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Wednesday, May 18th, 2005, 01:55 AM
The English Reformation and the evidence of folklore

(Ronald Hutton)

During the past ten years the English Reformation has become the subject of an exciting, informative and somewhat artificial debate. Its outline is familiar to anybody with even a cursory knowledge of the period. On the one hand are those who have portrayed the relationship between Protestantism and the mass of the people as essentially adversarial, and the Reformation as a process imposed from above, very slowly, upon a populace which had on the whole been content with the old church and reacted to the new one with a mixture of confusion, demoralization and hostility. These writers tend to argue that the long-term legacy of the changes was a much greater alienation of common people from the established religion. On the other are a number of scholars less well defined as a group and sometimes less overtly polemical in their style, who have stressed the early appeal of Protestantism to sections of the populace and the manner in which, from the reign of Elizabeth onwards, the new religion made a profound impact upon popular culture.

To describe the division as artificial is not to belittle any of the scholars who have promoted it: rather, the characterization arises from a sense that the disputes are largely the result of individual concentration upon different aspects of what is fundamentally the same picture. By contrast, the portrait of the English Reformation which was presented in most schools and universities until the 1970s was in such obvious need of revision by then, in the light of recent work in diocesan and parochial archives, that a vigorous polemical attack on it was wholly appropriate. This revisionist polemic has apparently called forth an equivalent tone of controversy from colleagues who accept, implicitly or explicitly, most of its criticisms of the traditional historiography and who seem more to be engaged in a process of adding depth, sensitivity and complexity to the new picture which has emerged as a result. Arguments at present seem to arise essentially from differences of emphasis, in part a consequence of the use of differing source material: thus, those who have stressed the popularity of the old church and widespread hostility to reform have tended to make more use of churchwardens' accounts, ecclesiastical court books and visitation returns, while their critics have attached more importance to wills and printed works.

In this context, Tessa Watt's recent monograph seems to be particularly significant. It draws upon a hitherto relatively neglected body of evidence - ballads, broadsides and other cheap printed material - and suggests that this supports both and neither of the two positions characterized above. These popular wares incorporated both a Bible-centred Protestantism and a traditional visual. piety in a fashion which repressed a sense of confrontation between new and old forms and emphasized instead a continuing interest in death, salvation, miracles, prodigies, heroic action and moral behaviour which transcended religious reform. Alterations of emphasis did occur, such as the partial replacement of saints as protagonists by historical or biblical figures, but in general the elements of continuity with the past were stronger, and the changes were incorporated painlessly into traditional forms. Those issues which most obviously divided the rival churches, and different varieties of Protestant, were usually ignored. The works concerned concentrated instead upon broadly consensual values, based upon simple behavioural rules and expressed in a form which was intended above all to entertain. They serviced a popular culture which was at once deeply permeable to religious change and able to absorb it.

The purpose of the present study is to bear these issues in mind while making use of a category of source material which has been almost wholly unexploited by historians of the English Reformation: the folklore collections of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Employment of these for early modern history was pioneered, like so much else, by Keith Thomas back in 1971, in his Religion and the Decline of Magic; in this case his lead was not followed up. Issues concerned with popular culture have indeed increasingly come to the interest of scholars of the English Reformation, and are much more prominent in those of its German equivalent, of whom the most influential writing upon them in English have been Gerald Strauss, R. W. Scribner and Geoffrey Parker. Even these, however, have not utilized the equally rich collections of Germanic folklore made in the last three centuries to illumine the workings of earlier Volkskunde; an illustration in both cases, perhaps, of the depth of the artificial distinction between early modern and modern history. Evidence of the sort represented by these later collections is, indeed, hardly available in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century records, because it was not until the reign of George III that educated observers felt so completely estranged from the world of the populace, and especially that of the rural populace, that they began to record its customs and beliefs systematically, as they would that of a foreign culture. Occasional interest in the subject was taken earlier, notably by John Aubrey, but the material collected, though invaluable to a historian, was small in quantity and erratic in quality. By contrast, an enormous amount of data, some retrospective, was amassed from the 1770s onwards, and both the size of the sample and the importance attached to it was dramatically increased a hundred years later when the theory of survivals became dominant in folklore studies. As formulated by scholars such as Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer, this postulated that many popular rituals were remnants of pre-Christian religious practice, which might be successfully reconstructed by a close comparative study of them. This provided the most powerful inspiration for English folklorists until the 1980s, when it collapsed under a welter of well-directed criticism from scholars of folklore determined to put their subject upon firmer foundations. It could only have endured so long because of an almost complete divorce between that subject and the academic study of history. The theory of survivals was in itself essentially ahistoric, depending as it did upon the assumption that the world of English commoners was both sealed and static, and that customs recorded under Victoria could have altered little, if at all, over several centuries. No effort was made, therefore, to study their recorded history systematically until the 1970s; and it was the beginning of that effort which provided the deathblow to the faith in pagan origins, by revealing that some of the traditions which had seemed most archaic were in fact of relatively recent inception and had mutated considerably during their period of existence.

Ironically, one result of this revision has actually been to perpetuate the gulf between folklore and history, as many of the best practitioners of the former have lost interest in the question of origins altogether and have turned instead wholly to studying the social function of customs in the period in which they are best recorded: the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, an attempt to trace the progress of rituals across earlier periods need not be entirely fruitless. A rather superficial one has already found good evidence that some - New Year's gifts (otherwise Christmas presents), the decking of homes and religious buildings with greenery at festivals and the lighting of sacred fires on May Day and at midsummer - can indeed plausibly be traced back to pagan origins. Many more can be documented from the Middle Ages and through the early modern period, often adapting their form over time. There does, after all, seem to be a considerable potential for combining the interests of folklorists with the methods and preoccupations of historians. This essay represents one attempt to make use of such a combination.

This paper is a full-blooded reapplication of the theory of survivals, though with one major difference from the past: that the religion with which it is concerned is not a putative one concealed in the shades of antiquity but a well-documented one which came to an end between four and five centuries ago. By asking whether traces of the practices and beliefs of the late medieval church may be found in more recent popular culture, some further evidence of the qualitative nature of the process of reformation may perhaps be recovered. In fact such an attempt has already been made by a folklorist, Theo Brown, in a book published almost twenty years ago which, though completely ignored by historians, strikingly presaged some of the conclusions of Tessa Watt. It was essentially an analysis of West Country ghost-stories, designed to reveal popular attitudes to death and the after-life. Some certainly proved to display a thoroughgoing Protestantism, such as those associated with ruined monasteries, the former inhabitants of which were often assumed to have been models of corruption, vice and hypocrisy. On the other hand, some tales about the religious also express a sense of guilt and loss. The eschatology of the stories, moreover, is very hard to relate to the reformed faith. It is true that they contained only slight traces of a belief in Purgatory, or in the efficacy of prayers for the dead, and the spoken word was valued over holy water as a means of exorcism. None the less, they do contain a strong sense of the efficacy of salvation through works, and a recurrent motif is the way in which a series of penitential actions are prescribed to an earthbound spirit. The most powerful theme of all is the routing and banishing of an evil phantom by a clergyman, and though the latter's armoury may be verbal, it usually consists not so much of an appeal to God as of the recitation of set formulas, often in an exotic or ancient language. The vanquished spirit is almost never sent to heaven or hell, but into the sea, the ground, or a pool, or the shape of an animal. The parson is visualized not so much as minister but as conjuror. Indeed, exorcism was also one of the standard services offered by local magicians and cunning folk. While holy water or incense are not among the exorcist's weapons, handfuls of graveyard earth - literally, consecrated ground - featured commonly, being regarded as particularly effective. Brown summed all this up as "a mixture of ancient pagan belief, half-remembered old Catholic teaching and later Puritan doctrine possibly distorted as a result of misleading sermons". It seems very likely that we have here an insight into that sort of popular religion which drove some evangelical Protestants in Elizabethan and Jacobean England to despair and rage. Two further points need to be made about Brown's material. The first is that the Catholic and Protestant elements in the mixture seem to coexist without any tension, being absorbed into a constant popular tradition of how ghosts behave and how to deal with them. The second is that these beliefs never troubled the leaders of church and state, and so do not feature in their legal records. During the early modern period they occasionally provoked derision or irritation in individual writers, but they were essentially not a concern to those in charge of the process of reform.

It is easy enough to come across stray cases of the comfortable survival of relics of the old religion in later centuries while leafing through local folklore collections. Burrell Green, a farm in the parish of Great Salkeld in the Cumberland Fells, preserves a brass dish engraved around the boss with the words, in late medieval lettering, "Mary, Mother of Jesus, Saviour of Men". It was clearly in its origins a Catholic devotional object, and was kept as the chief treasure of the house; indeed, the belief grew up that misfortune would strike the farm if it were removed. This was expressed in more modern lettering around the same boss, reading "If this dish be sold or gi'en, Farewell the Luck of Burrell Green". The second inscription was made over, and partly obliterated, the religious one, and expressed the altering status of the bowl. It was still numinous, but its power was now intrinsic (one might say, "superstitious"), instead of being attached to a system of religion. To use a different sort of example, at Nun Monkton in the Vale of York, the parish's patronal feast was still celebrated in the eighteenth century upon the feast-day of the saint concerned (Peter) and presided over by his image. For the rest of the year the effigy, carved of wood, was buried near the village maypole.

Examples of this sort are instructive of the ways in which a Catholic society might make the passage into a Protestant one; but they are not very important. They might have achieved a greater significance had they been common across the nation, or even a region, but as it is they can be regarded as eccentricities. Something more substantial is required of the folkloric evidence if it is to be of service to historians of the Reformation, and that will now be sought. Whereas Brown concentrated upon belief, the present study will be concerned with seasonal ritual. One of the most obvious features of the late medieval church in England was the colourful series of ceremonies which marked its major festivals, and which were abrogated by both the Edwardian and the Elizabethan Reformations. Attention has already been drawn elsewhere to the relative speed with which the reforms were imposed upon parish churches, with the suggestion that the royal and ecclesiastical machinery of visitation was so effective that most districts did not have the option of ignoring the reforming injunctions, acts or articles for long. The evidence for a "rapid reformation from above" in external matters is so powerful that it adds further difficulty to the problem of how much of this compliance was produced by positive enthusiasm and how much by respect and fear of the government. Most who are concerned with it seem to agree that the answer varied from region to region, with a considerably larger amount of popular Protestantism in the south-east of England and the Thames valley than elsewhere. None the less, the ways in which people adapted to or internalized the loss of so many seasonal rites remain in large part a mystery, though one which may perhaps be susceptible to a systematic inspection of later folk practices such as that attempted here. The sample of evidence used for this will be national, and employed to determine the fates of four of the most famous and most popular ceremonies of the old church: the hallowing of candles at Candlemas and of foliage and wooden crosses on Palm Sunday, the closure, watching and opening of Easter sepulchres, and praying for the dead at the feast of All Saints.

The hallowing of candles and tapers at Candlemas, the popular name for the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary on 2 February, seems to have been universal. Scriptural warrant was given to the custom by the words attributed to Simeon upon that occasion and reported in Luke 2:32, in which he recognized the young Jesus as "a light to lighten the Gentiles". The kindling of the candles could thus be taken as a commemoration and recognition of Christ's mission, making the feast one in his honour as well as that of his mother. It was also a powerful symbolic action at this date, the traditional opening of spring, when the darkness was in full retreat before the lengthening daylight and the reappearance of the first flowers and buds was imminent. The words of the ritual as provided in the Use of Sarum, the liturgical form most commonly used in late medieval England, made great play with the imagery of the shrinking of the dark. Nevertheless, the candles were not merely of symbolic value to many early Tudor parishioners, but were prized in themselves. Worshippers carried them in procession and then offered them to a priest, who sprinkled them with holy water and perfumed them with incense before the altar. Thus consecrated, they seem to have been burned in the church as offerings, in the names of the donors, effectively becoming votive objects. As such, of course, they became "abused" in the eyes of Protestants, and were outlawed by the regime of the duke of Somerset in 1548 and then dropped from the Elizabethan liturgy after a brief restoration under Mary. Both prohibitions seem to have been instantly effective, with perhaps two exceptions in the early years of Elizabeth's reign, at Crediton in central Devon, where wax was bought for Candlemas in 1560, and at Ludlow in the Welsh Marches, where a pound of candles was obtained for the feast in 1562. In both cases it seems likely, though not certain, that it was intended to carry out the rite of blessing. After that nothing more is heard of the rite in England or Wales. Did it really vanish so easily?

The evidence of the folklore collections for the former country is slight but suggestive; that for the latter is unequivocal. It might have passed without notice had it not been linked to an art form, the Candlemas carols. A number of these survive, all from north Wales and all eighteenth-century in date. They are in honour of the Virgin Mary, and were designed to be sung by groups going from house to house of a community on the evening of the feast (known in Welsh as Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau). A description survives from Carnarvonshire of the rite which accompanied this. When the singers performed outside a home they would be answered, through the closed door, with a succession of riddles which they were expected to answer. Upon passing this test they were admitted, to find a room lit up with candles and (ideally) with a maiden seated in a chair, with a baby boy in her arms, personifying the Virgin and Child. They then sang to her again in her praise and pledged her in the drink offered to them by way of reward. The popularity of the carols suggests that the custom was widespread, but it had died out by 1800. In south Wales there is no mention of the songs or of the representation of the Virgin, but it was considered essential to light candles in the home on Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau, and sometimes to place them in windows. The arcane associations of the tapers were emphasized by the fact that they were employed for divination. In every case, mention of these practices occurs only after they had become obsolete, but unlike the carolling they survived into the nineteenth century. At the Reformation in Wales, therefore, the essentials of the ceremony of the purification were in many places simply transferred from the church to the home. Three aspects of this process need to be stressed. The first is that Wales was not a stronghold of residual Catholicism; indeed, it provided a notable example of the success of the reformed faith. The second is that there appears to be no instance of disapproval shown by a Protestant churchman of the use of candles or the personification of Mary by parishioners upon the old feast. The third is that the folklore records for Wales are so sparse before the late nineteenth century that in every case these practices were recorded only from memory, after they had become obsolete: they almost slipped out of history.

English parallels are slight but suggestive. In Dorset until the late eighteenth century candles were exchanged as private gifts at Candlemas, and at Lyme Regis it was the custom for each household to burn one and to stand and drink about it. In 1853 it was remembered as having been customary "to light up a number of candles in the evening" in the villages along the Trent in Nottinghamshire. Both records are again retrospective, and indeed until the nineteenth century notices of domestic customs in regions outside the south-east of the country are very rare. It can be said, therefore, that in two very widely separated areas there is evidence of a "privatization" of the Candlemas ritual equivalent to that in Wales. Whether this was formerly more widespread is a question which cannot be resolved.

There is no such difficulty in the case of the Palm Sunday consecrations. These had been part of one of the longest and most elaborate passages of ceremony in the medieval religious calendar. It had included the blessing by the priest of branches of what was supposed to be palm, almost certainly gathered and presented by parishioners in memory of those said to have been strewn before Jesus during his entry into Jerusalem. In England willow or sallow in bud or fresh leaf, or box, yew or other evergreens, were usually employed instead. The congregation then carried the branches in procession about the churchyard, and, as part of the ensuing service inside the church, either the priest or the laity made small wooden crosses, almost certainly from the foliage, and the former blessed these in turn with incense and holy water. They were subsequently returned to the parishioners, who treasured them for their presumed protective powers, fixing them over doorways, or carrying them in purses, "to chase away the Devil".

They were every bit as much a natural target for Protestants as the Candlemas tapers, the "palm crosses" being banned in the royal injunctions of 1547 and the hallowing of fronds prohibited in orders issued the following year. After a Marian restoration, both were proscribed afresh in 1559, and neither is recorded in any church after that year. Both, however, are found commonly outside it in the subsequent collections of popular customs. When the latter effectively commence, in the late eighteenth century, they are full of accounts of how people still went out on Palm Sunday to gather willow or sallow, an activity known in the south as "going a-palming" and in the north as "going a-palmsoning". In most cases the branches were carried back to homes, but hilltops were sometimes used as communal gathering-points to replace the churches; in north Wiltshire the huge prehistoric mound of Silbury was a notable focal point. The south Welsh had evolved instead an elaborate ritual which retained the centrality of the church, for in some (unnamed) places, parishioners wheeled a human effigy, mounted on a stuffed donkey, to the porch. The figure, of course, represented Christ, and steed and rider were placed upon a wheeled platform hung with spring flowers and foliage, and evergreens. The members of the procession were decorated in similar fashion. The priest blessed them outside the church door, and the flowers and greenery which they wore were regarded as having gained special power from the benediction and were kept as charms.

The custom of "palming" died out in the south of England in the early nineteenth century. In the second half of the century, however, it still flourished in parts of the midlands, and all over the north-east, from Northumberland down to the East Riding of Yorkshire. There it still retained its processional aspect, as well as being a means to provide adornments for the home, and in the 1850s it was a common proverb in this northern region that "he that hath not a palm in his hand on Palm Sunday must have his hand cut off". Only by the end of the nineteenth century were the twigs becoming little more than adornments for buttonholes, hats or mantelpieces, and not until the early part of the twentieth did the custom decline into one observed only by children, before (apparently) disappearing altogether.

The little wooden crosses made on Palm Sunday were much rarer by the time that systematic folklore collection began, and perhaps had never been widely made since the Reformation. Nevertheless they are represented in the evidence, so that such a conclusion may be erroneous. Their stronghold in the early nineteenth century was the north of England, and especially in the north-east where the branches were still being fetched with such vigour. They were made in County Durham until the 1840s, being fashioned of sallow or willow tied with blue or pink ribbons. Later in the century they were still hung in Yorkshire homes from Wensleydale eastward to Whitby, and still credited with powers of protection exactly as they had been in the early Tudor period. A writer in 1879 described them as having been found across the north in general, by his time made mostly by children, but even then hung on walls inside houses, from one Palm Sunday to another, once made. They seem to have vanished by the end of the century.

The fate of the rite of the Easter sepulchre and of prayers for the dead at All Saints makes a less straightforward story: in the first case the rite seems to have been dramatically transmuted, and in the second it took not one but a number of different forms in folk practices. On the eve of the Reformation the sepulchre seems to have featured in all urban, and most rural, churches. It could be a recess in the wall of the choir or chancel, a richly carved, free-standing stone structure, a small masonry chest, or a chamber built deliberately into the tomb of a pious and wealthy individual. Most often it was a box of wood and paper, remade in most years and fastened together by pins, nails or wires. It was essentially a representation of the tomb in which the body of Christ was said to have lain between crucifixion and resurrection. On Good Friday, a consecrated wafer enclosed in a casket was lodged within it together with a crucifix which had been ceremonially adored and then washed with water and wine. The sepulchre was then closed up, covered or hidden by a special cloth, illuminated by candles or a single large light and (usually) watched by volunteers until the morning of Easter Day. Then it was opened and the host and the crucifix were carried triumphantly round the church to the singing of the anthem "Christ is Risen".

To Protestants, the ceremony constituted an act of idolatry, and Cranmer forbade it in articles issued in time for Easter 1548. While not having the same force as a royal decree, this prohibition was none the less effective across most of the country. It was, indeed, definitely ignored only in a few parishes, scattered from Ludlow to Canterbury, and more significantly, in at least two cathedrals, Worcester and Winchester. The appearance of the maintenance of the sepulchre among a string of charges subsequently alleged by the privy council against the bishop of Winchester left no further doubt as to the government's position. After that Easter there is no further trace of the ritual during the reign of Edward, and though it underwent a full and successful revival under Mary it vanished again with the enforcement of Elizabeth's injunctions and liturgy in 1559.

The only full-blown "fabrication" of the ceremony to feature in the folklore collections was carried on in the "Englishry" of Pembrokeshire until the early nineteenth century. There people would make "Christ's bed" on Good Friday by weaving a human figure of reeds and laying it solemnly together with a wooden cross in a concealed place in a field or garden. In the main, however, it seems that the rite was broken into its component parts. The joyous opening of the sepulchre and the singing of "Christ is Risen" had provided a moment of release and celebration to mark the end of Lent and the opening of a season of feasting and self-indulgence. Now that was furnished by the belief that the sun danced with joy when it rose upon Easter Day, and that good fortune could be obtained by getting up to watch it, preferably from a hill. This tenet is first mentioned in Nicholas Breton's Fantasticks, published in 1626, and during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was one of the most ubiquitous of all popular "superstitions".

Another, equally common, seems to have derived from a different aspect of the same ritual. The sepulchre, after all, was not an object of adoration in its own right, but a container for a consecrated wafer which was the embodiment of Christ. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in every part of England except the London area, people were baking flat pieces of bread or biscuit marked with a cross (like an old-style host) upon Good Friday. In all cases these were regarded as invested with magical powers. Invariably they were believed never to go mouldy and were preserved for the forthcoming year, usually in a bag hung from a ceiling. Very commonly they were considered to have medicinal value, especially to cure enteric disorders, if mixed with water and swallowed. Sailors at Sunderland and in Sussex took them to sea to avert shipwreck. At Hull and in Lincolnshire they were believed to protect a house from fire,while in Worcestershire they were hung over doors to ward off all manner of evil. Dorset farmers used them to treat sick cattle. Faith in the powers of the bread spanned a surprising number of denominations: in the Norfolk fenland village of Brandon Creek, a lady who was a strict Primitive Methodist always marked a cross on the loaf which she baked on Good Friday. It was then kept in a tin to bring luck to her family during the next year. After that year it was moistened and rebaked on Easter Day, and then eaten by the household. The person who got the piece bearing the cross was considered to be especially lucky, and the ends of the loaf were thrown into the local river to protect the community from floods. In the capital, its region and large provincial towns, these traditions had died out, but the bread persisted in the commercialized form of buns sold by street vendors or in confectionery shops. They had become sweet and spiced, but retained the distinctive cross upon the top. As belief in the magic of the home-baked bread slowly vanished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was replaced everywhere by these professional products, now designed for gastronomic rather than for spiritual needs but still inextricably associated with the season. In the hot cross bun, modern England seems to preserve the last relic of the ritual of the Easter sepulchre.

The feast of All Saints, on 1 November, was dedicated to the memory of the dead, and these heavenly intercessors were called upon to assist those souls (presumed to be the majority) suffering the pains of purgatory. Evening services were held for benefit of the latter, the most famous feature of which was the ringing of bells, apparently from the end of the service until midnight, to bring comfort to those enduring such torments. In some places these rites were repeated upon the following evening, the feast of All Souls. As Protestantism rejected the whole concept of purgatory, and therefore that of prayers for the dead, its adherents condemned the ringing as "superstitious" and it was forbidden by both the Edwardian and the Elizabethan Reformations. In striking contrast to the other ceremonies discussed above, it disappeared only after a fierce and prolonged struggle. Throughout the 1560s, people were being cited before ecclesiastical courts for continuing the ringing, in both villages and towns and in all regions of the country. The custom continued to be condemned in visitation articles issued in the 1580s by bishops of Lincoln, Chester and Hereford; and indeed the court records of the York diocese, and that of Oxford, contain prosecutions for the offence in that decade. Most dramatic was that of certain men at Hickling in the Vale of Belvoir on All Saints' Day 1587 who "used violence against the parson at that time to maintain their ringing". This also seems to be the latest such case on record, but more may be uncovered in the 1590s as other ecclesiastical archives are explored. The remarkable tenacity with which the rite was kept up may have derived from a continuing belief in purgatory and concern for the family dead, but it was also distinctive in that it could be enacted without the use of (now illegal) ornaments or the participation of a priest. Furthermore, it was traditionally carried out after dark.

Once the ritual was finally driven from the churches, people evolved different strategies to continue prayers for the dead within some kind of ritual framework. In the Lancashire parish of Whalley, where the Ribble flows out of the Pennines, Catholic families assembled at the midnight before All Saints' Day. Each did so on a hill near its homestead, one person holding a large bunch of burning straw on the end of a fork. The rest knelt in a circle around and prayed for the souls of relatives and friends until the flames burned out. The author who recorded this custom added that it gradually died out in the late nineteenth century, but that in the earlier part it had been very common, and at nearby Whittingham such fires could be seen all around the horizon on Hallowe'en. He went on to say that the name "Purgatory Field", found all across northern Lancashire, testified to an even wider distribution, and that the rite itself was called "teen-lay". The word is somewhat puzzling in derivation, as it could be related either to the Old English tendan, to kindle (hence dialect words for a bonfire, teanle or tend, and firewood, tennle), or to the Old Irish tenlach, a hearth. Another observer recalled how in the first half of the same century he had journeyed along the Ribble at Hallowe'en and "under the name of Teanla fires [had] seen the hills throughout the country illuminated with sacred flames". He added that they were "connected with superstitious notions respecting purgatory".

Northern Lancashire was the most notable stronghold of popular Catholicism in post-Reformation England, and it is quite possible that all who practised the "teen-lay" there were of the old faith. The villages around Derby, however, were not an area of Catholic survival, and yet in November 1768 a contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine could note that every year people would go out to common land on All Saints' Day to light small fires which they called "tindles". He added that it was something to do with purgatory and the dead, going on to say that enclosure would soon put a stop to the practice. So it might have done there, but "tindles" were still being made elsewhere in Derbyshire on the night of All Souls' Day 1868. It is more of a surprise to discover that the name of "Purgatory Field" at Gosmore, in the chalk hills at the north end of Hertfordshire, was said to derive from former midnight assemblies of men there at Hallowe'en to pray for the souls of the departed while a fire burned out. Finally, a possible reference to the custom in an area between these occurs in a note made at the end of an almanac in 1658 by the antiquary Sir William Dugdale, that at Hallowe'en the master of a family "used to" carry a burning bunch of straw around a field, saying "Fire and red low / Light on my teen-low". The location of this ritual was most probably Dugdale's own county of Warwickshire, to which his writings usually referred, and it seems to be the same as those described above; but neither suggestion is provable.

The "teen-lay" rite was, therefore, one response to the end of official ceremonies to care for the dead. Another adapted a separate tradition which was itself old by the time of the Reformation, and mentioned in the tract Festyvall, published in 1511: "We read in old time good people would on All Hallowen Day bake bread and deal it for all Christian souls". It did not explain how, or to whom, it was "dealt", but Thomas Blount's Glossographia, published in 1674, has the following entry:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts of persons in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul, Bones and all.

Near the end of the same century, John Aubrey noted that it was a custom in Shropshire and neighbouring counties, and not just among "Papists", for a "high heap of soul cakes" to be set on a household table upon All Souls' Day. All visitors were expected to take one, and the action was associated with the rhyme "A Soule-cake, a Soule-cake, Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake".

These early references leave unclear the question of whether the souls of the dead or of the living were being prayed for in the transaction, though neither would recommend itself to a Protestant. The issue is resolved by the much greater quantity of evidence from the nineteenth century, by which time the custom of "souling" or "soul-caking" was carried on by groups of poor people, usually children, going from door to door on All Saints' or All Souls' Day. Its epicentre was still in the counties from Lancashire southward to Monmouthshire, but it extended into Wales upon one side and Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire on the other, and was also found in Somerset and Hertfordshire. In other parts of Yorkshire, and in Warwickshire, the cakes were still made even though visitors did not call for them. There was hardly any connection with actual surviving Catholicism. In many cases the descent from a means of praying for the dead was absolutely plain. One name for the custom in Wales was hel bwyd cennad y meirw, "collecting the food of the messenger of the dead". In Lancashire it was, like the "teen-lay", "connected with superstitious notions respecting purgatory". The "lower classes" of Monmouthshire were recorded as "begging bread for the souls of the dead". A Staffordshire soulers' song contains the lines "Peter stands at yonder gate / Waiting for a soul-cake", and most such songs mention saints, as recipients or observers of the favours asked. To the author of the single study devoted to the songs, the fundamental derivation from a means of praying for the departed seemed obvious, and he further observed that the most common tune bore a resemblance to sixteenth-century church music. On the other hand, it was also clear that after three hundred years this purpose to the custom had largely disappeared, and often been forgotten altogether, making it simply a form of begging at the opening of winter. As such it certainly survived among children in the north-west midlands during the 1950s, and may do so yet. At its inception, however, it was fairly clearly a means of obtaining prayers for the dead by proxy, as the "teen-lay" was one of doing so directly, when they were forbidden within the church.

Such examples of the reproduction of proscribed rites can be multiplied from lesser cases. Until the Reformation, on Good Friday monarchs blessed "cramp-rings", circular pieces of iron apparently fashioned in commemoration of the nails used at the crucifixion. When given the royal touch, they were supposed to be efficacious in warding off epileptic fits. Mary Tudor was the last English sovereign to do so, because the notion that sanctity could be conveyed into material objects was unacceptable to Protestant rulers. "Cramp-rings" are still recorded in the 1790s, however, with different strategies employed to replace the numinous force of majesty. Devon people had turned to that of the dead, making the rings out of the nails of old coffins, while Berkshire people utilized that of the church, by creating them out of silver coins stolen from the communion tray. Another, much more widespread and spectacular, Good Friday ritual had been the barefoot adoration by priest and congregation of the crucifix to be placed in the Easter sepulchre. Popularly known as "creeping to the cross", it was not recorded in any English or Welsh church after its final expulsion from the permitted ceremonies by Elizabeth's Reformation in 1559. None the less, in the 1560s Edmund Grindal was angered by reports that parishioners were still going "barelegged to the church" on Good Friday as if they were going to make the ritual crawl to adore the cross, as a sign of sympathy for the vanished ceremony. They were still doing so in Pembrokeshire more than two hundred years later. In northern and central Wales the pre-dawn service prescribed by the Use of Sarum for Christmas morning was turned into an unofficial one of tremendous popularity, the ply-gain, which survives in the Tanat valley to the present day.

A significant parallel to the fate of these ecclesiastical ceremonies lies in that of a semi-secular one, that of lighting bonfires on Midsummer Eve and St Peter's Eve. This is well attested in late medieval and early Tudor England, in urban and rural communities in each part of the nation. It seems everywhere to have served a dual purpose, characterized by the London antiquary John Stow as a social one, "good amity", and a magical one, "to purge the infection of the air". As such it should not, strictly speaking, have incurred the hostility of Protestantism, and indeed no statute, proclamation, injunction, or set of visitation articles ever condemned it. Nevertheless, it still offended zealous reformers. The fires were associated with the feasts of saints (John the Baptist, Peter and Paul), even though they were scriptural figures. Furthermore, the notion that magical properties were possessed by the flames was offensive to those determined to destroy the belief in holy water, or palm crosses, or consecrated candles. Thus Protestant preachers and writers could rank them with the religious ceremonies of the old church as abuses worthy of abolition.

It is significant, therefore, that Henry VIII withdrew royal support for the custom in 1541, by cancelling in perpetuity the customary midsummer bonfire made in his great hall. After then there is no further mention of any such fire in London. They do not seem to have been an issue in the Edwardian Reformation, but in the first decade of that of Elizabeth there was an outburst of Protestant hostility to them in the dioceses of Canterbury and Winchester, resulting in a set of citations before church courts. A typical case was that of a priest at Birchington in the Isle of Thanet, who was reported for lighting a fire on St Peter's Eve 1568. Most spectacular was the confrontation at Canterbury itself in 1561, between the corporation and citizens on one hand and the newly installed Protestant cathedral clergy on the other. The latter held the bonfires to be "in contempt of the Christian religion, and for upholding the old frantic superstitions of papistry". They were answered with the kindling of a larger number than usual, culminating in an outsize specimen made on the evening of St Peter's Day with the help of the sheriff and a constable. A character called "Railing Dick" led a procession of boys around it, carrying birch-branches and singing bawdy songs. Official complaints followed, however, and thereafter the clergy seem to have got their way. Indeed, after 1570 there is no further trace of the midsummer blazes in East Anglia, southeastern England or the whole corridor of the Thames valley up to and including Gloucestershire: an area corresponding very closely to that which Geoffrey Dickens has identified as the heartland of early English Protestantism.

During the rest of the reign of Elizabeth, the fires receded from the towns of the midlands: they were still popular at Warwick in 1571, but are not heard of in any urban centre of the region by 1600. At times the process is documented, such as at Shrewsbury in 1591, when they formed one item in a list of customs banned by the bailiffs after a long campaign by John Tomkyns, minister of St Mary's. During the seventeenth century they vanished from the south of England westward to, and including, Somerset and Dorset, and from the Welsh Marches. At Lyme Regis, for example, they were still kindled in the 1630s "for the christening of apples", that is the protection of the trees, but this is not mentioned there after this decade. The Wiltshire antiquary John Aubrey remarked upon how much rarer they had become after the Civil War.

At that point, however, the attrition of the custom halted for over a hundred years. All through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the bonfires flourished in the regions in which they had survived the impact of the Reformation: in the southwestern peninsula, in Cumbria, throughout the north-east down to and including Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and in upland areas of the midlands such as Cannock Chase and the Dunstable Downs. Throughout this range, their apparent ability to bring protection against misfortune (especially disease) to humans, livestock and crops, remained very important. Where the public fires were no longer lit, echoes of their traditional power were found in private practice, such as that of the old farmer observed at Holford, in Somerset's Quantock Hills, in 1900. Each Midsummer Eve he would pass a burning branch over and under all his cattle and horses. Wherever the summer flames survived, Protestant opposition to them had now ceased; one of the few clergymen to comment upon them after 1700 was Henry Bourne, in Northumberland in the 1720s, who conceded that they were "heathen", but added that they promoted "peace and good neighbourhood". They died out all over their range in the course of the nineteenth century, not because of religious hostility, but because people finally lost faith in their beneficial properties.

The preoccupations of this study may have resulted in it appearing to embody two completely unwarrantable assumptions. One is that popular seasonal rituals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted of a set of old practices more or less continuously in decline. This is very far from the truth, for the same period saw the development or proliferation of many other calendar customs which achieved considerable importance. Mummers' plays, Plough Monday plays, May garlanding by young girls, local varieties of morris and sword dance, harvest festivals, and club walks, would all come into this category. The other unfounded assumption is that early modern English popular culture was a hermetically sealed entity. Several excellent recent studies have illustrated in detail the lesson which even a cursory examination of the data can reveal: of how close and complex the relationships were between printed and oral media, urban and rural communities, and different levels of the local and national social hierarchy. To some extent the whole concept of "popular culture" depends upon an artificial boundary drawn up by scholars to facilitate research and argument. It is not, however, an artefact of modern academe, but has been around for at least two hundred years, and its evolution in large part itself reflected a genuine loosening of many of the relationships characterized above. The approach used here can also be faulted in that it does not take account either of the persistence of a "magical" culture at all levels of society for most of the early modern period, or of the appearance of a distinctively Protestant folklore. The latter could easily, indeed, make a subject in its own right, drawing upon the same later collections; tales of evil monks and conjurations using the Bible in English, for example, are very common in the latter. These, however, are major themes which should not be addressed within the limitations of the exercise undertaken here.

The sources used are themselves subject to certain limitations, of a sort which are not easily remedied. They do not, for example, provide much indication of the spirit in which the activities studied were carried on, whether as rituals possessed of powerful meaning or as empty formalities. Logically, they ought to have moved from one to the other, and in most cases there is a strong sense that for a long time they actually were perceived as important and effective procedures for blessing and protection. They died out in popular culture precisely because this perception eventually waned. The records made, however, are so much the product of external observation, flatly represented, that a definitive answer to this question is bound to be elusive. Again, there is no clear means of checking the accuracy of the accounts themselves, except against each other. It is only possible to say that when this crude process is applied then they generally agree, and that there seems to be no reason for the authors to have invented or distorted the data which they set down. The folklore compilations are themselves a cultural artefact, a feature of a particular time, but this does not seem to affect the point at issue.

At any rate the present study seems to have proved its point: that the most important and well-loved rituals of the late medieval church in England and Wales were reproduced in folk custom after they had been driven out of formal religion at the Reformation. In some cases, such as "palming" and Good Friday bread, the reproduction was virtually nationwide. In others it was restricted to specific regions, usually those which modern historians term the "highland zone" and which in sixteenth-century terms could crudely be characterized as "conservative" in religion, though in only a few cases did this amount to an actual post-Reformation Catholicism. It is possible, furthermore, that the distribution of these regional customs might have been greater before the time at which they were recorded. What also emerges, it may be suggested, is that there is some value in thinking of degrees of Reformation, not merely in acceptance (on a scale ranging from enthusiastic Protestantism to committed Catholic recusancy) but in enforcement. In one obvious sense, of course, this was a matter of individual and regional choice among the clerical and lay elite. In another, however, there was a national gradation. The bottom line was the physical conversion of churches from Catholic to Protestant worship and the imposition of a new liturgy, a matter which itself allowed of some variation. Beyond that lay both the further reformation of religion and the so-called reformation of manners, which included both a greater restriction of Sunday entertainments and a wholesale proscription of specific traditions such as church-ales. The first of these was agitated from 1560 and carried out in the 1640s, while the second was implemented progressively at both national and local level over the same period, until it also was made into a coherent programme by the Long Parliament. The case of the midsummer fires is an interesting one, in that it belongs only partially to either of these two major levels of activity. It was not part of the official Tudor reformation of religion (though local reformers treated it as if it was), while it occupied a minor place in the reformation of manners. These pressures were none the less sufficient to turn what had been a truly national seasonal custom into a regional one confined mainly to outlying parts of the country. More interesting still, perhaps, is the apparent fact that the counterfeiting of Catholic ritual in popular pastime does not seem to have attracted animosity at any level of reform.

What we seem to have here is one of the significant silences of history: an apparently instinctive assumption on the part of Protestants that the folk practices were essentially harmless. At times in other cultures these assumptions were articulated, and one of the most fluent of those who did so was Diego Duran, a Dominican friar working among the natives of late sixteenth-century Mexico. He wrote of the importance of a distinction between genuine survivals of the pre-Christian religion, which had to be extirpated, and practices from it which had been transmuted into games, entertainments and social habits, and could be tolerated. Fernando Cervantes has recently considered many similar strategies in this same region, amounting to "a gradual absorption of a corporate and liturgical religiosity which would succeed in creating a culture that was genuinely Christian without doing violence to local customs and traditions". A parallel process has been explored by R. A. Markus in his consideration of the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity. He has stressed the sheer vitality of the secular institutions and traditions which Christians inherited from a pagan past and their capacity to resist change. In his view, convincingly documented, the pagans and Christians of late antiquity so completely shared a common, traditional culture, that the boundaries between them were impossible to delineate with clarity, then or now. Accordingly, many phenomena in the Christianized empire which historians may characterize as "pagan survivals" were simply taken for granted as part of the fabric of existence. Christians were conscious of their origins but did not consider these to be very significant.

The data employed for this essay could quite legitimately be pressed into the service of the debate over the nature of the English Reformation which provided its starting-point. If people felt so strongly for the prohibited ceremonies of the old church that they found it necessary to imitate them outside the new religious structure, then this reinforces the impression that for many of them the reforms were alien and unwelcome. It is proposed here, however, that a different sort of conclusion may perhaps be more helpful to an understanding of the process of reform. The pre-Reformation church had, clearly, provided parishioners with certain services and experiences not obtainable from its Protestant successor. One, apparently widespread, popular reaction to this difficulty was to set about providing them for oneself, through the medium of what was later to be dubbed folk ritual. In general the reformers appear to have accepted this transposition as unimportant, and so allowed it to occur without molestation. The result was not so much an episode in the history of resistance to the Reformation as a part of the process of acceptance of it, easing the transformation of a Catholic to a Protestant society. Once transferred to sections of the laity, these rites remained there until their final demise, not as part of an alteration of religion, but as a portion of the greater phenomenon of "the decline of magic". The matter may perhaps be summed up by the Newcastle clergyman Henry Bourne, who commented that some "vulgar antiquities" were "the produce of heathenism" and others "the inventions of indolent monks", but that all ought to be judged by the single criterion of whether or not they were "sinful and wicked" in practice. If earlier generations of Protestant ministers had shared his view, then perhaps we have recovered another part of the complex experience of religious alteration in early modern England and Wales. If so, it is one which reflects well, both on popular culture for its toughness and adaptability, and on reformers who are easy to characterize from the present day as zealots, for displaying a canny sense of priorities.