novel were still to come, English drama would never recapture its previous power. Communal festivity would never again play so prominent a role in English life. Dark satanic mills and bringing in the May do not go well together. Before the seventeenth century was over, the Forest of Arden would be chopped down to fuel a nearby ironworks.

Merry Old England, where late the sweet birds sang, was gone forever, and, as The Beatles might add, not for better.

  • 1 Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962): 230-232.
  • 2 Qtd. in Leah S. Marcus, The Politics of Mirth: Jonson, Herrick, Milton, Marvel and the Defense of Old Holiday Pastimes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986): 251.
  • 3 Selden qtd. in Francois Laroque, Shakespeare’s Festive World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991): 24.
  • 4 Oliver Lawson Dick, ed., Aubrey’s Brief Lives (London: Secker and Warburg, 1950): xxxiii.
  • 5 Qtd. in Storm Jameson, The Decline of Merry England (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1930): 13.
  • 6 Wylie qtd. in Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (London: Methuen & Co., 1801): xxxii. Hawthorne cites this book as a source for “The May-pole of Merry Mount.”
  • 7 Caius qtd. in Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994): 89.
  • 8 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 132.
  • 9 Spenser qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry Englandi 15.
  • 10 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 89.
  • 11 Stephen W. Nissenbaum, “Christmas in Early New England, 1620-1820: Puritanism, Popular Culture, and the Printed Word,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol. 106 (1996): 85-93.
  • 12 Stubbes, in Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, 268-9. Stubbes’ description is directed at May Day, but it also fits Christmas.
  • 13 Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, 273-4.
  • 14 Laroque, Festive World, 48.
  • 15 Ibid., 106.
  • 16 Ibid., 101.
  • 17 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 18-9.
  • 18 Qtd. in Hutton, Rise and Fall, 19.
  • 19 John Taylor qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 98-9.
  • 20 Laroque, Festive World, 100.
  • 21 Ibid., 18-9.
  • 22 Ibid., 78. Some scholars question the connection between Easter and Eostre, suggesting instead that it derives from eastan, Old English for “east,” and the practice of keeping vigil on Easter eve until day-break in the east. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997): 256-7.
  • 23 Douglas Brooks-Davies, ed., Edmund Spenser: Selected Shorter Poems (New York: Longman Annotated Texts, 1995): 82.
  • 24 Marcus, Mirth, 160, 164.
  • 25 Barber, Festive Comedy, 139. Note that Hester in the forest scene tells Dimmesdale that what they did had a "consecration" of its own.
  • 26 Stubbes, qtd. in Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, 276-7.
  • 27 Bourne, qtd. in Ibid., 276.
  • 28 Herrick, qtd. in J. William Hebel and Hoyt H. Hudson, eds., Poetry of the English Renaissance 1509- 1660 (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1929): 656.
  • 29 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 228.
  • 30 Stubbes, qtd. in Hutton, Rise and Fall, 116-7. See also, Jeremy Goring, “Godly exercises or the devil’s dance? Puritanism and Popular Culture in pre-Civil War England,” (Dr. Williams Trust 1983).
  • 31 Qtd. in Hutton, Rise and Fall, 198.
  • 32 Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1927): 168.
  • 33 Qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 11, 41.
  • 34 Thompson, Roger. Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts Colony, 1649-1699. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986): 54-70. Not all observers agree on this point; an English visitor, Ned Ward, noted that “husking of Indian corn is as good a sport for the amorous wagtails in New England as Maying amongst us is for our forward youths and wenches. For ’tis observed, there are more bastards got in that season than all the year beside, which occasion some of the looser saints to call it rutting time,” qtd. in David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National.Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989): 198.
  • 35 Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. (London: Oxford University Press, 1989): 158-9.
  • 36 Marcus, Mirth, 130.
  • 37 Stubbes, qtd. in Hutton, Rise and Fall, 118.
  • 38 Shirley, qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 36.
  • 39 Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, 136.
  • 40 Aubrey, Brief Lives, xxxvi.
  • 41 Barber, Festive Comedy, 119.
  • 42 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 359.
  • 43 Qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 157.
  • 44 Qtd. in Ibid., 222.
  • 45 Qtd. In Ibid., 158.
  • 46 Harry Levin, ed., Ben Jonson: Selected Works (New York: Random House, 1938): 702, 783. William Harrison, The Description a/ England, ed. by Georges Edelen (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968), lists over 160 fairs in England from July through November, 394-7.
  • 47 Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 29.
  • 48 A. L. Rowse, Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974): 42.
  • 49 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 80.
  • 50 Laroque, Festive World, 48.
  • 51 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 40.
  • 52 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 92-3.
  • 53 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 71.
  • 54 William Camden, qtd. in Cressy, Bonfires and Bells. 52.
  • 55 Laroque, Festive World, 76.
  • 56 Ibid., 69.
  • 57 Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 130.
  • 58 Weldon qtd. in Pauline Craft, King James (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003): 3-4, and Jolm Macleod, Dynasty: The Stuarts 1560-1807 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999): 128-9.
  • 59 Craft, King James, l61.
  • 60 King James I qtd. in Marcus, Mirth, 112-3. What is called The Book of Sports was entitled “The Kings Majesties Declaration to His Subjects, concerning lawful Sports to be used ” The king was also responding to complaints that merrymakers had disrupted some congregations; hence the insistence that the revelries begin after church services.
  • 61 King James I qtd in Laroque, Festive World, 70.
  • 62 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 165.
  • 63 William P. Holden, Anti-Puritan Satire I 572-1642 (New Haven: Yale University Press, l 954): 56.
  • 64 Marcus, Mirth, 49.
  • 65 Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 93-106.
  • 66 Marchette Chute, Ben Jonson of Westminster (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1953): 292.
  • 67 Levin, “Introduction,” Ben Jonson, 21.
  • 68 Chute, Ben Jonson, 43, 27.
  • 69 Edward Le Comte, The Notorious Lady Essex (New York: The Dial Press, 1969): 133.
  • 70 Qtd in Ibid., 74.
  • 71 King James I qtd in Chute, Ben Jonson, 292.
  • 72 Marcus, Mirth, 13.
  • 73 Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed (New York: Allen Lane, 1996): 118-9.
  • 74 Macleod, Dynasty, 155-8.
  • 75 King Charles I, qtd in Jameson, Decline, 139.
  • 76 Herrick, qtd. in Poetry of the English Renaissance, 641-2.
  • 77 Hooker and Andrewes qtd. in Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 35-6.
  • 78 Burton qtd. in.Ibid., 42.
  • 79 Macleod, Dynasty, 17.
  • 80 Qtd. in Hutton, Rise and Fall, 21 l.
  • 81 Qtd. in Cressy, Bonefires and Bells, 45-6. See also Hutton, Rise and Fall, 212.
  • 82 Gregory, qtd. in Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 253-4. See also, Laroque, Festive World, 17.
  • 83 Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 160, 186.
  • 84 Laroque, Festival World, 17.
  • 85 See, for example, Pamela Berger, The Goddess Obscured (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985).
  • 86 Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 215-6.
  • 87 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 93.
  • 88 Aubrey, Brief Lives, xxxvi.
  • 89 Marcus, Politics of Mirth, 157.
  • 90 Ecclesiastes 9.7; Proverbs 15.13 and 17.22. The parable of the prodigal son is in Luke, as is the parable of the foolish rich man who desired to take his ease, “eat, drink, and be merry,” only to be warned by God, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.”.
  • 91 Fletcher, Barbarian Conversion, 256.
  • 92 Laroque, Festive World, 75.
  • 93 Ibid., 201-2.
  • 94 Harrison, Description of England, 33.
  • 95 Colfe qtd. in Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 67.
  • 96 Ibid., xi.
  • 97 Thomas Carew, qtd. in Marcus, Mirth, 15.
  • 98 Qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 158.
  • 99 Barber, Festive Comedy, 7.
  • 100 Ibid., 139, 192, 196.
  • 101 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961): 23.
  • 102 Barber, Festive Comedy, 213.
  • 103 Marcus, Mirth, 248.
  • 104 James qtd. in Marcus, Mirth, 69.
  • 105 Thomas, qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 33.
  • 106 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass.: The M. I. T. Press, 1965): 72-3, 6.
  • 107 Ibid., 47.
  • 108 Ibid., 12, 281-3.
  • 109 Ibid., 166.
  • 110 Ibid., 92-95.
  • 111 Ibid., 203-213, 256. Since this paragraph was written, I have learned that Bakhtin's book on Rabelais was in reaction to what he considered the "puritanism" of Soviet realism, offering in its place a glorification of the "folk" and their "permanent revolution." See, Richard M. Berrong, Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in Gargantua and Pantagruel (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986): 107-108; Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984): 295-320; and Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: NYU Press, 1978).
  • 112 Laroque, Festive World. 5, 13-14.
  • 113 Bakhtin, Rabelais, 434, 465-7 l.
  • 114 Laroque, Festive World, 196.
  • 115 Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 80.
  • 116 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 70.
  • 117 Cressy, Bonfires and Bells, 6.
  • 118 Patrick Collinson, The Reformation (New York: The Modern Library, 2004): 176-7.
  • 119 Harrison, Description of England, 139, 247.
  • 120 Harrington, qtd. in Le Compte, Lady Essex, 21-2.
  • 121 Lucy Hutchinson, qtd. in Marcus, Mirth, 6.
  • 122 John Large, minister of Rotherfield in Sussex, qtd. in Charles Durston and Jacqueline Eales, eds., The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996): 210.
  • 123 Harrison, Description of England, 25-6.
  • 124 Qtd. in Stephen Foster; The Long Argument: English Puritanism and the Shaping of New England Culture, 1570-1700 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991): 37.
  • 125 Qtd. in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 47-50, 87, 286.
  • 126 Qtd. in Foster, Long Argument, 146, 128, 132.
  • 127 Qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 101.
  • 128 Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1961): 82-3.
  • 129 Harrison, Description of England, 35-7.
  • 130 Qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 169.
  • 131 Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Oxford University Press, 1967): Chapter 4.
  • 132 Hill, The Century of Revolution, 99.
  • 133 Qtd. in Marcus, Politics of Mirth, 111; Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 19-20. See the editors’ introduction, “The Puritan Ethos: 1560-1700,” 1-31.
  • 134 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 200-1.
  • 135 Bradshaw, qtd. in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 17.
  • 136 Chillingworth, Religion of Protestants: A Safe Way to Salvation (1638), qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 156. Note that Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth is hardly a model of Christian virtue.
  • 137 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 128-9.
  • 138 Collinson, Reformation, 183-201.
  • 139 Qtd. in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 117, 119.
  • 140 Aubrey, Brief Lives, xxxvii.
  • 141 Margaret Aston, “Puritans and Iconoclasm,” in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 92-121.
  • 142 Aubrey, Brief Lives, xxxvi.
  • 143 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 34.
  • 144 G. M. Travelyan, English Social History (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1943): 181, 231.
  • 145 Geree, quoted in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 15; Durston and Eales, 22.
  • 146 Qtd. in Martin Ingram, “Puritans and the Church Courts, 1560-1700,” in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 88; Holden, Anti-Puritan Satire.
  • 147 Harrison, Description of England, 186.
  • 148 Crashawe and White qtd. in J. Dover Wilson, “The Puritan Attack upon the Stage,” The Cambridge History of English Literature, VI, A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, eds. (New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1917): 423, 425.
  • 149 Northbrooke and Gossen, qtd. in Strutt, Sports and Pastimes, 138, xlvii.
  • 150 Stubbes, qtd. in Ibid., 135, and Wilson, “Puritan Attack upon the Stage,” 445.
  • 151 Crosse, qtd. in Goring, “Godly exercises or the devil’s dance?” 8.
  • 152 Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry, ed. by Geoffrey Shepherd (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons LTD, 1965): 95-142.
  • 153 Qtd. in Holden, Anti-Puritan Satire, 57, 83.
  • 154 Chute, Ben Jonson’s London, 215.
  • 155 Prynne qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 135-6.
  • 156 Holden, Anti-Puritan Satire, 100; Robert M. Adams, The Land and Literature of England (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983): 2 12; Wilson, “Puritan Attack upon the Stage,” 455.
  • 157 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 250; Wilson, “Puritan Attack upon the Stage,” 455-6; Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 135-6.
  • 158 Adams, Literature of England, 191-2. Park Honan estimates that in the period between 1560 and 1642 six times more plays were lost than have survived. Shakespeare: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 408.
  • 159 Wilson, “Puritan Attack upon the Stage,” 459.
  • 160 Hutton, Rise and Fall, 111-2.
  • 161 King Charles I, qtd. in Kishlansky, Monarchy Transformed, 149.
  • 162 Macleon, Dynasy, 211: Kishlansky, Monarchy Transformed, 159.
  • 163 Christopher Durston, “Puritan Rule and the Failure of Cultural Revolution, 1645-1660,” in Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 211-4.
  • 164 Durston and Eales, Culture of English Puritanism, 24.
  • 165 Durston, “Failure of Cultural Revolution,” 231; Underdown, qtd. in Durston, 232.
  • 166 Fennor, qtd. in Durston and Eales, The Culture of English Puritanism, 41-2.
  • 167 Randall and “Pasquil” qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 164, 119.
  • 168 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 207.
  • 169 Qtd. in Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 191.
  • 170 Aubrey, Brief Lives, xxxvi.
  • 171 Marcus, Mirth, 214.
  • 172 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 206.
  • 173 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 126.
  • 174 Laroque, Festive World, 236.
  • 175 Moser, qtd. in Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 75.
  • 176 Trussel, qtd. in Laroque, Festive World, 164.
  • 177 Aubrey, Brief Lives, 163, lxxi.
  • 178 Marcus, Mirth, 213.
  • 179 Hutton, Rise and Fall of Merry England, 293, 261.
  • 180 Jameson, Decline of Merry England, 20-1, 283, 289-90.
  • 181 R. H. Tawney, “The New Medicine for Poverty,” Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937): 253-273.
  • 182 T.S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Essays, 1917-32 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932): 247.

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