What were the celebrations held in a typical medieval village? Evidence for this can be hard to find, but one article focusing on the villages of Berkshire, England, offers us some clues into the local festivals that were held there in the Middle Ages.
Alexandra F. Johnston’s article, “Parish Entertainments in Berkshire,” details what can be found when it comes to festivals that took place. Most of her evidence comes from the sixteenth century, a time when authorities were trying to suppress these events (often failing) – as small villages such as Winkfield, Thatcham, Sonning and Yalely continued to host a variety of celebrations.
Johnston’s article notes that in the villages of Berkshire there were two particular times when festivals were held – Whitsun (also known as Pentecost), which took place the seventh Sunday after Easter, and Hocktide, which happened on the Monday and Tuesday in the second week after Easter. The goals of these spring festivals were to raise money for the local parish church, which often needed repair and maintenance. During Whitsun, money would be earned by having a ‘Church Ale’, an event that could last as long as ten days. Johnston writes:
The major source of income at the time of the ales was collections in response to entertainments performed by the villagers themselves. These were Robin Hood plays, morris dancers, mummings and other folk customs. Records survive concerning costumes for Maid Marion, a fool, a vice as well as morris coats, caps and bells. Elms were bought to ‘bushy’ Robin Hood’s bower; May poles were repaired and erected.
It would also be at Whitsun that the village would choose its own ‘King’ of the festivities, which Johnston believes would have very similar to the tradition of ‘Boy Bishop’ that took place around Christimas-time in medieval cathedral choristers.
During Hocktide, there would also be events called ‘Women’s gatherings’, ‘Men’s gatherings’, and ‘Young Men’s gatherings’. Apparently, this led to an event where the men, and afterwards the women, would go out to capture as many members of the opposite sex as possible – “in a merry way” – and then release them after the payment of a small amount of money to the church.
Some places also held dances at Hockide, which could involve elaborate costumes. Johnston found that for the small town of Wallingford, this “was so ingrained in ancient custom that, when it was abandoned in 1539, there was some question as to whether the status of the town itself did not rest on the annual execution of the dance.”
During the reign of Henry VIII, English authorities attempted to suppress these festivities, believing them to be causes of disorder. For the parish churches that relied on the money made during these events, this could cause serious financial issues. The parish of St.Laurence, for example, had to begin renting pews in 1572. They complained:
In Consideracion That the Colleccions or gatherings heretofore Accostomably vsed for and towards the mayntenauce of the Church As well on the feast of All saintes, The feast of the Byrthe of our Lord god As Hocke Monday & Hocke Tuesday, Maye Day And at the feast of Penticost commonly called Whytsontyde togyther With the Chauntery Landes ar lefte of and clene taken from the Churche to the great Impoversishement thereof, the which heretofore Dyd much healpe the same…
In other places, prohibitions on church ales were not enforced and aspects of these medieval festivals survived into later centuries. Johnston concludes:
The exact nature of the plays, dances and seasonal celebrations that took place in the villages of Berkshire must remain obscure. No text survives before the eighteenth century and those mumming plays recorded since then have about them an air of self-conscious quaintness. What is clear is that for the most part they were survivals of ancient customs probably originating in pre-Christian seasonal rituals. They were not the consciously didactic Christian drama of the cycle and morality plays. Nevertheless, they were integral to the lives of the people and exploited as a means of income for the tiny parish churches struggling to maintain their ancient buildings.
Alexandra F. Johnston’s article, “Parish Entertainments in Berkshire,” appears in Pathways to Medieval Peasants, edited by J. Ambroise Raftis and published by the Pontifical Insititute of Mediaeval Studies in 1981.
See also: The Feast of Fools, with Max Harris