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The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.

By Ronald Hutton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. xx plus 542pp. $35.00).

Don't judge a book by its cover or by its title. Together, the Stonehenge image on the dust jacket and the solar reference suggest another of those New Age books which are selling so well at the moment in both Europe and North America. But readers who are looking for confirmation of their neopagan beliefs in forgotten fertility cults and repressed goddess worship will be deeply disappointed, for Ronald Hutton's detailed study of calendar rites is a systematic refutation of all such notions.

Hutton has established himself as the premier historian of British popular rites. His depth of knowledge of particular practices is impressive, but so is his historical reach, which extends from the late middle ages to the present. While others have written on one or another periods covered in this book, Hutton provides the first continuous account of calendar rites in England, Wales, and Scotland. He shows that the invention of tradition is not a modern phenomenon, but is coextensive with the historical record itself. We search in vain for the original, for the authentic, for there is no such thing beyond the perpetual quest to make sense of time itself, to bring some measure of symbolic, if not actual, order to the very unruly world we, by virtue of our humanity, inhabit. One might even go as far as to say that tradition was never invented, only reinvented.

While the book is heavily reliant on the researches of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century folklorists, it is deeply critical of the assumptions that dominated British folkloristics until quite recently. Deeply antiurban and antimodern, the folklore establishment found solace in the notion that calendar customs were survivals of ancient pagan religious practices, always on the brink of extinction unless rescued and restored to their original purity. As part of the cult of countryside, British folklore made a sharp distinction between what was regarded as authentic rural folk traditions and supposedly degenerate urban popular cultures. Its understanding of culture was as apolitical as it was ahistorical.

Hutton is able to show that British calendar rites were anything but survivals. He relentlessly undermines the notion of pagan origins and pre-christian fertility worship, demonstrating that virtually no part of the annual cycle, except perhaps for mid-summer fires, can be traced with certainty back beyond the middle ages. He demonstrates that most of what pre-1970s folklorists mistook for pagan was actually Christian, and that the great proliferation of calendar rites in the period 1350-1530 took place in conjunction with the church, which had a vested interest in creating a popular culture that it could influence, if not wholly control. In Hutton's words, "Merry England was inspired by the fires of hell."(p. 414). The monarchy also had a stake in the creation of popular culture, and many popular practices (such as Morris dancing) were the legacies of court culture that trickled down the social scale.

But, beginning in the sixteenth century, the reformed church divorced itself from the very rites which the Catholic clergy had so painstakingly nurtured. The monarchy also lost interest in the old calendar, with the result that old rites took on a vigorous new life under the sponsorship of local communities, guilds, civic associations, and, later, friendly societies and trade unions. Contrary to folkloristic assumptions, ritual was as deeply rooted in the towns as in the countryside. Furthermore, the first phases of the industrial revolution revitalized the British calendar when the poor used the old customs of hospitality to supplement their uncertain incomes. Divorced from royal patronage, custom also became a vehicle for social and political protest, a major reason why, by 1850, calendar customs were driven from the village green and town square by the authorities.

But, even then, ritual did not degenerate. Instead, it took on a new, even more dynamic life in new domestic forms - Christmas, New Year, Valentine's Day, May Day, Halloween - to name only a few treated in detail by Hutton. It turns out that ritual was never in danger of extinction. Had the folklorists been willing to explore urban cultures and look closer to home, they would have found it flourishing. It remains today at the very heart of modern family cultures, for, as Hutton points out, "the ritual calendar ... is becoming a celebration of private relationships and the individual lifecycle."(p. 427)

For all its empirical richness, Hutton's book makes no serious effort to explain the ubiquity of ritual. On several occasions he invokes nature, deploying the concept in a wholly unproblematized way, ignoring recent work that has historicized the concept. And, when it comes to our own day, when most people live more independently of seasonal changes, he is forced to admit that "humanity has come to replace the natural world at the center of the wheel of the year." (p. 427)

But just what is humanity? Nowhere does Hutton use the considerable body of anthropological or cognitive sociological theory that has addressed the way that people everywhere use ritual to bring meaning to life. In this respect, his treatment of ritual is no advance over the folklorists he criticizes, for, while Hutton provides a dense, compelling description of historical change, he fails to provide a comprehensive cultural analysis. But, then, that would be a very different study from the one that Hutton set out to write. And we should be immensely grateful for what he has accomplished here, for this book is now the definitive account of the history of calendar rites, a remarkable historical achievement by any standard.

John R. Gillis Rutgers University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gillis, John R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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