English traditions are varied and confusing and those of Easter are no exception. A strand of radicalism is a frequent thread. That is, the existing order of power relations is subverted in some way. The most common form of this is the Lord of Misrule, a character who is the precise reverse of the existing order of monarchs, gentry, clerics and landowners. The figure is meant to be one of fun but as often disorder and riot are also present. I wrote on this some time back here in association with Twelfth Night. This piece reflects on a similar post Eastertide tradition that survived up to the last century.
Easter has little association with Misrule but there is still a subverting tradition – that of Hocktide. In more recent times (and I’m not sure it existed beyond the early twentieth century) it took place on Easter Monday or Tuesday. Earlier it was to be found at the end of a much longer Easter festival – a week or so after Easter Sunday.
Hocktide, says socialist historian Keith Flett:
“involved most commonly groups of women, married or single, young and old ‘kidnapping’ men and holding them to ransom for money. Originally the money raised went to local Church funds but it appears that later it was used to fund sporting activities and feasts. In a male dominated society, it was a rare expression of female power.”
Hocktide, like many other religious associated customs, was discouraged under the Long Parliament in the 1640s and even more so during the period of Cromwellian government in the 1650s. It seems to have re-blossomed in the Restoration period, and was associated with the marking of the beginning of summer, a long boozy weekend and to put no finer point on it – a bit of restoration plebian rumpy-pumpy.
The anonymous writer on country lore who writes weekly for the Darlington and Stockton Times had, back in 2007, no doubt on the matter. He or she wrote:
“It doesn’t take much imagination together with knowledge of human nature to realise that liberties would be taken. Some villages extended the custom to anyone entering the village at Hocktide. Ropes were strung across the roads to halt vehicles and horses, the people were kidnapped and held to ransom before being released. In some areas, money was not demanded, a kiss was settled for instead. However, in one local town several women caught an unfortunate man and ‘kissed him till he was black in the face’ by leather-breeched coalpit women.”
Legitimising Norman hegemony?
But going back into the real mists of time, was it more? Was there, in fact, an organised attempt by the newly installed Norman ruling class after 1066 to turn a bacchanalian festival into an affirmation against an anti-Norman ‘enemy within’ and so-called aliens as a way of legitimising Norman hegemony? A clue comes from Coventry where there was an annual play called ‘The Old Coventry Play of Hock Tuesday‘. This depicted the struggle between Saxons and Danes, and has given colour to the suggestion that hock-tide was originally a commemoration of the massacre of the Danes on St. Brice’s Day, 13 November 1002, or of the rejoicings at the death of Harthacanute on 8 June 1042 and the expulsion of the Danes. A scholarly paper, The thing is grounded on story: The Danes and Mediaeval English Memory by Daniel Wollenberg, Professor of English at Tampa University and reprinted by Northern Studies, addresses how notions of the past are redefined to fit current dominant social narratives of a ruling class.
The background is a simple one; Norman rule outwith the South East of England was not the absolute event normally depicted after the Battle of Hastings. In large parts of the East Midlands and the then Northumbria (which stretched from the Humber to the Tweed) it became accepted only by default. This was because this was the land of the Danelaw where settled communities of mixed Saxon and Danish background lived amicably and reasonably prosperously. It was fertile country for revolt, what with outside Norman barons divvying up the land and non-English clerics appointed to the leading cathedrals like Durham. Wollenberg describes how the fear of a revolt in the NE could set off a wider uprising involving the Western Celts as well, and hence the blood soaked expeditionary forces sent North from York in 1069/70 to undertake what has been called (perhaps too politely) the ‘Harrying of the North’, a purge which laid waste to an entire region and which could be equated to a modern day act of genocide.
But William the Conqueror’s successors were perhaps more sanguine about holding power. Unlike him, they recognised that the sword alone was not enough. Hearts and minds have to be won too. Wollonberg writes:
“In the accounts of William of Poitiers and Henry of Huntingdon, the Estoire de Seint Aedward sketches the Conquest not as a conquest at all, but a setting to rights of English sovereignty after the unlawful and alien disruption of the Danish kings and Harold Godwinson.”
The narrative of English and Norman cooperation and alliance and their mutual interest in fending off alien Danes was in the late 11th century a politically expedient mythos which then became in 12th and 13th century chronicles a means to laud and draw attention to a centralised and ‘just’ English sovereignty with continuity from past to present. The fact it was run by French speaking Normans was simply by the way.
And so, the parallels with the present day. Substitute a boozy long weekend ‘Festival of Brexit’, and replace the spectre of dragon headed Danish longships looming through the sea fret with that of rubber life floats crammed with desperate asylum seekers, and you have all the motifs that so appealed back then to the powers that be in the late eleventh century. Plus ça change.