QotW #78: 03 June 2019

shepheardes calendar JUNE
Can we send the Y11s on study leave yet, Headmaster?  They’re getting restless … [image:  June, The Shepheardes Calendar]
Today marks the beginning of one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the school year … the final summer half-term.  The countdown’s on, for teachers at least: 7 weeks; 35 working days; a maximum of 28 lessons with each of those classes.

Actually, lower those numbers by 1, 5 and 4 respectively.  Our final week of the year is, erm, Enrichment Week.  A charity sponsored walk, Sports Day, etc.  ‘Mandatory fun‘ which a curmudgeonly English teacher could do without …

In terms of teaching Shakespeare, it leaves me with the back end of Richard III for two groups: Years 9 and 12.  Then, I put Shakespeare away until January again, and spend the interim months agonising over whether to finally teach Julius Caesar at GCSE instead of the usual Macbeth … can I really be bothered to write another scheme of work for my school over the summer holidays?

If you’re like me, you take for granted the ebb and flow of the year: especially if you’ve been in the same job, at the same place, for a number of years.  David Cressy‘s book has woken me to the fact that our personal calendars all differ, overlaid by personal, professional and social layers.  A teacher’s calendar is massively different to a doctor’s – or indeed to a students, I think.   Cressy tells us that in the Early Modern period:

‘The calendar was layered and structured, but experience of the year varied according to status and situation.’

So far, so little has changed, you might think.  But interestingly, one of the many differences is that New Year’s Day was in fact Lady Day, 25 March.

Cressy raises some fascinating questions about the idea of ‘mandatory fun’.  It’s not such an alien concept in the twenty-first century, if you think about it: how many times have you had to look like you’re enjoying yourself at a Christmas party, or a wedding, or a works ‘team-building’ event?  Or … our school’s Enrichment Week.

‘Special days called for special action.  The major holidays, anniversaries, and successes of Tudor and Stuart England were marked by festive activities in the streets and villages as well as by events at court and notations in the calendar.  People of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could draw on a versatile vocabulary of celebration to express or communicate their enthusiasm,  or at least to present the face of public joy.’ [a]

He continues:

‘Proper performance involved noise, fire, dress, aspect, mood, individual behaviour and community action, an Elizabethan vocabulary that was adapted to the national Protestant celebrations of the seventeenth century.

If this was a vocabulary, what did it have to say?  Thomas Holland, writing at the end of the Elizabethan era, insisted that it all expressed happiness and enthusiasm.  But who was saying what to whom?  The vocabulary of celebration was certainly expressive but, like other forms of communication, it was susceptible to prompts and crossed meanings. […]  We need to be alert to the subtle cues and overt instructions that brought the various elements of the vocabulary into play.

Bonfires and bells were announcements, and who controlled them was often as important as the message they proclaimed.  The timing, duration, volume, intensity, and panache of the bellringing often varied with the occasion.’

I loved these ideas when I read them.  They have a serious side of course: the religious calendar in particular would have been an ‘interesting’ one, where observance of particular Saints’ days would have marked you out as a Catholic in periods when this was an unwise label to wear.  And the idea of celebrating the accession of an increasingly unpopular monarch like James I is thought-provoking.  Bear in mind that here I’m influenced by my recent reading of Clare Asquith, and the idea of Tudor and Stuart England running as a police state.

But I’m also sniggering at the idea that then, like now, there might be occasions when your ‘aspect‘, ie facial expression, might betray you, or that someone might notice that you aren’t enjoying yourself with enough ‘panache‘.  Think of the number of times a year you have to grin like a synchronised swimmer, or clap past the point when your hands are glowing with the repeated hammering …


[a]  David CressyBonfires & Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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