Wassail: Some Historical Reports and their Contexts

5710196-MHave you been dying for some historical sources for the custom of wassail?  Come on, I know you have.  Lucky for you I am the folklorist with the super folklore library collection a mere 30 minute walk from my doorstep.  So I made my way over to the stacks at the Wells Library at Indiana University to forage for some old folklore collections that document Wassail (and then I found some handy online google books versions to share with you!)  Some of the questions a folklorist asks when researching a custom like wassail are:

  • Where was this custom previously documented?
  • Why did people want to document it in the first place?
  • What does this tell us about the meaning of the custom?

So, a little history here: the study of folklore emerged at a time when the rationalism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras (roughly the late 1500s-1800s) created a class of educated men who, infused with the new scientific method, began to wonder why many of their fellow countrymen still believed in or practiced ‘superstitious’ customs.  Early on, this study was called Popular Antiquities, and some of the scholars engaged in collecting and documenting these customs were Protestant clerics, clergymen who were particularly unsettled by the continuation of superstitious beliefs and practices of Roman Catholicism.  They concluded that many of these beliefs and practices weren’t grounded in biblical texts at all (and therefore, not properly Christian), but leftover pagan customs that had been adopted into the Catholic Church.  Sometimes their aim was to discover the origins of these pagan customs in order to root them out.  It is interesting today that many of our modern popular interpretations of folklore customs still hinge on an explanation of their pagan origins, even though the original impetus of Protestant reform has long since disappeared. (For some other ways to interpret wassail other than pagan fertility ritual, stay tuned for my next post)

What does this mean?  Knowing this goes a little way to understanding the perspective of those who documented wassail in the early days of folklore and popular antiquities study.  It answers some of questions 1 and 2 above.

So what does this tell us about wassail, and what it meant to those who documented it?  It means we should always be a little wary of taking their descriptions at face value.  Is wassail actually a relic of a pagan fertility custom?  Or is that what the observers in the Enlightenment wanted it to be, due to their own biases of class, religion, and education?  Further, could their informants – the regular folks telling them about the customs – be yanking their chains or manipulating the information given to these early scholars for any reason? It is impossible to know anything for certain, but by reading between the lines, we can make more nuanced interpretations about the place of this custom in history.  History is not a case of fact and fiction, but of documents and interpretations of the content and creation of those documents.

Here is one selection from John Aubrey’s early collection of popular customs Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme written between 1687 and 1689.

Writing slightly later, the antiquarian John Brand, one of the rationalist Protestant clerics, documented these wassail customs in his book Observations on Popular Antiquities: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Superstitions, which was first written in 1777 enlarged and edited by Sir Henry Ellis in 1813.There’s lots more in the library, and you can wend your way around Google Books for many of the older texts.  For more information about the early Antiquarian folklorists in England, check out The British Folklorists: A History by Richard Dorson.

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