Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Burlington, VT. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. first ed. 1978, rev. ed. 1994


In order to discover the attitudes of peasants and craftsmen, one must modify the methods of Johann Huizinga and Jacob Burckhardt, Burke suggests, by adding tools used by folklorists and social anthropologists. The span of the survey, 1500-1800, is necessary because it is long enough to reveal trends and sufficiently well documented to bear examination. Burke defines culture as: 'a system of shared meanings, attitudes and values and the symbolic forms (performances, artifacts) in which they are expressed or embodied'

In his introduction to the revised edition, Burke acknowledges the many works on popular culture added since his 1978 book. Revisiting the questions he addressed in his first introduction, he notes that there are two key problems for works of this sort: 1) What is popular? 2) What is culture? At the micro-level "popular" culture is really a group of groups, changing over time. At the macro-level, he argues that change to the lower classes comes from the elite, upper clergy, and filters down, civilizing and disciplining influences. Attempts to categorize the popular classes include such terms as "dominant versus subordinate," "center versus periphery," "elites versus underprivileged," etc. Culture, then is a balance between objects, their adaptations and appropriations and circulation, and groups, arranged in a two tier model with flow between the classes through intermediaries.

The history of culture now includes things, ideas and values that underlie everyday life, and a social construction of culture is now distinguished from histories of literature, art and music. However, adhering to his earlier vision, Burke continues to prefer and use the ideas of 'artifacts' and 'performances.' In this work he covers images, printed matter, houses, singing, dancing, acting in plays and engaging in rituals. Essentially, as a student of popular culture, Burke is interested in values and symbols wherever these are to be found.

Chapter One.

J. G. Herder is among the more famous 18th-century scholars with interest in popular culture; he collected folk songs. This is the age in which popular ballads and folk stories are "rescued" by scholars across Europe as the local and peasant cultures vanish via roads, literacy, loss of language, towns, factories. Travelers went in search of ancient manners and cultures - c.f. Johnson and Boswell in the Western Isles of Scotland. Why did recovery of culture happen when it did? There were aesthetic reasons, intellectual reasons, and political reasons. Among the elites, there was a revolt against artifice and a new appreciation of cultural primitivism. Included in this trend are writings by Rosseau and the Ossian Ballads by James McPherson in the 1760s (earlier than all the other scholars and the general trend he mentions). The "discovery of the people" is a part of nationalist movement to recover culture, especially those people whose lands were being dominated by others. (e.g. Serbia overrun by the Turks) He adds that the nationalist project was imposed by the upper classes on the lower, since locals had a - well - local view of the world. Those at the center - England, France and Germany - who had invested in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were slower to abandon those values than those at the periphery. The ancient, the artless, the free were of more appeal to those on the periphery who associated the Enlightenment with oppression. The French sent out questionnaires in the 1790s to capture local customs and cultures, and did so again in the Italian lands that they conquered under Napoleon. However, the discoverers of vanishing culture were literary men, and they didn't just write down the stories or music that they heard. They translated stories, changed endings, cleaned-up the gruesome or sexy bits, added logical connections, embellished, smoothed, made fit for modern audiences. Or even made up, more or less, in the case of Ossian. Herder and Grimm and their ilk said three things about popular culture that Burke believes are problematic: it was primitive, communistic, and pure. Burke argues that "primitive" is hard to be certain about - stories and songs could be, but may have been revived or changed, moved forward with the peasants, and is not really a window into the very far past. Then, individual talented craftsmen make their mark - so it was not quite a communal effort. Finally the source of popular culture may have been the lower classes, but it was the upper classes who wrote things down and the townsmen who mediated between the rural and urban populations.

Chapter Two: Unity and Variety in Popular Culture

Burke describes a great tradition and a little tradition: the learning and stories of the classics, and Latin were the great tradition. The "little" traditions included folk songs, folk tales, devotional images, decorated marriage chests, mystery plays and farces, chapbooks, broadsides and festivals. Elites enjoyed carnivals, sermons and singers of tales, broadsides and chapbooks as well as the peasants did. They were bi-cultural, whereas the peasants were mono-cultural.

"Redfield's model needs to be modified and it might be restated like this. There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little tradition, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. This asymmetry came about because the two traditions were transmitted in different ways. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in thee sense that people who had not attended these institutions which were not open to all, were excluded. In a quite literal sense they did not speak the language. The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church, the tavern and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred." (28)

What about the non-elites? They didn't have a uniform way of life, and there are many kinds of divisions to take into account. Some lived in villages, and towns, some lived in rural settings or the forests, plains or mountains. Some were rich, some were poor. As an aside, folk or popular art is created for the peasant aristocracy. How about divisions according to job? In rural areas shepherds were free, not serfs, were alone most of the time, wandered a bit, had their own songs, gatherings and language, as did miners and woodcutters and Cossacks. Then, in urban settings, literate and political weavers, shoe-makers (who were preachers or prophets) - had some time on their hands, maybe? - or the journeyman culture (in France actual journeying made a difference to them), adolescent apprentice culture - for whom some chapbooks appear to be written -- and masters, particularly free-masons, who lived on the building site, and had some peculiar rituals of their own. Townspeople tended to be more literate because they had more touch with writing. How about other jobs? Soldiers, sailors, beggars and thieves had their own culture, slang, traditions, songs. Thieves in particular had a "counter-culture" - the famous 'guild of thieves.' Then religion is a dividing point. In 1500 there are Catholics and Orthodox Christians, Jews and Moriscos in Spain, and soon to be Protestants. Here he mentions gypsies as an ethnic a-Christian group.

There are two final divisions: gender and region. As for gender, women's culture is lost because they didn't participate in craft or guild or societies, but they did had some traditional jobs such as cloth making, and also being mostly illiterate, preserved songs and oral traditions associated with their crafts. How about regions? It is possible to see very small areas as their own region. To avoid a focus on impossibly small groups, he decides to use Carl Von Sydow's idea of the ecotype to show that stories and ideas flourish across regions, each with their own variation. Language families allow stories to flow across their routes. You can even see stories flowing across India and Turkey into Europe and back out again.

How to describe the cultural geography of Europe as a whole? (The palimpsest) There are hamlets and villages, then compact older irregular villages and planned colonizing linear villages. Then there is the geography of vernacular architecture (shaped by local building materials), and the geography of literacy. Consider, too, the weather and climate and physical geography: the colder darker north and brighter warmer south, forests and clearings, coastlines and inland areas. Then, language groups: Romance, Germanic, Slavonic, Celtic and Finno-Urgrian. Then western free peasants and eastern- Elbe enserfed peasants. And, of course, settled lands versus frontiers. One can describe three Europes: Northwestern, Southern and Eastern Europe.

How is culture diffused? How do high and low cultures interact? Some things sink down: chivalry and romances move from the elites to the peasants; but some aspects do get sieved out. And festivals percolate up, and manners and ideas are used by elites to make a mockery of themselves and their own culture. A small example: Handel uses inspiration from a bagpipes tune in his Messiah. Witches incorporate elements of the great tradition (the Bible, classics) and the little (local peasant superstitions). Chapbooks for the semi-literate bridge the gap between the high and low cultures.

Chapter Three: The Mediators

Who are the mediators? First, there are foreigners who made records of what they saw in other countries. The works of popular actors but their writings are after the fact of the performance, and to another audience. So likewise with sermons, where local culture is transformed for lessons and also when written sent to another audience. Heresies and witchcraft - all popular and local - are recorded by those authorities who intended to suppress them.

There are at least six different sources for popular culture. Great writers who adopted the form for literary production. Sermons, but keeping in mind, as above. Chapbooks could have been used for propaganda by the elites, and also they are reworkings of old stories that were selected by printers, chosen again by sellers before reaching the peasants. Oral tradition - but keeping in mind that when it reaches us, it has been through a writer. Even occasionally a piece of oral tradition is written, read, and relearned as oral tradition. Trials could be unmediated, but where there are standard questions and torture involved, then we can be sure of some kind of distortion towards what the inquisitor wants and expects to hear. What peasants write during rebellions could be direct access to popular culture, but then again they might rely on someone elite to do the writing for them, or their writings could subsequently be suborned.

So there are oblique approaches to popular culture. Viz. studying the text for the performance to be recovered, as when someone took shorthand notes at a sermon or at a play(?). This should be fairly direct. Also, one might examine individuals who were born to peasant families but became educated and wrote for the popular audience, like John Bunyan. Iconography and iconology - witness Mr. Erwin Panofsky - in which the historian reads not only the content (as opposed to form) but the symbolism, meanings inherent in the content. How did people feel about the image of a shoe, or St. John? One can interpret the signs in clothing, in buildings, etc. Use, as March Bloch recommended, the regressive method. Take folk material gathered perhaps a century after your intended time period and make some tentative assumptions about the way things might have been.
Supplement this method by comparisons to local versions and to "long-distance" versions - those separated by time and space. Historians of popular culture should use the methods of anthropologists.

Chapter 4: The Transmission of Popular Culture

Who transmitted active culture? Were they innovators, or keepers and guardians of culture? There were some professionals - such as printers, print artists, families of puppeteers, those who made chapbooks, and such families can be identified in France, Germany, Sweden, Spain. As well, there were individuals who made specific contributions, such as the tailor's widow who gave the Grimm brothers 21 of their tales.
Birth, marriage, baptism records and wills are our primary source for this information.

Among professionals, there were madonneri (painters of madonnas), blacksmiths, "ballad singers, bear wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers ." (94) Variety shows were typical, including music and improvised verses, tumbling, juggling, magic acts, and healer-entertainer acts. Ballad singers would mount a bench (mountebank), point to pictures, sing, and sell copies of the ballad. News singers were also part of some city cultures. Those who made a better living usually made their homes in larger cities, and some were troops of strolling players, of larger and smaller size, and in better or worse condition. Blind ballad singers were so common as to have their own fraternities.
One might also find wandering itinerate teachers, and some of these also offered their services at fairs. Burke includes in his entertainment category itinerate friars who preached with funny or moral stories, songs, and histrionics.

Semi- or non professionals included the craft guilds or fraternities or village-groups who banded together to put on plays at festivals or for special feasts. It is known that some nobles and wrote for festivals, and a few of them "encouraged" their own peasants to be artists by reading the classics to them. Local regulations also governed, to some extent, who was licensed to work in a particular region. Lay preachers, prophets, healers and diviners also classify as "popular entertainment," but tended to be more divisive and troublesome in a community. Turning to "cunning men" and "wise women," they tended to be herbalists, healers, purveyors of minor charms and amulets, indulged in fortune-telling, and sometimes even offering veterinary services. He gives a specific example of a tailor's daughter from Sweden, who functioned, he says, as a kind of psychologist- shaman.

Locations to "imbibe" popular culture were the church, the piazza, the marketplace and the tavern. Churches hosted feasts and dances on the eve of a patron saint; taverns had ballads, broadsides, games; places to the south had piazzas; and of course fairs were a place for news, dances, trade, games, and for young people to have fun apart from parental supervision.

Returning to his first question, were people innovators or bearers of tradition? It is impossible, he says, to know if people were making significant changes; certainly they were performing a little differently each time, and certainly extemporaneous performances were enjoyed. But people tended not to claim changes as their own. They had rather say "I heard it from a friend," or "my uncle sang it this way," and so put the performance in a traditional, customary, or historical context. The community selects that which they want to pass along and keep.

Chapter 5 describes the forms available to performances of popular culture, and conventions where they exist, for each. Dances were dominated by round and weapon dances - group dances - in cultures across Europe. Of course there are the "seductive" dances - mostly mentioned to be condemned - such as the fandango, which came to Spain from America, and of course, that corrupter of morals, the waltz. He briefly reviews rhyme schemes for ballads, from the simplest 4 syllable - 3 syllable stanza (abcb) the ottava rima (abababcc). Ballads often were broken up into sections called fits, and these fits might be performed across several days, with the appropriate cliff-hanger at the end of each day to insure tomorrow's audience. Among the song types were the lament, the praise song (King, God, girl), the satirical song (likewise) and the farewell. Stories and sermons comprised the offerings in prose. Then there were dramas, generally dictated by the number of players - dialogues with 2 players, farces with 3 or more, and with companies, there are mystery, miracle and morality plays. Parody is an important form for this period. There were mock plays, mock sermons, mock prayers, mock trials, marriages, battles and funerals - and these were not necessarily sacrilegious. Peasants were familiar with these forms, and so used them freely. In particular, known forms, and expected endings, lend themselves to comedy. (This point he doesn't develop, but I think the idea is worth remembering). And some, of course, were sacrilegious. What were the similarities and differences between forms? Musical phrases or motifs are borrowed across music, and likewise individual phrases, whole incidents and general motifs are borrowed, adapted and re-mixed from ballad and story. Repeated elements and standard elements allow the story to move forward as the author thinks of the next bit and the audience absorbs the familiar "milk-white steed" and "coal black raven." Another oral element (which does not work as well in print) are linked trinary patterns, a device which helps the listener to remember aspects of a character as they are being developed and heightens suspense as the story unfolds. Folklorists and structuralists have made much of the schematic orders that can be made if the motifs are indexed as "A" or "B" and so on. Stories can thus be compared across cultures and languages, as Levi-Strauss has argued. (and transformational grammar - which he stays away from). Sermons also share common phrases and motifs (from the Bible). In addition, they have a basic format: presentation of the text, greeting of the audience and prayer for God's help, introductory theme, explanation of the meaning of the text, and conclusion. Another useful devise is the extended metaphor, and of these we have a plentitude of examples (God's ploughman, the card, the soul and the stormy sea). In plays, the forms are made up of stock characters - knights, Turks, clowns, beaten husbands, shepherds, fools, etc.

The visual arts are a bit more difficult to characterize, but he says there is a visual vocabulary of geometrical and design elements - stylized plants, animals, birds, people. An important aspect of printed imagery are "standard scenes:" a feast could be the marriage at Cana, Belshazzar's feast, the Last Supper. A saint with the right iconography could stand for St. James, St. Martin, St. George. Visually a scene may be bisected just as it in a literary form, antithesis is used.

As in chapter four, performances were somewhere between new and old: singers, story-tellers learn a vocabulary of motifs and the rules for combining them. (In fact, contests for rhyming and singing and story-telling and so on, took place regularly). Because it is an oral culture, individuals created new performances out of a stock set of figures and ideas. The later dominant form, writing, tends to fix the plot line while allowing for the in-depth development of characters.

Chapter Six: Heroes, Villains and Fools

What were the fundamental attitudes and values of peasants and craftsmen? Our heroes and villains and fools surpass, threaten and falling short of our standards. Some heroes were cross-cultural (St. George). The saint, the warrior, the ruler, and the outlaw were four important protagonists. Good rulers could be glorious, incognito, coming back (a once and future king) or, by contrast, a new evil Herod or Pharaoh. Officials and sheriffs are often the wrong-doers; the king doesn't know what his minions are up to. Holy men and saints include the ascetic and the kindly saint, as well as the merry and happy priest, and the unscrupulous greedy, lazy and lustful priest (lots of anti-clericalism in this period). The noble warriors come off pretty well: Holgier the Dane, the Cid of Spain, Guy of Warwick (England?), Roland of France. But they can be touchy, and a little rough around the edges, and more interested in battles than girls. A few are treacherous, and almost none are, as they were in real life, nasty landlords (curiously enough) Noble knights are replaced by the professional army officer, the victorious general. Plain soldiers don't come in for much praise until after the Thirty Years War. Who were characterized as ignorant, pendantic, pretentious, and foolish? -- those were lawyers! Middle class heroes are rare. Ordinary people saw themselves as rogues or tricksters, but happiest, generally if left alone. And women are best if placed in iconographical scenes. Busy active women are likely to be witches. Outlaws are heroes to the extent that the help the common folk and twist the noses of the authories. Some social outlaws, however, were fearful and legitimate targets of hate: Jews, Turks and witches
Peasant attitudes, he sums up, were traditional: for authority -- fair, noble and saintly authority -- and against middle-class oppression. What kinds of attitudes did peasants have about social ills? He gives five general responses (which seem not terribly illuminating): fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical and millinerian.

Chapter Seven: The World of Carnival

For the peasant, Carnival split the year - anticipating Carnival, and afterwards, looking forward to the next one. Carnival began in January before Lent, and was characterized by formal processions and events and informal street-theater type games and fun. The three themes of Carnival, says Burke, are food, sex and violence. Carnival was a time to eat to gorging, a time to pay back insults and take vengange (or umbrage), and a time for drinking and sex (as birth rates show) Carnival was a time for the mock fight between Carnival itself, a fat man and Lent, a thin, fish-hung woman. It expressed the "world turned upside down" theme, allowing for parodies of church services and church prayers. "Carnival was polysemous, meaning different things to different people." (191) Among other festivals Burke discusses the odd rituals of St. John's feast, representing as the certainly do a recycled pagan festival. Executions were another kind of public amusement and ceremony also marked the procession to death. Not so serious, but just as common, was the charivari, or rough music, which was a kind of public raspberry with pots and pans. Many have argued that Carnival was allowed for the releasing of social steam, and possibly also for feedback to be given to rulers about how they were doing their job. It serves as a feedback control mechanism

[He canvasses briefly iconology: the study of symbols associated with a stock character or saint. ??]

Chapter 7: The Triumph of Lent

Burke argues that popular culture was reformed by the clerics and educated upper class, partly as a result of the Reformation, and partly as the result of the new print culture and the possibility of forming public opinion across territories, languages and cultures.

The first phase occurred from 1500-1650. Catholics and Protestants both took part in the reform, and as groups, they didn't always agree internally, and they sometimes both agreed about some issues. To take one example, how did St. George and the Dragon fare? "A chap-book life of St George, published in Augsburg in 1621, tells the story of his life and martyrdom without any reference to the dragon which was presumably rejected as apocryphal. Pageants on St George's day were common in late medieval Europe; at Norwich, they featured St. George, St. Margaret and of course a dragon. They saints were abolished in 1552 because they 'savored of popery,' while the dragon, known affectionately as 'Old Snap,' survived till 1835. Thus the reform of popular culture in Catholic Augsburg meant showing St. George without the dragon; in Protestant Norwich it meant showing the dragon without St. George." (216)

What did reformers object to? First, some things were identified as "too" pagan: May Day, Twelfth Night, saint's days. Then, some parodies were "too" blasphemous: somehow, dressing kids up as priests and backwards prayers no longer seemed funny. Then, dancing inclined to lechery and spending money at Carnival was frivolous and wasteful. Images were to be repudiated with the saints they represented. Plays and pageants begin to drop out.

The printed Bible in common language was a high priority to many Protestant believers, and the great vernacular Bibles were published between 1522 and 1611. Although many could not afford a Bible, there were more to be read from, more to hear, and the Psalms were at this time set to music again. Important to both Protestants and Catholics were catechisms. In 18th century Sweden 1 in every 5 houses had a catechism whereas far fewer houses had Bibles (maybe 1 in 20). Coming full circle, secular songs were re-absorbed into pious songs. Protestants used plays in the early years, but they lost their importance in the long run. Likewise paintings were abandoned for painted texts on the walls.

The original support for the adoption of "pagan" Christmas and mid-summer festivals was repudiated. Reformed rituals, images and texts were created on both sides. For Catholics, for example, basins of books and images of Protestants were burned instead of the Carnival image. New saints and new images were offered: Joseph is taken more seriously and there is more emphasis on the Eucharist and the cult of the holy family (but not the extended kin). Catholics also developed catechisms. In 1650-1800, the reform spread to outlying areas, Sweden, Wales, Scotland. Magic and witchcraft were seen as superstitious: not as blasphemous, but in a new way - as foolish, having no foundation. In the second phase, more laymen were involved in religion, and a division between religion and taste was developed. The idea of "bad use of the form," came into being (?). A hanger-on into the 20th century is the Obergammerau passion play, but others were banned. As a result, and because of other changes to be documented, the educated minority were separated from popular traditions.

Chapter 9: Popular Culture and Social Change.

The population of Europe more than doubled from 1500 to 1800, and at the same time, there is the rise of commercial capitalism, international trade between states and nations. Finished labor is centered in Western Europe and goods and food are sourced from Eastern Europe. A communications revolution is also underway: ships are built, canals are dug, postal services are more frequent, and money and credit begin to circulate, and regional markets for local goods are developed. Although less than 3% of the population live in cities of 100,000 or more, and the small workshop is still the center of economic production, but the change is nevertheless significant. Prices rose faster than wages. Small-holders and wage laborers were hurt; employers, owners, and shopkeepers were benefited. There was a golden age of popular culture before it was destroyed by print culture and the industrial revolution combined. Richer peasants had more and more beautifully decorated objects, more hangings because fireplaces were contained and less smoky. The export market allowed for regional specialization; hand-made things were a little less elaborate, certainly less personalized, but the range of customers was more wide-spread (and maybe less local). Eastern Europe stayed somewhat outside this trend. Moving onward in history, leisure itself was commercialized; businessmen invested in them. Horse-races and weightlifters were to be found in England, and in particular, and by the 1700s the horse-races occupied a complex and large industry (c.f. Mansfield Park). The first circus is 1770 (gathering up all the out-of-work players?). The popular sports hero (bullfighters, boxers) is "invented" in this era. Carnival at Rome & Venice becomes a tourist industry for visitors, not locals.

And what about the book? By about 1500 there are 20 million books for 80 million people (250). (This is a rather startling entrepreneurial investment actually). Could peasants read and afford them? It seems that literary rose rather quickly, with the literate being craftsmen rather than peasants, men rather than women, Protestants rather than Catholics, and Western Europeans rather than Eastern Europeans. By 1850, adult literacy figures are sharply revealing: Russian 10%; Italy and Spain 25%; England 70%; Scotland 80%; Sweden 90%. (251) In Sweden in the Moklinta parish, 21% of men and women could read in 1614, but 89% could read and write by 1685-94. (252) Protestants had set up many and apparently effective schools. Did books reach craftsmen and peasants, and could they afford them? Yes, and yes. Chapbooks were not too expensive and they could be bought in many places.

The impact of the book fixed the stories and made it more likely for people to read "on their own time." Based on studies in Nigeria, an American sociologist argued that a new personality comes from reading - a willingness to change, more compassion because of a sense of vicarious experience, a more flexible approach to life. (humm) - by a study of literate and illiterate wills he's not too convinced. Chapbook stories had a long long life, staying the same in 1800 as 1400. But new heroes joined the old heroes, and "how to" books became popular. He describes two trends: secularization and politicization. First, and most strongly, peasants just stop going to church. Second, in a weaker form, they adopt secular heroes as their "saints." (e.g. Moll Flanders). It's hard to know how politically aware peasants were, but it seems that they were, if we pay attention to the subject of the many thousands of broadsides and prints. It also seems that peasants began to think they had rights. The 1618-1648 Thirty Years War made everyone a politician, will they nil. As did the English Civil War. Not only the English, but also the Netherlands became a center of publishing for newspapers during this time (until today, in fact). Print shops were developed along side of newspapers to propagate satire. It was to the public's benefit to be aware of politics, because conscription of soldiers was far more wide in scope by the 18th century than it had ever been before.

The upper classes then withdrew from the fun. Nobles and bourgeoisie were more affected by the Renaissance than the Reformation. As amusements and languages and education began to differ, then so cultures ceased to be shared. Charlatans and quacks become pejorative terms. Witchcraft and prophesies are spurned. England withdrew earlier, France slightly later, and the northeast part of Europe, it went more slowly yet. The rise and fall of witch trials shows the withdrawal of the upper class. The popular culture he describes could only change slowly. After the advent of the industrial revolution, with the ability for rapid movement, the whole idea of what popular culture could be changed.

At long last, educated men began to see peasant culture as exotic and interesting. After 1650 the study of popular culture begins in England and Italy. The court of Louis the XIV had a fashion for fairy tales. In 1774 J.G. Herder begins the rediscovery in Germany.