The season of the Lord of Misrule

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2016 by kmflett

The season of the Lord of Misrule


Halloween in the UK appears to be an increasingly commercialised affair relying a good deal on the US version. As a Guardian Editorial in 2015 noted that is perhaps not all bad. It is not something organised from above and neither is it religious.

However All Hallows Eve does have a specific place in both religious and more particularly folk calendars.

November 1st is All Saints Day, while All Souls Day, 2st November, traditionally marks the season when a Lord of Misrule is appointed. It runs through Christmas either to Twelfth Night- Epiphany- or to Shrove Tuesday.

There is not much left of the season in modern Britain except arguably Mischief Night (4th November) which is marked mainly in northern England.

Shakespeare famously wrote a play about Twelfth Night, although it is about the general idea of the world being turned upside down rather than the winter festival. The Lord of Misrule in the play was a conservative figure, Toby Belch.

In Henry 1V parts 1 and 2 Falstaff plays the Lord of Misrule, a figure who enjoys himself by generally flouting established norms, and particularly, drinking and eating.

Some have argued that the Lord of Misrule was a way of temporarily allowing expressions of dissent the better to make the existing order continue, a kind of safety valve. But the fact remains that he (it was mostly a ‘he’) was a world turned upside down figure.

It did not however always work out that the Lord of Misrule was simply a release for discontent. In fact the Christmas period, both the start of the twelve days of Christmas and the eve of Epiphany at its end were sometimes marked with street parades and riots about discontents. In Norwich on or a little after January 6th 1443 a King of Christmas figure led a revolt against an Abbot who was trying to close two of the cities mills. There was serious disorder.

More recently John Wilkes who ran as a radical Mayor of London against established authority in the second half of the eighteenth century was sometimes styled as a Lord of Misrule. The popular cry of Wilkes and Liberty often led to disorderly public activities.

Material on the potentially rebellious nature of winter folk customs remains thin. There is much scope for research in local record office and archives where they still survive austerity.

The material as it is feeds into wider discussions about the nature of the carnivalesque- rarely discussed in British contexts- and in terms of the parade of the Lord of Misrule of ‘ridings’ which is a known feature of pre-industrial custom.

It is tempting to see Donald Trump in the context of a Lord of Misrule. A figure apparently rebelling against the establishment who is in fact deeply conservative- hence no actual rebellion- and were he ever to gain Office someone whose presence could cause the established order more harm than it might have thought when sections of it promoted him in the first place.

Thanks to Ian Birchall, Laura Goodman, Linda Grant, Peter Lucas & Michael Rosen for comments & corrections to an earler version of this post.


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