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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation, Organise! #79 - Review: By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England, 1700-1880 by Bob Bushaway

Date Thu, 06 Dec 2012 13:23:50 +0200

Most studies of rural, pre-industrial, “folk” culture in England focus on an imagined, pastoral, conflict-free idyll in harmony with nature, very unlike the way we live today. Ceremonies and festivals are portrayed as religious affairs and their pagan roots emphasised over their social role. ---- Breviary Stuff's welcome reprint of Bob Bushaway's early-80s study, “By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700—1880,” redresses some of that imbalance. ---- Bushaway's focus is on the social meaning and function of rural rites and celebrations. He looks at how they seem to both represent and reframe symbolic community bonds, e.g. between farmer and labourer, the way that these customs changed (or were changed) over time and what that in turn says about changes in social relationships and property rights.

While slightly dry in tone, the
book is full of unexpected but
illuminating connections. For
example, the famous May Pole
was linked with community rights
to gather (“glean”) wood from
royal forests. The festival acted as
a community affirmation of the
right to take the means for their
survival from the land. No land-
lord (at one time) dared com-
plain that their timber was being
robbed for the festival.

Some of the stories go from
comical to political. “Perambula-
tion” of a parish's boundaries
was a ceremony where, without
recourse to State apparatus, a
community would agree on field
boundaries and police the use
of common land, noting where
encroachments had taken place
since the last Rogation Week pa-
rade. How was this different from
a normal stroll? “In order that
these memories should be the
sharper, at points in the peram-
bulation, boys would be bumped,
or stood on their heads in holes,
or thrown into streams or beds of
nettles.” This took on a political
purpose as Enclosure of common
lands progressed, for example on
Otmoor in 1830. After several acts
of night-time sabotage against
enclosure fences, up to 1000
locals declared “they would in
open daylight go possessing and
demolishing every fence which
obstructed their course” on such
a perambulation, leaving law en-
forcement powerless against their
cries of “Otmoor for ever!”

Themes of the book include
tradition as something in flux,
a contested area: is the land-
owner laying on the harvest feast
as charity, as wages, or under
duress? We also see peoples'
creativity in causing trouble for
those in power, twisting church or
state-approved celebrations for
their own purposes. Bonfire Night
in Castle Carey in 1768: “The
effigy of Justice Creed was led
through the streets this evening ...
and burnt immediately before the
Justice's house.” This was normal,
other celebrations were put down
by reading the Riot Act.

Other subversive acts are sanc-
tioned by tradition and provide
its protagonists with cover. Even
more open acts of rebellion, such
as the “Captain Swing” riots are
described by some participants as
being part of a historical conti-
nuity, “business as usual”. Some
burning of hay ricks and much
travel from house to house, col-
lectively begging for higher wages
or food in a same way as winter
“wassailing”. Despite this, and
“rioters” dressed in Sunday best
as if on an outing, repression was
fierce in an atmosphere of Char-
tist and Luddite-inspired panic.

With its rural focus, much of the
book deals with harvest-time
customs, including the labourers'
election of a delegate to negoti-
ate wages and conditions with
the landowner. Autonomy on the
job seems to have been a strong
motivator here, with the teams of
men (with women gleaning from
the cut fields) setting their own
powers to discipline colleagues
for shoddy work. As power
shifted, with mechanisation and
land enclosure, from workers to
landowners, this autonomy fell
away and families had to rely
more on charity during the harsh
winter months.

The book does cover a specialist
niche, but it fills it very well and
anyone remotely interested in the
shift to industrial society, pre-un-
ion forms of worker organisation,
land ownership and related fields
will find pieces of interest, many
unexpected. I got my moneys'
worth from this particular tale of
revenge meted out on a Poor Law

“Some 150 persons, including
many women & children as-
sembled [...] they brought with
them the handcart used by the
unemployed on parish relief. [...]
After some initial resistance, Abel
surrendered himself to the crowd
and ... took his place in the cart.
At his request he was conveyed
some six miles from the parish.
The cart was pulled by women &
children and a group of labourers
marched alongside in mock imita-
tion of a military bodyguard ...
many of the persons wore ribands
in their hats”.

A fun family day out, fighting back
against offensive and invasive
state powers. You may never look
at a Morris Dancer in the same
way again.

(Contributed by an Organise!

(Breviary Stuff Publications, 2011).
www.breviarystuff.org.uk ISBN 978-0-9564827-6-1
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