Merrie England


Merrie England
   The phrase is used to describe a particular arcadian attitude to the past, prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian times but with roots stretching back to the turn of the 19th century and with continuing power to the present day. As such it is an imprecise and unscientific concept, but is none the less useful for describing certain historical attitudes and processes which constituted an important part of the Victorian world-view, and had a profound effect on many traditional festivals and customs. It was particularly popular with writers like Walter Scott who specialized in conjuring a past which was contrasted to the present:
   England was merry England, when Old Christmas brought his sports again
   (Walter Scott, Marmion (1808), introd. Canto VI)
   Merrie Englandism is essentially nostalgic. It takes it as given that however much society has progressed materially it has lost something important on the way, and this loss is primarily in terms of 'community'. In Merrie England the social classes were held together in an interlocking web of duties and obligations. The peasants were poor but honest, strong, and happy, their children were well fed and also happy, and the squire or lord of the manor cared for his people as a father would his family, while a benign parson looked after their spiritual needs. At certain points in the year, the people sang, danced, and made merry - in spring, summer, and autumn on the village green or in the fields, while at Christmas the squire threw open his hall, as dictated by his 'old English hospitality'. The adherents of the Merrie England school sought to recreate this golden age, and one of their key tools was to reform the pastimes of the poor which had, quite clearly in their eyes, lost both their innocence and their traditional values.
   I value every custom that tends to infuse poetical feeling into the common people, and to sweeten and soften the rudeness of rustic manners, without destroying their simplicity . . . (Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall (1822))
   This was the problem. Before customs could be reinvented, they had to be shorn of the undesirable features which they had gathered from being in the hands of the working classes for too long. Sometimes it could be blamed on urban influences:
   The people of this neighbourhood are much attached to the celebration of wakes; and on the annual return of these festivals, the cousins assemble from all quarters, fill the church on Sunday, and celebrate Monday with feasting, with musick, and with dancing. The spirit of old English hospitality is conspicuous among the farmers on these occasions; but with the lower sort of people, especially in the manufacturing villages, the return of the wake never fails to produce a week, at least, of idleness, intoxication and riot ... (Revd A. Macaulay, The History of Claybrook [Leicestershire], (1791); quoted in Golby and Purdue, 1984: 17).
   The transformation of both the myth and the reality of the major festivals was only possible because of other changes brought about by a sustained attack on traditional working-class merrymaking and leisure pursuits. Customs involving animals, such as *bull-running, bull-baiting, *cock-fighting, throwing at *cocks (but not grouse-shooting or fox-hunting), all came under pressure by the mid-19th century, and were suppressed. Violent sports like street *football and potentially dangerous crowd-based celebrations such as *November the Fifth were similarly suppressed or brought under increased control, and customs where people got drunk or where the sexes met in unsupervised merrymaking were reformed or removed.
   Some of this reform took place as a result of national campaigns by such bodies as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and various Temperance Societies, but in most cases pressure was brought to bear at local level. The combined power of the squire, magistrate, parson, schoolteacher, doctor, solicitor, and the respectable trade and business people of the area was increasingly focused on the recreations of the people, in a combination of outright opposition, accommodation, and diversion of energies. Thus, the mob could be prosecuted under new by-laws against lighting bonfires and fireworks in the street, but would be encouraged to attend a communal bonfire in a field provided by a local farmer or the town council. May Day could be shorn of its hard-drinking and fighting *morris dancers, while the schoolteacher devised a 'morris dance' for children.
   Merrie Englandism generally came after these battles had been won, and its ways were more subtle. Countless novelists, magazine journalists, poets, and pageant-masters extolled the virtues of past May Days, and old-time Christmases. Rural life portrayed on the stage could be counted on for a maypole or invented morris dance, the newly transformed village fete could be specially designed and, later on, historical pageants could lend the final gloss of 'historical accuracy'. The two main focuses for Merrie Englandism were *Christmas and *May Day, and both these festivals were completely transformed, in their own way, during the 19th century, but other customs, such as *well-dressing and *rushbear-ing, received similar treatment on a smaller scale.
   The process was still in full force up to the First World War. The Merrie England Society, for example, founded by Joseph Deedy in 1911, and still in operation, included in its objects:
   The propagation of May festivals, the encouragement of national songs and dances, the brightening of outdoor life, the fostering of local pageants and festivities, and the preservation of desirable old customs (Kentish Mercury (9 May 1913), 3, quoted by Judge, 1987: 411)
   One remarkable thing about the whole process was the fact that these new features could be presented as 'traditional' and immediately accepted as being the real thing. Thus, ballet-masters who had devised a dance for representation on stage, or for a pageant, could quite seriously bill their creations as 'the age-old morris dance', or an 'Elizabethan May Day'. Not only did they invent new forms of festival but they invented a history to legitimate them, based loosely on the early antiquaries such as *Strutt and *Brand but with a great deal of embroidering and imagination.
   By mid-Victorian times, the past invoked by the demure revivals of maypoles and rush-bearing was too vague to be capable of any precise chronological location. But the attributes of Merry England were constant: a contented, revelling peasantry and a hierarchical order in which each one happily accepted his place and where the feast in the baronial hall symbolised the ideal social relationship (Keith Thomas, The Perception of the Past in Early Modern England (1983), 22)
   The features of many of the festivals which we now take for granted, and which we believe to be 'old', have been shaped by the Merrie England process.
   ■ Roy Judge, 'Merrie England and the Morris', Folklore 104 (1993), 124-43; Roy Judge, 'May Day and Merrie England', Folklore 102 (1991), 131-48; Judge, 1979: 58-65; Malcolm-son, 1973; J. M. Golby and A. W. Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd (1984).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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