Post-classical history

Chapter 11


The Church in the Middle Ages structured the year to create different time periods in which the core beliefs of the Christian faith were celebrated. Today many Christian denominations continue to do this, and Christian liturgical calendars of Western Christians (as opposed to Eastern Orthodox Christians) – such as Lutheran, Anglican and other Protestant churches – to some extent follow the cycle of the Roman, or Latin, Rite of the Catholic Church. This cycle pre-dates the Reformation and developed through the Middle Ages. The so-called ‘liturgical seasons’ of the year in Western Christianity are: Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time (Time after Epiphany), Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time (Time after Pentecost, or after Trinity). The phrase ‘ordinary time’ sounds strange and needs a little explanation. The word ‘ordinary’ comes from the same root as ‘ordinal’, and in the liturgical calendar means ‘the counted weeks’. These are weeks which do not belong to an identified season; as such they act as a kind of bridge between major festivals. The greatest concentration of medieval ritual events occurred between Christmas and midsummer, and this has led some commentators to talk of a ‘ritual half of the year’ and a ‘secular half of the year’. However, this is misleading because the whole of the year was affected by ritual and communal activities; this division of the year is really one of emphasis and not of striking contrast.1

This cycle of the year guided people in the Middle Ages through the calendar. It gave a purpose and a meaning to the passage of the seasons as they revealed truths about the Christian faith. The celebrations, feasts, fasts, vigils and processions gave structure, colour and texture to people’s lives. They added to the sense of being part of a comprehensive world view and, in a period where many could not read or write, they served to educate people in central aspects of the Catholic Christian faith. Over time these developed, and occasionally there were new rituals added to the cycle, or new ways in which established celebrations were expressed. Other, more secular, festivities were also woven into this yearly calendar and played a part in marking the passage of time. A great deal of the study of this seasonal structure, its origins, development and the impact on it of the sixteenth-century Reformation has been carried out by Ronald Hutton,2 and this overview of the medieval year, though also assisted by the work of other historians, is greatly indebted to the evidence he has presented.

In this overview only those festivities carried out in the Middle Ages will be discussed and there will be no attempt to account for their development since the mid-1550s, since that lies outside the scope of this book. In exploring this theme the structure of the Western Christian liturgical year will be followed, although some of the events discussed were secular in origin and will be identified as such.

Advent: preparing for the birth of Christ

Advent Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. As such it starts the liturgical year as it looks forward to the birth (Nativity) of Christ. Between Advent Sunday and Christmas Day was a four-week period of fasting. Of these fast days the holiest was Christmas Eve, when all meat, cheese and eggs were forbidden. The kinds of fast experienced at Advent, in Lent and at many other times of the Christian year were not times of abstaining from all food. Instead, they were times of reduced diet in which richer food was not eaten and in which fish replaced meat.

Christmas: The birth of Christ and the Twelve Days of Christmas

By the Middle Ages the celebration of Christ’s birth on 25 December had become part of a twelve-day celebration – the Twelve Days of Christmas. The block of time between 26 December and 6 January was regarded as one interlinked sequence of festivities in which there were three fast days in the middle, surrounded by celebrations. The Sarum Rite (a form of service compiled at Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire) indicates that Christmas Day should start with a Mass. This was followed by reciting the genealogy of Christ, which was accompanied by lighting of candles and tapers in the darkened church. The largest of these was the candle burning on the rood loft, the wooden screen dividing the chancel from the nave and surmounted by statues of Jesus, St John and the Virgin Mary. The rest of Christmas Day was a celebration which ended the Advent Fast. As such it began the Christmas Season, rather than featuring as its climax. Many lords provided feasts for their tenants as well as for their immediate household.

In addition to celebrations on 25 December there were other important festivities associated with this period of the year. On 26 December, St Stephen the first Christian martyr was remembered. 27 December became the day of St John the Evangelist. 28 December was Holy Innocents’ Day, which recalled the children of Bethlehem murdered by Herod’s soldiers. This day linked back to Christmas Day and forward to 6 January, Epiphany. 1 January, already significant as New Year’s Day, became the feast of Christ’s Circumcision. Older traditions concerning New Year’s Day continued to cause concern to Church leaders. In northern England it was influenced by activities whose roots went back to pagan Viking times and to which has become attached the Scandinavian word Yule. This word was not known in England before the eleventh century, though it may have had an earlier form to describe midwinter events which were pagan in origin. Sometime before 1008 Archbishop Wulfstan condemned superstitious activities associated with this period, and in the late twelfth century the bishop of Exeter identified a specific act of penance for those involved in ‘heathen rites’ on this day. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century comments have also survived which condemn attempts to tell the fortune of the year on this day. At Torksey (Lincolnshire), an amnesty for disputes was called Yule-girth: at York this ran for 12 days from St Thomas’ Day on 21 December and apparently attracted many undesirable characters to the city to make the most of this permissive period. The fact that 1 January was tainted with activities linked to pre-Christian festivals may explain why, in 1155, New Year’s Day was shifted to 25 March, which was the Christian feast of the Annunciation. This way of calculating the start and end of the year lasted until 1752. Despite this, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day continued to be a time of community events.

The Twelve Days were times of community celebration. Villeins did not have to work on the demesne land of the lord of the manor during this period. Lords provided a feast, though on a number of manors it was more a bring-and-share lunch, since villeins were expected to bring foodstuffs as gifts for their manorial lord! The feasts given by royal, episcopal and aristocratic households could be enormous. Party games were also enjoyed and the record of the keeping of Christmas by the bishop of Salisbury in 1406 refers to ‘games’ and ‘disguisings’. During the fifteenth century manor accounts also record money paid to travelling entertainers. While we do not know the content of these plays, it is likely that many focused on the theme of the Nativity itself. These festivities were accompanied by singing carols. A large number of these survive from the decades either side of 1500, although the first are recorded from 1300. They are songs which accompanied a dance and which often had lyrics concerned with the Nativity, or a saint, although some had secular themes. Card and board games, it can be surmised, also played a part in these times.

Late Medieval records also refer to decorating churches with evergreen plants such as holly and ivy. Houses seem to have been decorated in the same way. There are hints that holly decorated the inside and ivy the porches. There are no medieval references to mistletoe being used in these decorations, and no sense whatsoever that anything remotely pagan was associated with this foliage. The record of laying mistletoe on the altar at York Minster dates from no earlier than the seventeenth century and, while this clearly goes back to a pre-Christian past, it had long been stripped of any pagan belief system and was assimilated into the Christian world/cosmic view of life continuing within a period of darkness and death.

Despite many claims to the contrary there are few medieval records of any other midwinter celebrations, apart from a suggestion that, in about the 1520s, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (in Staffordshire) was already in operation. Here it seems that a Christmas-time celebration involved some use of a hobby horse and probably the reindeer horns later used by dancers. The horns themselves have been dated to the eleventh century. There is, however, no evidence for anything else like it elsewhere in England.3 Other hobby horses are known from the northern Midlands in the early sixteenth century and were part of events designed to raise money for the parish.

The tone of an aristocratic Christmas is provided in the late fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which describes the seasonal festivities at the legendary court of King Arthur:

The king lay at Camelot at Christmas-tide
with many a lovely lord, lieges most noble . . .
and jousted full joyously these gentle lords;
then to the court they came at carols to play.
For there the feast was unfailing fifteen days.4

The importance of New Year festivities is also apparent in this poem, along with seasonal games and the giving of gifts. Indeed it was New Year which appears to have been the main focus for gift giving:

then nobles ran anon with New Year gifts. . .
Competed for those presents in playful debate;
ladies laughed loudly, though they lost the game.4

Another form of seasonal entertainment which appears in the English records from the thirteenth century is momerie, or mumming. In 1347 it is recorded at the court of Edward III and involved the wearing of elaborate masks. What started as a kind of disguised fancy dress event could – sadly – become a cloak for crime. In 1405 the city authorities in London banned mumming on the streets and similar restrictions were put into force in Bristol and Chester in the fifteenth century. What is very interesting is that there is absolutely no evidence at all from the Middle Ages of the kinds of plays about combat and resurrection later associated with mummers, and it seems clear that this was not an ancient custom which can be traced back to this time.

A more constructive activity was that of hogglers, who first appear in local records in the 1450s and who seem to have toured the parish raising money for parish projects and at times paying for candles lit in the local church. This collecting of money was perhaps linked to the New Year’s Day tradition of gift giving, and lower down the social scale this – like hoggling – probably involved pressure exerted on reluctant givers in some instances. In London in 1419 a prohibition was passed against threats being used by members of the households of city officials to get New Year’s Day gifts from local traders!

Holy Innocents’ Day appears in England to have been associated with processions and events involving young people – often choirboys – from the 1220s. In 1222 at Salisbury it was described as the ‘Feast of Boys’. The event seems to have involved the election of one choirboy as the ‘Boy Bishop’ and in 1225 there is evidence from London of a small bishop’s mitre being purchased for use. By the early fourteenth century the idea seems to have spread from the cathedrals down to local parishes. From 1263 the clergy at St Paul’s in London revised the procedures so that they chose which boy had the honour. (This attempt to control the event and keep it more orderly lay behind a rule introduced at Salisbury, in 1443, banning the carrying of staves.) At Winchester and York the Boy Bishop had the honour of saying Mass. Some nunneries in the thirteenth century allowed girls to lead the services on Holy Innocents’ Day. At Bristol, in the 1480s, the city’s mayor and corporation attended services at St Nicholas’ church, led by the Boy Bishop. This linking of the Boy Bishops with St Nicholas was not unique and begins a long tradition of associating this saint with children at Christmas time.

Linked with the idea of Boy Bishops was the idea of a ‘Lord of Misrule’. This was another role-reversal custom and involved a member of a household being chosen by lot to be ‘lord for the day’. The position was sometimes called ‘Bean King’, as a bean cooked into a cake was the way by which the person was selected, depending on who got the bean. Bean Kings are recorded at the English royal court in 1315 and 1335. During the fifteenth century ‘midwinter kings’ appear at Oxford and Norwich. A ‘Lord of Misrule’ and an ‘Abbot of Unreason’ were set up in the royal court in 1489, and a Lord of Misrule continued to be a feature of royal Christmas-tide celebrations until 1553 and the start of the reign of Mary Tudor. The idea was not confined to the royal court, as the examples of the Oxford colleges and the city of Norwich demonstrate, and such ‘Lords’ were found in many well-off households. The day after Twelfth Night was called Distaff Day and signalled a return to normal behaviour and the usual social order.

From the 1320s descriptions increase of a communal gathering, sharing drink from a wassail cup and wishing each other well. The word ‘wassail’ was derived from the Old English for ‘good health to you’. Earlier thirteenth-century accounts refer to the dipping of cakes or bread in a common bowl, which appears to be a variant of this tradition.

Epiphany: the revealing of Christ

6 January was the Feast of Epiphany. The theme celebrated was the revealing of the nature of Jesus through events in His life as recorded in the New Testament. The earliest of these was the visit of the Magi and the later baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Other revealings also came to be celebrated on this day, including the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. The one which came to be particularly associated with this date was the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus. Although not numbered or named in Matthew’s gospel they soon became so associated with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that it was assumed they had been three in number and were kings.

Twelfth Night was sometimes associated with the raising of gilded Stars of Bethlehem in some churches to celebrate the Wise Men. In wealthier households, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there are records again of feasting and of gift giving during this time.

Plough Monday: the breaking of the soil of winter

Between Christmas and Lent ploughing started. January, February and March saw villagers engaged in this wet and exhausting work. And yet the survival of the community rested on the success of the crop which lay at the end of this process. As a result the start of ploughing attracted a great deal of concern and villagers marked it in many different ways. By 1450 the practice had been long established of setting aside the first Sunday after Epiphany as ‘Plough Sunday’ and the first Monday after Twelfth Night as ‘Plough Monday’. Plough races might be held and there are critical mentions of villagers hauling their plough around a fire, in order (presumably) to ‘purify’ it and prepare it for the work ahead. Candles, called ‘plough lights’, were set up in churches and are mentioned in the church accounts of a number of parishes in East Anglia and the eastern Midlands of England. In some parishes the ploughs were kept in the churches prior to the start of ploughing, and in the period 1547–53 the practice was condemned as ‘conjuring of ploughs’. From the mid-fifteenth century there are mentions in church records of ploughs dragged around villages, of collections of money to pay for the plough lights and of village feasts.


On 2 February the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary recalled and celebrated the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (recorded in Luke 2: 22–35). Simeon’s response to the baby Jesus included these words:

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.5

This gave the event its particular focus on light and on candlelit processions, and from this came its traditional name in England of Candlemas. Parishioners brought candles to church to be blessed. Afterwards in some parishes these were paraded around the church; in others they were burnt before statues of the Virgin Mary; in others they were taken home to be lit in times of crisis. In a number of towns the services and processions were followed by feasting. It is clear though that the candles were starting to be venerated themselves, in a process which characterizes a large number of Catholic festivals and celebrations in the Middle Ages: starting as symbols, objects came to be invested with attributions of holiness themselves. It was this and the strong focus on the Virgin Mary which made the event the target of Protestant reformers in the 1540s and early 1550s.

St Valentine’s Day: 14 February

In the 1440s the English poet John Lydgate refers to an English custom at the royal court of sending romantic gifts to the person they loved of the opposite sex. The same event is mentioned in the Paston Letters from the 1470s. In some cases the person selected was chosen by lot within the household. Whether this custom was only practised by the wealthy, or whether it was supported by ordinary people, is impossible to tell from the surviving evidence. The actual feast day of St Valentine was abolished under Edward VI but the romantic fun continued, now disconnected from any religious context.


The 40 days prior to Easter were marked by a time of fasting, referred to as Lent. This time both recalled Jesus’s time in the wilderness prior to the start of His earthly ministry, and also prepared believers for the celebration of Easter, which marked the climax of His time on earth. All of the feasts, fasts and celebrations related to Easter are ‘movable feasts’ because Easter itself moves, being celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox. As a result Easter-related events can occur as early as 4 February and as late as 24 June.

Lent was preceded by Shrove-tide. This covered ‘Collop Monday’ and ‘Shrove Tuesday’. The names preserve the dual characteristics of this time – preparing for Lent (shrove coming from the word for confession) and feasting before the start of the time of fasting (collop being a piece of cooked meat). The period was a time of active celebration and feasting. Pancakes are not actually recorded until about 1586 but may have been present a lot earlier. Other – more active and rowdy – entertainments also marked Shrove Tuesday: cockfighting, football and boisterous collection of money. In 1314 the playing of football was banned in London on this day, and in 1409 the money collections were similarly outlawed. A traditional entertainment was ‘cock threshing’. This involved hurling missiles at a cock to kill it, or burying one up to its neck in the ground and striking at it blindfolded until the head came off. The brutal nature of this activity offers a shocking glimpse into life in the Middle Ages – which may be set against the illuminated manuscripts and magnificent Church architecture of the time. The same society which produced these was quite capable of the most shocking cruelty towards animals, and this is a feature of many societies prior to the modern period. The football games could be equally violent. The game appeared to have had no rules (apart from getting control of the ball at all costs), no limits on numbers of players, and a reputation for damage and injury.

And after this – the fast. During Lent the following were prohibited: butter, cheese, eggs, meat, milk, marriage and sexual intercourse. In some areas the fast was encouraged to be absolute during daylight hours, with acceptable foodstuffs being consumed in the evening. Fish would have been consumed in very large quantities as it was on all usual fast days, principally Fridays. However, some people were prepared to eat barnacle geese since it was popularly believed that these were hatched from barnacles and were therefore more fish than fowl (see Chapter 10). The period of fasting started on the morning of ‘Ash Wednesday’ with a service characterized by confession and the marking of ash crosses on the foreheads of those attending. At the same time the altar, the lectern and images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints were covered in white cloths decorated with red crosses.


The climax of the period of Lent was the great Christian celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The week before Easter was known as Holy Week and started with Palm Sunday. This Sunday celebrates Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem in the week before His death and Resurrection. The celebrations on this Sunday varied but the central theme was the reading of New Testament accounts of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the blessing of branches and processions – headed by the consecrated host – from the church into the churchyard and back again. In some churches people dressed as Old Testament prophets read Bible passages in the churchyard, and flowers and cakes were thrown to those processing as they re-entered the church. At the end of the service small crosses were made from the branches and taken home. As with so many medieval customs the slide from symbol to superstition meant that these ‘Palm Crosses’ were regarded by many as being good-luck charms and as a consequence would later be banned under Edward VI.

During Holy Week the Church events moved day by day towards Easter and at each point prepared people for the events at the end of this special week. In a service on Wednesday the cloth covering the altar was either torn or removed. In the evening occurred the first of the Services of Shadows (the Tenebrae), a very powerful and moving service which recalled the desertion of Jesus by His disciples and his abandonment by the world as He alone carried the sins of the world in His crucified body. Candles were set up in church and, one by one, snuffed out until only the candle representing Christ stood burning in the dark.

On Maundy Thursday English rulers had, since John in 1210, followed the tradition of washing the feet of selected (and presumably well-cleaned) poor people and presenting them with gifts. This was in memory of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the evening before His crucifixion. From 1361 (in the reign of Edward III) the monarch washed the feet of the number of poor people corresponding to his age. The same procedure was followed at a number of cathedrals and abbeys. In the Middle Ages the day was called Sharp Thursday and this was probably derived from the cutting of hair in preparation for Easter. In churches altars and their cloths were washed and parishioners attended confession. Bells were not rung on this day. In the evening, in a number of churches, the Tenebrae was followed once more.

On Good Friday altars were again washed. Some people emphasized their sense of repentance by subjecting themselves to scourging by their priest. On the same day monarchs since Edward II blessed rings which it was then thought would have healing power against epilepsy. This survived the reign of Edward VI and eventually stopped only during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the Good Friday service a crucifix was laid on the steps leading up to the altar and clergy and laity crawled to it to kiss it in a ceremony known as ‘Creeping to the Cross’. After the service the cross and a piece of the host consecrated on Maundy Thursday were wrapped in cloth and laid in a specially made tomb on the northern side of the chancel. This was the ‘Easter Sepulchre’. It was covered with a richly embroidered cloth and often surrounded with candles. In many churches these candles were paid for by the Corpus Christi guilds of the parish (see ‘Corpus Christi’, below). In some churches members of the parish kept watch beside the tomb, and bread and ale was provided from local collections. That night the final Tenebrae was sung.

On Holy Saturday all candles in the church were put out according to the Sarum Rite and then relit from a new fire started by the priest. This relighting included the Paschal Candle, which was the largest candle used in any church service or event. By 1500 the next great step in the Easter celebration was the opening of the Easter Sepulchre early on Easter morning, while it was still dark. The cross was carried around the church and the bells – which had not been rung since the Wednesday of Holy Week – pealed out. Afterwards, the cross was laid on the altar and Creeping to the Cross took place once more. The empty sepulchre had candles lit before it and this continued until the Friday following Easter. Statues which had been covered for the whole of Lent were again uncovered. This was followed by gifts being given to the local church. Easter Day was a popular day for baptisms, as it was so central to Christian faith and to the hope of Eternal Life. Feasting followed the Easter Mass and the giving of painted eggs often occurred at this time as symbols of new life. This is documented as early as 1290 in the royal court of Edward I.

The Mass at Easter was the centre point of the year, as far as the involvement of laity in the Eucharist was concerned, because this was normally the only time that they partook of the host. Following its consecration at the high point of the Mass it was distributed to all the parishioners present on Easter morning. So holy was the host that parishioners often held a linen cloth under their chin – the houselling towel – to prevent any crumbs of the host from falling to the ground. Usually, on other Sundays throughout the year, as a substitute for the host, those present at Mass shared a piece of the holy loaf. This was a loaf of bread presented to the priest at the start of the service; later blessed and distributed amongst the congregation as a sign of their unity. (Though often the size of the pieces received reflected the social hierarchy of the local community!) The wine of the Mass was only ever consumed by the priest, and the shift to receiving the Eucharist in ‘both kinds’ was one of the major changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Easter Monday was often accompanied by local feasts called ‘church ales’ in which money was collected for parish funds, especially the support of the poor. This was sometimes associated with the return of the wassail cup – last used following Christmas – and Lords of Misrule in some areas. This continued during Hocktide or the Hokkedays, which fell on the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter. First recorded in London in 1406, this was traditionally claimed to recall either the massacre of the Danes in England under Ethelred II, in 1002, or the death of the last Danish king to rule England, Harthacnut, in 1042. There is, however, no evidence connecting the Hocktide activities with these ancient events and the origin of the activity is obscure. Traditionally the events consisted of the men of the parish, on the Monday, capturing and tying up the women and demanding a kiss for their release. On the Tuesday the women returned the favour by capturing the men and demanding payment before freeing them. The cash collected went to parish funds and very large sums of money were raised. Hocktide activities were made illegal under Edward VI as they were associated with disorder.

St George’s Day

23 April was the feast day of St George, a celebration which first appeared in England in 1222. A large number of town guilds were set up to celebrate the fame of this very popular saint through ‘ridings’ on his feast day. This took the form of a procession with a model dragon and people dressed as St George. It was nationally supported and had come to have a patriotic character as well as a religious one. Despite this St George would not survive the Reformation dismissal of cults of saints.

May Day and May Games

Activities linked to the first day of May are recorded as early as the middle of the thirteenth century. The events centred on the cutting of flowers and green branches, often flowering hawthorn, with which houses were decorated to mark the coming of summer. This was the famous ‘bringing in the May’. By 1350 maypoles (with their attendant dancing) were central features of the day. From the fifteenth century there is evidence of young women making and selling May garlands.

One of the most striking of later medieval events were the May Games. These were often held on the two days after Whitsunday but could occur on a number of occasions during the month of May. These were often associated with ‘church ales’ called ‘Whitsun Ales’, where church wardens would arrange a communal meal to raise money for parish funds. These May Games became very popular during the fifteenth century. They often involved dancing and the crowning of a mock king and queen to oversee the events. Brief references to these mock coronations date from as early as 1240. In a number of parishes after the 1450s this position was taken by Robin Hood. This very popular outlaw was usually accompanied by the young men of the village and toured the local area raising money for parish funds. From the earliest records of these May Games he is associated with another character named Little John, and from later (after about 1500) with Friar Tuck and Maid Marian. It seems that the ‘Queen of May’ and ‘the friar’ were earlier and separate characters associated together with early Morris Dancing. The original friar may not even have been the same character as the later Friar Tuck. As early as about 1283 a French play by Adam de la Halle linked a Robin with a shepherdess named Marion and the two became part of the French version of the May Games. The two first appeared in England in a poem, written by the English poet John Gower between 1376–9. They seem to be part of a quite different tradition from that of Robin Hood, and their role developed alongside his legends in the fifteenth century until Robin Hood and the Robin of the May Games became one character. This clearly seems to have occurred by 1500. In this way Marian became the Queen and Robin Hood the King of the May Games.6

Morris Dancing was also associated with these May-time revels. A great deal of fanciful speculation has centred on the origins of Morris Dancing but Ronald Hutton has reviewed the evidence, alongside the rival interpretations, to convincingly demonstrate that in England it began life as a mid-fifteenth-century energetic dance which was popular in royal and aristocratic circles and, though royal interest declined in the 1520s, it had by then become popular amongst commoners.7


This event took place on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Day and involved asking God’s blessing on the growing crops as parishioners processed around the parish preceded by a cross. The name is derived from the Latin word for ‘asking’ and the processions were also known as Cross Days. Places where prayers were said on these processions gave rise to local minor names and field names such as ‘Amen Corner’, still found in English country areas today. Sadly, these processions could sometimes lead to violence as processions from rival parishes met in the fields and lanes. At Durham three processions made a circuit of the priory precinct accompanied by portable shrines and the banner of St Cuthbert. This was one day within a cycle of processions which occurred at Durham between St Mark’s Day (on 25 April) and Corpus Christi.

Ascension Day

Celebrated on the sixth Thursday after Easter, this event recalled the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Church bells were rung and the Easter Paschal Candle was lit for the last time. When it was taken out of the church it was symbolic of Christ now being in heaven. In some areas there were processions around the parish led by crosses and, if a church possessed any, carrying relics of a saint.

Whitsunday, or Pentecost

The Christian celebration of Pentecost (on the seventh Sunday after Easter) recalls the pouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon the assembled disciples in Jerusalem following Ascension Day. In England Pentecost was also known as Whitsunday, probably after the white baptismal robes worn by those baptized on this day. Whitsunday was often the occasion of more parades and, where a church was a daughter church of a larger one or under the control of a monastery, visits to these might take place with gifts, known as ‘Pentecostals’. Church ales and May Games often followed for the next two days. At Chester and Norwich there were parades and pageants and plays more usually associated with Corpus Christi Day.

Trinity Sunday

Pope Alexander II (1061–73) refused a request for a special feast to honour the Holy Trinity on the grounds that such a feast was not a tradition within the Catholic Church and that every day the Church honoured the Holy Trinity. However, he did not forbid continuing the celebration in churches where it already existed. Later, Pope John XXII (1316–34) revised this decision. He ordered that there should be a special feast day dedicated to the Holy Trinity, for the entire Church, and that it should take place on the first Sunday after Pentecost. A new form of service for this day had earlier been written by the Franciscan John Peckham (died in 1292), who was later archbishop of Canterbury. The Sundays until Advent then became counted either from Pentecost, or from Trinity Sunday. In time, Trinity Sunday marked the end of a three-week period (starting on Rogation Sunday) when weddings were forbidden. At All Saints’ church, South Lynn (Norfolk) the Holy Trinity Guild of the parish paid for the candles which burnt before the image of the Holy Trinity there, and such guilds (which, along with Corpus Christi guilds and those dedicated to the Virgin Mary, were very popular) would have placed particular emphasis on supporting devotions on Trinity Sunday.

Corpus Christi

This medieval celebration took place on the second Thursday after Pentecost and was a late addition to the yearly cycle of Church events, as it did not appear until 1317. It was formally started to draw greater attention to the Catholic understanding of the Mass. This held that Christ was actually present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist; the term used to describe this is ‘the Real Presence’. It was encouraged by the developing theology of Transubstantiation – an idea that had been growing for centuries within the Catholic Church, although it was not until 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council that the word ‘transubstantiation’ was used in a profession of faith, when describing the change that was believed to take place in the Eucharist.

In 1318 the celebration of Corpus Christi is first recorded at Gloucester and at Wells. The theme of the day was a statement of the unity of the whole community and centred on the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice and presence in the Catholic Mass. This increased its popularity right across the social spectrum: from the Church hierarchy (for whom it became a central feature of Church authority, since priests were believed to be the only ones capable of channelling this presence of Christ), through secular authorities (for whom it provided a focal point for community unity), to ordinary men and women (because they believed it provided a way by which they could come into the very presence of God, in the Mass). There is a great deal of evidence which points to the fact that Catholic beliefs about the Mass were well understood and were loyally followed by most of the community. It was, in the words of John Bossy, the ‘social miracle’ which brought together all communities – even those which in other ways were economically and socially divided.8 As Corpus Christi became a target for Lollard criticism (see Chapter 4), after 1390, its importance as a way of stating traditional and orthodox belief increased in the fifteenth century.

Despite this focus on community unity, Corpus Christi Day could be interpreted in a revolutionary sense in certain circumstances. It was surely no coincidence that the Peasants’ Revolt broke out on 13 June – Corpus Christi Day – 1381. At a time when many people felt that high taxes and corrupt government threatened community life, the day became a platform for protest. It was also an opportunity to declare a new social order, in which the end of villeinage, the removal of worldly priests and the sharing out of Church lands would create a new community of the ‘true commons’.9 At St Albans those in revolt particularly resented the abbot’s insistence on locals being forced to pay to use his mill. An early abbot had confiscated the millstones of tenants and had set them into the floor of the parlour of the monastery as a sign of his power over them. In 1381 the rebels dug up these millstones, broke them up and gave pieces to each present to take home. This was a deliberate re-enactment of the theme of Corpus Christi and that of the ‘holy loaf’ (see ‘Easter’, above). It reminds us how deep Christian belief and devotion to Corpus Christi ran in the hearts, minds and popular culture of England in the Middle Ages, and that it did not always take the form that those in authority wished it to! The chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, who described the events at St Albans on that Corpus Christi day, knew exactly what was going on – and did not approve.

The occasion itself was marked by processions of the host through the streets, and by 1400 it had become the third most popular focus of attention by religious guilds, after the Virgin Mary and The Trinity. These guilds existed to channel activities towards a particular form of Christian devotion: meeting for Mass on the day that was particularly special to them, paying for candles and services, and asking God’s blessing on the groups responsible. They often held a feast on these days, and both men and women could be members, although women were rarely officers.10 These religious guilds grew to increasing prominence in the second half of the fourteenth century. In many towns the Corpus Christi processions were very elaborate and included shrines to house the host and a canopy to protect the shrine from rain. Crosses and candles were carried and town dignitaries followed the priests. As the host passed, those on the street were expected to remove their hats and stand bare-headed in reverence. Churches were decorated with flowers, bells were rung and parish accounts refer to the purchase of wine for those taking part in the procession.

After the procession, dramatic presentations often took place. These dramas had as their focus key Biblical themes relating to Creation, the Fall, God’s Salvation for believers in Christ and the Last Judgement. In larger towns huge pageants on carts were pulled through the streets – these appeared at York from 1376, and by 1415 the actors on their carts were part of an elaborate display. The same development occurred across England, and from this arose the Mystery Plays (see Chapter 8). The name derives from the guilds or ‘mysteries’ (i.e. skilled craftsmen who guarded the secrets of their trade) who paid for and organized different aspects of these plays. The Mystery Plays were made up of a cycle of different plays which had the same themes as earlier tableaux. They are known in Coventry from the 1440s, York by 1460 and Chester, where a developed cycle of plays was in operation by the 1520s. In the last case the cycle of plays was moved to Whitsun. The guilds spent huge amounts of money on costumes and scenery and usually took a theme appropriate to their trade, such as fishmongers presenting scenes on the Sea of Galilee, or shipwrights constructing Noah’s ark. It has been suggested that the reason why some towns produced these elaborate events while others did not was because they had particular reasons for needing large-scale community projects designed to encourage unity, perhaps because of particular stresses or conflicts between groups.11 Whether this was true or not is unclear, but certainly many major towns did not produce such cycles of plays, or even the less demanding pageants.

Summer events

Some seasonal events and customs had no place within the calendar of the Christian Church, not even as pre-Christian events which had been incorporated into Christian activities or adapted to Christian teaching. The most obvious of these took place at midsummer, at a time when there were relatively few Church feasts and celebrations. Many of these community activities involved fire. In the fourteenth century, at Winchcombe (Gloucestershire), a flaming wheel was rolled down a steep slope of the Cotswolds. Something similar happened at Buckfastleigh (Devon), only there it was thought lucky if the wheel could be guided into a stream to extinguish it. Both these took place on Midsummer’s Eve (23 June) which was also the evening before the feast of St John the Baptist. At Whitby (Yorkshire) fire celebrations occurred on the eves of the Nativity of St John the Baptist (23 June), Saints Peter and Paul (28 June) and the Translation of St Thomas Becket (of his body from its first burial place) (6 July). Other fire ceremonies involved carrying lighted torches around cornfields; these events were associated with village feasts. Examples of such fire ceremonies date from the thirteenth century, and the fires were sometimes referred to as ‘St John’s Fire’. Bonfire parties also occurred in many villages, and in some towns there were processions, such as those which took place in London from 1378. In London, Chester, Coventry and many other towns these processions developed into major pageants, with burning torches, musicians, hobby horses and models of fabulous animals.

First fruits, harvest and the turning of the year

1 August was generally regarded as the start to the harvest and was called Lammas Day (from the Old English word hlafmaesse, meaning ‘loaf-mass’). In a number of areas it was the custom to cut the first sheaf, bake the flour into bread and dedicate it to God. In this way the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest were consecrated and God’s blessing was sought for the whole harvest. Lammas was also an important day for fairs and rent payments.

Early September saw the harvest gathered in. On some manors the custom grew up of the lord of the manor providing food and drink for the reapers during harvest. At others a Harvest Supper was held, with food and drink provided by the lord. Shortly after harvest was Michaelmas, on 29 September, which was the feast of St Michael the Archangel. Like Lammas, it was a day on which a number of the organizational aspects of rural life were brought together: courts were held, rent was paid and a Michaelmas goose was traditionally consumed.

This time of the year was also the traditional time for dedication feasts, or wakes, in honour of the saint after whom the local church was named. There was no fixed date for these church services and communal meals. Parishes often invited neighbouring parishes to join them, and the mutual partying could go on for days – with harvest safely in and winter approaching many people clearly felt the need for an extended period of festivity.

Some of the feast days of saintly patrons could attract rather unusual activities. At Bury St Edmunds (Suffolk) a white bull, garlanded with flowers, was led to the abbey accompanied by barren wives who stroked its flanks and – once the abbey was reached – prayed that they might conceive. The oblique link between this symbol of sexual potency and a saint who was a ‘glorious king, virgin and martyr’ (to quote his titles publicized at Bury) is only a thin veneer over a blatantly superstitious activity. While this example is fairly extreme, it helps explain why Protestant reformers were very antagonistic to the cult of saints and some of the highly questionable – and at times non-Christian – activities which had become associated with some of them during the Middle Ages.12 At St Paul’s cathedral, London, on the feast day of St Paul a fallow buck was delivered from the Essex hunting chase of one of its manors and carried through the cathedral to the high altar. From there it was sent for cooking, except for the head and antlers which were paraded back through the cathedral before the cross, to the west door. Here a hunting horn was sounded and other horns replied from around the city.13

Autumn and the coming of winter

In November the dark days of autumn turning to winter were alleviated by the twin festivals of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day, on 1 November, and All Souls’ Day on 2 November. On All Saints’ Day prayers were said to speed the souls of the dead through purgatory (a Catholic belief in the refining of souls prior to the Final Judgement to heaven, or to hell). Following this, the church bells were rung to comfort these souls. In some parishes the bells rang until midnight. Sometimes these ceremonies were transferred to the following night – the evening of All Souls’ Day.

The final November event was that of Martinmas, on 11 November, the feast of St Martin. This took place at the time of the slaughtering of surplus farm animals for whom there was insufficient of the valuable hay supplies to feed them over the winter. As a result this date became closely associated with community feasts as the last fresh meat of the year was eaten; the remainder being salted or smoked to preserve it.

In some parishes St Catherine’s Day (the saint associated with the ‘Catherine Wheel’), on 25 November, was marked with feasts. Some celebrated St Clement’s Day, on 23 November, in the same way. More parishes elected Boy Bishops (otherwise associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas) on St Nicholas’s Day on 6 December and allowed these to perform the role of priest. However, for most English Christians in the Middle Ages, Martinmas was the last major celebration until the cycle of the year started again with the First Sunday in Advent.

The impact of the Reformation on the cycle of the year

The Reformation had a tremendous impact on the cycle of seasonal events. The new Protestant Prayer Book under Edward VI (1547–53) put an end to the traditional services held on Christmas Morning and at Epiphany. Not only the traditional services were banished; in many churches the rood lofts themselves were physically demolished at this time. However, the fact that so many of the celebrations at this time were based on events recorded in the Bible meant that the Twelve Days of Christmas survived from the Middle Ages into the Early Modern period more intact than many other medieval celebrations. In this way the celebrations of Christmas, St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, Holy Innocents, Christ’s Circumcision and Epiphany survived. Decorating with holly and ivy, however, appears to have gone out of fashion at about the time of these changes; probably because it was disapproved of as unbiblical. In 1541 Henry VIII banned the tradition of Boy Bishops on Holy Innocents’ Day.

With the coming of the reign of Mary Tudor in 1553 the Lords of Misrule vanished from the royal court, though there seems to have been no theological reason for this. It was probably simply that they were too closely associated with the previous regime’s Christmas celebrations.

In 1538, under Henry VIII, all ‘holy candles’ were banned and in one action this put an end to plough lights and Candlemas. In 1547, under Edward VI, the guilds which set up and paid for these candles were banned. Some revived under Mary Tudor but then slowly declined thereafter; the momentum of continuous custom had been disrupted. In 1539 Candlemas came under scrutiny in regulations which did not abolish it but which banned any superstitious actions thought to invest objects with holiness, or with what was condemned as magical powers. In 1548 it was banned outright. The same ban stopped religious celebration of St Valentine.

In 1538 Henry VIII ordered that it was acceptable to eat dairy products during Lent. He did this with his new authority as Head of the Church in England. However, Lent continued as a fast from meat and survived the reign of Edward VI and so out of the period covered by this book. Other features of Lent suffered more negative attention. In 1548 the blessing of ashes on Ash Wednesday was banned, as was the veiling of images (since images themselves were banned).

Henry VIII allowed Palm Sunday celebrations, so long as they did not involve any hint of superstitious belief about the crosses themselves, but both processions and making crosses were banned in 1547. In 1548 the blessing of branches was banned, as was Creeping to the Cross and ash crosses on Ash Wednesday. Similarly banned was the Service of Shadows on the Wednesday of Holy Week. In the same year Easter Sepulchres were attacked by Archbishop Cranmer and swiftly stopped. Revived under Mary, these finally ceased under Elizabeth I. The same occurred with the Easter Paschal Candle. Linked to disorderly conduct, the Hockday celebrations vanished during the reign of Edward VI, along with other disorderly events such as hoggling. The same thinking probably lay behind the condemnation of Whitsun Ales, which, though not banned, rapidly went into decline from the late 1540s.

It was not disorder but opposition to what were considered Catholic practices which caused the decline of the tremendously popular St George’s Day celebrations. The banning of statues of saints and the dissolving of guilds dedicated to them in the first year of the reign of Edward VI saw the collapse of St George’s Day. In 1552 it was omitted from the calendar of religious events, as St George had no Biblical backing. No official banning took place of Rogationtide marches and Whitsunday processions, but they declined during the reign of Edward VI through disapproval of carrying saints’ images and of crosses set up around parish boundaries, which some reformers considered attracted superstitious attention. Under Elizabeth I the Rogationtide processions reappeared as a way of establishing local boundaries, but with a minimum of ceremonies.

In 1547 the suppression of religious guilds removed the main means by which Corpus Christi plays were performed and organized. When the new Prayer Book of 1549 removed all reference to Corpus Christi, as a Catholic doctrine, it put an end to the processions, pageants and plays dedicated to its celebration. This celebration had long been disapproved of by those critical of Catholic doctrine, and from the 1390s it had been a target for Lollard criticism.14 The Midsummer Processions too declined in the late 1540s. The possibly magical perception of the fires and the fear of public disorder meant that, though never formally abolished, a sense of official disapproval signalled their end.

It seems to have been a reaction to over-extended holidays which caused Henry VIII to stop the traditional wakes and instead, in 1532, directed all churches to hold their dedication day on the first Sunday in October. Prior to this, the feasting and partying could go on for days. However, it was a straightforward collision between Reformed Protestant beliefs and medieval Catholicism which led to the ending of the ceremonies associated with All Saints and All Souls. There was an attempt to abolish ringing bells for the dead in 1546 and, although never actually formally abolished, this was heavily criticized by royal inspectors and quickly ceased.

The end of the medieval ritual year – or the ‘fall of Merry England’ to quote Ronald Hutton15 – was brought about by many factors. The two most significant were changing religious ideas and changing economic structures, which broke existing social relationships and encouraged employers to try to force a new discipline on their workers. As such it was not only a ‘Reformation of religion’ but also a ‘Reformation of manners’ which happened after 1530. Together they broke the cycle of the year which had turned for almost a millennium.

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