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SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Bristol festivals ceremony church services feasts recreation plays processions order mummery

Subject: Winter ceremonies and festivities
Original source: Bristol Record Office, MS. 04720 (Mayor's register)
Transcription in: Lucy Toulmin Smith, ed. The Maire of Bristowe Is Kalendar, Camden Society, new series, vol.5 (1872), 79-81, 85-86.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Bristol
Date: 1479


It has been the custom upon All Hallows [1 November] for the mayor and sheriff of Bristol, after dinner, to gather with the entire council at the Tolsey, along with such other respectable and well-born commoners who show up at that time, and from there to proceed to All Saints church. There they make offerings and then the company walks to the mayor's house, where they have [?bon]fires, eat spiced cakebread, and drink various wines, everyone's cup kept cheerfully filled. From there, every man heads off for his parish church for evensong.


Again, on the eve of St. Clement's [22 November], the mayor, sheriff and their colleagues are accustomed to walk to St. Clement's chapel within St. Bartholomew's, there to hear evensong and, on the following day, mass, and to make offerings.

And on the eve of St. Katherine's [24 November], the mayor and sheriff, with their colleagues, walk to St. Katherine's chapel within the Temple church, there to hear evensong. And after evensong they walk to the Katherine Hall, where they are received with formality by its wardens and brethren, and in the hall there have a fire and a drink, with spiced cakebread and a choice of wines with which to keep everyone's cup cheerfully filled. Thereafter each man heads for home, the mayor, sheriff and their honorable associates preparing for a visit from St. Katherine's players, offering them a drink at the front door and a reward for their performance. On the following day, St. Katherine's day, the mayor, sheriff and their colleagues are to go to the Temple church and, from there, take part in a procession around the town, ending up at the Temple church where they hear mass and make offering. After which, everyone returns home.

In the same way, on the eve of St. Nicholas [5 December], the mayor, sheriff and their colleagues walk to St. Nicholas' church where they hear evensong; likewise the following day, to hear mass and make offering, and to hear the bishop's sermon and receive his blessing. After dinner, the mayor, sheriff and their colleagues are to assemble at the mayor's Counter to await the bishop's arrival, playing dice in the interim (the town clerk is to provide the dice and to receive 1d. from every raffle). When the bishop arrives, his chaplains are to sing, the bishop will give them his blessing, and then he and his chaplains are to be served bread and wine. After which the mayor, sheriff and their colleagues leave, to hear the bishop celebrate evensong at St. Nicholas' church.

The following day, St. Nicholas' day, it has been the custom for the bailiffs of Bristol to hand out the town livery cloth to all the officers of the town ...


The mayor and sheriff of Bristol are, by custom, during the quarter and season before Christmas to attend Advent sermons – that is, on the first Sunday of Advent, which always falls on the Sunday following the day of St. Livinus the bishop in November. On which first Sunday the mayor and sheriff, with their colleagues, are to walk to the Friars Preacher and there hear the sermon. The following Sunday they are to hear the sermon at the Friars Minor, and the third Sunday at the Friars Preacher. The fourth and last Sunday of Advent, at the Friars Minor. And that brings to an end the Advent sermons.

By custom, during this quarter on the market day preceding Christmas day (or else on Christmas eve), the mayor of Bristol is to have a public announcement made that during the holidays everyone behave in a good and orderly fashion in the town, along the following lines:

"The mayor and the sheriff order and command, in the name of our sovereign lord the king, that no persons, regardless of social status, at any time during Christmas are to go mumming with masks covering their faces, nor go out after curfew has been rung at St. Nicholas without carrying a light – that is, a sconce light, lantern, candle, or torch. And that under no circumstances should they go about carrying weapons, so that the king's peace risks being infringed in any way. Upon penalty of imprisonment, and payment of a fine to the king."


These passages provide an indication of how ceremonial and recreation were intermixed, and how they had underlying political functions. It was important for the town leaders to be seen participating in festival activities, while at the same time setting an example for decorous behaviour. Processions and worship were suitably dignified activities that helped to reassert political authority within the community, in part by imputing legitimacy to the town rulers by linking their earthly jurisdiction with Divine order. At the same time, they reinforced bonds within the ruling class. Unfortunately these passages reflect only the participation of Bristol officials in the celebrations, and say little of the way the community as a whole celebrated.

The official ceremonies associated with the festivals of St. Clement, patron saint of merchants and mariners, and St. Katherine, patron saint of weavers and (particularly) spinsters, were probably a product of the fifteenth century, when ceremonial had become very important in the preservation of harmony in a society that was, or had once been, egalitarian in theory, but by this time was clearly stratified socio-politically. The great Corpus Christi festival was the clearest expression of such symbolic ceremonies, but at Bristol November was an important time in the annual cycle of urban affairs, since towards the end of the month a great fleet would set sail for France carrying English cloth manufactures; Bristol's importance and prosperty relied heavily on the cloth export trade.

The procession and religious service on St. Katherine's day, a very popular festival and the high point of November, was followed by merry feasting and intinerant actors performing outside selected homes – a form of wassailing, it appears. Probably the play presented related to the legend of the saint's life; we hear of a play in honour of St. Katherine being performed elsewhere in England during the fifteenth century.

David Sacks (The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700, University of California Press:1991) has interpreted the official activities preceding the festivals of St. Clements' and St. Katherine's as rituals of social unification. He argues that underlying symbolism demonstrated amical relations between the town authorities and the weavers, who were focused in the franchise called the Temple Fee not under jurisdiction of the authorities, while the subsequent visits by St. Katherine's players symbolized the powerful members of the community paying tribute to the less powerful, a reversal of the normal relationship in which rulers exacted payments from the ruled. The procession on the saint's day itself, by encompassing the independent franchise with the rest of the town, was to show the essential territorial cohesion of the town, he suggests.

St. Nicholas' day was another popular festival associated with various entertainments, prior to the more solemn period of fast that was Advent. Smith assumed that the bishop active on this day was in fact the boy-bishop, a character associated with misrule – a feature of the Christmas season. It was a custom in many places on St. Nicholas' day for a schoolboy or choirboy to be chosen and dressed in episcopal robes, then to proceed around a town blessing the townspeople and presiding at church ceremonies, sometimes with elements of parody or burlesque involved, although the Church authorities had suppressed much of this by Ricart's time. Bristol was evidently one of those places where this took place; an inventory of 1433 includes the boy-bishop's mitre and crozier, eight banners to be carried in his procession, and a white cloth hung before the statue of St. Nicholas (presumably also carried in the procession). The gambling activity of the town officials prior to the bishop's arrival would seem inappropriate behaviour (especially given the usual prohibition of gambling) except in the context of misrule.

The Christmas season as a whole provided a release mechanism for feasting, drinking and high spirits; Carnival, preceding Lent, was another season when misrule came into play. The authorities were anxious to keep Christmas revels from getting too far out of control. With many of the townspeople staying up late to attend midnight mass, there was greater concern that honest folk abroad in the dark identify themselves by carrying a light. However, a certain amount of tomfoolery was tolerated. By reversing the norms of society, misrule provided a temporary release for social tensions which, through dissipation, helped ensure compliance with those norms during the rest of the year and thereby it too contributed to unity and conformity within a community.



A building near the town centre where court sessions were held; the name derives from "toll-seld" suggesting a small building where market tolls were collected.

"cheerfully filled"
According to Dr. Sacks, the turn of phrase used here was one that implied the drinking of healths.

I.e. the members of the city council.

"St. Bartholomew's"
There were both a priory and a hospital of this name in Bristol; St. Clement's chapel, founded in the 1440s, was in the latter, which like the Temple church lay outside the walled urban core.

"St. Katherine's"
One of the principal "virgins of Christ", St. Katherine's festival was widely celebrated, and chapels were frequently dedicated to her.

"Katherine Hall"
The hall, which stood near the Temple church, was associated with the weavers and possibly the hosts were the gildsmen; the weavers' gild was one of the largest and most important in the town, to judge from the amount of wine allocated for its "drinkings".

"Temple church"
A church that had once belonged to the Templars, who had held land on the marshy south bank of the Avon.

"mayor's Counter"
This refers to the place where mayor and sheriff conducted town business; they were expected to be in the office from 8 o'clock in the morning until 11, and again from 2 o'clock until 5 in the afternoon, every day except Saturday afternoon (and presumably Sunday), unless it was a religious festival.

A cast of dice for a stake towards which each player contributed.

"livery cloth"
The material from which uniforms were made for the city officials to wear on formal or ceremonial occasions.

The four weeks preceding Christmas; Advent began the ecclesiastical year and was a period of spiritual preparation for Christmas.

For holding a candle; it usually took the form of a wall-mounted bracket.

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Created: March 29, 2003 © Stephen Alsford, 2003

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