church ales


church ales
   A feature of the medieval traditional calendar which lasted well into the 17th century but which at various times became a major focus of religious, moral, and political contention, and has been described as 'a crude precursor of today's sedate parish fete' (Barnes, 1959: 106). In essence, as the name implies, the ale was originally a local festive gathering involving food, drink, and entertainment, organized, or at least supported, by the church, and held to raise money for the church. These ales were mainly held in spring or summer, and were thus often called May games, Whitsun ales, Summer games, or, after a feature discussed below, King game or Robin Hood game. Nevertheless, ales could be held at any time, and there could be a series of them throughout the year, or they could be held for specific fund-raising purposes, such as the annual 'Cobb ale' in Lyme Regis (Dorset) which helped maintain the harbour wall (the Cobb) which was essential to the town's economic well-being. (Underdown, 1985: 57). They could even be organized as benefits for individuals - 'Bid-ales', or 'Clerk-ales' (for the parish clerk). It is clear that the word 'ale' was used for any get-together or feast.
   Most of our early information about church ales comes from churchwardens' and other parochial accounts, which provide numerous bare bones but little flesh. Fuller descriptions appear from the 16th century in the writings of those opposed to the ales, usually on religious grounds, and in the works of poets and playwrights when they begin to construct the romanticized rural idyll with which literature would abound for the ensuing centuries, and both sides give a biased picture. Exactly what went on at the earlier ales varied from place to place and over time, but the key elements of food, drink, and music, mentioned in the accounts, connect with the opposing voices which concentrate on gluttony, drunkenness, and the moral dangers of men and women dancing together. The food and drink were supplied by the church, or contributed beforehand by parishioners, for which officers and a local committee could be elected, and equipment such as spits, kettles, and so on, belonging to the parish was available for their use. Ales would also attract people from neighbouring parishes, and there are records of organized reciprocal visits, and also some instances of parishes staging joint events.
   One of the first areas of contention between traditionalists and reformers was the siting of the ale. It is clear from the earliest records that it was customary for celebrations to take place in the churchyard, or even in the church itself. Throughout the period from about 1220 to the 1360s there were repeated, and eventually successful, attempts to banish the festivities from holy ground, and also to forbid the active involvement of the clergy (see Heales for examples).
   The feature of the games which has excited most interest in folklore circles was the election of a King and Queen or Lord and Lady, to preside over the festivities, and, in some cases, the presence of particular characters such as *Robin Hood. To get the matter into some perspective, however, Hutton estimated that of 104 parishes for which he could find records of ales, only 17 per cent had a King or Lord, and a further 20 per cent a Robin Hood - little over a third all together. Of those which had a King/Lord, only three mention a Queen or Lady. *Frazerian writers have been quick to see these figures as remnants of nature or fertility spirits, but there is no evidence to support this view. They are better seen as examples of the medieval tendency to put people in charge of festive events - compare, for example, the *Twelfth Night King of the Bean, or the *Lord of Misrule. These temporary rulers were elected beforehand to preside over the celebrations, and in some cases they could be fined if they refused. One set piece in the event was the procession of the King/Lord, with retainers, in full state and dressed in suitable costume. There is no evidence that these ceremonial positions were treated as parody or burlesque in the way that *mock mayors certainly were, but appear to have been treated with good-humoured respect and dignity. Nor is there evidence of a reversal of roles, such as in the *boy bishop ceremonies, where social inferiors take charge of their superiors for a specified time. Spring ales in particular were also notable for their bowers and use of greenery.
   As with other traditional festivals, church ales came under increasing pressure from Puritans and other moral reformers from the mid-16th century onwards, who attacked them on a variety of linked fronts, religious, moral, and legal (the maintenance of public order), and in particular the staging of entertainments on Sundays. Many Puritans were convinced that church ales were remnants of popery (which, in a sense, was true, as they were indeed survivals of pre-Reformation ways). Ales had their supporters, however, in the shape of many traditional churchmen (partly because of the church's financial interest in their continuance), those who believed in the old ideal of community, as well as those with political leanings which became increasingly polarized between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Richard Carew, for example, defended ales in his Survey of Cornwall (1602: 141) on the grounds of the good fellowship they engendered, and the innocent pastime raising money for good causes, but this is a far cry from the description by Kethe in 1570: '. . . the multitude call (Sunday) their revelyng day, which day is spent in bullbeatings, bearebeat-ings, bowlings, dicyng, cardyng, daunsynges, drunkennes and whoredome . . .' (quoted in Hazlitt, 1905: 126).
   The struggle for control was carried out at local level, and, throughout the first decades of the 17th century, parishes up and down the country replaced church ales by church rates as a more seemly way of raising money for the church. In many places this transition was accompanied by sharp local conflict, but the trend was clear, and even though the older customs received something of a boost with the issue the king's *Book of Sports in 1618 and 1633, they were increasingly seen as old-fashioned and inefficient. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was a much-publicized return to the old pre-Puritan days, but although local wakes and revels were quickly revived, most churchmen were content to leave the routine raising of money for the church in the hands of the rate-gatherers rather than the ale-sellers and *hoglers. Nevertheless, some were transformed into other celebrations, such as the *Whitsun ale.
   ■ Underdown, 1985; Thomas G. Barnes, 'County Politics and a Puritan Cause Celebre', Trans. of the Royal Historical Soc., 5s:5 (1959), 103-22; Hutton, 1994; Alfred Heales, 'Early History of the Church of Kingston-upon-Thames', Surrey Archaeological Collections 8 (1883), 103-9.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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