Shakespeare, Catholicism and pre-Reformation festive culture

It is hard to overstate the volume and variety of entertainers whom one might have encountered on England’s roads in the early 1500s. But then, it’s a phenomenon that we’re viewing through the filter of what occurred later, around the turn of the century and after, when theatrical and performance culture was forcibly narrowed, shaped into a metropolitan elite itself but also reordered to cater to a more elite, ‘sophisticated’ audience.

For my part, what surprises me most, perhaps, looking at the data, is the sheer number of patrons. A quick scan through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) index of patrons for Kent, say, reveals some 83 patrons of some sort over the course of the 16th century, of whom 50 supported troupes of players and 54 minstrels or other specifically named musicians, be they drummers, trumpeters, lutenists, pipers, or harpers.

These figures are, of course, no more than illustrative – the survival of any such information is arbitrary and the way in which clerks recorded such visits was prey to whim – but they do, I think, convey something of the rich texture of itinerant entertainment in the period. Kent, in fact, was in a particularly privileged position being so close to London while also benefiting from occasional visits from continental entertainers, among them, for example, the King of Poland’s bearwards, who were in Kent in 1521-2.

Bear-baiting was the other principal entertainment receiving patrons’ support: bearwards belonging to 21 different patrons are noted in the surviving county records . One bearward, John Sackerston, had a career that can be traced through four decades, from Shrewsbury in 1553-4 to Bristol in 1579-80, by which time he was in the service of the Earl of Derby. He was, it would seem, something of a legend; Sackerson, the famous bear at Paris Garden on the Bankside, close by the Globe, was named after him. ‘I have seen/Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him/By the chain’, boasts Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor.

Another famous performing animal, Marocco, better known as Bank’s horse – the ‘dancing horse’ that Moth refers to in Love’s Labours Lost – could be seen across England, as well as at its more usual home at the Bell Savage Inn on Fleet Street. Banks had trained it to tap out with its hooves the answers to simple mathematical problems. There were other, more exotic beasts, too: Henry VII’s marmoset came to Dover in 1488-9 and his lion to Shrewsbury in 1492-3, a town which also had a chance to see Henry VIII’s camel in 1525-6.

Clearly the health of this itinerant culture was to some extent indicative of a society in which power had yet to be fully centralised and feudal landowners were largely unconstrained in acting as kings in their own territories, with all the ceremonial imperatives that that implied. But, more importantly perhaps, it was also made possible by the pre-Reformation festive culture, both religious and secular, which created an extensive market for Lucrece’s ‘feast-finding minstrels’ and their peers.

The church year, in particular, was rich in feasts and celebrations, but it is hard to disentangle more secular festivities, often agricultural in inspiration, since they were often sanctioned, even co-opted by local churchmen. Actually, that ‘co-opted’ is unfair: in what was largely a subsistence economy, spiritual and physical welfare were almost co-determinate: if the crops failed, people starved; divine succour and comfort were intrinsic to survival.

This world was something I was wholly ignorant of until I read Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England, a groundbreaking study of the English ritual year, upon which much of the following is based. It’s a book I’d picked up some years back, but didn’t read until relatively recently. I had read a lot of the radical writings of the English Civil War period at university; and, having enjoyed David Underdown’s Revel, Riot and Rebellion, a study of the relationship between politics and popular culture in the early decades of the 17th century, had bought Hutton’s book, after the kind of brief riffle through its pages you often give things in bookshops, thinking it to be along the same lines.

I suppose in some senses it is, albeit largely focusing on an earlier period. What had fascinated me about the literature of the 1640s – and the period in general – was the sense of protestantism as a radical, enfranchising, liberating force; it’s a thesis with which Underdown, from recollection, is broadly in keeping.

Hutton, however, taking a longer view from 1400 onwards, is not. For him, culturally at least, the reformation was enforced, imposed, or made uniform by an increasingly centralising government and a small number of ideological fellow travellers: ‘What all these cases show is pressure to remove the old customs exerted from above, through or from members of an urban elite and against the wishes of at least some of the populace’.

This is a simplification of Hutton’s position of course, since there were many areas of the country where protestantism, even puritanism, were as strong, if not stronger, among the people as it was within the church. But in essence his story is one of the extirpation of a highly evolved community of culture and traditions; it is a narrative of defeat.

Having always seen myself as sympathetic to both the agents of change and to the people and popular culture, I found it a shock – and discomforting – to have those two positions in conflict with one another, something I had not experienced before. Perhaps that says something about my political naivity; I am not sure I have fully worked through it’s implications even now. However, having read Hutton I now find it very hard to view the Reformation – or more particularly its scorched earth policy to the existing anglo-Catholic culture (as opposed to the institutions of the Catholic church), its destructiveness, its iconoclasm, and its approval of what was often little more than wholesale looting – with much enthusiasm.

Of course, it bore unexpected fruits – including the Elizabethan Renaissance of which Shakespeare is a part; but in an age conditioned by ideas of preservation, conservation and restoration the sense of loss is overwhelming. No wonder medieval England seems barren culturally, compared to its successors: its greatest triumphs were broken and rebuilt as mansions, or melted down to make fortunes for the favoured, the likes of Sir William Paulet, Henry VIII’s Lord Treasurer, and William Herbert, First Earl of Pembroke , of whom one observer of the Elizabethan court said that they came to court with nothing, but that ‘upon the bare stock of their wits, they began to traffic for themselves, and prospered so well that they got, spent, and left more than any subjects from the Norman Conquest to their own times’.

But cultures take time to die, and I increasingly wonder whether the late 16th-century playwrights weren’t acutely aware that they were heirs to a rich but eroding legacy of ritual and remembrance.

In sonnet 52 Shakespeare writes:

Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.

Even if you didn’t know, it’s self-evidently a post-Reformation sentiment, since whatever one’s view of late medieval festive culture, there is no doubt as to its abundance in the calendar.

What follows is merely an overview of the major festivals in the first months of the year, but the many lesser saints days were certainly frequently celebrated across the country, with parishes in particular tending to mark the dedication day of their church with wakes and ales and feasting. Hence Stratford, with its Holy Trinity church, would no doubt have marked Trinity Sunday the week after Whitsun, while a church dedicated to St Bartholomew would have feasted on 24 August, St Bartholomew’s Day.

As the 16th century progressed, these local affairs aroused particular ire among the godly, the protestants and puritans, who found wholly anathema the idea of churches blessing – metaphorically and literally – the drunkenness that proverbially accompanied parish ales, with all the attendant sins that drink allegedly begot, sometimes accommodating, hosting even, the revelries in fresh-built bowers in the precincts of the church, in the yards and porches, or worse, within the very walls themselves.

Christmas was undoubtedly the most extensive and exhaustive season of festivity. From Christmas Eve until Epiphany there were twelve days of feasting – with ‘lost’ feasts, such as Holy Innocents, also known as Childermas, on 28 December, and of the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, still marked. Religious houses – together with those of the wealthy – opened their doors, and not just to their neighbours: ‘by the beginning of the 15th century it was becoming common for landowners of most incomes to be visited regularly by theatrical troupes and musicians’, writes Hutton.

The festivities in each household were led by Christmas Lords – sometimes known as Lords or Abbots of Misrule – servants elected to govern the proceeding each year. Similarly, many churches promoted choristers to become boy bishops, who would tour the parish boundaries and sometimes beyond in the episcopal vestments to raise money for the parish. It was the season of mummers, too, also known as maskers or guisers – Shylock’s ‘fools with varnished faces’ – although they tended to be unpopular with the authorities: the coincidence of dark evenings and disguise was an attractive cover for lawlessness, and wearing masks in public during the Christmas days was forbidden between 1400 and 1560 in several cities, London and Bristol among them.

Stow, the London antiquary, nervertheless recalled the season as being one of ‘fine and subtle disguisings, masks and mummeries’. Despite his report that the Lords of Misrule’s sovereignty extended right through January until Candlemas at the beginning of February, the season usually culminated in twelfth night itself, which was often marked with masked dances, or with plays or other pageants, and was arguably the most festive evening of the year; not for nothing was Twelfth Night subtitled ‘What you will’.

The first Monday after Epiphany was Plough Monday, the day on which the ploughing season formally began. There were no winter crops in England’s fields until the 17th century. Instead, unenclosed farmland became common – ‘Lammas-land’ for the poor to graze their livestock on – between the harvest and Plough Monday. The day before, ‘plough lights’ were burned in many churches, with some ploughs even being brought into the church for blessing. On Plough Monday the ploughs were carried through the streets to collect money for the parish; some towns held feasts, too, to raise funds for the poorest farmers in particular. In coastal towns dependent not on crops but on the fishing fleet for livelihood, such as Grimsby and Hull, model ships took the place of ploughs.

A few weeks later came the feast of the purification of the virgin Mary and the recognition of Christ as the Messiah by Simeon – much better known as Candlemas – on 2 February. It was preceded by a day of bread and water only, but Candlemas itself saw processions to the church with people dressed as Joseph and Mary, as Simeon and the angels, followed by feasting after the service. Famously, it was a day of light, the churches ablaze with candles blessed to lift the dull January pall and drain the dark shadows from the day; it marked – wishfully or otherwise – the last day of winter.

Soon after was Shrovetide, beginning on the seventh Sunday before Easter, when larders were emptied ahead of Lent, with Collop Monday, when the last slices of meat were eaten – which has not survived – and Shrove Tuesday, already synonymous with pancakes – ‘as fit… as a pancake for Shrove Tuesday’ says the clown in Alls Well that Ends Well – which has. Ash Wednesday was the day the fast began.

The Easter celebrations – also known as Passiontide – began in earnest with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. As befitted its place in the calendar, Palm Sunday was a ritual of spring, with willow, box and yew as substitutes for palms, all equally blessed. For three nights during Holy Week, while the Tenebrae, the services of shadows, built around the book of Lamentations, were read, the church candles were gutted one by one to leave the faithful contemplating the gathering dark.

On Maundy Thursday, the feast of the last supper, the king, in imitation of Christ, would wash the feet of poor men – one for each year of the king’s life – and then offer gifts of food, clothing and gold coins; it was a ceremony the heads of many religious institutions followed too, archbishops and abbots alike. Good Friday – the day that Falstaff sold his soul to the devil for a cup of madeira and a cold leg of chicken – had several rites all of its own.

The most well known of these was ‘creeping to the cross’ when, during the service, the crucifix would be brought down onto a low step before the altar and the clergy would remove their shoes or boots and crawl towards it and, on reaching it, kiss it. Shakespeare seems to recall the rite in Troilus and Cressida, when Patroclus observes that Ajax, Menelaus and the rest once came to visit Achilles ‘as humbly as they used to creep/To holy altars’. It would be interesting to know what Shakespeare knew of the ritual, and how: although briefly revived in Marian England, creeping to the cross was suppressed again by the Elizabethan church.

The other key Good Friday rite was that of guarding the sepulchre. As with other seasonal customs it was shorn from church ceremony by Edward VI and, despite Mary’s efforts to restore them, fell from use. Like most of these rituals, it was not necessarily performed in every church, and certainly not in the same way. Sometimes the sepulchres – proxies for the tomb of Christ – were simple alcoves in the church wall; mostly they were simple cases of wood or canvas wired together and remade each year.

After evensong, a crucifix and a consecrated host were placed in the sepulchre, which itself was covered with a rich cloth and a great candle lit beside it. Folk watched the sepulchre until Easter morning, sustained on bread and ale, remembering the soldiers who guarded Christ’s tomb. It’s easy to read into Shakespeare those things you wish to find, of course; but I can’t help wondering if there is some residual trace reference to the ritual in sonnet 68, with its talk of ‘The right of sepulchres’ and ‘holy antique hours’. On the face of it, it’s a poem about beauty and nature and decay; but perhaps there is also another lost layer of meaning about ‘what beauty was of yore’, too.

I don’t wish to make a case for Shakespeare as a catholic, which seems to be an fashionable trope just now, together with somewhat anachronistic references to the Elizabethan police state. But that’s not to say that Shakespeare may not have regretted some of the loss of pre-Reformation English culture. For the men of the theatre, with its close associations with that culture, it would be difficult not to have some sympathies there. The theatre’s puritanical enemies always made the link explicit. I have always thought of that as little more than rhetoric; but perhaps it was also a statement of fact.

Jonson was a catholic for 12 years; with a characteristic sense of drama, he converted in prison while awaiting trial for the murder of the actor Gabriel Spencer. Thomas Watson came from a catholic family and spent some time at the English College at Douai, largely, if not exclusively, a training ground for catholic seminaries destined for undercover work in England. Marlowe’s role as a double agent ought to give us pause in this context, too, since most such agents were catholics who had been turned. Kyd’s sympathetic portrayal of the Spanish in The Spanish Tragedy – or at least lacking in hostility for a play most likely written when war with Spain was almost a certainty – raised eyebrows at the time. Nashe, meanwhile, as his biographer Charles Nicholl has shown, was clearly sympathetic to the old order, too. Thomas Lodge, another prose writer and poet, and author of Rosalynde, on which As You Like It is based, was certainly Catholic for long periods of his life. Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney’s biographer, has even speculated that Sidney, among the most prominent of Protestant activists, was tempted to recuse.

It doesn’t seem much of an understatement to suggest that the old faith – and the social and cultural certainties that went with it – was particularly attractive for many writers. But I’m inclined to think the very breadth of the evidence for this is, as much as anything, actually an argument against the idea of Shakespeare’s ‘secret’ catholicism. It was a hard thing to hide, for one thing, since church attendance was compulsory. And, in any event, I’m not sure that there was any particular reason, if you were a poet or playwright, to hide your beliefs. It didn’t seem to do Jonson’s career any harm, after all, even if it periodically landed him in a good deal of trouble, most notably due to his apparent friendship with the Gunpowder plotters.

But then, a man like Jonson – who could travel to Paris, receive an audience with Cardinal Duperron, one of the most powerful men at the French court, and tell him to his face that his translations of Virgil ‘were nought’, and this despite not actually being able to read French – was a man quite capable of getting into trouble on his own account, and certainly not in need of any help from Rome on that score.

Rather than ‘secret’ Catholicism, I would argue there is a kind of latent or residual Catholicism in Shakespeare’s work, echoing and memorialising the vanishing world of pre-Reformation ritual of which his own profession, that of traveling player, was almost the last survival.

NOTE: For more on the culture of the traveling players and Shakespeare’s inheritance from them, see my post here. My thoughts on the Shakespeare authorship controversy are here and here. I have blogged about the short, tragic life of Thomas Kyd and his role in the great lost drama of the 1580s here.

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