Christmas Cancelled? Nothing is new, ask the puritans of 1647 by Dr Rachel Foxley

In 2020 we are approaching Christmas with warnings ringing in our ears, as well as encouragement to celebrate – and that’s just from the Prime Minister, whose characteristically mixed messaging tells us to be jolly, but also to ‘be jolly careful’. Across the UK we are digesting Christmas rules which will mean that families have to haggle about which three households can ‘bubble’ across the 5 days of relaxed Covid restrictions. We may be taking more comfort in our Christmas customs than ever – my tree is already up – but there’s no denying it will not be the usual Christmas experience for most of us.

But Christmas isn’t cancelled, and although Covid restrictions have become politicised and divisive, we can hope to avoid the battles over Christmas which were seen in the streets of Canterbury and Ipswich in 1647. Parliament had been victorious in the first civil war against Charles I, and the puritans who had for years been preaching against the ‘superstitious’ practice of celebrating Christ’s birth on a particular day now saw their wishes made law. Christmas was banned. Christmas fell on a Saturday: churches were not to offer services, and shops were to open as usual.

The highly partisan newsbooks (early newspapers) which had sprung up to report on the events and politics of the civil war were keen to put their spin on what happened next. What is certain is that there was a real attempt to suppress the most visible celebrations of Christmas, particularly church services; and that this did not go down well with much of the population – parliamentarian or not – who saw comfort and not harm in the traditional customs. In London, church services were broken up – although the churchwardens of St Margaret’s, Westminster reportedly explained that they had only allowed a sermon in the pragmatic belief that people were not intending to work or open their shops on Christmas day, so catering for them with a sermon would ‘prevent their mis-spending of time in Taverns and Ale-houses’. The Mayor himself went out to pull down the festive greenery of rosemary and bay which decorated the conduit in Cornhill, and was met by a ‘mutiny’ which turned violent. Political divisions exacerbated the tension, and in Canterbury and Ipswich, in particular, events got completely out of hand.

Royalist newspapers reported these disturbances with relish. In Canterbury, pro-Christmas vigilantes apparently trooped door to door, checking that their neighbours were properly supplied with ‘Pies and Plum-pottage’ and violently targeting the ‘nigardly Schismaticks’ (i.e., puritans) who were abstaining. They then seized the weapons in the town hall and declared themselves for ‘God, King Charles, and Kent’. Even a rather less colourful account (in the pamphlet Canterbury Christmas) has them targeting the wares of the dozen or so shops which dared to open on Christmas day, and certain key puritans including the Mayor, before staying in arms until a climbdown on the Tuesday. The ebullient royalist newsbook Mercurius Dogmaticus praised these ‘honest Christians of Canterbury, angry to be prohibited both of their Cheare and devotion at one time’ even while reporting that they had broken the windows of those who failed to answer their doors, and beaten up the Mayor. An anti-royalist newspaper, in contrast, railed at the ‘superstitious sons of Canterbury, who were so incorrigible as to beat their Mayor, and so barbarous as to assault their neighbours in their own houses.’ Rather than any noble motive, according to this parliamentarian, ‘it was the spirit of Ale that wrought these wonders’, as the rioters were ‘well tipled’. Satirical parliamentarian doggerel mocked this attempt to ‘rise/ To right [i.e. restore] Plum-Pottage, and Mince-pies’. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, two were reported killed in disturbances which involved an attempt to free prisoners held for the initial pro-Christmas disorder. An acerbic parliamentarian newsbook reported that the dead included a man with the surname Christmas ‘whose name seemed to blow up his zeal to the observation of the day’. 

The authorities took all of this extremely seriously, in the unstable political conditions of 1647-8. The Christmas rioters were subjected to trials which, in the words of Blair Worden, ‘fanned the mood of protest that grew into renewed civil war in the spring and summer of 1648.’ In 1649 the regicide followed, and Christmas continued to be banned throughout the 1650s.

All of this might put our current troubles into some perspective. Christmas may be scaled back this year, but we can look forward to a new year which brings the hope of vaccines and a slow return to a more sociable and lively version of everyday life. Let’s hope for better Christmases to come.

You can find out more about Rachel and her research at the University of Reading at https://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/r-h-foxley.aspx

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Dreaming of a White Christmas? It may all be in the stars! by Professor Anne Lawrence

Recent forecasts and news stories have raised hopes of a white Christmas, even though the Met Office has pointed out that there has only been a widespread covering of snow on Christmas Day in the UK four times in the last 51 years.  They also warn that accurate forecasts of snow on a specific day can only be made 5 days in advance.  For more details see:  https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/learn-about/weather/types-of-weather/snow/white-christmas 

Snow at Greenwich, December 2017

However, medieval and early modern meteorologists had no such problems and could predict the weather several years ahead!  The downside, of course, was that their forecasts were made on a basis which has subsequently been shown to be entirely unscientific, and accuracy was thus more by accident (and experience) than design.

Astrometerorlogical forecast for October 1590 (image copyright University of Reading Special Collections)

This year, the History Department decided to experiment and see whether medieval methods would forecast a white Christmas in 2020.  The results follow!

Medieval and early modern forecasters made their Prognostications on the basis of astrometeorology, so the first step is to calculate where the planets will be on the chosen dates, as seen from the relevant place.  In this case the relevant place is Berkshire, and the chosen period is 20th to 27th December, focusing on Christmas Day.  The locations of the planets are, of course, calculated in relation to the zodiac – and only the planets known before 1700 are used.

The Sun will start in Sagittarius (28°) and move into Capricorn (3° on Christmas Day)

The Moon will move across Pisces and Aries, and reach 6° Taurus on Christmas Day

Mercury will be close to the Sun, at 6° Capricorn on Christmas Day

Venus will be in Sagittarius (12° on Christmas Day)

Mars will be near the Moon on Christmas Day, at 24° Aries (the Moon will have moved through this position on Christmas Eve)

Jupiter and Saturn will be in very close Conjunction, in the first degree of Aquarius. 

These two powerful planets have been moving closer through 2020 and will come closest of all at the Winter solstice.  They have not been this close since the 13th century – and medieval astrologers agreed that this placing signified major events affecting large regions on Earth.  

For weather forecasters, the element linked to each planet (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) was important, as was the degree of power attributed to each planet.  The sign placings are significant as each sign was also linked to an element and to factors affecting the weather.  Finally, the relationships of the planets to one another (their aspects) also needed to be taken into account as well as their directions of movement.

Traditionally, a powerful placing for Saturn signified colder-than-usual weather, making snow perhaps more likely.  However, the conjunction with Jupiter may predict unusual or dramatic weather; and its occurrence in the Air sign of Aquarius could mean strong winds or storms.  It is also important that the pairing of Jupiter and Saturn is in a significant relationship to the Sun and Mercury, which are in the Earth sign of Capricorn – another cold location.  Mercury is fast-moving and believed to cause turbulence in the air; and the powerful, fiery planet, Mars, is in a significant aspect with Mercury and the Sun.  Mars is placed in the Fire sign of Aries, which suggests that the winds are likely to be warm.

It looks as if the medieval prognostication for Christmas 2020 would be that it will see strong, warm winds blowing over very cold ground – a combination which could produce snow-storms but is unlikely to result in a picture-perfect white Christmas!  So we can all feel very happy that this is unlikely to be correct.

Snow in February (Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)

A medieval white Christmas (from the Torre Aquila in Trent

Find out more about Professor Anne Lawrence Mathers and her research at the University of Reading here

You can also find out much more in her book Medieval Meteorology

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When should we start putting up decorations and celebrating Christmas festivities? Are you team Nov 1st? Dec 1st? A week before? Professor Helen Parish takes a look…

Our own Professor @HelenLParish takes a historical view of this question and how this debate has raged for centuries!

In the words of Perry Como’s classic, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. The pandemic has got many yearning for a little festive joy earlier than usual and, for some, it started looking like Christmas in early November. Trees, lights, tinsel and baubles were already appearing in streets and houses, and Christmas shopping was well underway.

But such early holiday spirit is not always well received by those who argue that Christmas is for, well, Christmas. It wouldn’t be Christmas though without such disagreements – they’ve been going on since early Christians started celebrating the birth of Christ. You can find the piece that she wrote for The Conversation in full here.

You can also find her blog on the origins of the twelve days of Christmas here

Helen Parish is a historian with interests in religion and belief in early modern Europe. She has written on the history of clerical celibacy and marriage in the western Church, as well as debates over superstition, miracles, magic, witchcraft, and early modern natural history. She is the author of Clerical Marriage and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 2000) and Clerical Celibacy in the West (Ashgate, 2010), and a range of books and articles on the history of the Reformation, religious belief, and the supernatural in early modern Europe.

You can find our more about Professor Helen Parish and her research at the University of Reading here

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Female statues: Couldn’t Mary Wollstonecraft have kept her clothes on? by Dr Jacqui Turner

Nobody really knows how many statues of women there are in the UK. It is even more difficult to know what type of women they represent; invariably they are divided between royals, religious icons and, well, everyone else. Frustratingly, we can also say with certainty that a large proportion are naked and un-named. The centenary of the women’s partial vote in 2018 and of female MPs in 2019 went part way to highlighting and addressing the issue of the lack of female statues, most notably with the installation of Millicent Fawcett in Westminster, Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester and Nancy Astor MP in Plymouth. But it is a painful process to generate funds for public art and any campaign to raise public money for a statue is managed with an expectation that the resultant artwork will be a reflection of the community that funded it. Unfortunately, the Mary Wollstonecraft statue is not. While huge credit is due to the tireless work that it took to see this project through a decade, as the overwhelming comment on social media reflects, it is a missed opportunity.

The Wollstonecraft statue is not unique in courting controversy. I lay no claims to being an expert on art but in 2019 I was historical consultant and part of the committee to commission a publicly funded statue of Nancy Astor which was not been without its political controversies to say the very least! Similarly, in February 2019, London rejected a statue of Margaret Thatcher for fear it would be vandalised and only after some debate was it agreed that the statue would instead be erected in her home town of Grantham. What is it about women? Statues of controversial men, misogynists, racists and homophobes become part of the landscape with little comment. And all named. And all fully clothed. Focusing the onlookers attention on their achievements rather than their bodies.

However, the issue here is not Wollstonecraft but the representation; a tiny, naked, sliver figure with pert breasts and copious pubic hair atop a mass of female parts. I understand the intended message; this is a representation of ‘everywoman’ and not another figurative statue atop a plinth but couldn’t she at least have kept her clothes on? Hambling’s alleged comment that this tiny silver nude was a representation of the figure that we all [women] crave, really didn’t help.

Mary Wollstonecraft was an C18th tour de force, a philosopher and educationalist, the ‘Mother of Feminism’. Her work was overlooked for a century as her reputation suffered in life and after her death. She had an illegitimate child, suffered mental health issues resulting in a suicide attempt before her death in childbirth age 38. It was Wollstonecraft’s disreputable lifestyle and the fumbling but well intentioned biography written by her husband William Godwin that resulted in her work being overlooked. So how would she feel about the nude? The plinth clearly states ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ but does that matter? It is still another naked woman. Women are more than the sum of their bodily parts and whether or not we perceive that this to be a figurative image, it still misses the point. Why couldn’t she have kept her clothes on?

Wollstonecraft never wrote an autobiography or asked for a statue. However, this statue should represent an important milestone in the development of a language of equality and feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft was not ‘everywoman’, she was exceptional. The statue might well be outdoors but is it really accessible to all? That said, if this statue has done one thing it has brought together feminists of all persuasions in condemnation leaving us asking the question – does this commemoration send the right messages or even ask any useful questions?

Dr Jacqui Turner is Associate Professor of Modern British Political History at the University of Reading. She is also the national programme manager for the Astor100 project and historical consultant for the Nancy Astor statue.

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What’s going on in Ethiopia and why it’s a big deal by Francesca Baldwin

Hours ago, Ethiopia’s government carried out a military attack on Tigray, Ethiopia’s most northern state. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed alleges this is in response to an earlier strike by the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), although this has yet to be substantiated. A state of emergency has been declared in the region for six months. The government has shut down electricity, phone lines and internet in Tigray, and flights to the region by national carrier Ethiopian Airlines have been stopped. Reports suggest forces have been deployed on both sides to the Tigray-Amhara border. Wondimu Asamnew, a senior TPLF official, said on Tuesday night: ‘[Military mobilisation is] not child’s play. It can trigger all-out war… I can assure you we are capable of defending ourselves’.

Is all out civil war approaching?

Quite possibly. Tigray has a remarkable history of popular mobilisation (see below) and has its own well-trained and supported militia. Ethnic division has been escalating in Ethiopia over the past months and there is real potential that any direct conflict in Tigray could spill out into the rest of the country.

What is the tension all about?

To answer this, we need to look back nearly thirty years. Following decades of armed struggle and populist revolution, in 1991 the Tigray People’s Liberation Front united regional liberation groups in Ethiopia and led the way to victory over the oppressive Derg regime. The newly established and progressive federation centralised the governance of Ethiopia in an extraordinary transethnic coalition, promising regional groups the right to self-determination and secession.

The future looked bright, but the reality disappointed. Today, Ethiopia is still plagued by ethnic political division, with the appointment of Abiy Ahmed failing to deliver hopes of a more balanced and representative government. Tigrayans have protested against their marginalisation and alienation by Ahmed’s ruling party, claiming the Prime Minister has reversed the political reforms he initially introduced. Ahmed, facing criticism from a number of sides including his own Oromo ethnic group, indefinitely postponed the August 2020 elections on account of the pandemic. In response, Tigray recalled their federal representatives from Addis Ababa and held their own elections in September, with the TPLF securing 189 of 190 seats.

Rhetoric has been intensifying ever since, with both sides mobilising in anticipation. The military offensive against Tigray earlier today, however, is the first indication that direct conflict is imminent.

Why this matters:

As the world turns its gaze to the U.S. to await the election results, an overly Western-centric lens can only obscure the crisis emerging in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has been fighting to combat the legacy left by the Western media of its 1983 famine, proving itself to be a remarkable country of progressivism and ingenuity. Its multi-ethnic Federation had the potential to be a ground-breaking example of unity and popular representation of ethnically diverse peoples, sadly clouded by those who misused their position for individual political gain. Further descent into conflict risks unravelling this political legacy of an extraordinary liberation war led by the people, who took a deeply divided country and built a nation.

As both sides continue their preparations for what is to come over the next few days and weeks, we can but watch and wait.

Francesca Baldwin is PhD research student at the University of Reading. Her doctoral project researches the complex narratives of female combatants in the TPLF during the Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.

f.baldwin@pgr.reading.ac.uk

@ChessieBaldwin

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