The Reformation of Popular Culture

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Ann W. Ramsey

In the 1960s and 1970s, through efforts to understand "social history from below," historians began to focus on communal rituals and festivities, which from the late Middle Ages forward also became targets of reform or abolition. It appears that early modern secular elites intensified or coopted preexisting clerical campaigns to regulate the sacred and to separate it from popular entertainments. Targets included the Feast of Fools; charivari; confraternal processions; mystery plays; carnivalesque behaviors like feasting, drinking, and masking; and the physical license and magical rites that celebrated saints' days, holy days, agricultural cycles, and rites of passage like birth, baptism, marriage, and death.


No universal definition either of popular culture or of its reformation applies equally satisfactorily to all time periods or regions of Europe. Most broadly the reformation of popular culture refers to the combination of social, political, economic, technological, cultural, and psychological changes that established the disciplining of the body, emotions, and cognition as a desired social norm. From the Renaissance forward new models for piety, manners, sexual modesty, hygiene, and work discipline transformed authority relations between elites and the popular classes. Popular culture is one of the most important domains in which elites and the common people developed and contested new technologies of power.

The concept of a reformation of popular culture is best adapted to the early modern period, for which it was first developed. Within the context of that period historians emphasize that elites increasingly regarded communal festivities as impious, socially and politically subversive, superstitious, and backward. Humanism, new attitudes toward the sacred, increasing social conflict stemming from economically uneven recovery from the Black Death (1347), and the growth of princely sovereignty created a volatile and socially competitive atmosphere. In the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries the amount of festival license that ruling elites were willing to grant the common people declined. The potential of festival and popular gatherings to lead to revolt was the most important factor in their repression in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period. Sustained periods of warfare, including the wars of religion in France, 1563–1598; the Thirty Years' War in Germany, 1618–1648; and the Time of Troubles in Russia, 1604–1613, and periods of economic depression throughout the seventeenth century helped destroy the fabric of traditional communities and led to the abandonment of many popular traditions.

In the sixteenth century the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants intensified societal scrutiny and regulation of all ritual behaviors. This occurred because the meanings of ritual and the sacred were subject to unprecedented doctrinal and social debate. Popular public rituals, such as confraternal processions and the bonfires of Saint John's Eve, mixed the sacred and the profane. Because Catholics and Protestants disagreed about the correct boundaries between the sacred and the profane and about the nature of the sacred itself, popular celebrations of holy days led to civil violence in the streets between Protestants and Catholics. The uses of public space came under increasing scrutiny by officials responsible for public order. In Paris, for example, the Parlement banned masking in 1514 and in 1524 condemned mystery plays because their burlesque admixture of religion and theater appeared newly dangerous and irreverent.

Early modern sovereign princes developed new disciplinary techniques and claimed new rights of taxation and justice. Armed with the new moral authority invested in them by both the Catholic and the Protestant Reformations, governments intervened in the ritual lives of once-isolated rural communities more systematically. Princely and centralized dominance over towns also grew with the increase in trained officials. In cities the spontaneity of popular celebrations gave way to highly organized spectacles representing princely authority and hierarchical norms of morality.

This first phase of the early modern reformation of popular culture lasted through the seventeenth century or later in eastern Europe and Russia. It was largely prescriptive in that legislation proliferated, replacing custom with government demands for uniformity in language, such as the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts in France in 1539; urban construction; and compliance with tax officials. It was repressive in that it limited the behaviors tolerated both in public spaces, including theater, prostitution, gambling, and drinking, and inside churches, including dancing, banquets, and rowdy processions. In addition it established more patriarchal norms of authority within households and throughout society. The reformation of behaviors added discipline because it created new institutions to reshape the thought and behavior of both elites and the popular classes through schooling, stricter norms for poor relief, and more enforced periods of labor.

Changes in elite attitudes that sparked reforms of popular culture are better documented than the local circumstances explaining the disappearance or transformation of particular rites of popular culture. A hallmark of the reform process may be the gradual withdrawal of elites from their former participation in rites of popular culture, sharing or supporting carnival, for example. Local studies necessary to measure and date popular adaptation, resistance, or compliance are incomplete and are subject to differing interpretations.

A second and more complex process, better termed the transformation of popular culture, is often considered part of the reformation of popular culture. It is both a second phase and a second type of reformation of popular culture. Although its roots lie in the sixteenth century as well, it is most evident from the eighteenth century forward, when more capitalist relations of production, a decline of the Christian monopoly of cultural values, and political upheavals such as the French Revolution further transformed authority relations. More long-term structural processes of change, including the shift from oral to print culture, industrialization, and the emergence of a class society, were involved. Such changes made culture a commodity, and this altered the possibilities for making meaning, that is, the production of culture itself. Structural changes, through the advent of bourgeois cultural hegemony, working-class political movements, consumer society, and mass culture, thus changed the nature of popular culture in the modern period.

The concept of elite cultural hegemony. Social historians have found the concept of cultural hegemony particularly useful in discussing both phases of the reformation of popular culture. Developed by the Italian revisionist marxist sociologist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), cultural hegemony is the power to define the norms of public order, to determine the content of what constitutes knowledge and rational behavior, and the ability to control the dominant symbols and ritual practices of a society. Hence, one definition of the reformation of popular culture is elites' ongoing efforts to assert and maintain their cultural hegemony. This points to popular culture as a changing set of practices rather than a static repertoire of proscribed behaviors. Accordingly some social historians see popular culture as a "force field of relations," the site of changing power relationships between shifting dominants, subordinates, and subcultures.

Interdisciplinary approaches to the reform of popular culture. Adaptations of Gramsci's approach accord well with tendencies to focus on the cultural dimensions of social conflict. The approaches from semiotics and textual criticism have influenced analysis of discursive practices and the changing meaning of "the popular." Cultural anthropology, ethnography, ritual studies, and comparative religion have contributed to analyses of nonverbal sources, such as the symbolic forms and behaviors in popular festivities and the cultural artifacts and material culture of the popular classes.


Regardless of the approaches taken, the dominant issue in analyzing the reformation of popular culture is an explanation of how and why cultural norms change. Four dynamics recur in the reformation of popular culture:

  1. the social, psychological, and cultural transformation and acculturation of an elite who legitimate their power by adopting distinctive behaviors that display purportedly superior and more dignified aesthetic or moral values;
  2. the subsequent elite pursuit of cultural hegemony, which entails some control of the state or earlier a monopoly of violence in society or aspirations to determine the forms of violence in society;
  3. intensified ruling-class control of the socialization of the young, manifested especially in disciplining the behavior of young males and defining gender roles for females that enforce the authority of adult males; and
  4. the changing ability of social subordinates to fashion a different culture of their own and thus shape the production of elite cultural hegemony and the meanings within popular culture.


A persistent Christian moralizing ethic, which condemned so-called pagan superstitions and all undisciplined pleasures of the body and senses, has played a significant and ongoing role in the reformation of popular culture. Nonconformist religious movements, Christian revival movements such as the evangelical movement in England from the 1820s, and Catholic action among the working classes are important examples of the enduring role of the Christian critique of popular culture. At different times secular elites and the state successfully adapted this religiously motivated critique.

The abolition of the Feast of Fools in the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. Christians had always inveighed against pagan practices, and Saint Augustine (354–430) left an enduring critique of popular pleasures and human sinfulness. The best documented medieval reform of popular culture that displays all of the four dynamics mentioned above began in the cathedrals of newly urbanized, twelfth-century Europe. The growing differentiation between town and country, first visible in the twelfth century, is an ongoing prerequisite for reformation of popular culture. Hence examining the twelfth-century context of the reformation of popular culture is fundamental.

In 1198 and 1199 Eudes de Sully, bishop of Paris, successfully banished the Feast of Fools from Notre Dame Cathedral although not from all of Paris. His eagerness to enforce a distinctive disciplined behavior among his younger clergy stemmed in part from the eleventh-century church reform movement. That movement enjoined clerical celibacy and, following Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–1085) in 1077, emphasized the the church's unique right to lead all of society.

In 1445 Eustache de Mesnil, dean of the Paris Theology Faculty, tried to enforce the ban on the Feast of Fools throughout France. The letter he addressed to all French bishops provides a landmark description of the carnivalesque and demonstrates the extent to which the lower clergy did not yet conform to norms for superior clerical morals and conduct:

Priests and clerks may be seen wearing masks and monstrous visages. . . . They dance in the choir dressed as women, panders, and minstrels. They sing wanton songs. They eat black puddings at the horn of the altar while the celebrant is saying mass. They play at dice there. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They leap through the church without a blush at their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby traps and carts; and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances with indecent gestures and verses scurrilous and unchaste. (Chambers, 1954, vol. 1, p. 294)

Carnival and late-medieval civic consciousness. Throughout urban Europe in the late Middle Ages, lay elites embraced prohibited carnival behaviors to protest clerical cultural dominance and because they resented the growing success of campaigns against the Feast of Fools. Lay carnival thus could express urban distinctiveness from the clergy, from the rural nobility, and from the peasantry and promote a competition against the theoretical clerical monopoly of the sacred.

In the fragile social peace of the late Middle Ages confraternities, guilds, youth abbeys, and neighborhood and parish associations celebrated particular loyalties. At the local level they simultaneously fostered social integration and competition, and they frequently led to violence between groups. In Lille in 1382 parish processions and street assemblies were prohibited because marches into neighboring parishes or streets led to riots. The so-called evil carnival (Böse Fastnach) in Basel in 1376 led to large-scale bloodshed and was known throughout Europe. In 1378 a famous revolt of Florentine wool carders known as the Ciompi reinforced elite fears of the subversive potential of popular assemblies and festivals. The consolidation of the princely Medici regime followed in Florence in 1433. The church council that gathered in Basel in 1438 issued the most sweeping ban on the Feast of Fools. The juxtaposition of these events strongly suggests the intense competitions for cultural hegemony and political power in Renaissance Europe.

By the sixteenth century municipal officials had a distinct preference for spectacles offered to the city under official auspices. In Arras, France, the joyous companies (youth abbeys) were no longer communal associations of unmarried men as they had been in the countryside, and they were increasingly subject to municipal supervision. At the last-known meeting of the Pleasure Abbey (Abbaye de Liesse) of Arras, members marched with their neighbors from Cambrai to hear mass on the Monday of carnival week. The association's functions had shifted from organizing popular festivals to enforcing religious discipline and fostering good economic relations with neighboring cities such as Cambrai.

As the opportunities for venting local rivalries decreased and as more spontaneous processions, playacting, feasting, and drinking were circumscribed, emergent market relations and state sovereignty transformed the structures of authority in communities. The nature of the popular was altered by destruction of the social and cultural context in which local common people could control the production of culture. Vertical loyalties and bonds of obedience replaced horizontal, traditional loyalties of kinship and locality.

The proliferation of festivals and competition to control the sacred carnival. In 1404 the chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Charlier de Gerson (1363–1429), appealed to the French king to enforce a reduction of all festival days so artisans would not squander their resources and lead immoral lives. Well before Martin Luther (1483–1546) rejected the sacramental structure of Roman Catholicism in 1520, lay Christians and clerical elites expressed a growing reserve about the nature and workings of the sacred in the world.

German religious reformers, such as Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), and preachers, such as Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445–1510) in Strasbourg, increasingly sought to separate the sacred from the profane and to limit carnival. Objections to carnival increased in part because the number of days of revelry had grown and encroached on the Lenten season. The Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525–1569) captured this clash of worldviews in his painting The Battle between Carnival and Lent (1559).

In Florence the Dominican penitential preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) controlled the public life of the city from 1490 to 1498 and organized young boys (fanciulli), who were the most active participants in carnival, to perform moralizing religious theater. Instead of electing carnival "kings" and "queens," young boys under Savonarola's direction chose Jesus Christ as their king. Savonarola urged them to avoid all spectacles through frequent confession and communion. Bishop Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584) helped transform the public life of Milan through a more sober and institutionalized form of antitheater. The Forty Hours Eucharist Devotion in churches attracted crowds away from carnival with displays of lights accompanying the penitential rituals of fasting, confession, and extended prayer. The policing of eucharistic devotion through reform of Corpus Christi festivals was a powerful instrument of reform of popular culture, as were reforms in the veneration of saints and the Virgin Mary.

In Florence the popular and participatory nature of carnival declined when festivities began to celebrate the glory of Medici princely authority and patronage of the fine arts. The Florentine carnival of 1513 was organized with floats of classical Roman motifs in honor of the election of Giovanni de' Medici (1475–1521) to the papacy. This secular cooptation of carnival was more effective than the moralizing reforms of Savonarola. In Venice the growing commercialization of carnival and its staging for the benefit of tourism also transformed the popular character of the event.


The social and cultural role of humanists begins to explain how the burlesque spontaneity of popular carnival was reformed into a stylized, intellectualized, and moralizing spectacle. In the sixteenth century the written word acquired an authority it had not previously possessed. The more spontaneous secular and religious popular culture of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance became vulnerable to written critique and written rules that took precedence over customs and oral traditions.

As humanist scholars such as Lorenzo Valla (1407–1457) collected and compared ancient classical and early Christian manuscripts to accepted church texts, they challenged the authenticity of documents that had supported the traditional authority of the papacy within Latin Christendom. Language analysis (historical etymology) became the basis for a new approach to historical and sacred truth. A new form of authority developed that prioritized ratiocination, critical inquiry, and self-observation as well as norms of standardization, uniformity, and disciplining the self.

Besides the humanist approach to language, the advent of the printing press created a new community of scholars who could debate the meaning of words based on standardized texts in a way that had been impossible in the world of manuscript culture. Printing elevated standardization to a new cultural norm and made books a commodity. Liturgical standardization, enjoined at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and in the campaign against the Old Believers in Russia, indicates the similar paths reform of popular culture might take in highly varied settings.

New attitudes toward standardization and critical observation also played a role in the scientific revolution and in industrialization. Standardization and uniformity as cultural norms stood in direct conflict with the concepts of time, rationality, work, leisure, and consumption characteristic of late-medieval popular culture.

The "civilizing process." In Italy in the early sixteenth century republican regimes gave way to principalities in Milan, Genoa, and Florence. As service at a princely court became the path for social mobility, ambitious individuals vied for the favor of the prince. People distinguished themselves by training both body and intellect in skills of politeness, eloquence, physical grace, and the appreciation of beauty in varied art forms. A more formal, refined court aristocracy replaced the increasingly archaic warrior nobility of the Middle Ages. Sociologists like Norbert Elias have argued that the distinctiveness of Western civilization derives from a special "courtly rationality" that accompanied princely state formation with its ethics of self-discipline and control of affect.

The number of printed editions of books of manners and conduct, such as The Book of the Courtier (c. 1518) by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), provides some of the best evidence for this "civilizing process" (Elias, 1982). The Latin writings of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?–1536), including De civilitate morum puerillum, (Civilizing the manners of boys, 1529), introduced schoolboys to the conscious cultivation of manners by stressing the importance of subtle observations of the behavior of oneself and others.

As the authority of a multiplicity of lesser and greater regional nobles was rationalized by the consolidation of effective sovereignty in emerging territorial states and a few urban republics, the social circulation of ascending and descending groups and individuals increased. Elias observed:

Slowly, in the course of the sixteenth century, earlier here and later there and almost everywhere with numerous reverses until well into the seventeenth century, a more rigid social hierarchy [began] to establish itself once more, and from elements of diverse social origins a new upper class, a new aristocracy [formed]. For this reason the question of uniform good behavior [became] increasingly acute, particularly as the changed structure of the upper class [exposed] each individual member to an unprecedented extent to the pressure of others and of social control. (Elias, 1982, vol. 1)

Complexities in the transition from oral to print culture. The radical effects of the humanists' way of thinking about language and the sacred had many unintended consequences. Luther used Erasmus's 1516 translation of the Greek New Testament to challenge the authority of the church's only authorized version of the Bible, the Latin Vulgate prepared by Saint Jerome (c. 347–419 or 420). Comparing the texts, Luther argued that Jerome's rendering of "inward change" (Greek metanoia) into the Latin "to do penance" (poenitentiam agere) created a false foundation for proper relations between humans and God. Luther's belief in the incontrovertible truth of original texts and confidence in his power to interpret these texts impelled him ultimately to challenge the entire edifice of Roman Catholicism. The Protestant Reformations, building on the epochal change in the way humanists read texts, increased the authority attributed to sacred Scripture and increased lay Bible reading among Protestants. In this way the Protestant Reformations added to the authority of the written word over popular custom. Luther was more tolerant of some carnival practices than was Lutheranism. In Nürnberg the Lutheran reformer Andreas Osiander (1498–1552) abolished the traditional parades of wild men (Schembartlaüfer) in the city's carnival in 1539. These hairy figures who ran through the streets during carnival celebrated animals' emergence from winter hibernation and thus the return of spring and light. Reformers throughout the sixteenth century sought to eliminate such popular pagan substructures in carnival. This was a tool of Christianization and a limitation on ritual violence as the run of wild men frequently led to fighting.


Throughout most of the sixteenth century, however, literacy remained a minority phenomenon in the general population. The ideas of Protestant reformers were transmitted to the popular classes in printed images and broadsheets that combined satiric depictions of the traditional church with simple texts that could be read aloud.

In the early stages of the Lutheran Reformation broadsheets presented the pope as an Antichrist and depicted priests wearing masks to hide their true iniquity. In its popular phase the Reformation drew on the conventions of carnival, carnivalesque "antirituals" that permitted the popular classes and youths to enact the truth of Luther's written criticisms. Rituals of popular culture thus transformed the larger culture and shaped the Reformation as a movement of popular protest.

The popular enactment of new doctrinal truths produced new forms of highly ritualized violence in the sixteenth century. In Germany on Maundy Thursday, when altars were usually washed with holy water, youths instead broke into the church and scrubbed the altars with lye. The scale of the challenge to established authority grew in popular iconoclastic riots throughout the German-speaking lands, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France, and the ritualized violence gave antirituals a heightened ideological content that made popular violence and all popular festivities even more threatening to authorities.

The conflict of worldviews about the sacred during the Reformation introduced an ideological content in sixteenth-century popular and ritualized violence. This increased the elites' fears of the potentially subversive character of festivities. Ritual inversions create alternate states of mind that can release participants from the constraints of ordinary time and place. The resulting license is not so much disorder as the defense of alternative visions of order. This enduring characteristic of ritual means that radical efforts to transform power relations and cultural norms return to ritual practices that once supported the traditional ways of life among the popular classes, for example, celebrations of the summer solstice, Saint John's Eve, by ecological groups in Europe.

The disciplining of enactment: confessionalization. The first phase of the Reformation in the 1520s was a popular movement. In a second phase of the Reformation associated with confessionalization, Protestant reformers increasingly looked askance at the carnivalesque images and behaviors that had initially fueled popular critique of the Roman church. In the 1530s and especially in the 1540s church reformers needed to instill adherence to standardized, written confessions of faith and distinctive patterns of worship and behavior that would set them off from traditional ritual practices. This creation, by Catholics and Protestants alike, of unmistakable confessional identities is termed "confessionalization." In the era of confessionalization the revolution of the written word, set in motion by humanists, bore fruit in the intensified use of printed catechisms. Church and state also cooperated in suppressing wedding and baptismal feasting. For example, detailed Lutheran regulation of wedding and baptismal feasting in Brandenburg Ansbach limited the number of participants allowed to assemble in the peasant countryside in the 1570s. Such measures not only eliminated occasions for waste and license but eroded the ties of kinship celebrated in popular festivities by godparents, confraternities, relatives. Such measures in Lutheran Scandinavia as well eroded horizontal and local bonds of loyalties that stood between subjects and their pastors, priests, and rulers.

Calvinism and the reform of morals. Of all the Protestant reformers John Calvin (1509–1564) expressed the strongest critique of popular culture, including dancing, drinking, sexual indulgence, and of traditional Catholic religious practices, including relics, shrines, pilgrimages, and the mass. Explanations of the resulting Protestant work ethic focus on Calvinism's emphasis on individual responsibility for a clean, healthy, and cognitively controlled body freed of all sensuality and devoted only to scripturally justifiable activities. Calvinist hostility to ritual body movements, witchcraft, magic, miracles, and altered states of consciousness derived from a fundamental anxiety about bodily movement and accompanying emotional release. This anxiety created a fundamental hostility to traditional popular culture.

The puritan revolution of popular culture. Calvinism contributed to the reform of popular culture wherever its consistory system for policing social morals functioned, including Geneva, southern France, Scotland, and the Netherlands. No form of Protestantism, however, was more hostile to popular rituals than English Puritanism. The interregnum of 1649–1660 was a watershed for abolition of the rituals of popular culture in England. Under the government of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), Puritans outlawed public ceremonies, such as maypoles, dancing, and drinking matches. A popular ballad of 1648 lamented, "Christmas was killed at Naseby fight" along with "charity" and "good fellowship." The Battle of Naseby, 14 June 1645, marked Cromwell's decisive defeat of King Charles I (1600–1649) of England. While Christmas recovered, the fires of Saint John's Eve vanished along with a culture of sociability and a treatment of marginality perceived as generous and less criminalizing.


The culture of working class associations. The ability of church, state, and social elites to dominate working-class culture should not be overemphasized. Sixteenth-century royal legislation to outlaw guilds was not highly effective. Guilds and journeymen's associations were neither simple stepping-stones to modern democracy nor disorderly defenders of traditionalism or local backwaters of resistance to market competition. Journeymen especially perpetuated rituals of worker solidarity and sociability that fostered organizing skills and sustained the emotional bonds necessary to nineteenth-century collective action. This occurred despite policing of work sites by proponents of industrialization, such as Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) and Samuel Bentham (1757–1831) in England and Joseph Montgolfier (1740–1810) and Étienne Montgolfier (1745–1799) in France. The workers of the faubourg (suburb) Saint-Antoine in Paris and young journeymen (compagnons) had traditions of violent behaviors that were interwoven with associational rituals. As Victor Hugo (1802–1885), however, wrote of worker protest in Les Misérables (1862), the men "terrible, half-naked, cudgel in fist . . . were savages . . . but the savages of civilization" in their violent efforts to end oppression. While such views validate the goals of working-class political action, they ignore the workers' cultural traditions that adapted to the industrial world.

The rise of bourgeois cultural norms. The timing and ultimate success of middle-class and upper-middle-class efforts to create a social identity distinct from that of both the traditional landed elites and the growing working class was closely allied with the pace of industrialization and the ability of the middle classes to control the terms of political participation in their respective national contexts. Most advanced in England and in France from the 1830s onward and clearly less successful in areas of slowed national unification, delayed industrialization, and persistent autocratic political regimes, the elevation of middle-class notions of order and morality had decisive effects on the reformation of popular culture in the nineteenth century. At the same time the ability of the working classes to develop a culture of their own in the process of organizing social and political movements must be taken into account.

Revolutions in the means of communication and the growing commercialization of culture mean that the simple schema of repressed practices and required new behaviors become even less useful in analyzing the reformation of popular culture. From the eighteenth century forward the impact of printing and the mass production of illustrated material for audiences that cut across class lines was quantitatively and qualitatively different from the effects seen in the Reformation. The way historians evaluate the maturing of "mass culture" and its relation to "popular culture" and class conflict adds more complexity to discussions of the reformation of popular culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


In the nascent political activism that led to the revolutions of 1848, the German middle classes, especially in the Rhineland, appropriated and transformed the carnival celebrations that, in Catholic regions, had survived the Reformation only to be banned during the Napoleonic invasion of central Europe in the early nineteenth century. After their incorporation into the Prussian state in 1815, carnival festivities provided the middle classes of the Rhineland with opportunities for assembly, use of public space, printed self-expression, and commerce that were otherwise suppressed by the Prussian regime. Political appropriation of carnival tradition continued into the twentieth century. In France, for example, in the 1920s and 1930s socialists revived festival practices in many localities to assert a populist political identity and to attempt mass political organizing.

Early industrialization in England. The most informative studies of the reformation of popular culture in nineteenth-century Britain differentiate clearly between ongoing reforms of the remnants of traditional popular festive practices in the countryside and the new set of forces affecting the growing urban populations. In treating the reformation of popular culture in urban industrial society, three factors come to the forefront:

  1. the growing effect of a new concept of time emphasizing worker productivity and the control of workers' bodies and workers' use of public space,
  2. "the culture that working people were making for themselves in their organized social movements" (Yeo and Yeo, 1981), and
  3. "the rise of respectable society" (F. M. K. Thompson, 1988), a theme that organizes the social history of Victorian Britain, 1830–1900.

Ongoing cultural reforms in the countryside. In Great Britain attacks on traditional holidays intensified from the 1760s onward as the capitalist revolution in agriculture brought about the enclosure movement, engrossing, and increasing proletarianization of the rural workforce. The case study "The Taming of Whitsun" in Oxfordshire, England, from 1800 to 1900 by Alun Howkins (in Yeo and Yeo, 1988, pp. 187–208) elucidates a new stage in the reformation of popular culture.

Before 1830 the celebration of Whitsun began with the erecting of maypoles, an ancient gesture marking agricultural fertility. Evergreen-bedecked bowers served as a "court" for "my lord and my lady" of the feast. Often called Whit Ales, up to thirteen days of drinking, hunting (the Whit Hunt), morris dancing, cockfighting, bullbaiting, badger baiting, revelry, and fistfighting followed, with local variations. A combination of factors gradually extinguished Whitsun celebrations and replaced them with the one-day bank holiday of the 1900s. The development of scientific farming, including the use of artificial fertilizers from the 1820s, undercut the quasi-magical attempts to procure fertility through the raising of maypoles. Further rationalization of the agricultural process created regular monthly cattle sales, and the more spontaneous sale of livestock at Whitsun fairs lost significance. The collapse of the paternalistic ethic of the gentry, who had supported the celebrations and the Whit Hunt in the spirit of traditional elites' obligation occasionally to entertain the poor, providing a source of cheer and outlet for frustrations, collapsed. Finally a "reformation of manners" affected the poor and the gentry alike.


A refinement of manners was sparked by the effects of science on quasi-magical practices and beliefs. Heightened class conflict increased the distance between masters and servants, and the informal violence of Whitsuntide became less attractive to the gentry. At the same time the evangelical revival encouraged sectarian preaching among the poor. The chief target of this religious moral reform was drink. Methodism took the lead, followed by evangelical bishops from the Established (Anglican) Church, such as Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873) who was appointed bishop of Oxford in the 1840s.

Historians have debated how to view the rationalization of entertainment that was a major part of the overall reformation of popular culture. Malcomson (1973) argued that growing class divisions caused the gentry to withdraw themselves and their material support from traditional revelry. Howkins's study of Whitsuntide suggests a different dynamic of growing involvement by the gentry in the leisure of the poor after 1840, albeit in a changed role of informal policing and moral mentoring that paralleled the formal government intervention in sanitary reforms in cities in the 1840s. The outlawing of cockfighting, bullbaiting, and badger baiting in the 1830s did not end those blood sports. Real change came not by legal prohibition but by the process Raymond Williams (1973) called "incorporation." Throughout Europe the repression of working-class blood sports reflected fundamentally new attitudes toward animals and animal cruelty. This change in elite consciousness about the natural world is a complex modern phenomenon with relevance to animal rights movements. The changing attitudes toward nature and animals as factors in the reformation of popular culture deserve more investigation.

The rise of respectable society. The success of the middle-class and upper-middle-class demands for political participation, especially from the 1830s onward, expressed a social and cultural identity distinct from that of traditional landed elites and that of the growing working class. The success of these demands promoted middle-class cultural hegemony and increased supervision of the morality of the growing working class. Attention focused on regulation of behaviors in public. With the further growth of urbanization and the concentration of working-class populations, the middle-class perception that industrial laboring classes were necessarily dangerous classes grew.

Modern gender roles: separate spheres as a norm not a reality. The paradoxes and class conflicts inherent in the reformation of popular culture are especially evident in the transformations of women's social roles and particular subcultures. Women were a special repository of oral traditions and specialized forms of knowledge in midwifery, popular medicine, magic, witchcraft, gossip, and informal networks of information, such as spinning bees or veillés (vigils) in France. The policing of bodies and the pursuit of hygiene, both central to the reformation and transformation of popular culture, brought multiple systems of domination to bear on the lives of women. Upper-middle-class and upper-class women often found their spheres of public influence extended as they attempted to impose their religious and behavioral norms on working-class women. At the same time the acquisition of literacy by women, the appearance of female writers, and the creation of new professions and new patterns of consumption for women eventually cut across class lines and further expanded spheres of influence. The creation of "separate spheres" applies to both American and European experiences, but as a norm it is always contested in reality.


The reformation of popular culture has not been a purely repressive process. Discipline and empowerment affect all social classes and women as well as men, as the transformation of popular culture shows. It is also deceptive to view the reformation and transformation of popular culture simply as an evolutionary process facilitating the integration of localized social units into more universal social structures. While the suppression of popular festival life transformed traditional communities in the early modern period, the rituals of popular culture, altered in their meanings, in the modern period can serve as the basis for a radical critique of the centralized bureaucratic state. In Europe the revival of popular rituals has served ethnic autonomy movements in areas as diverse as Spain, France, the Netherlands, and the former Soviet Union.

The influence of the Green political movement in Europe also has led to the renewal of rites associated with the peasant agricultural cycle. Such protest against the pervasive destruction of the environment by contemporary modes of production and consumption links ancient forms of popular culture with a redefined notion of universal values, that is, planetary health. It may be questionable whether or not such appropriations represent any effective historical agency by the popular classes. Radical ecological movements have not forged effective ties with labor movements, but the joint demonstrations against the development programs of the World Bank in 2000 suggested efforts to build such coalitions of workers and intellectual activists. This presents possibilities for the transformation of popular culture in the twenty-first century.

Reappropriations of popular celebrations call the values and rationality of mass culture and narcissistic individualism into question. The ideal of the village as the core unit for human socialization can be viewed as an attempt to learn from what social historians have discovered about the human costs involved in the reformation of popular culture. However, a potential exists to distort what has been learned in studying the reformation of popular culture through idealization of a lost golden age of popular culture in which body and emotions were unfettered and human expression and creativity were more authentic. Such a view in part implies that a once-autonomous popular culture existed but ignores the social construction of all realities.

See also other articles in this section.


Anderson, Patricia J. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture,1790–1860. New York, 1991. Includes debates on the nature of mass culture.

Barnes, Andrew E., and Peter N. Stearns, eds. Social History and Issues in HumanConsciousness: Some Interdisciplinary Connections. New York, 1989. Innovative historical and natural science perspectives on how psychological and emotional changes occur.

Becker, Marvin B. Civility and Society in Western Europe, 1300–1600. Bloomington, Ind., 1988.

Bennett, Tony, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott, eds. Popular Culture and SocialRelations. Milton Keynes, U.K., and Philadelphia, 1986. Useful on Gramsci and the relations of power.

Bercé, Yves-Marie. Fête et révolte: Des mentalités populaires du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle:Essai. Paris, 1976. Fundamental attention to the local context in France.

Brophy, James M. "Carnival and Citizenship: The Politics of Carnival Culture in the Prussian Rhineland, 1823–1848." Journal of Social History 30, no. 4 (1997): 873–904.

Burke, Peter. The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy: Essays on Perception and Communication. Cambridge, U.K., 1987. Venetian carnival and other case studies.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. London, 1978. Essential starting point that is much debated and includes wide geographical coverage and a bibliography.

Chambers, E. K. The Mediaeval Stage. Oxford, 1903. Invaluable broader treatment of popular rituals than the title suggests.

Chevalier, Louis. Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris during the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York, 1973. Originally published in French in 1958. Fundamental but with a heavy reliance on police records.

Cox, Harvey. The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge, Mass., 1969. Best example of the ethical stakes in the 1960s reappropriation of popular culture's enduring challenges to elite norms of rationality with a cultural critique.

Cressy, David. Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar inElizabethan and Stuart England. London, 1989. Corrects past studies and further documents the reformation and suppression of popular culture in early modern England.

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Dixon, C. Scott. The Reformation and Rural Society: The Parishes of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Kulmbach, 1528–1603. Cambridge, U.K., 1996. Excellent documentation of the reformation of popular culture in Lutheran Germany and a case study of confessionalization.

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Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. 2 vols. New York, 1982. Originally published in German in 1939. Fundamental on the relationship between changes in social structure and changes in personality structure with a concept of civility.

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Greyerz, Kaspar von, ed. Religion and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1800. London, 1984. Collection of provocative essays, especially Peter Burke on the reformation of the cult of saints, Jean Wirth on the concept of acculturation, and Richard C. Trexler on popular and elite culture.

Heers, Jacques. Fêtes des fous et carnivals. Paris, 1983. Fundamental.

Hsia, R. Po-Chia. Social Discipline in the Reformation: Central Europe, 1550–1750. New York, 1989.

Hsia, R. Po-chia, ed. The German People and the Reformation. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988. Innovative essays, including an excellent bibliographic essay on core topics in the reformation of popular culture, such as women, the "other."

Ingram, Martin. "Ridings, Rough Music, and the Reform of Popular Culture." Past and Present 105 (1984).

Jones, Gareth Stedman. "Working Class Culture and Working Class Politics in London, 1870–1900." Journal of Social History 7 (1974): 460–501.

Kinser, Samuel. "Presentation and Representation: Carnival at Nuremberg, 1450–1550." Representations 13 (1986): 1–41. Emphasizes the cultural shift from "presentation" or the participatory mode in carnival to formalized "representation" as a way of understanding the changing content of the "popular" in carnival.

Mellor, Philip A., and Chris Shilling. Re-Forming the Body: Religion, Community, and Modernity. Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1997. The reformation of popular culture seen from the perspective of a history of the body; stimulating on the differences between the Catholic and Protestant Reformations and the culture of athletic bodies.

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Muchembled, Robert. Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France, 1400–1750. Translated by Lydia Cochrane. Baton Rouge, La., 1985. An original paradigm of elite repression or cooperation between absolutism and the Catholic Reformation that is much debated.

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Zika, Charles. "Hosts, Processions, and Pilgrimages: Controlling the Sacred in Fifteenth Century Germany" Past and Present 118 (1988): 25–64. Struggles to control the sacred and eliminate popular superstitions in eucharistic worship.

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