“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, … in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule…” (John Chamberlain)
The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.
Apprentices occupied a strange position in medieval/early modern life: badly paid and badly treated, but for some there was the potential that they could rise to become masters. An apprenticeship to a guild member also meant the promise of job security, a limited welfare system within the guild, which out them above many with no trade or guild protection. Apprentices’ collective recognition of their ambiguous common position, and their youth, led to them gathering and sometimes together collectively. Up to a point they were allowed specific days off work, often feast days; their bonds of hard labour briefly loosened. This generally led to drinking, boisterousness and fighting. Nothing like today then.
Apprentices could rally collectively to radical causes that pushed at the restrictions of the tight social and economic structures which bound them to the will of those above them. But in many ways they also to some extent played the roles of both licensed rebels and community police, attacking both unpopular authority as well as unpopular scapegoats within communities/outsiders – foreigners, people working outside guild structures, prostitutes and other non-conforming women… a paradoxical crowd, contradictory and sometimes unpredictable.
Shrove Tuesday, the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), is a longstanding holiday, celebrated with carnival or Mardi Gras, a day of “fat eating” or “gorging” before the fasting period of Lent.
In England, Shrove Tuesday became a ritual apprentice holiday, and in the seventeenth century became a day noted for them to riot – often against very specific targets.
Before 1598 there are few records of any disturbances arising out of the Shrove Tuesday games (though riots at other feast days had been known, eg on ‘Evil Mayday’, 1517). In Tudor times riots and rebellions were more likely to erupt in the summer months. However, Lord mayors did often issue warnings to ‘prentices’ to stay indoors, and sometimes doubled the watch to patrol in case of trouble.
Playing football had become a tradition on Shrove Tuesday – a game that caused a headache for the authorities for centuries (which led to its repeated banning). By 1598 the ball games had started to develop into something wider and more socially threatening. There were, Hutton records, riots on 24 out of the 29 Shrove Tuesdays in the early Stuart period (1600s). The riots took place mainly it seems in the ‘northern suburbs’ of London – Shoreditch, Moorfields, Bishopsgate and Finsbury – but also increasingly to outlying areas in Middlesex and Westminster. The disturbances involved mostly apprentices, but also sometimes craftsmen and artisans.
Waterman and poet John Taylor described ‘ragged regiments’ – “youth armed with cudgels, stones, hammers, rules, trowels, and handsaws’ who ‘put playhouses to the sack, and bawdy-houses to the spoil” – they smashed glass, ripped off tiles, chimneys and shredded feather beds.” Often they were opposed by aged constables who were vastly outnumbered.
As ever the riots were not random but aimed at particular targets, in particular brothels and playhouses. Hutton records that between 1612-14 on Shrove Tuesday a Shoreditch brothel was attacked each year until it shut.
1617 saw a particularly violent Shrove Tuesday apprentice gathering. A new Drury Lane playhouse was destroyed and prisoners freed from Finsbury prison by the rioters. Several houses in Wapping were destroyed:
“On … Shrove Tuesday, the ‘prentices, or rather the unruly people of the suburbs, played their parts in divers places, as Finsbury Fields, about Wapping, by St Catherine’s, and in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, … in pulling down of houses, and beating of guards that were set to keep rule, specially at a new playhouse, some time a cockpit, in Drury Lane, where the queen’s players used to play. Though the fellows defended themselves as well as they could, and slew three of them with shot, and hurt divers, yet they entered the house and defaced it, cutting the players’ apparel into pieces, and all their furniture, and burnt their playbooks, and did what other mischief they could… There be divers of them taken since and clapped up, and I make no question but we shall see some of them hanged next week, as it is more than time they were”. (a letter written by John Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton)
Ronald Hutton noted that the targets ‘fitted into a much older tradition of cleansing a community before Lent’. In other words the Shrove Tuesday crowd, in rioting, was seeking to destroy what it saw as the less moral parts of the early 17th century economy. As such, while some rioters and especially ringleaders were fined or jailed, attacks on ‘immoral’ targets could be tacitly supported or at least tolerated by the respectable, and even by some in authority – usually only up to a point, though. To some extent historians see this kind of rioting is as a form of moral ‘community policing’, along the lines of skimmingtons and rituals of humiliation aimed at outsiders, or people who transgressed sexual mores or broke the bounds of accepted social roles or behaviour… Festive riots could veer between attacks on social hierarchies and viciously repressive outbursts against foreigners and the marginalised. Sometimes both would be combined.
Why brothels and playhouses? Prostitutes were an obvious target for respectable disapproval: women acting outside the traditional family, selling sex to survive, were both seen as subversive of social mores, though also barely tolerated as a ‘necessary evil’. Apprentices with little ready money also resented women who might say no unless they had the cash; and there was always an element of men collectively putting women in their place, knowing that their betters would largely turn a blind eye. (Despite the profits that many of the well-to-do could earn by renting out houses they owned as brothels, in certain areas, eg Bankside… this included the church in former times, and in the seventeenth century remained a money-spinner for some on the make. Men of course.)
Playhouses were also hugely disapproved of by those in power and the rising protestant attack on popular culture took a dim view of theatres and those who worked in them, which would persist for centuries. (One accusation levelled at theatres was that it encouraged the riotousness of apprentices…) The apprentices’ assaults on them may have even more orchestrated by the respectable than against the bawdy-houses. Portrayals of apprentices in plays of the times is sometimes unfavourable as a result of this dynamic! However, apprentices’ other targets led audiences and some writers to express a grudging sympathy for them.
As Katherine Romack notes, theatres and brothels were associated in puritan minds:
“Theatre and prostitution had always been closely aligned in the early modern imagination: each offered pleasurable performative simulation—eroticized illusion—for cash. Like a brothel, Stephen Gosson observed in 1579, the Renaissance theatre arranged “comforts of melody, to tickle the ear; costly apparel, to flatter the sight; effeminate gesture, to ravish the sense; and wanton speech, to whet desire to inordinate lust” (qtd. in Lenz, 833). In the theatre, “Ungodly people…assemble themselves […] to make their matches for all their lewd and ungodly practices,” or as John Stow, in his Survey of London (1598), had it: “Good citizen’s Children under Age, [are] inveigled and allured to privy and unmeet contracts” (qtd. in Lenz, 836; 833).
The Puritan antitheatricalists had—for all of their tendencies toward exaggeration and bombastic moralism—offered a highly prescient observation about the rise of reified culture when they insisted on the indistinguishable nature of the theatre and the brothel. For each of these institutions vividly exposed the workings of the sexual and laboring marketplace. Both theatre and prostitution in the early modern period, as Joseph Lenz remarks, “emblematize[d] all too vividly, the worldliness of trade, the mercenary nature of all commerce” (842-843). David Hawkes has shown that the Puritan’s hostility to idols was, at least in part, a deeply ethical response to the rampant objectification that accompanied swiftly escalating commercialism…” (Striking the Posture of a Whore: The Bawdy House Riots and Anti-theatrical Prejudice, Katherine Romack, 2009)
The tradition of festive day rioting died out only slowly, and the mass playing of football on Shrove Tuesday continued on in some areas as a distant echo of earlier times… Often leading to rioting, up to the 19th century…
Apprentice crowds were to play a huge part in the street fighting, rioting and political jostling of the English Civil war years, again taking part in events that reflected both radical ferment and support for traditional festivities (the latter taking some of them into the camp of the royalist sympathisers…)
But the end of civil war didn’t mean an end to apprentice riots or attacks on brothels. As we shall see on March 23rd…
Shrove Tuesday was the English equivalent of the continental Carnival; the Shrove Tuesday riots were a reflection of a centuries-long culture of festivity and debauchery that also often slipped in to riot and rebellion.
Carnival was the most important annual medieval festival, especially in Southern Europe, though it was long celebrated in Northern Europe as well.
The Carnival season began in late December or early January, building to a peak of formal events in February. Carnival featured feasting, drinking, dancing, street theatre, and was immediately followed by Lent: forty days of fasting and austerity, imposed according to Christian tradition and enforced by the Church. It was a clear influence and was in turn influenced by the Cokaygne myths of a land of permanent feasting and role reversal (though Cokaygne was also associated with St John’s Eve.)
Carnival was a mix of formal events, plays, processions, pageants, and informal behaviour. The formal events took place mostly in the last week, concentrated in the main squares or central areas of cities and towns, and more organised, usually by specific clubs, fraternities or craft guilds. These events most often included a procession with floats, people in fantastic costumes, singing; a play or theatrical performance; and some kind of competition: races, tournaments, jousts, or football (especially in England).
The informal behaviour that characterised the Carnival season, but built to a pitch in the closing week, saw heavy drinking, massive over-eating (especially of meat – latin carne, meat, probably giving its name to the whole festival – though also of pancakes, waffles, and much more), singing and dancing in the streets, the making of music, and the wearing of elaborate costumes and/or masks. Satire was common – in both formal and informal song and play; costume-wearing could also often involve dressing up as respectable figures – popes, cardinals, doctors, monks, lawyers, merchants – and then taking the piss out of them by over-acting the part.
But carne also means sex, and sex was everywhere in the Carnival, both in innuendo (for example many songs associated with this season were highly suggestive), in the theatrical and ritual games, and in reality – as with most parties, people were having it away all over. Carnival season was second only to early Summer as the peak time for getting knocked up, recent studies of Medieval birth patterns have concluded.
According to Peter Burke: “Carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls… there was no sharp distinction between actors and spectators…”
On top of the over-eating, a culture of mockery and mock ritual grew up around Carnival: often poking fun at the Church. Mock saints’ sermons, animals prepared for food portrayed as saints being martyred; there were also satirical rules enforcing carnival excess and decadence.
Carnival brotherhoods and organisations grew up, again taking the mick out of the real pillars of Middle Ages society. Powerful trade guilds were caricatured in societies of fools, incarnations of carnival gluttony, like the one in Holland led by a ‘crazy knight called Ghybbe’ (or Gib), armed with meat skewers, in pot and pan armour, riding donkeys backwards.
Some of those reported may have been slightly mythological, even allegorical, like the wonderful Dutch ‘Aernout brothers’, a fraternity of drifters and spongers, who had rules for scrounging and hymns of praise for kitchens and those who worked there. Some definitely were, like the French ‘grande confrerie des souls s’ouvrier’, the ‘great company of those fed up with working’, who appeared in a ‘lying tale’ of about 1540, in which they inhabit a castle of creamy Milanese cheese speckled with tiny diamonds,
battlements and windows of fresh butter, melted cheese and sugar. In the castle, taking a seat at the dining table, all portions would be the right size; pieces of meat would spring into the mouth, ready to eat birds and beasts grew in the orchards.
Lent is a lean time, involving fasting and hardship, but the excess cheer, sex and carousing of Carnival was not only opposed to Lent, but to “the everyday” the rest of the year, normal life, the usual order of society.
Partly, this explosive release of pent-up pressures was designed to allow that order to function without social tensions breaking out and tearing it apart. In Carnival, “the ruler of Culture was suspended; the exemplars to follow were the wild man, the fool…” But Carnival was not really total liberation – it was policed, controlled, in some places the festival had a specific police force, to keep things just on right side of dissolving.
Carnival and other holidays were first of all an end in themselves, a “time of ecstasy and liberation”, where the three themes of food, sex and violence merged together. But the over-eating, the pleasures of the flesh, and of a bit of rowdiness, insult and vandalism, often sublimated into ritual, banter, skimmingtons or charivari, mock battles or the violence of the English shrove Tuesday football match, also served a vital social function.
That the release that festivals allowed was at least partly a conscious creation is shown by debates over another similar Medieval feast day. The Feast of Fools was a religious affair, quite specific to monastic communities, in which the subdeacons and others in minor orders in certain churches took control of the ceremonies for a day, while the usual authorities were relegated to a subordinate position. Usually held either on Innocents Day (28th December), or on the eve of the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1st – in itself a significant detail, since the New Year has always been a time when the idea of making a change or a new start is powerful). [note: In England, the boy bishop was elected on December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, the patron of children. Interestingly the Feast of Fools occurred at one traditional New year, (the one we also use now), but another medieval New Year was often begun at March 25th – not a week from another ‘Fools Day’, April 1st. Turning life on its head socially seems to have been associated on one way and another the turning over of years or seasons…]
At evensong, when the verse from the Magnificat was sung – He hath put down the mighty – the choir and the minor orders would take the bit between their teeth. The verse, always a slogan of revolt, was repeated over and over again. A King of Fools, Lord of Misrule or Boy Bishop, (or King of the Bean, an Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, Abbe de la Malgouverne in France) was elected, to preside over the festivities. Grotesque parodies of Mass were celebrated: an ass would be led into the church with a rider facing its tail; braying took the place of the responses at the most solemn parts; censing was parodied with black puddings: the clergy turned their robes inside out, swapped garments with women or adopted animal disguises; gambling took place on the Altar; licence and uproar would spread beyond the church throughout the town or city.
“Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages at the hours of office. They dance in the choir, dressed as women, pandars or minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap through the church without shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste.” (Letter from the Theological Faculty of the University of Paris)
The Feast of Fools was prohibited by the Council of Basel in 1431, though it survived due to its popularity. In England it was abolished by Henry VIII, revived under Mary and then abolished again by Elizabeth. It survived longest in Germany as the Gregoriusfest.
“The ruling idea of the feast is the inversion of status, and the performance, invariably burlesque, by the inferior clergy of functions properly belonging to their betters…. Now I would point out that this inversion of status so characteristic of the Feast of Fools is equally characteristic of folk festivals. What is Dr. Frazer’s mock king but one of the meanest of the people chosen out to represent the real king as the priest victim of a divine sacrifice, and surrounded, for the period of the feast, in a naive attempt to outwit heaven, with all the paraphernalia of kingship?” (EK Chambers)
In the later Middle Ages, brotherhoods or guilds of fools grew up to organise the topsy-turvy festivities. (Which recalls the pisstaking Carnival guilds – maybe the same ‘fools’ were involved in both?)
On the one hand, these festivals are widely seen by historians today as a safety valve that allowed anger and rebellious feelings, bound to arise in a static, confined, hierarchical society with wide class divisions, to be diverted into ‘harmless fun’, as well as a “demonstration of the intolerable chaos caused by unrestrained guzzling and gourmandising”, so as to show how the status quo should be maintained: how hierarchy and order were right and necessary.
This licence to misbehave, a time of permitted freedom outside normal bounds of morality and order, was represented particularly by the anonymity of wearing masks and costumes; allowed people to disguise their identity, and thus get away with acting as they normally wouldn’t. This worked on a personal level, as well as for social criticism and protest. This could take the form of social comment against civil or church authorities, but also of repressive action or humiliation against the ‘immoral’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour of neighbours (for example of women behaving ‘unnaturally’ – bossing around or beating men, being married to the ‘wrong’ people, speaking up for themselves etc – or of other individuals breaking social norms), or insults/attacks against personal enemies. Festive Misrule also easily slipped into scapegoating, of outsiders like Jews, foreigners, Gypsies; mass slaughter of animals was also ritualised or made part of the ‘festivities’.
These elements of Carnival and other festivals are seen by historians as necessary to defuse the knife-edge tensions that bubbled under the rest of the year. More than this, it is suggested that a temporary inversion of roles is a reminder or, even strengthens, everyday hierarchies that life must go back to, when Carnival has been tried and put to death. “The lifting of the normal taboos and restraints obviously serves to emphasise them.” (Max Gluckman)
Both the licence and the bread and circus distraction acted as communal solidarity, reinforcing vertical ties between classes and could be used against outsiders/non-conformists.
But while these festivals served to support the existing hierarchies and codes of behaviour, it is also true that authorities tried for centuries, long without great success, to suppress or tone down these proceedings. The main objections of the reformers were firstly that popular festis were unchristian, that they had pagan overtones; second that they unleashed unacceptable licence, encouraging mass misbehaviour, drunkenness, sex, gluttony, dancing, but also violence and cruelty; third, that it teemed with songs, plays and street performances that glorified rebels, thieves, and other lowlife – not just undermining the proper order of society. One edict in particular claimed that they were ‘rather the unlawful superstition of gentilite [paganism] than the pure and sincere religion of Christe’
Commentators also got worked up about festivals using up resources in days that should have lasted them months.
However the main reason licenced, ritualised freedom was seen as dangerous, and needed tighter control or abolition, was because it could easily slip into real thing. It was a fine line, allowing so much violence sex and disorder could come back to bite the authorities in the ass. Symbolic violence could easily become real violence, not only on a personal level, like settling scores (Carnival all over Europe was a time of increase for murders, fights, violent crime), but also, more worryingly for the upper classes, for collective violence, both social and repressive: riot, rebellion, but also pogrom, animal slaughter, attacks on foreigners.
Riot and rebellion was constantly breaking out from festivals, especially carnival. In Basel in 1376, a Shrove Tuesday riot became known as “evil Carnival”; in 1513, a peasants revolt broke out from the Bern Carnival; during London’s Evil Mayday of 1517, apprentices led a pogrom against foreigners; the Dijon Carnival of 1630 erupted into a riot, led by wine-growers; the Great Catalan revolt against Spanish rule (1640-59) started on Corpus Christi 1640; a mass riot in Madrid broke out on Palm Sunday 1766.
These are just a few examples: for instance virtually every May Day in the build-up to and during the English Civil War saw upheavals, demonstrations and riots.
Beyond the actual threat that crowds gathered for partying represented, the forms of traditional ritual which expressed licensed protest were routinely adapted for real attempts to change things. People saw things through eyes conditioned by experience, and adopted what they knew to express what they wanted or desired… Carnival and the other festivals of reversal meant different things to different people, depending on their background; they could be channelled to express desires, resentments, interests, outlooks. Their meanings also changed as society evolved.
Since its beginnings (as we discussed earlier) Christianity had produced critiques of gluttony and over consumption. But from the sixteenth century on, in a process of reform, repression and social control, Carnival and many other festivals around Europe were gradually abolished, as part of the general disciplining of the lower orders into more productive and less festive and rebellious forms of behaviour, which took place from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
The English Shrove Tuesday, never an official church holiday, was gradually reduced in status, its holiday functions relegated to after hours and the liberties allowed the apprentices restricted. The riotousness of Shrove Tuesdays of the early-mid seventeenth century London was not fully revived after the disruption of the Civil War or the Restoration, though unruly apprentices continued to be involved in riots and protests.
An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online