As expressed in ceremony, the unity of late medieval Bristol was a living unity like that of the human body. The city was understood to be a highly structured organism whose parts worked together to preserve the well-being of its members. But to maintain this unity required constant vigilance, because there were always divisive interests, such as craft rivalries, ready to undermine the general welfare. Bristol’s social and political rituals were aimed at purging the disruptive forces from the community and reinforcing the moral and spiritual foundations of the community by direct confrontation with the most vulnerable points in the social body. The ceremonies and festivities at the annual inauguration of the mayor addressed only the yearly transfer of authority from one individual to another, a threatening and dangerous moment in the life of any body politic. It was also necessary, however, to deal with the even greater source of potential trouble, the fact that Bristol’s public officials were also private men who might be tempted to put themselves or their families and friends above the common good. They needed to be reminded of their duties as servants to the community: hence the promises of fairness in the mayor’s oath, and the presence of the Commons in the Guildhall to hear it.
On St. Michael’s Day, however, the Commons played only a passive role, standing in the Guildhall outside the ring of councillors merely to witness the oath-taking, and thronging the streets to watch deferentially as the procession passed by. In other festivities they were more assertive, intervening to mock the civic authorities for their folly, to chastise them for their failures, and to instruct them in their duties. As we have already seen, this was probably the work of St. Katherine’s players on 25 November. Similarly, at Christmas a Lord of Misrule issued satiric proclamations and ordinances endorsing licentiousness, approving disorder, and encouraging drunkenness, idleness, and other misdemeanors, thereby standing authority on its head and criticizing its shortcomings. But the most intriguing of these celebrations is the festival of the Boy-Bishop.
Much of what we know of this popular custom relates to its use in cathedral chapters, university colleges, and schools such as Eton. At Salisbury Cathedral, for example, a young chorister was elected to serve in this mock-episcopal capacity from 6 December, St. Nicholas’ Day, to Childermas, 28 December. According to the account given by a seventeenth-century antiquary, he was not only “to beare the name and hold up the state of a Bishop…habited with a Crozier…in his hand and a Mitre upon his head,” but to perform everything the “very Bishop himself” did, except the mass. And “his fellows,” a group of boy choristers, “were to take upon them the style and counterfeit of Prebends yielding to their Bishop…no less than canonical obedience.” The Sarum use also provided elaborate processionals and services for the mock bishop, including his giving the sermon and benediction on Holy Innocents’ Day. But in Bristol the custom made the municipal authorities as much the focus of the occasion as the church hierarchy was. Ricart describes the festival as follows:
In most respects it appears that the authority of the Bristol Boy-Bishop corresponded quite closely to the usage at Salisbury. He had a chapter, gave sermons, offered benedictions, and sang evensong. But his blessing of the civic body during its game of dice appears to be unique.
[O]n Seynt Nicholas Eve…the Maire, and Shiref, and their brethern to walke to Seynt Nicholas churche, there to hire theire even-song: and on the morrow to hire theire masse, and offre, and hire the bishop’s sermon, and have his blissyng; and after dyner, the seide Maire, Shiref and theire brethern, to assemble at the maires counter, there waytyng the Bishoppes comming; pleying the meane whiles at Dyce, the towne clerke to fynde theym Dyce, and to have I d. of every Raphill; and when the Bishop is come thedir, his chapell there to synge, and the bishope to geve them his blissyng, and then he and all his chapell to be serued there with brede and wyne. And so departe the Maire, Shiref, and theire brethern to hire the bishopes evesonge at Seynt Nicholas chirch.
The role of the Boy-Bishop in this encounter is both satiric and didactic. Although the throwing of dice was a common pastime in the later Middle Ages, this form of gambling was also understood to be a pernicious vice, one that indicated the corruption of those who played at it. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, dice-playing appears again and again as the symbol of folly and evil. The Pardoner speaks of it, together with drunkenness, as the “devels sacrifice”; the Franklin indicates that it is the very opposite of virtue and frugality; the Shipman shows it to be the negation of the merchant’s craft. In “The Cookes Tale” it is portrayed as a form of sin which, along with dancing, lechery, and drunkenness, leads to idleness and theft. These views were commonplaces of the moral teaching not only of Chaucer’s time but for the three centuries following. According to Sir Thomas Elyot, writing in 1531, dice-playing was the devil’s invention:
For what better allective coulde Lucifer deuise to allure or bringe men pleasauntly in to damnable seruitude, than to purpose to them in fourme of a playe, his principall tresory; wherin the more parte of synne is contained, and all goodnesse and vertue confounded?
The governor of the game of dice, of course, is Fortune, which by nature is changeable, alternately bringing good and bad to those who are at her mercy. Accordingly, to play at dice is to abandon God’s will and moral purpose to go over to mere chance. At the same time, it is to deny one’s capacity to reason and to act. In the words of Elyot again,
there is nat a more playne figure of idleness…For besides that, that therin is no maner of exercise for the body or mynde, they which do playe herat must seme to haue no portion of witte or kunnyng, if they will be called faire plaiars.
In the Bristol Common Council this understanding of dice-playing took on added significance. By the city’s charters, the principal duties of the councillors were, first, to establish competent ordinances “that shall be consonant with reason and useful for the commonalty,” and, second, to levy local tallages and rates for common purposes and oversee their proper expenditure. To sit at the mayor’s counter throwing dice represents the absolute abandonment of these responsibilities. Where reason and prudence were supposed to prevail, we find chance and profligacy; where the councillors were supposed to act as the better and more worthy men of the community, we find them idly playing with no apparent regard to their standing. As Chaucer tells us,
Hasard is verray mooder of lesyngs
And of deceite and cursed forswearings
Blaspheme of Crist, manslaughtre, and wast also
Of catle and of tyme, and furthermo
It is repreeve and contrarie of honour
For to ben holde a common hasardour
And ever the hyer he is of estaat
The moore is he yholden desolaat
If that a prince useth hasardry
In all governaunce and policye
He is, by commune opinioun
Yholde the lasse in reputacioun
The significance of the Boy-Bishop’s visit to the Guildhall may perhaps be better understood by looking briefly at a surviving sermon of a Boy-Bishop given at St. Paul’s, London, in the early 1490s. Beginning with the exhortation “Prayse ye childerne almyghty God,” this sermon likens man in childhood to animal kind:
A childe fyrste whan he is in his infant age is not contreyned unto no lawes; he is not corrected nother beten; and there is no defaute layde unto hym, but utterly he is lefte unto the lawe of kynde. Do he what somever he will no man doth blame hym. Morally the state of man immedyately after synne was verely the state of chilhode and infans hauinge no nouryce.
Adult life, of course, was to be just the opposite: under law, and subject to blame and punishment when it failed to obey. But if it fell under the control of the passions, it became childhood again. As the Boy-Bishop says,
The message is double-sided. Quoting St. Paul in Corinthians, the young preacher says,
whan that man was utterly without ony expressyd lawe, havynge no mayster to his owne naturall inclynacyon as to his lawe, there was no lawe of God newe put to hym.
Be not chylderne in your wyttes; but from all synne and malyce be ye childerne in clennesse. And in this fourme all maner of people and al maner of ages in clennese of lyf ought to be pure as childrine.
Viewed in light of these remarks, the presence of the Boy-Bishop at the mayor’s counter offers a telling commentary upon the dice game. The city fathers are shown to act without a child’s cleanness but with his wit. They abandon themselves to the “lawe of kynde” and the whims of chance, being for the moment without a “nouryce or guyder.” To them comes a child bishop, exercising a supremely adult authority and signifying the high purposes for which they were elected. In this way the festivity not only criticized the mayor and his brethren for their inevitable failings but purged them of their official sins. It also emphasized that the civic authorities served the community and thus were subject to the chastisement and the approbation of those they governed. As we know from John Northbrooke, by the late sixteenth century the combined effects of religious revolution and economic change had already profoundly transformed the cultural forms that Ricart had so lovingly calendared. These same changes in outlook also took their toll on the conception of political authority in Bristol. No longer was the city conceived as a quasi-religious brotherhood, in which authority was celebrated and legitimized at feasts and on holy days. Rather, the ideals of godly rule, linking the authority of the local governors to the monarchy and from thence to God himself shaped the new conception of officeholding. Thomas Thompson, lecturing his Bristol congregation on the virtues requisite of a magistrate, best articulates this viewpoint. Government officials, he says, are to be
A magistrate was expected to be a Christian exemplum of civic virtue, not only living according to God’s law and with the blessing of his grace, but also endowed with a practical understanding of worldly affairs and the courage to use that understanding wisely and well.
such as are most perfect in knowledge, hence in conscience, and expert in practice.…But since all the praise of vertue is in action, we cannot make knowledge only the Magistrates complement: and therefore with those Intellectual abilities they must adioyne those morall vertues of Fortitude and Iustice…both to endure the troubles, looses and dangers of gouernment…in warres, and…in peace.
There was no doubt that government service was considered a duty for such a man. As Thompson says,
Thompson also makes clear that the principal responsibilities of city officers “were to keep order,” without which there is “Anarchie, wherein every man is kinge in his owne conceite, vndertaking what him list to doe as when there was no King in Isreal.” And, in proper fulfillment of their judicial duties, they were to “both scatter the wicked, and Iudge the poore in truth.” Their failure to accept these responsibilities or their neglect of them in their rule would only bring ruin to the commonwealth:
it is not…for him to refuse it as either too base or troublesome, vnlesse hee will bee accounted either an idle, or a proud man…since hee is a member of that body politique which by all meanes hee must preserue, and since he must not hide what God hath giuen him for the benefit of the Common-wealth vnlesse he will partake of the punishment inflicted vpon the idle seruant, whose talent was given vnto another. For (as Chrysostome saith well) hee that receiveth the grace of learning for the profit of others, and doth not use it, doth wholly loose that grace.
For I pray you shall not all the body bee troubled, when the head is shaken asunder? As shall not the tree be subiect to falling, when the root is bared? Some flatter the great men telling them, that they by reason of their wealth, and high estate neede not doe any thing else, but to live at ease, eat and drinke, and take their pastime, as the retchlesse rich glutton said to his secure soule. But the wisest king that euer liued said Wo bee to thee O Land when thy King is a child and thy Princes eate in the Morning.
To a degree these are commonplaces of late medieval and early modern political culture; little about them would have been foreign to Ricart. But in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, the mechanisms of communal control that the citizens had previously imposed upon their governors—for example, in the performances of St. Katherine’s players and of the Boy-Bishop—had been replaced by a different form of ritual, according to which the common councillors reminded themselves of their high calling. To open each council session, they prayed:
Especially (O Lord) wee beseech thee in they great and infinite mercyes to look uppon this Citye and uppon us nowe assembled and uppon all the corporacion and commons here that wee both for our selves and for them may consulte of those thinges which concern our dutyes towards thee our gratious God and towardes the Kinge under our gratious Lorde that both wee and all the people of this Citye may glorifie they name [and] may live in brotherly love, and charitye one toward another.
Prayer, of course, could bind political actions as forcibly as could social obligation. But prayer involved a very different kind of ritual exchange from that which had regulated political authority in late medieval Bristol. It linked the prayer-giver to God, not to the community which, as a microcosm of the universe, mediated between the individual and his Maker.
Not surprisingly, these early modern magistrates set themselves in the wider world of the nation by the principle of hierarchy. Indeed, much of Bristol’s ceremonial life in the later sixteenth and the early seventeenth century conveyed precisely this quality. Its most characteristic form was the procession. Eleven major feast days were recognized. On them the mayor and his brethren were to wear the scarlet robes signifying their particular rank in the civic body—cloaks with fur and felt trimming for the mayor and former mayors, gowns alone for the rest. These so-called “Scarlett days” were Michaelmas, when the new mayor was installed—preceded and followed by solemn processions, as in the past—All Hallows Day, Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, Twelfth Day, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, The Feast of the Ascension, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday, and St. James Day, for the great summer fair. On every one of these important religious festivals, with the exception of St. James Day, there was a full-scale procession of the city government, wherein all could observe the civic hierarchy in its proper order making its way through the town. Except for the absence of the festivals of St. Clement, St. Katherine, St. Nicholas, Corpus Christi, St. John, and St. Peter, all of this would have been familiar enough to Ricart and his contemporaries. But there is one all-important difference. In the later sixteenth and the early seventeenth century, the Corporation members dressed themselves in their scarlet garments not to hear mass, still less to participate in a drunken revel, but to attend a lecture by one of the city’s preachers. Sitting together in church, the mayor and the councillors must have stood out as an honored elite among the congregation.
Not only did these changes bring a new earnestness and sense of sobriety to officeholding, they also raised the magistrates above criticism from their inferiors. No longer was emphasis placed primarily upon their membership in the borough community. Instead, their role as the agents of royal authority was given special attention. Authority now meant sovereignty; it conveyed rights and yielded majesty and power. The magistrates revealed this viewpoint especially in the symbolism they chose for asserting their position. In 1606, for example, the Common Council agreed that a convenient place ought to be built in the Bristol Cathedral where they and their wives might “sytte…to heare the sermons on the Sabaothe and after festival dayes.” After some discussion, the dean and the chapter agreed to the proposal, and a gallery was built “over against the pulpit.” William Adams, Bristol’s early seventeenth-century chronicler, who no doubt himself saw the finished work, gives the following description:
There could be no clearer hierarchical symbolism, nor a more revealing insight into how the Bristol Corporation viewed their place in God’s order. Seated in honor above the pulpit, with the bishop, the dean, and even the king himself perhaps among them, they were to hear the Holy Word. This self-image was a powerful one. Less than two years later, Bishop Thornborough, returning to Bristol from a long absence at York, where he was dean of the Cathedral Chapter, found its symbolism so much an affront to his own episcopal dignity that he ordered the gallery removed.
It was not only a fair and comely ornament to the church, but also a fit and convenient place for the council to sit and hear the word preached, leaving the room below for gentlemen and others. They placed there our King’s arms gilded, and under [it] reserved a fair seat for the King or any nobleman that should come to this city: and under the same [gallery] also fair seats for the council’s and clergy’s wives and other fit place also for the bishop, dean and others of the clergy.