48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on 25 May 2005
The definitive history of the british ritual year. From the origins of wassailing to why the English don't celebate St George's day, Hutton leaves no stone unturned in his relentless search for simplicity and truth in an arena that has for so long been dominated by fantasy and wishful thinking. While lacking nothing in academic rigour, Hutton's writing is also pacy and colourful, with occasional glimpses of a mischievous sense of humour. Contrary to previous 'reviewers' who have sought to undermine Hutton's work and peddle their own agendas on the amazon forum, the possibilty that this historian is an active participant in many of the rituals he describes makes his merciless debunking all the more credible. A remarkable piece of work: entirely non-partisan, essential reading for anyone involved in the folk world, essential reading for anyone who lives in Britain.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2011
As a dozen good reviews could not begin to provide a fair account of this book, I shall offer a few key points which caught my attention as introduction only.
At the outset I had hoped for a more 'traditionally' pagan account of the ancient seasonal festivals, their origins and meanings.
I was initially surprised and eventually delighted to find however that although this work is more of an Academic compote of facts and dates and included ongoing assessment of earlier authors often unfounded but sometimes inspirational conjecture than I had anticipated (of Sir James Frazer et al) nevertheless this is a very enjoyable, remarkably researched and admirably objective book-collection of essays.
That much of this morass concerns the developments and impacts of constantly changing traditions due to Christian Reformation and Counter Reformation (certainly comedic at this distance in time), the ongoing process a seminal crucible (reminding me of both grail and cauldron) proved revealing, as the general view of folk traditions and their origins seems to usually favor the more arcane sources, this book by contrast documents only definite evidence, largely that of written records, of church, kirk and council across the land.
With a nod to the Scandinavian Yuil, as well as the Roman Kalendae, we embark on an exploration of the traditions of Christmastide, the Twelve Days, the Rites of Celebration, Purification and of Charity which included the remarkable Clementing, Elementing and Souling, even Thomasing, Gooding, Mumping and Corning (as well as more)regional begging customs, by which means the poor would recant rhymes for contribution of food for a feast of their own.
Similar socially accepted appeals for reward included the Hocktide 'heaving' or 'lifting' at Easter, in which gangs of men assaulted women for favor and groups of women also pursue and caught men of their fancy for same, at its best a raising up on a lifted chair of a person as proxy 'Lord' to commemorate the Holy ascent of Easter, the chosen surrogate released upon a reward of money or a kiss, at its worst a mere grasping by hands and throwing upwards as an occasion for assault and robbery.
The ongoing exposition of numerous social customs of this kind, both dazzle the mind with its quantity, as well as provides a clear insight into how poverty was communally accepted, dealt with by innovative appeals to the community at large and that these were often 'sanctioned' by inclusion of some short Christian phrase in the introductory verse or chant.
The author traces the development of such customs and portrays their eventual descent into more high spirited, reckless and even angry demands for assistance that could be met with threats and violence if not accepted.
Once national schools were established and later a more centralized protection for the poor was introduced, such earlier community traditions dissipated further, demonstrating the authors argument throughout this book of the movement from a community sharing seasonal rituals and traditions including those aspects of display that were geared to earn rewards, to the de-socialization of such community into a society characterized by its more insular and private approach to seasons and their festivals or traditions.
The Christianization of earlier traditions also has its place in this book, as for example the feast marking the end of winter and start of the summer months ahead at February 1st, Imbolc (the etymology of its name relating to ewes milk and thus new life) initially dedicated to the Irish goddess Brigid, but who was later morphed into the Christian St Bride.
This is an important theme of both this book and of the mythological psycho-social developments of these Isles. Most surprisingly the often claimed genesis or inception of many Christian traditions in the pre Christian, infact seems to have increasingly worked in reverse. As religious conflicts in the land over changing orthodoxies developed, the Catholic tradition with its wealth of near magical rituals was vigorously being uprooted from the public and community sphere of practice by the ascent of the puritan Protestant, the ensuing personal spiritual void resulted in many cases in the earlier magical Catholic rituals being carried on privately at home and eventually (d)evolving into allegedly ancient 'survivalist' 'folk-traditions'. Conversely, some of the Christianized traditions do appear to have had earlier sources such as the Rogationtide and Pentecost processions, at which time the people marched en mass around the crop fields, singing hymns at chosen stop points as the church ministers blessed the crops.
The book does feature ancient tradition where evidence has supported this, such as for example the affirmation of the Beltane as an accepted fire festival in certain regions of Northern Europe and the outlaying regions of the British Isles (unlike the later Samhain, for which evidence of a major 'Celtic' fire festival is less apparent). With greater detail due to the weight of evidence available however, Hutton explores the cultural progress towards our more modern current perspectives, for example plotting the development of the 'May' (which unsurprisingly did have ancient antecedents in the delight of Spring returned) as people initially adorned self and home with garlands and greenery, which in time became a tradition of young women selling garlands, later children took over this role, and in their turn both to manage the unruly and the revenue these were eventually taken over by schools and local institutions. By contrast, the Mummers Plays with their essentially Christian derived themes of battle, death and resurrection, were more officially sanctioned groups from the outset and had less to do with earlier pre Christian traditions.
Despite growing religious and institutional involvement in previously communal activities and traditions, the populace applied themselves with great enthusiasm to any occasion of social bonding, often at some cost to the societies they lived in (other than merely of money or means) such as the many community Maypoles stolen by rival villages and towns resulting in pitched battles between the two, the anarchic Saturnalia of Misrule as witnessed at the Shrovetide street 'foot-ball' games played across whole towns which could involve thousands of people and provided an occasion for licensed misrule resulting in damage to property and individual (although less violent than the serious riot and rebellion which was reserved for the Summer games as a time more suited for battle on the streets or field). The Church Ales or festivals also developed their Abbots of Unreason and a myriad practices of inversion and nonsense (Samuel Butler now we know where your inspiration came from).
Charting how an apparently arcane 'folk tradition' once also considered a surviving pagan fertility rite had originated in high social circles of the Royal Courts and devolved into the rural communities, Hutton's' research into the Morris dancers is fascinating for its explanation of how we may manufacture new ancient traditions out of nowhere.
Perhaps my favorite exposition in this work is that of the origins and evolution of The Jack in the Green, identified as a 'survival' of an ancient pagan fertility rite by the Frazerite Lady Raglan of the Folklore society in 1939, established on her view linking the dancing Green-Man in May day processions with the foliage faces on church walls. This was a lineage unresolved till 1979 Roy Judges study revealed the true origins to be somewhat less arcane, and linked them to a more traditional social ritual evolved as so many traditional customs of display were, to celebrate the new season with a display deigned to garner reward. To explain, during the17thC, London milkmaids danced the streets on May Day with their pails covered in flowers which symbolized the Springs new growth and so presented the promise of new grass for the cattle thus promising fresh milk, cream and butter. These displays earned them money as reward and therefore can be seen to serve a double purpose, of advertising their wares, as well a gathering much needed financial support after a lengthy winter without much income. They later left the pails for lighter wooden frames similarly covered in flowers and greenery, and later still were imitated in their greenery attired frames and street dancing display by the London Chimney sweeps whose claim for sympathy at this time was based on the end of winter cold meaning no more fires or work for them till next fall.
Hutton surmises this work with a number of provocative and insightful observations, for example that the notion of a distinctive 'Celtic' ritual year with four festivals at the quarter days and an opening at Samhain, is a scholastic construction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which should now be considerably revised or even abandoned altogether.
Whilst the debt to a medieval, magical Catholicism seems to be growing apparent in my reading of serious studies of the origin of neo-pagan traditions, Hutton's final words over the changing Christian influence upon the traditional festivals of the year are revelatory.
He establishes that soon as the system of salvation through ritual was scrapped at the Reformation, the merry making began to be regarded as a liability by the social and religious elites....thus the ''evolution of a religious ideology ...(had) produced a society imbued with a general taste for ceremony and acted as a means to endorsement of secular festivity. In other words, Merry England was inspired by the fires of hell''
Finally that 'the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain patterns on the calendar customs', to celebrate spring, to make merry in summer and draw close at fall, despite government and mass media atomization of community, seems a fair conclusion. Overall this book suggests to me that whilst certain traditions may not have an established ancient provenance, nevertheless because people are increasingly applying such meanings to the seasons cycles as an inherent pagan response to nature itself, we may now be seeing a further reversal of the community oriented neglect of seasonal festivals and a resurgence of a more nature based community oriented society at large.
Not a book for the exclusively poetic or methodologically minded, but if read in the objective manner with which it is presented, this book provides a wealth of insight and understanding into the seasonal festivities as they have evolved in these British Isles and the influence they bear on modern pagan perspectives, Recommended.
56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 18 October 2001
Ronald Hutton is an excellent source of knowledge. I am buying this book as a present for a student of ancient british religions, because it is brilliant, informative and unbiased.
I have had the good fortune to be in the authors company on many occasions, and found him to be a wonderful and spiritual person, as well as being a learned and respected professor, which is why I first bought his work !
I would recommend this book to anybody who is interested in history, culture, early religions, the wheel of our year, or ancient Pagan Britain.
I suspect that my collection of Hutton's work will expand with each new release - Stations of the Sun is a barrow filled with riches!!!
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
In his third book on folk beliefs and faiths, Ronald Hutton takes a day by day look at the sacred year. The book can be read on its own -- indeed it is excellent as a reference book for answering all those queries generated by the folklore industry and the tourism industry. if you wqant to know about Guy Fawkes at Lewes, May Day at Padstow and lots of others, then this is the book for you. For me what was especially interesting, was the realisation that the myths surrounding the orignins of our festivals, was almost as interesting as the myths contained in the festivals and celebrations themselves. Professor Hutton expertly lays bare the fact that for many of our festivals -- they are not the archaic survival of ancient pagan rites - preserved as folkloric tradtion. In fact many of our festivals, with a few notable exceptions, date no earlier than the middle ages - a decent enough pedigree to be sure -- but definitely not pre-Christian.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Written in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner, but sticks entirely to what is historically recorded and thankfully totally avoids any completely speculative "Celtic", New Age-ist or pseudo-pagan kind of associations. (I suspect that the sun rising over Stonehenge on the cover is a daft product of the publishing house's art department and not something Hutton himself would have chosen.)
Thoroughly researched, this is a must read for anyone interested in British history, and very revealing in what large numbers of annual festivals and rituals we have lost forever. In particular, see here just how deeply the Reformation changed British society - it went far, far beyond the dissolution of the monasteries you learn about in school. In many cases we should be truly thankful to have lost them. For example you might think that the once a year kid's Trick or Treat is a pain, but just read here what a huge number of ritualised begging days, with potential consequent nastiness if you didn't cough up, which our ancestors had to put up with. Also, the animal cruelty beggars belief - killing wrens to display on a stick at Christmas, tying up birds to kill by throwing clubs at them and tossing cats in the air at Shrovetide, and so on.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Even today, the idea that many folk traditions and festivals are the remnants of some pagan pre-Christian Celtic religion, transmogrified and surviving furtively in the countryside, has a peculiar potency. What few people realise is how recent a notion that is and how much it relies on a particular handful of archaeologists, folklorists and historians writing at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, influenced by the growing 'cult of the countryside' that began in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and grew apace as more and more of the population abandoned said countryside for urban life.
Perhaps the most influential of these was Sir James Frazer in his massively important magnum opus The Golden Bough, in which he argued for the existence of the aforementioned pan-European Celtic nature religion, using as evidence many of the surviving folk customs of the British Isles. Frazer's approach was to attempt to reconstruct this religion from these remnants, but of course this entire approach rests on the fundamentally flawed basis that these customs and festivals were in fact of ancient origin, evolved through the years beyond recognition and now performed by a rural population utterly unaware of their original meaning or significance.
In this book, called a history of the ritual year in Britain, Ronald Hutton sets out to investigate these assumptions, managing along the way to fairly successfully disprove any form of ancient origin for the vast majority of seasonal British festivals and celebrations. He begins with the Twelve Days of Christmas, with New Year's gifts, Mummers' Dances, Hobby Horses and Lords of Misrule, and moves through the year, taking in Valentine's Day, Shrovetide, Easter, Beltane, May Day, Midsummer and onwards through harvest festivals and Halloween. What becomes obvious is how many of these seasonal celebrations actually had their origins in Christian church services and blessings, many aspects of which were deemed heretical in the wake of the Reformation and were moved outside of the church and mutated into customs centred on the community and the family instead of the traditional parish.
What does become obvious by the close is, as Hutton argues, "that the rhythms of the British year are timeless, and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery, warmth, and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth, an impulse to make merry in the sunlight and open air during the summer, and a tendency for thoughts to turn towards death and the uncanny at the onset of winter." But that does not mean that the expressions of those impulses are timeless or that they have come down to us through the years in some unbroken link to a mythical pre-Christian unified pagan religion.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 July 2013
This book was definitely an eye opener, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in celebrating the seasons in Britain. I was hoping for more information about pre-Christian practices, but he explains that there is very little evidence of what people did back then, but the practices of the Middle Ages give some hints as to how the seasons may have been celebrated before Christianity. Most of all this book helps us understand modern holidays and how they developed. He explains that Midsummer was the biggest festival of the year, that Christmas was at one time banned and reinvented, and that Samhain was never a "Celtic New Year". Most importantly, he explains that the neopagan "Wheel of the Year" is a modern invention and does not accurately reflect the practices of pre-Christian people in Britain. This book takes you through the year, from Christmas to Halloween, and is jam packed with interesting traditions. Well worth a read, and I shall be going back to it to read again and again!
I really love this book. I bought it in the hopes that it would cover pagan and pre-Christian religious rituals, but was sadly disappointed. However, what I found instead was a well-written, excellently researched treasure trove of information about the social festivals of Britain (mainly England, but there are some Scottish and Welsh celebrations too) dating from around the thirteenth century right into the twentieth.
Largely using parish records, Hutton does an excellent job of dating and locating the many feasts and festivals that used to fill up the British year. Starting with Christmas, the first eleven chapters alone deal with the many ways in which people celebrated over Christmas Week and into early January, from there the rest of the book moves through the year, taking a chapter for each major festival or manner of celebration, through Easter and May Day, on to Midsummer and the harvest, passing through Samhain to end with Bonfire Night in November, but stopping off along the way to explore lesser defined traditions such as mummer’s plays, hobby-horses, morris dancing and revels.
At times it can become a bit dry with the straightforward recounting of which festivities were held in which parishes and when and where, but for the most part it’s an enjoyable book. For those looking for pre-Christian rituals Hutton tries never to speculate without evidence, but he makes a good case for Beltane in particular, while casting doubt over the many “fertility rites” interpretations many twentieth century folklorists became slight obsessed with regarding traditional celebrations. There’s also an exploration of several “revived” traditions and whether or not they are truly authentic – and also whether or not that really matters, when it succeeds in maintaining a sense of identity in rural communities. His description of the hobby-horse dances, particularly the surviving one in Padstow, Cornwall, is as fascinating as it is creepy.
Filled with intriguing details about ritual life throughout the Middle Ages, and providing interesting evidence about the upheaval throughout the Tudor religious reformations and the puritan Protectorship in particular, this book is full of meticulous research and informed insight. It can be read cover-to-cover, or dipped into as necessary, but it’s perfect research material for anyone interested in this historical age. It’s definitely one to keep on the shelf and return to again and again.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 April 2014
As someone who is vaguely interested in the calendar of traditional celebrations, this is a fantastic book which I dip into once or twice a month to read up on an upcoming event. It is very clearly formatted, with concise, interesting chapters on the subject matter that have some fascinating nuggets of knowledge.
I for one didn't know that during Shrovetide, there is still one community in England that plays medieval football between two towns!
Great for the historian and layman both
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 June 2014
what more is there to say. He is our current genius and expert on all things to do with Britains Pagan past and present. I find his books eminently readable, always very interesting and I learn a lot. Scholarly maybe, but easy for the less cerebral among us to read and understand.