Popular culture usually attracts popular studies. Lavishly illustrated, alliteratively titled volumes cataloguing popular eccentricities - usually of men behaving badly. Ordinary people have always, for some, provided extraordinary entertainment value. Television and radio regularly take advantage of this and entire annual media occasions from red noses to Pudsey bear have been devised (for charitable purposes of course) to tap this propensity of our national life and culture.
Ronald Hutton's latest and finest contribution has a different purpose as "a complete survey of what is known of the history of the communal rituals and customs which have marked the year in Britain from the earliest recorded time until the present." Such studies as Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough have had an enormous influence on our century but do not, he argues, hold up to detailed historical scrutiny.
The problem for historians remains the nature of the available sources. Popular culture was often only recorded in the accounts of the unsympathetic. Most studies since the 1960s offer dichotomous interpretations - great and little traditions, elite and popular cultures; patrician society and plebeian culture.
Most rejected the antiquary's and folklorist's obsessions with survivalism, the remnant of a pan-European, pre-Christian agrarian culture. Indeed, Ronald Hutton's own earlier study, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, must have shattered any remaining illusions held tenaciously by a raft of modern practitioners from the followers of Wicca to new age believers.
Previous historians, such as Thomas, Thompson, Burke, Cressy, Underdown, Reay, Ingram, Storch and others have shed revealing light upon British and European popular culture, seeing functions of social disruption or political criticism or social cohesion and the enforcing of local community values while recognising that the ritual year provided a framework for the conduct of social, economic and political relationships - a ground upon which people moved and had their being, contested, negotiated and shaped their lives and experiences in relation to others. Earlier antiquaries often used the annual format of the calendar as the basis for collection. William Hone's Everyday Book and Year Book, John Brand's Antiquitates Vulgares and Robert Chamber's Book of Days are stuffed with examples of how people behaved at different seasons of the year. Ronald Hutton chooses to continue in this tradition but knows that this approach can lack analytical or critical focus.
He achieves a great deal as each section, treated in turn with a major calendar festival, ritual or customary period, is a mini-history complete in itself. Beginning with Christmas and ending with Guy Fawkes, Hutton's studies are well-integrated and produce a coherent whole. He demonstrates, time and again, how popular culture creates and recreates rituals which, far from being detached or disembodied occasions for mayhem, devoid of meaning, have provided occasions and opportunities for people to control, criticise or reinforce their social, economic and political positions.
He even illustrates that, by our own time, folkloric interpretations have been effortlessly absorbed by participants to be fed back to outsiders. Hutton recalls: "At Ottery in 1990, assisting a laughing 'barrel girl' whose hair, coat and gloves were all on fire, I asked her why she took part. She chose to make a general interpretation of the question and said that it was to chase evil spirits away from her community at the beginning of winter."
This, after all, is surely what the punters want to hear - when the legend becomes fact you print the legend. As Hutton suggests: "Thomas Hardy's dream of how the English past ought to have been had become accepted as historical truth by some, at least, of the people who continued the customs which he had incorporated into fiction."
This is more than a simple case of life imitating art. Hardy's construct of rural England was more powerful and palatable than the reality to late-19th-century folklorists and readers alike.
Constantly engaged with his source materials, Hutton overturns longheld but daft interpretations of British calendar customs. For example, on the rituals of the last sheaf at harvest, Hutton dismisses cherished views that this was evidence of an almost submerged or extinguished ancient agrarian fertility cult. He concludes: "To select a handful of examples from this tremendous range of responses to the end of harvest, and to bind them together in a general theory of primitive religion, as Sir James Frazer did, was as much a triumph of artistry as of scholarship."
But he is questioning also social historians who see motives of social control where new forms appeared such as the church-based harvest festivals of the late 19th century. He suggests: "These observations are legitimate enough, even though they presuppose a particular set of political attitudes; almost by definition rightwing historians tend not to be interested in popular culture."
Hutton prefers to point to the argument that harvest festivals allowed popular access to the church building, for floral decoration, for the first time since the Reformation.
The problem with this kind of "long view" is that it runs the risk of falling into the same trap as earlier folklorists. It is surely questionable whether, as Hutton asserts, "the rhythms of the British year are timeless, and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs; a yearning for light, greenery, warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth, an impulse to make merry in the sunlight and open air during the summer, and a tendency for thoughts to turn towards death and the uncanny at the onset of winter". The more immediate, often local, context is not given prominence.
Hutton is not wholly convinced by the late Edward Thompson's suggestions concerning "customary consciousness" or my own "ideology of custom" as a means whereby the poor redress the balance against the rich in town and village or workplace and leisure venue. Perhaps, these perspectives are influenced by the experience of industrialisation and the agrarian revolution. Recent social anthropological studies such as Jeremy Boissevain's work on ritual make the same point about postindustrial Europe The Stations of the Sun provides the fullest and most important study yet of British calendar customs. Hutton dates his preface "Lammas 1995". Thanks to his work, we are able to recover the full significance of this particular customary period in the British calendar - the ripening of the corn. We only need to turn to Chapter 32.
Bob Bushaway is associate member, department of modern history, University of Birmingham.
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Author - Ronald Hutton
ISBN - 0 19 820570 8 and 288045 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99 and £9.99
Pages - 542