Well folks, let us not pretend that 2016 has been a year of peace and unity, but that’s all the more reason to wish each and every one of our readers a restorative and merry midwinter holiday. We also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who supports the blog, whether that’s simply by taking the time to read it or by sharing our posts on social media or indeed in your classrooms. We were delighted to recently pass a couple of statistical landmarks – 100,000 visitors and 200,000 views of the blog since its inception – and we hope to have many, many more in the years to come.
If you’re not feeling in the festive spirit yet then perhaps a quick trawl through the many-headed monster’s archive of ‘Christmas Specials’ will help: you can read about the history of early modern Christmas dinners; find out how our old pal Ralph Thoresby spent his Christmases; delve into the political conflicts that engulfed seventeenth-century Christmas; discover the impact of the Reformation on Christmas carols; relive an epic Boxing Day pub crawl from 1647; and be warned of the perils of refusing to give seasonal charity in the age of witchcraft.
See you in 2017.
Christmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…
A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.
So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading →
Last week Jonathan laid bare the attack on Christmas in England in the 1640s and 1650s, describing the puritan campaign to convince the public that Christmas was popish and profane, and to persuade people to abandon the traditional merry-making that took place on 25 December. This got me wondering about the resilience and enduring popularity of the festival. Specifically, what did Ralph Thoresby do when the day came around each year?
Ralph Thoresby, antiquarian, pious diarist, author of the first history of Leeds.
For those of you that haven’t met him yet – Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) is the pious Leeds antiquarian and life-long diarist that I am currently researching (view the related posts here). Disappointingly, but probably predictably, Thoresby’s diaries suggest that Christmas didn’t register that much on the antiquarian’s radar – Thoresby didn’t gorge on plum-pottage and mince pies, he didn’t entertain lavishly, he didn’t feast with his neighbours, and there is no evidence that he even indulged in a little tipple. On the morning of 26 December 1680 he did write that he ‘lay too long’ in bed, which we might chalk up to overindulgence the day before, but since Thoresby’s regular habit was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray, we probably shouldn’t read too much into this supposed sloth.
Why do I say that this lack of interest is quite predictable? It is because Thoresby began his life as a moderate nonconformist, attending both dissenting meetings as well as Church of England worship (though in the 1690s he conformed fully to the Church of England). In Thoresby’s case, his nonconformity was of a distinctly puritan flavour, so his lack of enthusiasm for the festivities of the Christmas season are in keeping with his austere style of piety, his avoidance of unsuitable company and his horror of idleness. Yet clearly times had changed – this was the 1650s no longer. On Christmas day Thoresby did attend Church without fail (by contrast, during the interregnum churches were locked on December 25), often hearing a sermon ‘suitable to the day concerning the birth of Christ’. Continue reading →
It is beginning, as the seasonal classic reminds us, to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Shops are blaring out Mariah Carey and town centres are aglow with fairy lights, whilst trees festooned with tinsel are popping up everywhere. A good many of us, I expect, are rather looking forward to Christmas. Whether it is as a religious festival, a great big party, a consumer frenzy, a chance to get together with our loved ones, or even just an excuse to take some time off work, there is no denying that Christmas at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a still major cultural phenomenon, and a calendrical landmark of great prominence.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care…
What Christmas is not, today, is a political issue. Continue reading →
Merry Christmas everybody! By now, the last scraps of turkey have hopefully been consumed, the last of the wrapping paper been thrown away. You might have decided to hit the sales; you might even be back at work; and you may also have asked yourself one or more of the following questions: ‘what shall we doe in the long winter nights: how shall we passe away the time on Sundayes, what wold you have us doe in the Christmas Hollydayes’? No need to risk a family feud by dusting off the monopoly board just yet, because John Rhodes, the Jacobethan ‘minister of Enborne’ (Berkshire) anticipated just such a need amongst ‘the Schollers of pettie Schooles’ and ‘the poore Countrieman and his familie’.
Rhodes’ solution for chasing away the winter blues, and passing the long winter evenings, was simple: sing! Rhodes dedicated his book for such as ‘are naturally given to sing’, so that they might ‘please their merrie minds a little’, and that by winning them ‘to sing good things’ they might ‘forsake evill’. Early modern carols were primarily a popular tradition, and Rhodes’ efforts might be mistrusted on two fronts. Firstly, his aim was clearly a moralising one, recalling the original purpose of metrical psalms, to supplant vain, bawdy or worldly songs with more godly fare. Secondly, pastiches of pastoral or country songs were a moderately popular genre, and examples of ‘countrie’ carols were often affected rather than genuine. In 1611, the enterprising composer Thomas Ravenscroft attempted to cover all his bases in Melismata Musicall phansies, by including a blend of tunes, striving to please ‘the noblest of the court, liberallest of the country, and freest of the city’ in their own respective ‘elements’. Continue reading →
This is the fifth and final post in a series written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.
Totting up the end of year accounts…
On the 22nd of December, 1647, as the wind and rain lashed down outside, the Yorkshire yeoman farmer Adam Eyre spent his day at home casting up his accounts of his expenses for the year. He was a reasonably prosperous man—a member of what historians of the seventeenth-century would call the ‘middling sort’—but he was not at all happy with the level of his outgoings.
What was to blame for his profligacy? The alehouse, of course. So, like many of us do as the year draws to a close, he made a resolution:
‘hereafter never to pay for anybody in the alehouse, nor never to entangle myself in company so much again as I have done’
Adam Eyre did not want to go the way of the fictional ‘wastrel husband’ John Jarret: instead, he determined to renounce ‘good fellowship’.
But Eyre’s resolve did not last long. On 26th December—St Stephen’s Day, later to become Boxing Day—Eyre’s horse had a minor fall when trying to leap over a muddy ditch. As Eyre sought to regain his composure he encountered a fellow officer in the Parliamentary army, Corporal Richard Barber, who persuaded Adam to take a restorative draft of ale or two in an alehouse in nearby Thurlstone. Eyre spent 4 pence (the standard measure of ale then was a quart, or two pints, and this typically cost 2p: so it was a penny a pint). Continue reading →
Between the large stack of papers to mark and an increasingly nocturnal ten-month-old, the planned post on microhistory has had to be postponed until the new year. However, the season calls for at least one celebratory tribute to the peculiarities of early modern Christmastide. The case of Oliver Cromwell and the mince pies has already been discussed at length elsewhere, so I suppose I’d better share another serendipitous discovery from the archives.
This time of year had long been a season of charity and hospitality. As Ronald Hutton has shown, the Twelve Days of Christmas were an occasion for feasting but also giving. He quotes Thomas Tusser, the sixteenth-century poet-farmer:
At Christmas we banquet, the rich and the poor,
Who then (but the miser) but openeth his door.1
The ‘better sort’, ranging from well-off villagers to the richest nobles, showed their generosity by inviting neighbours to dine with them and by giving alms to the poor. Or at least that is how it was supposed to work.
But a court case from Devon suggests that the season was not always so jolly. Here it seems a failure of seasonal good spirits had dire consequences. Sarah Byrd of Luppitt, testifying in 1693, tells the story: Continue reading →