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Popular Culture In The 1500s Essay

Popular Culture In The 1500s Essay

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Published by David Jones
Essay answering the question "Popular culture was rarely more than a reaction to elite culture, although the reaction was often delayed" Do you agree?
Essay answering the question "Popular culture was rarely more than a reaction to elite culture, although the reaction was often delayed" Do you agree?

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Published by: David Jones on Aug 26, 2009
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Modern Historical Outlines
 November/December 2000
Essay: "Popular culture was rarely more than a reaction to eliteculture, although the reaction was often delayed" Do you agree?
This statement makes the assumption that there were definitive popular and elite cultures inthe Sixteenth Century, which is in itself highly contentious. As Peter Burke puts it: "The term
 popular culture
gives a false impression of hegemony"
. There could not have been a two-tier model dividing the elite and the popular. It ignores the gender issue – men and womenfrom the same social background did not have the same culture
. The Americananthropologist William Christian sees only localism
. All that can be defined, broadly, arethree social classes: Princes and nobles; intellectuals, and the vast majority, the peasantry. Thedivide is indeterminate. Nor was there a unified popular culture, but many sub-cultures thatare all interlinked
. So it is impossible not to generalise. Nonetheless, there is evidence tosupport the statement’s claim that mass cultures were often determined by a slow reaction tothe culture of the learned. There is more to the panoply of Sixteenth Century culture than thathowever. Non-elite culture was an independent body, capable of vibrant development entirelyoutside of the actions of the elite.Many historians see festivals as a good example of how integrated Sixteenth CenturyCulture could be
.Even the highest classes were involved; they sang folk songs and attended banquets. Admittedly they played a different role to the peasantry here – for them this was alllight relief – but the point is that this was not a society that lived apart. H.G. Koenisberger disputes this, claiming that court festivals "had almost nothing in common, except perhaps thelove of food and drink, with public festivals"
. Court festivals often had a popular as well as acounty audience but over the course of the Sixteenth Century they became increasinglyexclusive. Peasants, meanwhile, lived for festivals and carnivals. During lent meat, cheese andsex were forbidden, so the celebrations preceding it were extreme. Sexual propriety andviolence were rife. There was no police other than local militias who were often involved inviolence themselves. Festivals are an indication of universal social prejudices – Jews were jeered and forced to parade naked in some regions. During one particular party in Venice,seventeen people were killed. This was a Europe-wide phenomena. In 1572 in England the St.Bath's Day massacre occurred.Both historians and the aristocracy of the time are divided over whether these festivalsrepresented a dangerous reaction against elite culture. Some see them as a useful safety valve – the masses could briefly let off steam rather than damage the fabric of society. Machiavelliwrote four songs for such festivities. Elites also used festivals as an occasion for political purposes, hence the support of such Englishmen as Jonson, Herrick, Milton and Marvell. H GKoenigsberger contends that while they "allowed men and women to carry out their individualand collective fantasies" fantasies was all that they were. As soon as a festival ended societyreturned to complete normality, as though preceding weeks of anarchy had never occurred.Yet danger for the elite came in the fact that festivals emphasised and set a precedent for 
turning the social order of the world upside down
. They were an inversion of the God-given
David Jones
Historical Outlines: 1550
 Popular & Elite Culture
order of things. The story of Christmas in itself represents inversion of the social hierarchy.Christ turned the social order on its head by being born in poverty. This inversion was oftenharmless, as when Chimney sweeps covered themselves in flour on mayday. But the Principleof peasants becoming May
and the appointment of 
of Misrule was altogether more sinister. It was the one time of the year that Mistrust for the establishment was tolerated,as "forbidden behaviour and modes of expression were authorised"
.To some extent theywere a display to undermine the magnificence of a ruler and his regime. Yet Festival imageryis confusingly mixed. Military symbols were used threateningly, but festivals often containeddisplays dedicated to the King and his achievements. Many of the aristocracy saw festivals asan indecent if not dangerous attack upon their authority. Henry VIII banned all suchcelebrations. However the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin refocuses the importance of thetransgression of boundaries. His definition of carnival and the carnivalesque is not that it wasan opposition to the elite but to “official culture”. He defines the popular as rebellious vitalityon a personal level, rather than the property of any social group
. In regard to sport, popular culture varied regionally but was rarely a reaction to elite culture
The printing revolution first touched the educated classes, but it rapidly reached themasses and effected them far more momentously. The printed forms which ordinary peoplecame across most often were produced by the educated, but they took hold of this materialand made it their own, giving it their own meaning in the process. People's knowledge of current affairs was very slow. The majority of news was conveyed through priests. In terms of current affairs, rather than reacting to elite culture, the peasants reacted to rumours. Peopletried to fit news into a pattern that they already knew, to prophesise. For example, the worksof Nostradamus seemed to foretell the death of Henry VIII. Nonetheless, the printingrevolution meant that the masses did come in contact with elite culture to a greater degree. Itis an event that sped up popular reaction to elite culture. News spread more quickly and morereliably, so Kings and governments had more control over manipulating them
. Governmentsrealised how dangerous the printing press could be, so there was systematic censorship fromits inception. Royal and Government declarations were an implement of control. Printed books, songs and ballads also became big business. They were designed to work on differentlevels for different classes. In printed books there were visual aids and increasingly smallsfonts of increasingly complicated information, to accommodate readers of different ability.Ballads were often written to popular tunes but with Latin annotations for the educated
.Thiswas universal culture at its strongest.Witchcraft and the persecution of other non-conformists, however, demonstrates popular culture acting independently of the elite. Intolerance was held by society itself rather than government control. This can be seen in Europe wide
– skimmington rides
. Governments generally disapproved of these, but there were never enough law enforcers invillages to stop mobs of two or three hundred. Besides, this ancient custom reveals anexample of the elite reacting to popular culture – the lawful punishments they devised weresimilar to traditional peasant acts of humiliation. The persecution of witchcraft is one of thefew areas where there were vast regional differences in popular culture. In most areas those persecuted were women, but in Finland sixty percent were men. In Ireland there were fewexecutions at all, whereas a concentrated area around the Rhine saw a process of intense andsystematic killing. The portrait of witchcraft in popular culture is one that grew up on entirelydifferent terms to the type of witchcraft that interested the elite. Local witches were generallyostracised old women living in poverty, in whose persecution malice was a definingcharacteristic
. England was the only place where witches were believed to have familiar spirits (cats, toads, spiders etc), it was also the only nation where the government was notinterested. Its educated classes certainly were however - the clergy focussed on the idea that
David Jones
Historical Outlines: 1550
 Popular & Elite Culture
witches had a pact with the devil. Macbeth’s witches were purposely similar to the kind of Scottish witches that obsessed James I (James VI of Scotland)
. Witches were again portrayed differently on the continent
. There is
evidence to suggest that elite cultureaffected the treatment of witches in popular culture. In England, where theorists play thesmallest role, the most women were killed. The demise of witchcraft in the latter half of theSixteenth Century was partly due to the difficulty in amalgamating village and educated beliefs. It resulted in scepticism on both sides.Religion was everywhere in the Sixteenth Century. It was a two way process involvingthe church (the Catholic Church was an enormous organisation) and the population, from thesocial elite through to the peasantry. It is another area where peasants participated differentlyfrom the elite. Religion was used as a method of control. The church focused on the afterlifeas a reward, manipulating the peasantry into doing something worthwhile. Over the long term,it seems that the initiative for reform comes from an elite, the upper clergy, before spreadingthrough society. It was part of a process of "civilising" which began as an attempt by elites tocontrol the behaviour of ordinary people. However, this was gradually internalised (up to a point, among certain groups) and so became self-control. There is one example of a delayed, but extremely vehement reaction to elite culture when popular culture began to absorb theideas of Luther. His idea that everyone should be able to read the Bible in their own languagewas a form of spiritual disenfranchisement – power to the people. People began to questionvarious traditions of the Catholic Church – tithes, celibacy in priests etc. Some common people picked up ideas that neither the authorities nor the reformers liked. The very traditionsof authority were destroyed. There was a rise in anti-clericism and a feeling that everyoneshould share in the clergy's authority. German peasants questioned why Italians controlledtheir church. In 1525 there were a huge series of peasant uprisings. Lutheranism was partlyresponsible for the Peasant's War of 1524-26 in Germany – religion was one of the few issuesover which the peasantry would actively protest.Generally however, the peasantry were apathetic towards improving their lot. The"oppressed" masses did not want to break free. Despite numerous injustices they had littleinterest in altering the fabric of their society. Various fantasies were popular, such as
 Land Of Cockaigne
in which there was no work and much food, yet it was never contemplated that thisas a reality. In
 Popular Culture In Early Modern Europe
, Peter Burke claims that the peasantry had five responses to injustice. They were either fatalistic, moralistic (in that theyenjoyed ideas such as taking from the rich and giving to the poor 
), traditionalist (they feltthat any change was bad) or radical. The radicals wanted society to adopt new views based on principles from the Garden of Eden, that there were no social distinctions when God mademan. However, even they were loath to actually
anything.In conclusion, I do not agree with the original statement. It is far too vague – in manyways there was no "popular culture" at all. Historian John Bossy viewed the SixteenthCentury as a fragile "social miracle"
. Nonetheless, as H G Koenigsberger points out, thereis truth in the fact that the lifestyles of the common man and the elite "were very different because of differences in wealth. Peasants tended to be less sophisticated in their domesticlives and their entertainments"
. Also, when the elite did influence popular culture it is truethat there was often a delay in their reaction, most notably in relation to reforms by the upper clergy. However, as Peter Burke contends: "it is easy to overemphasise the active role of thestate in changing popular culture, at the expense of other historical agents, such as publishers"
. The importance of elites in influencing popular culture may be an ilusion whichcomes about through a lack of evidence in terms of popular attitudes. Burke believes that thislack of evidence makes any talk of village Luthers before the time of Martin Luther himself "unwarranted speculation". Most importantly, the classes were all linked by various factors,

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