Liturgy, rite and taboo

Birth, Marriage and Death
January 29, 1999

To know what was generally believed in all ages, the way is to consult the liturgies," remarked 17th-century scholar John Selden. It has taken a long time for historians to heed his advice, but today, more and more rituals are coming under scrutiny for what they can tell us about the cultures in which they were performed.

Ronald Hutton, for example, has studied what he calls the British "Ritual Year", and now David Cressy, well known for his studies of literacy, bonfires and bells, has focused attention on the rituals associated with birth, marriage and death in 16th and 17th-century England, both for their own sake and as what the author calls "a window into some sensitive and opaque areas of early modern culture".

Earlier historians might have thought that there was little to say about such "rites of passage" as baptisms, weddings and funerals except that they continued to happen during this period and to symbolise the transition from one social role or status to another. After all, an important purpose of ritual, as the late Mircea Eliade used to say, is to escape from or abolish time. One of the great merits of Cressy's study is to show, on the contrary, quite how time-bound the rituals of the life-cycle were in early modern England, how subject they were to change and reinterpretation.

Birth, Marriage and Death is in the first place a gracefully written description of life-cycle rituals, based on a wide range of sources - court records, poems, sermons, diaries and the descriptions of customs given by foreign visitors such as the "ethnographic reporter" Henri Misson. It draws on this range of sources in order to reconstruct in rich detail not only the official liturgies but also the unofficial customs associated with christenings, weddings and funerals, not to mention courtship and churching, whether among the gentry or ordinary people.

The multiplication of examples is reminiscent of the work of Keith Thomas, to whom the book is dedicated. The author's use of the ideas of social anthropologists such as Arnold van Gennep or Victor Turner is also reminiscent of Thomas, although Cressy is rather more concerned to distance himself from the anthropological approach to ritual. In the case of churchings, for example, he criticises modern interpretations in terms of pollution and "taboo" and views the ritual as essentially a form of sociability, at least in the eyes of the women who participated.

The concern with the multiplicity of meanings of the "same" ritual is central to Cressy's book, which is, among other things, a vivid mosaic of quotations from these sources, chosen in order to reveal the different points of view of men and women, rich and poor, clergy and laity, traditionalists and reformers, those who participated in rituals and those who rejected the use of the ring in marriage or of candles at funerals as so many anti-Christian or "superstitious" ceremonies.

From differences in interpretation he moves to "dialogue", to conflicts of interpretation, and finally to changes in both forms and meanings. Early modern England is of course an ideal choice for a study that concentrates on socio-cultural conflicts. One way of viewing this book is as an extended meditation on the effects of the Reformation, which Cressy describes as a "profoundly traumatic" event. For example, the rejection of the idea of purgatory implied not only the transformation of death rituals but the severing of the traditional relationship between the dead and the living. No wonder then that it took generations for the changes to permeate everyday life, so that 16th-century England is described as "a hybrid religious culture, in which reformed and unreformed elements intermingled". The mixture of these elements was an unstable one, with too many innovations for traditionalists and too many traces of tradition for the "puritans", a term that for once we can use in its original sense of people who wished to purify the church of what they considered to be relics of "popery". Hence there was no "simple linear progression from medieval to modern" but rather a zigzag course, involving what the author calls a "resurgence" of traditional rituals (elaborate funerals, for instance) in the early to middle 17th century. Other changes also affected the rites of passage. Cressy is not convinced by the claim that early modern England witnessed a rise of "individualism", but he does see an increasing concern for privacy in the closing of baptisms, weddings and funerals to "all-comers", just as he perceives a withdrawal from popular culture, or at least from popular customs such as "watching" the corpse, on the part of the later Stuart elite, which "worked hard to distance itself from the common routines of ordinary people". In short, the rites of passage are witnesses not only to the reception of the Reformation but also to the process of social change.

At the level of ethnography, this book is superb, though the very richness of detail may deter some readers. More is the pity, since the book ought to be read not only by specialists in or students of Tudor and Stuart England, but by anyone interested in ritual. At the level of ethnology, Cressy's study is a little disappointing in the sense that the many perceptive observations about ritual offered as asides in the course of describing a particular ritual are never pulled together or developed further in a concluding or introductory chapter. For example, drinking might have been analysed further whether as an accompaniment to ritual or as a ritual in itself. Cressy refers again and again to the large quantities of beer, claret, "burnt wine" etc consumed on the various social occasions surrounding major rituals, but takes the theme no further.

Again, the relation between ritual and emotion surely deserves more comment than the bare remark that grief was "something people felt, but also something they performed". Indeed, the very idea of ritual as "social performance" might have been worth discussing further. Likewise, the idea of cultural "hybridity" mentioned above, together with the associated idea of the creativity of early modern culture in the domain of ritual, "supporting a blend of continuity, adaptation and reinvention". Or again, on the social functions of the rites of passage: "Rituals that worked to bind communities together could also be instruments of cultural polarisation."

At the very moment that the author begins to scratch below the surface, he seems to feel a need to move on to the next topic. All the same, we should be grateful for what we have. Paradoxically enough, by choosing to study special occasions, Cressy has given us a major contribution to the history of everyday life, more exactly, to the history of everyday attitudes, or to use Selden's phrase, the history of "what was generally believed" in Tudor and Stuart England.

Peter Burke is professor of cultural history, University of Cambridge.

Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England

Author - David Cressy
ISBN - 0 19 820168 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 641

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