Who's Who

Bonfires and Bells; & Prophecy and Power

Published in History Today 1990
  • Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England
    David Cressy (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989, xiv+271 pp.)
  • Prophecy and Power: Astrology in Early Modern England
    Patrick Curry (Polity Press, 1989, 238 pp.)

Time past, time future; these two authors examine the experience of time in Early Modern England – David Cressy through the emergence of a calendar that commemorated the new Protestant monarchy, and Patrick Curry through the fortunes of the discipline which many contemporaries felt was the key to foretelling. Time present too; memory and prophecy shaped and were shaped by the concerns of the day. The content of the one, the very possibility of the other, were tied to current interests and were diversely interpreted. In some contexts, they were fiercely contested. Notions of time were, indeed, cultural constructs, which makes these two books examples of what is increasingly being called 'cultural' history.

David Cressy is perhaps less comfortable with the genre. His account of the new, more secular mnemonic, and of its establishment in print and in festival is expert enough. With the natural and agrarian calendar intact, but the Christian year shorn of Catholic celebrations, Protestant England developed a national, dynastic, and patriotic relation- ship with time which increasingly set it apart from the rest of Europe.

Recent incidents of English history were seen as symbolic of the regime's emergence and its providential survival against all – but mostly Catholic – threats. Queen Elizabeth's accession day (November 17th), the deliverance of 1588, and the Gunpowder Plot immediately became anniversaries. Together with memories of the return from Spain of the unmarried Prince Charles in October 1623 and the general memorialising of Elizabeth, they reminded men and women throughout the seventeenth century of their supposedly single cultural identity.

Cressy writes skilfully about this new politics of memory and the variety of its ritual expressions. But he is less happy with some of the features of cultural history itself, particularly its theoretical richness and its relationship to cultural anthropology. The symbolism of even things like bonfires and bell- ringing – what he calls the 'vocabulary' of celebration – does require more analysis than it is given here, and any treatment of the celebration of regimes, in particular, ought to be more alert to the general problem of the role of charismatic authority in traditional cultures.

Cressy is evidently more at home with traditional historiography. A tell-tale feature of his book is the use of churchwardens' accounts to show, in un- warranted detail, how much local money was spent on the new festivals; as if the significance of joy can somehow be quantified.

Patrick Curry writes not of the burgeoning access to the past, but of the declining hold over the future. But his book revises completely the simple story of astrology's intellectual defeat at the hands of the 'new science'. The halcyon days of astrology were certainly during the 1640s and 1650s, but what happened to it after the Restoration was as much a social and political process as an intellectual one and was not at all a matter of outright confrontation with the forces of science.

Curry prefers the label 'change' to describe the period to about 1710, during which the boundaries between the sub-disciplines of natural philosophy were blurred and fluctuating, and attempts were made to give astrology as thoroughly a Baconian and empirical basis as any of the studies favoured by the Royal Society. His argument coincides crucially with other recent attempts to emphasise the pluralism and ambivalence in Restoration science and its continued interest in what historians once dismissed as 'the occult'.

For eighteenth-century astrology Curry chooses the description 'survival'. This is largely because he is able to break the subject down into a 'low' or popular version which was continuous throughout the period and beyond, a 'middle' version, based on judicial astrology, which enjoyed appeal with the professional and middle classes, and a 'high' or cosmological version, which disappeared only because it was redescribed and then absorbed by the natural philosophy of things like comets.

A strength of both these studies is that they treat cultural forms as, in the fullest sense, ideological – that is to say, as subject to contestation. The new calendar was intended to bind the English nation to the dynasty in a single view of recent history. But quite apart from the management of celebration 'from above', recent history had produced losers as well as winners. All the way through the period, there was a Puritan way of responding to time (in New England, days and months were given numbers by some of the more zealous).

By the end of the seventeenth century, as Cressy nicely puts it, the Spring had become Tory and the Autumn Whig. Patrick Curry's main argument is that astrology paid dearly for its association with radicalism and populism during the English Revolution. For a while it too had its Tory and Whig versions; ultimately however, the establishment closed ranks against a practice associated more and more with plebeian culture.

Considerations of social class were so important to the history of astrology that Curry closes his book by reflecting on the general relationship between mentalities and ideologies. Both he and Cressy rightly see this relationship as a focus of cultural history.

  • Stuart Clark is a Lecturer in History at University College of Swansea.

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