It’s all about St John the Baptist – or, how the Tudors celebrated the Midsummer Solstice

The summer solstice was one of the pagan festivals taken over by the early Christian church, aligning it with the feast of St John the Baptist, on 24th June. So by the sixteenth century it had accumulated a lively mix of Christian and pagan meaning.

In town and country, fire was a theme of midsummer celebrations. In both places, people made bonfires and feasted and drank around them. In the countryside these bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and lifestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

Depending on who you talked to, this might have been for protection against disease – the causes of diseases of animals and plants were not well understood in the sixteenth century, but there was a view that contagion was present in the air – or against witches, who were particularly active on Midsummer. The fear of witches was demonstrated by another aspect of midsummer ritual, decorating houses or wreathing livestock with garlands of particular plants.  A seventeenth century writer remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. John Stow, who wrote about London, describes,

 ‘every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.’

Some of these plants had powers which were thought to be associated with their religious symbolism. St John’s Wort is often associated with the sun because of its bright yellow flowers. For Tudors, however, it was connected with St John because its leaves were flecked red with the blood of the martyred saint. So it was particularly important at Midsummer and cattle wore wreaths of it on their horns, or had their cowsheds decorated with it. Another protective plant was trefoil, because its three-part leaves suggested the Holy Trinity. I imagine the white lilies Stow mentioned took their power from their association with the Virgin Mary – they are still called Madonna lilies.

However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Rich people would provide cakes and tubs of ale for their local poor in their town or village, or feast their friends and ‘more civil poor neighbours’, as one rich man did in Long Melford in Suffolk. Sometimes money was left as a bequest for this purpose. Thus Midsummer was a chance for Christian charity, for socialising, and for neighbours at odds to make up. John Stow explains the meaning of ‘bonfire’ thus (bonus=good in Latin):

‘These were called Bone-fires, as well of amity amongst neighbours, that being before at controversie, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends’.

Actually, in some places fires were lit of bones, giving off dark and reeking smoke – a fifteenth century monk inveighed against it, and against the custom in some places of setting a cartwheel alight and rolling it down a hillside (another ritual with obvious pagan roots, the wheel representing the sun).

Of all the Tudor midsummer activities, though, the activity that must have taken up the most time and money was the Marching Watches, or torchlit marching processions. In big towns these must have been spectacular. In London one is recorded as including four thousand marchers. There were Morris dancers, giants and pageants, which were only sometimes religious – despite the fact that this was meant to be a religious festival, they were just as likely to be mythological or historical. To give you some idea, the 1521 Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St John the Evangelist, St George and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, not to mention morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Giants were popular, as were dragons and pyrotechics. In 1541 the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae in its mouth and in Chester there were unicorns, camels (model ones, we assume), hobbyhorses and sixteen naked boys.

It was, of course, expensive. But at times of political tension, gathering so many people together (some of them presumably drunk) could also lead authorities to fear civil unrest. In 1539 Henry VIII banned the London Midsummer Watch on the pretext of saving money, and it did not return until 1548. We can only imagine how people felt about that…

 

 

(For further reading, see:

Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes In Tudor England

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars

Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England

Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England)

 

 

 

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