A brief outline and history of English popular culture,
its suppression and commodification.
English mediaeval popular culture developed syncretically out of prehistory and through the successive waves of migration and invasion from the Romans to the Normans in the 11th century, it was a hybrid culture, nominally Christian but integrating within it the myths and rituals of thousands of years of paganism. Following Bahktin let's define this culture as alternative, participatory, ambivalent, material, utopian, anarchic, transgressive and unfinished . The difference between the official culture of the Church and the Court and the unofficial culture of the carnival prior to the autonomy of Bourgeois Art cannot be reduced to, nor does it correspond to the separation between Art and the popular. It is not until the accession of the bourgeoisie that a rigid separation takes place between Art and the popular ; mediaeval popular culture was the unofficial culture of all ranks in society.
The development of Bourgeois Art from its initiation in the Renaissance to the autonomy of the 19th century is a history of separation and exclusion which can be mapped by the attempts of the bourgeoisie to control and suppress the popular. To the Protestant bourgeoisie as they ascended to power the popular was a culture without meaning or purpose, it was idleness or worst still a social evil to be stamped out. However, the development of capitalist economics and mass industrial production created a vast popular culture industry which eclipsed in scale and profit the minority elite bourgeois culture of Art. The historical development of popular culture after the Renaissance is determined by a tension between its commodification with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism and by the attempts of the ascendant bourgeoisie to prohibit, suppress and exclude it. As bourgeois culture defined itself in the suppression of the popular, so popular culture developed in resistance to that suppression. The carnival tradition though syncretic, underground and often invisible runs unbroken into contemporary popular culture. It has developed, diverged and mutated , but its historical development is contiguous and material.
The problem with Bahktin's typology as an outline of mediaeval English popular culture is that by defining carnival as essentially comic he prioritises laughter over other festive and unofficial pleasures, whilst in his concern for the literary tradition he excludes both cultural forms which were essential to the carnival (music, spectacle etc. ) and forms which developed outside of the specific carnival event but nevertheless were integral to the carnival (street signs, banners, alehouses etc.). This history begins by proposing a provisional, flexible and overlapping range of mediaeval popular culture :
Venues and Events - The marketplace, the festival, the procession, the fair, the alehouse, the village green, the town square etc. The carnival event as the fusion of popular forms.
Games and Sport - Football, archery, wrestling, various blood sports such as cock fighting, bull baiting, bear baiting, gambling, card games, dice etc.
Oral Culture - Storytelling, myth, jokes, riddles, curses, oaths, dialect, games, folk songs and ballads etc.
Music - Folk songs and ballads, improvised folk music, itinerant ballad singers etc.
Visual Culture - Signs and banners of alehouses, shops, market stalls and tradesmen, the construction of pageant wagons for the carnival, the making of carnival costumes, masks, toys etc.
Performance and Spectacle - The Mystery play cycles and pageants performed by the trade guilds, the Miracle plays, Morality plays, folk drama and rituals, folk dancing, clowning, acrobatics, puppets, juggling , conjuring, display of wild animals etc.
The Mystery Play Cycles originated from mediaeval Christian ritual drama which depicted the life of Christ and other biblical narratives. At first this drama was performed by priests in the church itself but around the 13th century the church authorities became hostile to the plays and as the performances grew in length and complexity they moved from the church to the exterior and were performed by the various guilds or 'mysteries' who controlled the trades of the towns. Although the plays differed from town to town they all covered a cycle which began with the creation of the world and ended with the last judgment ,including spectacular scenes of Noah and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, the nativity of Christ, the betrayal of Christ, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the harrowing of hell. The cycles were performed on the Holy Days of the year and specifically on the feast of Corpus Christi in early June which celebrated the transubstantiation of Christ's body and blood into bread and wine. The two most common methods of staging the English Cycles were either on stages known as houses constructed around a circular field where the audience would move from house to house for each performance, or on pageant wagons which were stages with wheels which could be moved around the town. These stages were often elaborately constructed and decorated, angels could appear from painted clouds, the mouth of hell could breath fire and Noah's ark could actually be built in front of the audience. The Mystery Cycles began as official Christian ritual but as they moved out of the church so they became part of the carnival; until very late in the history of the cycles none of the performers were professional actors and whilst the texts began with the bible they soon integrated older traditions of folk drama, vernacular speech , comedy and entirely invented narrative episodes.
The Mystery Cycles shared elements of ritual pagan folk drama also found in the Mummer's Plays which were still common in rural England in the 19th century and are still performed although now often in revived versions . The term 'Mummer' is derived from the old French for mask. At Christmas a small troop of village men, the Mummers or 'Guizers' or the 'Christmas Boys' , would visit house and tavern to perform their play accompanied by music and dance. Each play differed from district to district, the basic narrative and dialogue would be handed down orally from generation to generation but much of the comedy was improvised. The origins of Mumming lie in a pagan fertility ritual in which the Year King would die and be resurrected and so end the winter and bring back life to the world. With the coming of Christianity the ritual became a drama in which the the hero was St George or later King George whilst the villain could be the Dragon, the Turk, Cromwell or later even Old Boney , Napoleon. The comedy of the play was often the work of the Doctor who would restore the life of the fallen hero with much bombast, swagger, a bag full of strange devices and a magic elixir. With his healing powers and magic ritual the Doctor is the vestige of the pagan Shaman. The Mummers were disguised with costumes made at first of animal skins and later typically of shredded paper. The female parts would always be played by men, sometimes clothes were worn inside out and sometimes the players would paint their faces black, in many, a player would perform in animal disguise as a horse . Characteristic of the Mummer's Play was the boast or 'vaunt ' 1 , in which the characters speak themselves in to the drama, so forinstance in the Netley Abbey play Belzebub the devil proclaims " In come I , little Tom Belzebub" and Father Christmas announces "In comes I , old Father Christmas." 2 The vaunt also appears in the Mystery Plays, in the later Pantomime and in many other forms of popular drama, it articulates the identity of the character the performer is playing but it also identifies the player as a player , and the play as a play; the player is both the subject and the object in the play. The meaning of the play lies in the complex interaction between the characters, the players and the audience, between the play and the actual; the play is both performed and told. Since the Mummers were known to their audience and yet disguised, the meaning of the play was both intimate and epic, both domestic and mystical. In the Mysteries this interplay between the play and the real was even more ambiguous for each play within the Cycle was performed by a different guild and this was sometimes appropriate or even ironic, so in the York Cycle the 'Building of the Ark' was performed by the Shipwrights whilst the 'Crucifixion' was played by the Pinners and Painters.3