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Modern Festivals, Games, and Amusements.--Historical
Thomson. UNDER this head we shall chiefly confine ourselves to the festivals, games, and pastimes of our own island; not only as being better adapted to a volume of this Library, but because there are few continental sports of which we do not find some professed imitation or casual resemblance among ourselves.
Human nature is the same in all parts of the earth : the recreations of a rude and illiterate nation must be inevitably limited to sensual and external gratifications; however, therefore, they may be modified by climate and manners, they must in their main qualities, at least in the earlier stages of civilization, present a considerable degree of similarity. Nothing, moreover, is so difficult to control as popular customs, which, when they have reference to the enjoyments of the lower orders, are considered as their peculiar, often their sole privilege, and are retained with a proportionate obstinacy. We have seen for how many centuries the Pagan games survived the deities in whose honour they were first instituted. More willing to surrender their antiquated religion than the amusements connected with it, the heathen people could only be won to Christianity by a compromise which enabled them to incorporate with the new faith many of the festivals and pastimes of Paganism. These took other names indeed; they were baptized afresh, and consecrated to saints and martyrs, instead of demigods and heroes; but the multitude cared little about the form and title, provided they got the essence, which, according to their estimation, consisted in the holyday and its festive or processional concomitants. Exactly the same thing occurred at the second great religious change the Reforma
tion, when we adopted many of the stated festivals and holydays, although we uncanonized the saints and martyrs in whom they originated. Of all religions, that part seems to endure the longest which is associated with the pleasures of the people; no mean argument for making cheerfulness and enjoyment constituents of our devotional observances, instead of seeking to dissever them. · In a review of such festivals, sports, and holydays as still exist among us, it will be found that some are originally derived from the Pagans, others from the Papists: we are not aware of any that can be strictly termed modern.
What were the amusements and stated relaxations from labour enjoyed by the ancient inhabitants of Britain, we have no means of ascertaining ; but we know that their religion, like that of the early Greeks and Romans, was a savage superstition, delighting in human sacrifices; and we may therefore conclude that their sports and games, whether emanating from it or not, were of an equally fero- ; cious character. Deficiency in feasts and merrimakings, however, cannot be imputed to any of the old Celtic nations, though the convivial scene was not unfrequently disgraced by Lapithæan strife. It was at a feast that the two illustrious British princes, Cairbar and Oscar, quarrelled about their own bravery and that of their ancestors, and fell by mutual wounds, probably when under the influence of deep pòtations. Before the general introduction of agriculture, mead seems to have been the only strong liquor known to the inhabitants of our island ; and it continued to be a favourite beverage even after others had been introduced. The mead-maker was the eleventh person in dignity in the court of the ancient princes of Wales, and took place of the physician. How much this liquor was esteemed by the British princes may be gathered from the following law of the principality : “There are three things in the court which must be communicated to the king before any other person; 1. Every sentence of the judge; 2. Every new song; and 3. Every cask of mead.” The joys of song and the music of the harp were the accompaniments of the feast, the bards usually celebrating the brave actions of the guests, or the exploits of their ancestors.
Imitation of the Roman conquerors, and a partial adoption of their Paganism, doubtless introduced for a time
many of the classical pastimes and holydays, which were not entirely swept away when the Saxon conquest effected a total change in the laws and government of the country. Hunting and other robust exercises might have been the chief, but they were not the sole diversions of the conquerors, who had by this time become sufficiently advanced in civilization to derive pleasure from intellectual amusements. A northern hero, whose name was Kolson, boasts of nine accomplishments in which he was well skilled. “I know,” says he,“ how to play at chess; I can engrave Runic letters; I am expert at my book; I know how to handle the tools of the smith; I can traverse the snow on skates of wood; I excel in shooting with the bow ; I use the oar with facility; I can sing to the harp; and I compose
This might be termed a liberal education for the times in which he lived; but Kolson had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which may probably account, in great measure, for his literary qualifications. Learning does not by any means appear to have formed an indispensable part even of a nobleman's education, under the Saxon government. Alfred, it is well known, was twelve years of age before he acquired his letters.
In a turbulent and wárlike age the qualities of the body will always be more highly valued than those of the mind; for as strength and courage are then the sole means of achieving fortune and distinction, or of preserving them when won, the opulent will raturally prefer, even in their relaxations, such robust exercises as either bear a direct semblance of war, or qualify them to endure its fatigues and hardships. Where might so often constituted right, every man was obliged to learn, as the most essential of alí arts, that of defending himself and his possessions against the evil designs of his neighbour. Until peace was of frequent intervention, and law, becoming paramount, relieved individuals from this incessant duty of watch and ward, learning was considered as an unsoldierly if not an ignoble pursuit, and was willingly abandoned to the inmates of the cloister. Of inferior pastimes, however, the Saxons appear to have had their share. From their German ancestors they had inherited an immoderate attachment to
* Olaus, as quoted in Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, int. iii.
gaming—that only vice which seems to exercise an equal influence over the most barbarous and the most civilized nations, as if it were an inherent and ineradicable tendency of the human mind. After dice, chess and backgammon appear to have been the most favourite sedentary amusements of the Saxons and Danes, and to have occasionally occupied a large portion of the night. Bishop Ætheric, having obtained admission to Canute about midnight, upon some urgent business, found the king engaged with his courtiers at play, some at dice, and some at chess. The clergy, however, were prohibited from playing at games of chance by the ecclesiastical canons established in the reign of Edgar.
Christianity, upon its introduction into our island, not only brought with it the cheering Sabbath, the most precious boon that religion has ever bestowed upon man, but numerous holydays and festivals, fixed or fluctuating. Of these we are bound by the nature of our work to give some account, although we shall render it as succinct as possible, since the subject must be already familiar to the mass of our readers. The immoveable feasts of the church are those constantly celebrated on the same day of the year ; the principal of which are Christmas-day, the Circumcision, Epiphany, Candlemas, Lady-day, All Saints, and All Souls, besides the days of the several apostles. Of the moveable feasts, which are not confined to a particular day, the principal is Easter, which gives law to all the rest, all of them following and keeping their stated distances from it; such as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Ash Wednesday, Sexagesima, Ascension Day, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. Some of these feasts were instituted in the very earliest
of Christianity. That of the Circumcision, however, is not more ancient than the seventh century. The Purification, the Annunciation, and the Assumption were first observed in the sixth ; Ash Wednesday in the eleventh : the feast of the Trinity began to be kept in some of the German and Italian churches about the tenth or eleventh century; it was not, however, till the fourteenth and fifteenth that it was generally adopted. Towards the ninth, the feast of the Nativity was established; that of the Conception dates from the thirteenth, and was confirmed by the council of Basle in 1439. Pope Gregory IV., about
the year 840, assigned the feast of All Saints to the 1st of November; that of All Souls originated in the thirteenth century. To these must be added the vigils, or wakes, local feasts in remembrance of the dedication of particular churches. Towards the conclusion of the fourth century there began to be a prodigious increase in the number of feast-days, occasioned by the discovery of the remains of martyrs and of holy men, for whose commemoration they were established. Many of these were instituted on a Pagan model, and abused in indolence, voluptuousness, and criminal practices, if we judge them by modern notions of morality. Perhaps, however, they might be partly expedient to wean from Paganism a rude untutored people, who could neither have understood nor relished a purely spiritual and abstract religion, and to whose senses and enjoyments, therefore, it became necessary to appeal in the first instance, as the sole means of ultimately convincing their reason. Candlemas, for instance, at which feast the lighted tapers that had received the benediction were carried in procession, was instituted by Pope Gelasius, in 492, to oppose the Lupercalia of the Pagans. On this point we have the following authority of the Venerable Bede: “ The church has happily changed the Pagan lustrations around the fields, which took place in the month of February, into processions in which lighted candles are borne, in memory of that divine light with which Jesus Christ has illuminated the world, and which occasioned him to be called by Simeon the light for the revelation of the Gentiles.” Others, however, maintain that Candlemas was a substitute for the feast of Proserpine, which the Pagans celebrated with lighted torches towards the beginning of February. Many church festivals are doubtless to be traced to the same origin. “ Christian, or rather Papal, Rome,” says Brand,* "has borrowed her rites, notions, and ceremonies, even in the most luxuriant abundance, from ancient and modern Rome; much the greater number of those flaunting externals which infallibility has adopted by way of feathers, to adorn the triple cap, having been stolen out of the wings of the dying eagle.”
Feasts, processions, shows, spectacles, mysteries, moralities, mummeries, and all the pride, pomp, and circum
* Popular Antiquities, Preface