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Merrie England


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The phrase is used to describe a particular arcadian attitude to the past, prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian times but with roots stretching back to the turn of the 19th century and with continuing power to the present day. As such it is an imprecise and unscientific concept, but is none the less useful for describing certain historical attitudes and processes which constituted an important part of the Victorian world-view, and had a profound effect on many traditional festivals and customs. It was particularly popular with writers like Walter Scott who specialized in conjuring a past which was contrasted to the present:England was merry England, whenOld Christmas brought his sports again(Walter Scott, Marmion (1808), introd. Canto VI)

(Walter Scott, Marmion (1808), introd. Canto VI)

Merrie Englandism is essentially nostalgic. It takes it as given that however much society has progressed materially it has lost something important on the way, and this loss is primarily in terms of ‘community’. In Merrie England the social classes were held together in an interlocking web of duties and obligations. The peasants were poor but honest, strong, and happy, their children were well fed and also happy, and the squire or lord of the manor cared for his people as a father would his family, while a benign parson looked after their spiritual needs. At certain points in the year, the people sang, danced, and made merry—in spring, summer, and autumn on the village green or in the fields, while at Christmas the squire threw open his hall, as dictated by his ‘old English hospitality’. The adherents of the Merrie England school sought to recreate this golden age, and one of their key tools was to reform the pastimes of the poor which had, quite clearly in their eyes, lost both their innocence and their traditional values.I value every custom that tends to infuse poetical feeling into the common people, and to sweeten and soften the rudeness of rustic manners, without destroying their simplicity … (Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall (1822)

I value every custom that tends to infuse poetical feeling into the common people, and to sweeten and soften the rudeness of rustic manners, without destroying their simplicity … (Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall (1822)

This was the problem. Before customs could be reinvented, they had to be shorn of the undesirable features which they had gathered from being in the hands of the working classes for too long. Sometimes it could be blamed on urban influences:The people of this neighbourhood are much attached to the celebration of wakes; and on the annual return of these festivals, the cousins assemble from all quarters, fill the church on Sunday, and celebrate Monday with feasting, with musick, and with dancing. The spirit of old English hospitality is conspicuous among the farmers on these occasions; but with the lower sort of people, especially in the manufacturing villages, the return of the wake never fails to produce a week, at least, of idleness, intoxication and riot … (Revd A. Macaulay, The History of Claybrook [Leicestershire], (1791); quoted in Golby and Purdue, 1984: 17).

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