Christmas Made a Dull Day

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Holinshed's Chronicles: A Description of Elizabethan England.
Vol. 35, pp. 266-270 of The Harvard Classics

Before the Reformation in England almost every third day was a holy day. But the Puritans abolished all the holy days, even Christmas.


Chapter V
Of the Ancient and Present Estate of the Church of England
[1577, Book II., Chapter 5; 1585, Book II., Chapter 1.]

  I would set down two or three more of the like instruments passed from that see unto the like end, but this shall suffice, being less common than the other, which are to be had more plentifully.

  As for our churches themselves, bells and times of morning and evening prayer remain as in times past, saving that all images, shrines, tabernacles, rood-lofts, and monuments of idolatry are removed, taken down, and defaced, only the stories in glass windows excepted, which, for want of sufficient store of new stuff, and by reason of extreme charge that should grow by the alteration of the same into white panes throughout the realm, are not altogether abolished in most places at once, but by little and little suffered to decay, that white glass may be provided and set up in their rooms. Finally, whereas there was wont to be a great partition between the choir and the body of the church, now it is either very small or none at all, and (to say the truth) altogether needless, sith the minister saith his service commonly in the body of the church, with his face toward the people, in a little tabernacle of wainscot provided for the purpose, by which means the ignorant do not only learn divers of the psalms and usual prayers by heart, but also such as can read do pray together with him, so that the whole congregation at one instant pour out their petitions unto the living God for the whole estate of His church in most earnest and fervent manner. Our holy and festival days are very well reduced also unto a less number; for whereas (not long since) we had under the pope four score and fifteen, called festival, and thirty profesti,beside the Sundays, they are all brought unto seven and twenty, and, with them, the superfluous numbers of idle wakes, guilds, fraternities, church-ales, help-ales, and soul-ales, called also dirge-ales, with the heathenish rioting at bride-ales, are well diminished and laid aside. And no great matter were it if the feasts of all our apostles, evangelists, and martyrs, with that of all saints, were brought to the holy days that follow upon Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and those of the Virgin Mary, with the rest, utterly removed from the calendars, as neither necessary nor commendable in a reformed church.


  The apparel in like sort of our clergyment is comely, and, in truth, more decent than ever it was in the popish church, before the univeristies bound their graduates unto a stable attire, afterward usurped also even byt the blind Sir Johns. For, if you peruse well my Chronology ensuing, you shall find that they went either in divers colours like players, or in garments of light hue, as yellow, red, green, etc., with their shoes piked, their hair crisped, their girdles armed with silver, their shoes, spurs, bridles, etc., buckled with liek metal, their apparel (for the most part) of silk, and richly, their caps lacede and buttoned with gold, so that to meet a priest in those days was to behold a peacock that spreadeth his tail when he danceth before the hen, which noew (I say) is well reformed. Touching hospitality, there was never any greater used in England, sith by reason that marriage is permitdted to him that will choosed that kind of life, their meat and drink is more orderly and frugally dressed, their furniture of household more convenient and better looked unto, and the poor oftener fed generally than heretofore they have been, when only a few bishops and double or treble beneficed men did make good cheer at Christimas only or otherwise kept great houses for the entertainment of the rich, which did often see and visit them. It is thought much peradventure that some bishops etc., in our time do come short of the ancient gluttony and prodigality of their predecessors; but to such as do consider of the crutailing of their livings, or excessive prices whereunto things are grown, and how their course is limited by law, and estate looked into on every side, the cause of their so doing is well enough perceived. This also offended many, that they should, after deaths, leave their substances to their wives and children, whereas they consider not that in old time such as had no lemans nor bastards (very few were there, God wot, of this sort) did leave their goods and possessions to their brethren and kinsfolks, whereby (as I can shew by good record) many houses of gentility have grown and been erected. If in any age some one of them did found a college, almshouse, or school, if you look unto these our times, you shall see no fewer deeds of charity done, nor better grounded upon the right stub of piety than before. If you say that their wives be fond, after the decease of their husbands, and bestow themselves not so advisedly as their calling requireth (which, God knoweth, these curious surveyors make small account of truth, further than thereby to gather matter of reprehension), I beseech you then to look into all states of the laity, and tell me whether some duchesses, countesses, barons’ or knights’ wives, do not fully so often offend in the like as they? For Eve will be Eve, though Adam would say nay. Not a few also find fault with our threadbare gowns, as if not our patrons but our wives were causes of our woe. But if it were known to all that I know to have benn performed of late in Essex, where a minister taking a benefice (of less than twenty pounds in the Queen’s books so far as I remember) was enforced to pay to his patron twenty quarters of oats, ten quarters of wheat, and sixteen yearly of barley (which he called hawks’ meat), and another let the like in farm to his patron for ten pounds by the year which is well worth forty at the least, the cause of our threadbare gowns would easily appear: for such patrons do scrape the wool from our cloaks. Wherefore I may well say that such a threadbare minister is either an ill man or hath an ill patron, or both; and when such cooks and cobbling sifters shall be removed and weeded out of ministry, I doubt not but our patrons will prove better men, and be reformed whether they will or not, or else the single-minded bishops shall see the living bestowed upon such as do deserve it. When the Pragmatic Sanction took place first in France, it was supposed that these enormities should utterly have ceased; but when the elections of bishops came once into the hands of the canons and spiritual men, it grew to be far worse. For they also, within a while waxing covetous, by their own experience learned aforehand, raised the markets, and sought after new gains by the gifts of the greatest livings in that country, wherein (as Machiavelli writeth) are eighteen archbishoprics, one hundred forty and five bishoprics, 740 abbeys, eleven universities, 1,000,700 steeples (if his report be sound). Some are of the opinion that, if sufficient men in every town might be sent for from the universities, this mischief would soon be re edied; but I am clean of another mind. For, when I consider whereunto the gifts of fellowship in some places are grown, the profit that ariseth at sundry elections of scholars out of grammar schools to the posers, schoolmasters, and preferers of them to our universities, the gifts of a great number of almshouses builded for the maimed and impotent soldiers by princes and good men heretofore moved with a pitiful consideration of the poor distressed, how rewards, pensions, and annuities also do reign in other cases whereby the giver is brought sometimes into extreme misery, and that not so much as the room of a common soldier is not obtained oftentimes without a “What will you give me?” I am brought into such a mistrust of the sequel of this device that I dare pronounce (almost for certain) that, if Homer were now alive it should be said to him:

“Tuque licet venias musis comitatus Homere,
Si nihil attuleris, ibis Homere foras!”

  More I could say, and more I would say, of these and other things, were it not that in mine own judgment I have said enough already for the advertisement of such as be wise. Nevertheless, before I finish this chapter, I will add a word or two (so briefly as I can) of the old estate of cathedral churches, which I have collected together here and there among the writers, and whereby it shall easily be seen what they were, and how near the government of ours do in these days approach unto them; for that there is an irreconcilable odds between them and those of the Papists, I hope there is no learned man indeed but will acknowledge and yield unto it.

  We find therefore in the time of the primitive church that there was in every see or jurisdiction one school at the least, whereunto such as were catechists in Christian religion did resort. And hereof, as we may find great testimony for Alexandria, Antioch, Rome and Jerusalem, so no small notice is left of the like in the inferior sort, if the names of such as taught in them be called to mind, and the histories well read which make report or the same. These schools were under the jurisdiction of the bishops, and from thence did they and the rest of the elders choose out such as were the ripest scholars, and willing to serve in the ministry, whom they placed also in their cathedral churches, there not only to be further instructed in the knowledge of the world, but also to inure them to the delivery of the same unto the people in sound manner, to minister the sacraments, to visit the sick and brethren imprisoned, and to perform such other duties as then belonged to their charges. The bishop himself and elders of the church were also hearers and examiners of their doctrine; and, being in process of time found meet workmen for the Lord’s harvest, they were forthwith sent abroad (after imposition of hands and prayer generally made for their good proceeding) to some place or other then destitute of her pastor, and other taken from the school also placed in their rooms. What number of such clerks belonged now and then to some one see, the Chronology following shall easily declare; and, in like sort, what officers, widows, and other persons were daily maintained in those seasons by the offerings and oblations of the faithful it is incredible to be reported, if we compare the same with the decays and oblations seen and practised at this present. But what is that in all the world which avarice and negligence will not corrupt and impair? And, as this is a pattern of the estate of the cathedral churches in those times, so I wish that the like order of government might once again be restored unto the same, which may be done with ease, sith the schools are already builded in every diocese, the universities, places of their preferment unto further knowledge, and the cathedral churches great enough to receive so many as shall come from thence to be instructed unto doctrine. But one hindrance of this is already and more and more to be looked for (beside the plucking and snatching commonly seen from such houses and the church), and that is, the general contempt of the ministry, and small consideration of their former pains taken, whereby less and less hope of competent maintenance by preaching the word is likely to ensue. Wherefore the greatest part of the more excellent wits choose rather to employ their studies unto physic and the laws, utterly giving over the study of the Scriptures, for fear lest they should in time not get their bread by the same. By this means also the stalls in their choirs would be better filled, which now (for the most part) are empty, and prebends should be prebends indeed, there to live till they were preferred to some ecclesiastical function, and then other men chosen to succeed them in their rooms, whereas now prebends are but superfluous additiments unto former excesses, and perpetual commodities unto the owners, which before time were but temporal (as I have said before). But as I have good leisure to wich for these things, so it shall be a longer time before it will be brought to pass. Nevertheless, as I will pray for a reformation in this behold, so will I here conclude my discourse on the estate of our churches.


 

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