Lords of Misrule: A Meditation on Conviviality
I’m still pissed about Easter.
It seems so long ago that services for the Resurrection of the Lord were canceled as politicians wantonly issued edicts and bishops of every denomination rolled over and played dead. In short, both classes of authority reverted to type. Then the Ascension, Pentecost, and even the secular holiday of Independence Day were canceled. Now, eight months into this experiment in social engineering, even more restrictions are being imposed, such as California Governor Gavin Newsom’s comical-were-they-not-serious Thanksgiving rules and the threat by British authorities to break into private homes to make sure Christmas is sufficiently miserable.
None of this surprises me. As a scholar of early modern English literature and culture, I know all too well how any government can change the culture of a society through the imposition of penal codes, puishments, and fines and assure their implementation through spy networks and the desire of busybodies to rat their neighbors out. This happened in England beginning with the reign of Henry VIII and continued through the Civil Wars in the mid-to-late seventeenth century. Along with enclosure laws and the Dissolution of the Monasteries (the lands of which, when they didn’t go into Henry’s assets column, were delivered to nobles supportive of Henry’s agenda), encroaching laws forbade the practice of the Catholic religion, at first—though England was at the start of this upheaval a Catholic country and Henry was named Defensor Fidei by Pope Leo X—and later suppressed much of the Anglican Church’s conviviality. As Eamon Duffy writes in his classic account of the Henrician revolution, The Stripping of the Altars, “The orthodoxy which mattered most to the regime was to the new doctrine of royal supremacy.” This all went into early modern hyperdrive when the Puritan government in 1647 banned the celebration Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and all other feasts of the Church year. You are here.
We could say that this was England’s “Great Reset.” Through the employment of governmental and military muscle, through a sophisticated (for the time) spy network and rewarding minor nobles for their support, it proved remarkably successful. The Communist revolutions in Russia and other places, the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany, and many other kinds of political revolutions used England’s as an inspiration if not a template. English history proved it could be done: that a society could be changed and controlled by design. In such scenarios, opponents, even silent ones, of prevailing power structures suffer punishment while collaborators are rewarded with cash and property (as happened in more recent history, for example, with the Romanian Orthodox prelates who gladly accepted the Romanian Byzantine Catholic churches confiscated by the state under Communism).
Of course, such change took a long time in England. If the Internet—both surveillance network and vehicle for propaganda—would have been available, they could have sewed it up in a matter of months. The English citizenry—propagandized, threatened, penalized—acquiesced through an atrophy of will. Pockets of resistance existed, of course, but, by and large, the most effective method for controlling a people is through fear and, ultimately, exhaustion.
Oddly enough, I found a fitting metaphor for this predicament in the children’s book The Little Grey Men by BB. In the story, set in early twentieth century England, the country’s last gnomes are on a quest to find their lost brother. Along the way, the creatures of the forest tell them of the horrible Giant Grum (a human) who indiscriminately murders and tortures animals and hangs their remains from a terrifying gallows. Such is ever the condition of the weak at the mercy of the powerful.
At a loss, seeing the wanton extermination of their woodland friends, and with their own kind at the brink of extinction, one of the gnomes, the eldest, Dodder, who suffers in addition of the need for a wooden leg, offers a prayer to the deity of the People of the Wood, Pan. Pan, whose presence is often felt but who has not appeared in ages, manifests himself at a gathering on Midsummer Eve. “I have come back once more to you all,” he tells them, “once more…. and then I shall indeed be gone until that day when we shall all return, yes, all, gnomes and wild forgotten things alike, to the land where once we lived.” And, finally, he asks, “What is it that you want of me, O People of the Wood?”
Dodder is very direct. “We want,” he says, “this one thing, O good god Pan, that Giant Grum should die.” All of the People of the Wood agree—except for the pheasants. The pheasants, as it happens, belong to Giant Grum. They are a sycophantic and disagreeable lot—but even disagreeable sycophants need to have their voices heard.
Pan solves the problem of Giant Grum (though it’s not clear if Grum is killed or taken out of commission in some other manner). The People of the Wood breathe a little easier, and the gnomes continue looking for their brother.
The book was published in 1942, so I’ve always wondered if Grum is a cipher for Hitler and other strongmen of the era. When I consider the problem the gnomes face, I can’t help but think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the rulership of Hitler.
The gnomes and the creatures of the forest in the book function as symbols for a way of life disappearing, at least for a time, and their situation must have born many resonances with that of children in Britain who had lived through the Blitz. I imagine the tale offered British children some much-needed catharsis after living through such a terror.
Our society is likewise in the midst of a sea change as a way of life vanishes for many, but is generally unmourned by the master culture. Some of those impacted, I suppose, might feel very much like the last gnomes of England and in need of disappearing from the world of men in order to find a green and pleasant land. We know it still exists.
In medieval England, and continuing well into the early modern period, it was the custom in most communities for a “Lord of Misrule” to be chosen over the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was a time when social conventions were inverted in a spirit of carnival. With the coming of the Protestant Revolution this gradually disappeared. But now we have our own Lords of Misrule, who turn common sense and conventions on their heads, but without the attendant frivolity, conviviality, and humor of earlier ages. They clearly have no sense of humor, no sense of history, so sense of communitas. But they certainly know how to lord and misrule.
A song from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.
1. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992), 381.
2. You can read all about this in Ronald Hutton’s inestimable The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year in England 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1996).