Who Killed Robin Hood?

Transformations in popular culture

Authored by: Martin Ingram

The Elizabethan World

Print publication date:  September  2010
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415409599
eBook ISBN: 9781315736044
Adobe ISBN: 9781317565796


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‘Popular culture’ continues to be an elusive quarry. Though the term is widely current in cultural studies and literary criticism, and indeed also in common speech, it has had a chequered career among historians since Peter Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1978) made it for a time both fashionable and highly controversial. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth centuries, Burke argued, many games, calendar rituals and other popular customs and beliefs were discountenanced by church and state authorities and measures taken to suppress or reform them. At the same time, there was a growing divergence between the outlook and values of elite groups (nobles, gentlemen and some middle-class elements in town and country) and those of the mass of the people. The former first distanced themselves from, then became increasingly hostile towards, elements of popular culture which they had formerly patronised. This notion of a ‘reform of popular culture’ was paralleled in the work of Keith Wrightson, who argued that whereas ‘in the middle of the reign of Elizabeth, English villagers had largely shared a common fund of traditional beliefs, values and standards of behaviour’, a century later ‘that common heritage had become the property of those “rusticall”, “rude,” “silly ignorants” who remained wedded to their superstitions and their disorders’. 1 In a backhanded way, the idea of ‘reform’ also had resonance for historians such as Barry Reay, who were inclined to see popular culture in terms of resistance or opposition to hegemonic authority. The logic of Burke’s argument was ultimately to stress the vulnerability of popular culture to attacks from above; but Burke saw the process of change as long and slow, and his interpretation was not inconsistent with the idea that elements of popular culture could be put to powerful use as ‘weapons of the weak’. 2

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