The dynamics of urban festal culture in later medieval England
A distinctive subset of late medieval drama are those customs which involved an element of subversion or inversion on the occasion of a calendar feast. These customs, which may generically be labelled as misrule, have long been a source of interest to antiquarians, local historians and students of medieval drama and popular culture. One particular view which has dominated the discussion and interpretation of misrule is the approach which sees such practices as a conservative force in late medieval society, that is, by temporarily challenging authority these customs merely reaffirm it in the long run. It is the contention of this thesis that although this model has raised the important question of the relationship between misrule, politics and social structure in this period, it is inappropriate both as a metaphor and as a tool for the analysis of these themes. I review the scholarly literature on misrule over the past twenty-five years in Chapter One, drawing attention to the problems of previous approaches. In Chapter Two I put forward what I believe to be a more appropriate vocabulary and framework in which those calendar customs with a transgressive element can be discussed. I suggest that misrule is more constructively approached as an instance of symbolic inversion, which enables functionalist terms like 'safety-valve' to be replaced by a neutral language that does not prejudge the function of a custom. I use this new methodology to undertake a series of case-studies in Chapters Three to Six, each of which examines the function of a particular custom. I am able to show that misrule could have a variety of functions in the late medieval town, playing a part in local change as part of wider strategy of resistance, as well as being one means through which social status could be accumulated and articulated.