“Why will you not let the people dance?”: Performance-as-Protest and the Festive Tradition in Early Modern England

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    It is likely that the notorious pamphleteer Philip Stubbes was exaggerating slightly when he vividly described the drunken Bacchanalia he associated with festive performance culture in 1583’s The Anatomie of Abuses, but he was certainly not alone in his opinion. Performance- based festivities, particularly those associated with Midsummer, faced both political and religious attacks in the wake of the Reformation: the elite feared that such communal gatherings encouraged crime and riot, while the most stringent religious reformers condemned them as depraved, Popish, and Satanic. Particular ire was directed towards female participants, who tempted men with their “pestiferous dancing,” and young people, who were viewed as difficult to control and prone to riotous, disobedient behavior.
    In a time when traditions seemed to erode before their very eyes, many early modern defenders of festive culture turned to those traditions themselves to find performative means of expressing their displeasure, harnessing the power of the carnivalesque’s inherently disruptive nature to draw attention to abuses of power and defend their community’s customs from further disintegration. This paper will provide several examples of festive performance forms being deployed as popular resistance or “protest-performance” in response to restrictions placed on community performance, with special attention drawn to a series of protest-performances that rocked the small cathedral city of Wells in 1607. Drawing on Andy Wood’s assertion that “social memory is political,” I seek to demonstrate how the early modern public often relied on performance to evoke nostalgia for the past and voice discontentment with their present.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2022
    EventExamining the Early Modern - University of Leeds, Leeds
    Duration: 15 Sept 202216 Sept 2022


    ConferenceExamining the Early Modern
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