Thomas Pettitt

title.none: Humphrey, Politics of Carnival (Thomas Pettitt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.016 02.03.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas Pettitt, University of Southern Denmark,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Humphrey, Chris. The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 113. $59.95 0-7190-5602-0. ISBN: $19.95 0-7190-5603-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.16

Humphrey, Chris. The Politics of Carnival: Festive Misrule in Medieval England. Manchester Medieval Studies. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 113. $59.95 0-7190-5602-0. ISBN: $19.95 0-7190-5603-9.

Reviewed by:

Thomas Pettitt
University of Southern Denmark

This publication is the fifth in MUP's Medieval Studies Series (series editor S.H. Rigby). There is a limit to what can be encompassed by exactly one hundred pages of main text, and the subject is significant enough, and those pages interesting enough, to prompt regret there is not more of the same. At this strategic level it is also pertinent, as a prefatory note indicates, that earlier, if mostly shorter, versions of its four chapters have been published elsewhere: Indeed the examination of the unrest at Coventry in 1480 (Chapter 4, "Summer games at Coventry 1480"), as it appeared in the Brepols collection, Drama and Community: People and Plays in Medieval Europe, ed. Alan Hindley (Turnhout, 2000), there titled "Festive Drama and Community Politics in Late Medieval Coventry", was commented on in the course of Clifford Davidson's review of that volume in TMR 01.01.13. The study of the 1443 Norwich parade of John Gladman (Chapter 3, "Seasonal drama and local politics in Norwich, 1443") has appeared earlier (as "'To make a new King': seasonal drama and local politics in Norwich, 1443") in Medieval English Theatre, 17 (1995), 29-41, while material from Chapter 1, "Social protest or safety-valve? Critical approaches to festive Misrule" and Chapter 2, "A new approach to the study of medieval misrule" appeared in condensed form in "The World upside down in theory and as practice: a new approach to the study of medieval misrule", Medieval English Theatre, 21 (1999), 5-20.

Reproducing material in a single volume in this way can of course be valuable in several ways. With regard to the individual items, feedback on the original publication or further research in the intervening period, or the new format, may prompt or facilitate valuable revisions. To judge from an examination of the two versions of the analysis of the Gladman riding in Norwich this is indeed the case here. While the central bulk of the chapter now printed largely reproduces the earlier text, there are some alterations, particularly in the introductory setting of the scene and the concluding reflections: appropriately to the new context, the version now printed has condensed some less central historical detail and gives more scope to analytical discussion. Furthermore in one significant feature, the Manchester volume offers a substantial advance. Central to what happened in Norwich in early 1443 is the explanation and interpretation of Gladman's "riding" drafted by the city authorities a few years later (probably 1448) during the long and tangled judicial aftermath of the events. In his Medieval English Theatre article Humphrey quotes, as do many works in the field, the text provided in Hudson and Tingey's Records of the City of Norwich (1906). In two significant matters the punctuation of this text leaves ambiguities which theatre historians citing this passage have resolved variously. There is first the question of occasion:

John Gladman . . . of disporte as is and ever hath ben accustomed in ony Cite or Burgh thrugh al this reame on fastyngong tuesday made a disporte with his neighburghs ... (MET, p. 32).

Put a comma after 'reame' and they are saying he did it on Shrove Tuesday; put a comma after 'tuesday' and they are saying that what he did (whenever he did it) was traditional on Shrove Tuesdays. It is evident from other documentation that this latter is what they should be saying: the event did not take place on Shrove Tuesday. (Which does not rule out their attempting retrospectively to give the impression it did: the winners write history, but the writers win history.) Then there is the question of the make-up of the parade. Gladman rode:

crowned as King of Kristmesse in token that all merthe shuld end with ye twelve monthes of ye yer, afore hym eche moneth disgysd after ye seson yerof (MET, p. 32)

which makes a kind of sense, but the sense is better if we repunctuate:

crowned as King of Kristmesse in token that all merthe shuld end, with ye twelve monthes of ye yer afore hym, eche moneth disgysd . . . .

The parade symbolizes the end of the extended Christmas season at shrovetide, Gladman-as-Christmas duly followed by a figure representing Lent, "cladde in white with redde herrings skinnes and his hors trapped with oyster shelles ... in token yat sadnesse and abstinence of merth shulde followe ... (MET, pp. 32-33). These philological niceties are vital in relation to a source which remains the sole available evidence for the outdoor, popular, community celebration of shrovetide in England in the manner familiar for carnival virtually everywhere else in Europe. It is therefore a significant improvement that in the book (p. 64) Humphrey cites instead the original document in the Norfolk Record Office. This having no punctuation at these points it is duly added, but this is part of a wider philological situation. The original document has three interlineations, only one of which Humphrey retains. Furthermore the document also survives (in Norwich) in two other contemporary versions with some interesting and informative variant formulations or additions. Humphrey quite properly provides all this information in his main text or endnotes, but not in a way that readily facilitates reconstructing the three variant texts. In the spirit of the approach to the subject urged by the book, the opportunity might usefully have been taken to provide -- possibly for the first time -- a full, state of the scholarly art edition of this significant passage on the basis of all three versions, or indeed, if necessary in an appendix, full transcriptions of each of them.

This should not obscure the main finding of this digression that the book extends and improves the material published previously, and this is of course supplemented by the second advantage of the new format, which facilitates reading the separate studies together, so that the theoretical explorations and the empirical studies inform each other, and in a publication which brings them to the attention of a wider scholarly audience. The publisher's cover statement very reasonably anticipates its being noticed in the fields of literary theory, cultural studies, anthropology and social history, as well as by the students and teachers of late medieval and early modern theatre to whom the original papers were largely addressed.

If that indeed proves to be the case the book should perform a valuable task in those fields. The first chapter critically and alertly juxtaposes the views of social and cultural historians with those characterizing historicist literary and cultural studies on the question of whether late-medieval festive misrule was essentially conservative, working, through the 'safety valve' process, for the political containment of social dissent, or subversive, in the 'carnivalesque' manner postulated by Bakhtin. The confrontation is neatly led up to in the Introduction and the considerations it provokes lead on to the "new" approach advocated and explicated in Chapter 2.

That the book's title speaks of "festive" rather than "carnivalesque" misrule is a signal that while, inevitably, Bakhtin looms large in this study, at least in its opening moves, he is put firmly in his place -- in the sense both of being properly contextualized and of being knocked down to size. Humphrey may be right (Preface p. ix) that over the last couple of decades among scholars of medieval society and culture the safety valve theory has been the preferred orthodoxy (which therefore needs to be queried), but among students of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama and literature the Bakhtinian carnivalesque has been extremely influential over roughly the same period, and these chapters may have more lessons for the latter than for the former.

Humphrey advocates an unprejudiced, empirical approach which acknowledges that the role and significance of festive misrule can vary, and that each instance should be examined independently on its own merits. To this end he advocates (p. 44) a three stage approach involving 1) "an assessment of the evidence", 2) "some careful thought about possible roles", 3) "a consideration of how a particular example might fit into wider cultural trends and movements".

The two pilot projects which follow, applying this approach to the incidents at Norwich and Coventry, are exemplary with regard to the first two of these, but might have benefitted from more elaborate discussion under the third heading, at least in the sense of undertaking more substantial comparisons with other places, or indeed other times. Humphrey is conscious that his incidents are both from urban environments, where particular conditions will apply; but it would nonetheless be useful to juxtapose the specific festive activities involved with their rural analogues or continuations, not least because the kinds of troubles that towns ran into in the later Middle Ages, for example in relation to the abrogation of communal rights intimately related to seasonal observances, reach rural areas in the seventeenth century or later (when documentation is more adequate). It would have been fascinating to see the incidents studied here from the perspective of major works on later, rural, 'festive' unrest such as Bob Bushaway's Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700 - 1880 (London: Junction Books, 1982) or R. W. Malcolmson's Popular Recreations in English Society (Cambridge: CUP, 1973).

The incident at Coventry in 1480 involving depradations by townspeople on the woodlands of a local priory in connection with summer festivals does benefit (p. 85) from appeal to a late-medieval French parallel, but the later English material could usefully supplement and illuminate the discussion (pp. 84-93) on the necessity of placing a given forest foray in relation to a spectrum of possibilities. Medieval manorial tenants had extensive rights to gather wood for various purposes in local woodlands, and these rights could be linked to summer festivals in various ways. Sometimes the right was actually restricted to a particular festival; sometimes to a period defined in relation to such festivals (e.g. from May Day to Whitsun); sometimes the collecting of wood on a festive day (e.g. as 'may' blossom or indeed as a Maypole) was itself a customary demonstration and confirmation, as well as a simple exercising, of these rights. These 'regular', medieval variations can then be multiplied by whatever happened locally when such rights are challenged by enclosure, and when the mere peformance of the custom can be a demonstration in a more aggressive sense. There is of course the further complication that the meaning of a given activity may lie very much in the eye of the beholder, and as Humphrey astutely notes, even one party to a dispute can bring more than one perspective to bear upon what happened and why (p. 93).

With regard to Norwich broader contextualization would be more a question of deploying comparative material (including European) in the attempt to identify the exact nature of the parade undertaken by Gladman, which was retrospectively interpreted by the city establishment and its opposition to their respective advantages. Both parties agree that Gladman was dressed as a King, but while their enemies optimistically asserted that this was with treasonable intent, the city authorities as we have seen claimed he was merely playing the king of Christmas whose reign came to an end at Shrovetide, if with the awkwardness that the parade really took place well before. Given the political context, the procession probably functioned as some kind of protest, and so technically belonged to the category of demonstrative parades, or charivaries, which could be directed at social, economic or political offenders as well as the more familiar scolds, shrews and cuckolds. There is an interesting parallel in the "objectionable diversion" planned "as invective and a reproach against the Shoemakers" complained of by John de Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter, in 1352 (REED Devon, ed. John Wasson [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986], 11-12 [translation 323-25]). It would be entirely in accordance with the opportunistic exploitation of seasonal custom by such traditional demonstrations if the Gladman parade deployed the Christmas to Lent imagery to imply that there would be much Lent-like gloom and no Yule-like gladness in Norwich so long as whatever it was they were protesting persisted, or so long as whoever it was they were protesting against had their way unchecked. Humphrey's detailed analysis and discussion (especially pp. 72-77) provides an excellent vantage point from which to contextualize the incident in this way.