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Myth, image and social process in the English medieval town

  • Gervase Rosser (a1)

This essay examines the nature and role of mythical histories in English medieval towns. Myths concerning the origins and special destinies of particular cities were widespread and long-lasting. For contemporaries they acquired meaning through their interaction with changing historical circumstances. Evidence for their circulation in both elite and popular domains is reviewed. Their significance was not unambiguous; they were, rather, contested territory, a means through which townspeople articulated their particular views about the nature and purpose of urban society. Their effect, therefore, could be to assist both in the formation and in the transformation of that society. Issue is taken with the argument that the early modern period saw a weakening of the potential force of such myths.

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1 Most notably Hobsbawm, E. and Ranger, T. (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

2 Muchembled, R., Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France: 1400–1750 (trans. Baton Rouge, La., 1985); Burke, P., Popular Culture in Early Modem Europe (New York, 1978).

3 Burke, P., ‘The repudiation of ritual in early modern Europe’, in his The Historical Anthropology of Early Modem Italy (Cambridge, 1987), 223–38. Any researcher in this field must acknowledge a debt to Peter Burke, who has done so much to open it up.

4 Similarly, the religious reformers of the sixteenth century attempted to popularize the Reformation by use of widely familiar imagery. Scribner, R. W., For the Sake of Simple Folk. Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Cambridge, 1981).

5 The work, above all, of Turner, Geertz and Bell has revealed ritualized behaviour to be dynamic, constructive and processual – the opposite, in fact, of what remains a more generally received assumption that ‘ritual’ is static, monolithic and constraining. Turner, V., Dramas, Fields and Metaphors (Ithaca, NY, 1974), 44, 153 and passim; Geertz, C., ‘Ritual and social change: a Javanese example’, in his The Interpretation of Cultures (London, 1993; 1st pub. 1973), ch. 6; Bell, C., Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford, 1992), 130 and passim.

6 Eliade, M., The Myth of the Eternal return (London, 1989; 1st pub. 1954), 76 and see also 17–21.

7 Ibid., 7–9; Wheatley, P., The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Edinburgh, 1971), ch. 5.

8 Fasoli, G. (ed.), 7 Colonne e 7 chiese: La vicenda ultramillenaria del complesso di Santo Stefano in Bologna (Bologna, 1987); Cairola, A. and Carli, E., II Palazzo Pubblico di Siena (Rome, 1963), 139.

9 Taylor, M. V. (ed.), Liber Luciani de laude Cestrie, Lancashire and Cheshire Record Society, 64 (1912), 46–7. For the wider context of such habits of association of ideas, see, e.g. Haverkamp, A., ‘“Heilige Städte” im hohen Mittelalter’, in Graus, F. (ed.), Mentalitäten im Mittelalter: Methodische und inhaltliche Probleme, Vorträge und Forschungen, xxxv (Sigmaringen, 1987), 119–56, at 132 and passim.

10 Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. Arnold, T., Rolls Series (London, 1879), 2930; Tatlock, J. S. P., The Legendary History of Britain (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1950), 34; Benham, W. G. (ed.), Borough of Colchester: The Charters and Letters Patent Granted to the Borough (Colchester, 1904), 2835 (the inscription on the decorated initial, reproduced here in Figure 1, reads: ‘Sancta Elena nata fuit in Colcestria. Mater Constantini fuit et Sanctum Crucem invenit Elena’, ‘St Helen was bom in Colchester; she was the mother of Constantine, and she found the Holy Cross’); Pedrick, G., Borough Seals of the Gothic Period (London, 1904), 55–8 and pl. xxxviii; Britnell, R., Growth and Decline in Colchester. 1300–1525 (Cambridge, 1986), 9, 120–4, 225; Cooper, J., ‘Medieval Colchester’, in The Victoria History of the County of Essex, Ix (London, 1994), 1921.

11 See Catherine Bell on the related process of ritualization: ‘the way for people to experience a vision of community order that is personally empowering’. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 116.

12 The use by urban communal regimes of imagery derived from royal courts is best seen, not as a paradox, but as a characteristic expression of medieval political ideas, which drew on an inherited language so rich in resonance that it seemed natural to apply it to new political situations as they arose. The instability of meaning was part of its attraction. On the multifaceted and sometimes contradictory language surrounding the notion of ‘the crown’ in medieval political thought, see Kantorowicz, E., The King's Two Bodies (Princeton, NJ, 1957), 373.

13 Weinstein, D., Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (Princeton, 1970), 42.

14 Smithers, G. V. (ed.), Havelok (Oxford, 1987), introduction and text, with a note on the Grimsby seal at 160–7. The tale of Havelok was already identified with l'estorte de Grimesby in the twelfth century. See de Bonn, R., Le Petit Bruit, ed. Tyson, D. B., Anglo-Norman Text Society, Plain Texts Series, 4 (London, 1987), 15 (I am grateful to Christopher Page for this reference).

15 Tatlock, , Legendary History, 50–1; Moore, S. A. (ed.), Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447–50, Camden Society, 2nd ser., 2 (1871), 75.

16 Bacon, N., The Annalls of lpswiche (1654), ed. Richardson, W. H. (Ipswich, 1884), 66. I am grateful to Susan Reynolds for drawing my attention to this reference.

17 Johnson, D., ‘“Lichfield” and “St. Amphibalus”: the story of a legend’, Transactions of the South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society, 28 (19861987), 113.

18 Tittler, R., Architecture and Power. The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, c.1500–1640 (Oxford, 1991), 153.

19 Weinstein, , Savonarola and Florence, passim; Dante, , Paradiso, xv. 124–6.

20 Smith, A. H., The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, v, English Place-Name Society (Oxford, 1928), 105–6; Wilson, R. M., The Lost Literature of Medieval England (London, 1952), 44–5.

21 Ibid., 27–8; Smithers, , Havelok, 160–7; Bennett, J. A. W., Middle English Literature, ed. Gray, D. (Oxford, 1986), 97. On the frequent reliance of historians in the Middle Ages upon oral witness, see Woolf, D. R., ‘The “common voice”: history, folklore and oral tradition in early modern England’, Past and Present, 120 (1988), 2652, at 28–9.

22 Warton, T., History of English Poetry, ed. Hazlitt, W. C., 4 vols (London, 1871), ii.96–7; Keene, D., Medieval Winchester, 2 vols (Oxford, 1985), i.104–5, ii.947.

23 Rous, J., Historia Regum Angliae (c. 1490), ed. Hearne, T. (Oxford, 1716), 16; Carew, R., The Survey of Cornwall (1602), ed. Halliday, F. E. (London, 1969), 82; Wasson, J. M. (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Devon (Toronto, 1986), 212–44passim (payments by the corporation for the ‘cutting’ and ‘cleaning’ of ‘the picture of Gogmagog upon the hoe’ between 1494 and 1575). The descriptions of Rous and Carew indicate the existence of a second carved image, popularly identified as ‘Corineus’.

24 Clark, J., ‘Bladud of Bath: the archaeology of a legend’, Folklore, 105 (1994), 3950. See also Wood, J., An Essay Towards a Description of Bath, part 1 (Bath, 1742), 8; Levis, H. C., Bladud of Bath, the British King who Tried to Fly (Bath, 1973; 1st pub. 1919).

25 Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britannie (c. 1135), ed. Wright, N. (Cambridge, 1985), 34–5; Calendar of Close Rolls (1259–61), 434; Stow, J., A Survey of London (1603), ed. Kingsford, C. L., 2 vols (Oxford, 1971; 1st pub. 1908), i.38–9, ii.277 n. For discussion of this material I am very grateful to John Clark, of the Museum of London. Further on the likely contribution of the learned and inventive Geoffrey of Monmouth to what in the later Middle Ages circulated as the popular history of London, see Clark, J., ‘Cadwallo, king of the Britons, the bronze horseman of London’, in Bird, J., Chapman, H. and Clark, J. (eds), Collectanea Londinensia. Studies in London Archaeology and History Presented to Ralph Merrifield, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, Special Paper No. 2 (1978), 194–9. See also n. 29 below.

26 See references cited in n. 25. Such noticeboards, which have been little discussed, deserve some prominence in the discussion of medieval popular culture. For other examples, see Gerould, G. H., ‘“Tables” in medieval churches’, Speculum, 1 (1926), 439–40; Richmond, C., ‘Hand and mouth: information gathering and use in England in the later middle ages’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1 (1988), 233–52, at 246–7 n. 5.

27 Bourdieu, P., Outline of a Theory of Practice (trans. Cambridge, 1977).

28 Dugdale, W., The Antiquities of Warwickshire (London, 1656), 86; Harris, M. D. (ed.), The Coventry Leet Book, 4 vols, Early English Text Society, original ser., 134, 135, 138, 146 (19071913) (continuously paginated), 567; Lancaster, J. C., Godiva of Coventry (Coventry, 1967); Davidson, H. E., “The legend of Lady Godiva‘, in her Patterns of Folklore (Chichester, 1978), 8094; Phythian–Adams, C. V., Desolation of a City: Coventry and the Urban Crisis of the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1979), 173; Clarke, R. A. and Day, P. A. E., Lady Godiva: Images of a Legend in Art and Society (Coventry, 1982). For advice on the painting reproduced here in Figure 3, I am grateful to Ron Clarke, Keeper, Visual Arts, at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry.

29 Knighton, Henry, Knighton's Chronicle, ed. Martin, G. H. (Oxford, 1995), 500; Walsingham, Thomas, Historia Anglicana, ed. Riley, H. T., Rolls Series, 2 vols (London, 18631864), ii.173–4. See also Clark, J., ‘Trinovantum – the evolution of a legend’, Journal of Medieval History, 7 (1981), 135–51. I am very grateful to John Clark and to Caroline Barron for discussion of this point. It is only fair, however, to record that in an unpublished paper, ‘What did Troy mean to late-fourteenth-century Londoners?’, Dr Barron takes a different view of the Trojan legend in late medieval London, believing it to have had an exclusively courtly context. While readily acknowledging the existence of courtly versions, the general reason for doubting this argument is the common interconnection between elite and popular versions of myths, illustrated throughout the present essay. The specific reason for doing so is that the contemporary sources associate the alleged use of the Trojan legend with one who was also accused of demagoguery (see Rotuli Parliamentorum, iii.235a). As a further indication of familiarity outside the court with the history of London's foundation by Brutus, one may cite two fourteenth–century manuscript books, apparently made to the order of members of the London merchant class to whom they belonged (British Library, MSS Add. 38131; Egerton 2885). Both of these manuscripts incorporate the story that London was first called ‘New Troy’. The MSS are discussed in an unpublished essay by H. Kleineke, ‘Carlton's book: the political philosophy of a fourteenth-century London embroiderer’, which I am grateful to Hannes Kleineke for showing to me.

30 Bell, , Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, passim.

31 For a recent discussion of some of the English evidence, see Kipling, G., ‘Richard II's “sumptuous pageants” and the idea of the civic triumph’, in Bergeron, D. M. (ed.), Pageantry in the Shakespearean Theatre (Athens, Ga., 1985), 83103.

32 Hearne, T. (ed.), Johannis Lelandi … Collectanea, 3 vols (London, 17701774), iii.185–7; Attreed, L. (ed.), York House Books, 1461–1490 (Gloucester, 1991), 478–85. For the statue, popularly held to represent Ebrauk, which was on public display in late medieval York, see Raine, A., Medieval York (London, 1955), 5960; Davidson, C., York Art (Kalamazoo, 1978), 182:

33 MacCormack, S. G., Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981), 9. A more balanced understanding of such princely entries, acknowledging the agency of the townspeople no less than that of royalty, is also urged by Bryant, L. M., ‘Configurations of the community in late–medieval spectacle: Paris and London during the dual monarchy’, in Hanawalt, B. A. and Reyerson, L. (eds), City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis, 1994), 333; and by Attreed, L., “The politics of welcome: ceremonies and constitutional development in later medieval English towns’, in ibid., 208–31.

34 James, M., ‘Ritual, drama and social body in the late medieval town’, Past and Present, 98 (1983), 329.

35 Wickham, G., Early English Stages, i: 1300 to 1576 (London, 1959), ch. 3; Kolve, V. A., The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford, Ca., 1966); Kahrl, S. J., Traditions of Medieval English Drama (London, 1974), chs 1–2; Mills, D., ‘Religious drama and civic ceremonial’, in Potter, L. (ed.), The ‘Revels’ History of Drama in English, i, Medieval Drama (London, 1983), ch. 5. Religious plays enacted in many towns did not constitute parts of entire cycles. Nevertheless, the principal points made here apply also in these cases.

36 Kolve, , Play Called Corpus Christi, ch. 5. For the clear references to Wakefield in the Towneley play MS, see now Stevens, M. and Cawley, A.C. (eds), The Towneley Plays, 2 vols, Early English Text Society, suppl. ser., 13 (1994), i, pp. xix–xxii.

37 See primarily the works by Burke and Muchembled cited in n. 2. An analogous view of the English evidence is exemplified by Berlin, M., ‘Civic ceremony in early modern London’, Urban History Yearbook (1986), 1527, which concludes on this note: ‘In the worsening climate of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when the influx of vagrants and masterless men into the capital became an acute problem, the need to ceremonialize “good order” as well as suppress any ritual disorder was understandable' (24–5). That this became, in some quarters, a perceived need is indisputable. That it would ever be possible effectively to monopolize the identification of meaning in the ceremonies is a good deal less certain.

38 Hutton, R., The Rise and Fail of Merry England. The Ritual Year 1400–1700 (Oxford, 1994). This book makes only passing reference to specifically civic festivities. Its reader will also note the author's disclaimer on p. 2: ‘I have not attempted any discussion of the social function of the different categories of ritual’.

39 For an introduction to social changes in the towns of this period, see Corfield, P., ‘Urban development in England and Wales in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’ (1976), repr. in Barry, J. (ed.), The Tudor and Stuart Town. A Reader in English Urban History 1530–1688 (London, 1990), 3562.

40 Phythian–Adams, C. V., ‘Ceremony and the citizen: the communal year at Coventry 1450–1550’, repr. in Holt, R. and Rosser, G. (eds), The English Medieval Town. A Reader in English Urban History 1200–1540 (London, 1990), 238–64, at 249; Ingram, R. W. (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Coventry (Toronto, 1981), 274–5. The authorship and authenticity of ‘Langham's Letter’ was questioned by O'Kill, B., ‘The printed works of William Patten (C.1510–C.1600)’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 7 (1977), 2845; Scott, D., ‘William Patten and the authorship of “Robert Laneham's Letter” (1575)’, English Literary Renaissance, 7 (1977), 297306; and (consequently) Halkett, S. and Laing, J., A Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publications in the English Language, 1475–1640, 3rd edn, ed. Horden, J. (London, 1980), 115 (L55). The attribution to Langham, and hence the essential reliability of the text, is, however, convincingly vindicated by Kuin, R. J. P. (ed.), Robert Langham: A Letter (Leiden, 1983); and idem, ‘The purloined Letter: evidence and probability regarding Robert Langham's authorship’, The Library, 6th ser., 7 (1985), 115–25.

41 For this demographic shift in early modem towns, see Souden, D., ‘Migrants and the population structure of later seventeenth–century provincial cities and market towns’, in Clark, P. (ed.), The Transformation of English Provincial Towns 1600–1800 (London, 1984), 133–68.

42 Johnston, A. F. (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: York (Toronto, 1979), 291–3, 310–12, 331–2, 340, 352–4, 378, 390, 392–3.

43 Clopper, L. M. (ed.), Records of Early English Drama: Chester (Toronto, 1979), 34, 232 ff., 241, 511–12; and see also 31 ff., 96–7 for accounts of earlier performances.

44 Johnston, A. F., ‘Yule in York’, Records of Early English Drama Newsletter, 1 (1976), 310.

45 Lane, R., Snap the Dragon (Norwich, 1976); Simpson, J., British Dragons (London, 1980), 95–6, 101–2; The Norwich Snapdragon, Norwich Museums Service information sheet (1984). The Norwich dragons recorded in the fifteenth century were probably very similar to the surviving, late eighteenth–century, dragon reproduced here in Figure 4. Certainly they were carried by a single man inside, and were covered with painted canvas. In 1429 the man carrying the dragon was paid 2s 4d for ‘playing in the dragon’ with gunpowder.

46 Dumont, L., La Tarasque. Essai de description d'un fait local d'un point de vue ethonographique (Paris, 1951), esp. 223 ff.

47 Further discussion of seventeenth–century and later civic ceremonial, and of such related historiography as currently exists, is reserved for the projected work cited above in the acknowledgements.

48 See also Epstein, J., ‘Understanding the cap of liberty: symbolic practice and social conflict in early nineteenth–century England’, Past and Present, 122 (1989), 75118. The French Revolutionary period provides further relevant analogies to the early modern English evidence discussed here. An instance is the suppression in 1792 and the reinstitution in 1793 of Gayant, the processional giant and civic image of Douai in northern France. In the course of argument at that period, the old civic symbol was not discarded but on the contrary was employed, as ever, as the means to raise the political stakes, to intensify meaning in a debate about the true identity of the town and its relationship to the past and to the nation. Guesquin, M.-F. (ed.), Cités en fète (Paris, 1992), 115–16.

* This paper was written for delivery at a meeting of the Urban History Group, held at the University of Nottingham on 7–8 April 1994, on the theme, ‘Imagining the City in Art, Literature and Music’. I am most grateful to Stana Nenadic, convener of the conference, for the invitation to participate. The text introduces some themes of a projected book on English civic myths and pageants, to be written jointly with Jane Garnett, with whom the present essay has been discussed at every stage.

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