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Review: Opening The Box of Delights by Philip W. Errington

Philip W. Errington, Opening the Box of Delights (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020), 128pp.

I cannot have been old enough to watch the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights when it was first broadcast; I was only three years old in December 1984, but my father had the foresight to realise his children might enjoy the programme and therefore videotaped it. I don’t know when I first viewed it, but I was immediately entranced completely by the adaptation – widely and justly regarded as the finest children’s television drama of all time – and accordingly it became a Christmas tradition for my sister and I to watch it in the days leading up to Christmas, culminating with the final episode on Christmas Eve. To this day, the Bishop of Tatchester’s rush to find his mitre and ensure that Tatchester Cathedral celebrates its 1000th Christmas is my iconic image of Midnight Mass, as the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ fills Tewkesbury Abbey (the real Tatchester). It was not until years later, as a young teenager, that I read the novel by John Masefield on which the adaptation was based, and then I found an even richer source of fantasy and magic.

Phillip W. Errington, the world’s leading expert on John Masefield and The Box of Delights, has written an extraordinarily comprehensive survey of the cultural impact of Masefield’s best-known work (although Errington makes several pleas to his readers to go beyond Box and read some other things Masefield wrote!). In Opening The Box of Delights he provides not only a biography of Masefield and a textual analysis of the editions of the novel, but also surveys every illustrated edition. Errington then deals with each of the major characters in the book before tackling the themes that Masefield chose to include, from his perceptions of Christmas to Punch and Judy and Ramon Llull, the real Catalan philosopher and mystic who inspired the alter ego of Cole Hawlings. The final part of Errington’s survey deals with the adaptations – for radio, for musical theatre, for television, for theatre and for dance.

The Box of Delights is a curious book (and TV adaptation) because it really shouldn’t work. On the face of it, it’s just too ridiculous, and packed with too many plot elements and allusions, to be successful. But somehow it does, perhaps because the usual suspension of disbelief we would apply to any novel featuring magic is heightened by the novel’s Christmas setting. The crescendo of Advent, as preparations for Christmas become ever more intense, bends reality itself – and certainly time. Somehow, for some reason, we are inclined to blithely accept this feature of the story – perhaps because Christmas has always been a mind-bending festival, by its very nature; after all, next to the incomprehensible mystery of God becoming a helpless human infant, a little magic barely registers. And like all mysteries in the true and great sense, the mystery of the Nativity stands outside time – an event in the past, but one that is every bit as real in the present as it was in the past. It is perhaps the gaping hole blasted in normal reality by the Incarnation that makes possible the magic of Christmas – because, after all, anything is possible at Christmas.

Errington eruditely shows what many readers of The Box of Delights have suspected – that the book’s ability to suspend our disbelief lies in the depth and richness of Masefield’s knowledge of the themes and traditions he weaves into the book. The book explores Masefield’s interest in oral tradition, exemplified in Cole Hawlings’s knowledge of earlier versions of the Punch and Judy Show, although I should have liked to see a rather fuller treatment of Masefield’s approach to paganism: “‘That was our old religion, Master Harker,’ Cole said, … ‘It was nothing like so good as the new, of course, but it was good fun in its day though, because it ended in a feast”.’ Errington notes Masefield’s avowed lack of religious belief, which is surely the ‘elephant in the room’ of The Box of Delights, a novel preoccupied with the Church and with Christian tradition. The forest of mythological allusion in The Box of Delights brings to mind that self-conscious revival of ‘merrie England’ that occurred above all during and after the First World War and which is associated above all with Arthur Machen. Whether Masefield read and was inspired by Machen would be an interesting question to explore, but not one dealt with by Errington in this companion.

Re-watching the BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights as an adult, it is clear that its themes had a profound influence on me, albeit unconsciously. As a teenager becoming interested in medieval philosophy, I remember encountering a book by Ramon Llull in Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge. I have no doubt that I picked it up and bought it because I recognised the name from The Box of Delights – and reading it led to an interest in Ramon Llull’s philosophy that produced the first academic paper I ever read aloud to a scholarly audience (not, I might add, to universal acclaim…). Although I did not continue my study of Ramon Llull in the long term, reading him led me eventually into the field of medieval occultism and magic – and it is pleasing now to look back on themes in Masefield such as the bronze head and appreciate the allusions the author was making to medieval magic. In fact, compared with many portrayals of magic in fiction, Masefield draws closer to medieval ideas of magic than many other authors, especially in his descriptions of the conjurations practised by Abner Brown.

By now, The Box of Delights feels as much a constituent part of the English Christmas as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – indeed, it might well be seen as the 20th-century equivalent. By revealing the story behind the book and its several adaptations, Philip Errington’s companion only adds to the magic Masefield’s dreamlike classic.

Organ and brass band struck up, full strength: the Vestry door curtains fell back to each side; out came the great Cathedral crosses and blessed banners, with all the Cathedral Choir and Clergy, with all voices lifted aloft in “Come, all ye Faithful”…

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Christmas is cancelled! The Bury St Edmunds Christmas riots of the 1640s

The Christmas of 1644 was a bleak time. England was embroiled in a bitter civil war that had already lasted over two years, with a consequent breakdown of law and order and social norms. Bury St Edmunds formed part of the ‘Eastern Association’, which backed Parliament against King Charles I, but the town’s corporation was divided between Royalists and Parliamentarians, as were the local gentry who normally governed the town’s local politics. People eyed their neighbours with suspicion – and more than suspicion; in the coming months, accusations of witchcraft would explode into the open with the largest series of witch trials ever conducted in England at the Bury Assizes in the summer of 1645. Bury’s godly (Puritan) community was in the ascendant, imposing plain worship in the parish churches, but a significant population with Royalist sympathies bristled at the imposition of Puritan discipline, especially Parliament’s insistence that the last Wednesday of every month should be a day of fasting and repentance. Because in 1644, the last Wednesday in December was Christmas Day.

Contrary to popular belief, Oliver Cromwell did not ‘ban Christmas’; it was Charles I, in fact, who agreed to make the last Wednesday of every month a fast day, thereby implicitly banning Christmas. But whether Christmas would be included in the fast was not tested until 1644. On top of this, Puritans believed the celebration of Christmas was an idolatrous relic of popery because it was an arbitrary date in the calendar that did not correspond to the Lord’s Day (Sunday) which people used as an excuse to feast and get drunk. As far as most Puritans were concerned, Christmas was a superstitious observance of times and seasons that belonged in the dark Catholic past (although it was not until 1647 that Parliament formally ‘banned Christmas’ by statute).

One way in which Parliament wanted to send the message that Christmas was an ordinary day like any other was by compelling shops to open on Christmas Day. This became the focus of the unrest in Bury St Edmunds, where on 25 December 1644 apprentice boys ran riot, smashing the open wooden shutters of any shop that dared open on Christmas Day (this was in the days when most shops literally ‘opened’ by lowering a suspended wooden shutter into the street, where shopkeepers would display their wares). Apprentice boys were traditionally associated with festive misrule such as mummers’ plays, so it is not especially surprising that they were leaders of the riot – not to mention the fact that the abolition of Christmas meant that they got no day off!

In response to the imposition of the Puritan ‘Directory of Public Worship’ to replace The Book of Common Prayer in 1646, there was a further riot in Bury. Apprentice boys assembled to force shops to close, and when ordered to disperse by a magistrate and constables, scuffles broke out. However, the authorities managed to put down the disorder. A pamphlet of the time reported that the ‘bloody designs’ of the ‘malignant party … against the people of God, and the members of Jesus Christ … were frustrated, [and] their mischievous design, in case that any one of them should presume to open their shops on Christmas Day, and to that end had prepared divers weapons for the execution of the same’. But a further riot broke out the next year, in 1647.

In retrospect, these later riots had more ominous overtones, since May 1648 would see the eruption of an actual armed rebellion against Parliamentarian rule in the town focussed on May Day, another traditional holiday. As the initial enthusiasm for Parliamentarian rule waned, Royalist sympathisers among the West Suffolk gentry were getting bolder in subverting the new order; perhaps the only reason serious violence did not erupt at Christmas 1646 was that the middle of winter is not the best time to launch a rebellion…

Bury St Edmunds was not the only town where pro-Christmas riots occurred in the 1640, but its unrest was among the most prominent in the country. These incidents are historically important because they illustrate the extent to which towns like Bury – apparently deep in solidly Parliamentarian territory – remained bitterly divided right the way through the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

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Review: Staging Fairyland by Jennifer Schacker

My review of Staging Fairyland: Folklore, Children’s Entertainment and Nineteenth-Century Pantomime by Jennifer Schacker has just been published in Folklore, the journal of the Folklore Society. The book explores the portrayal of fairies in Victorian theatre (and pantomime in particular), assessing the influence of stage fairies on the development of folklore and popular perceptions of fairies, as well as the folkloric sources of stage fairies. Stage fairies occupy an important intermediate place between the fairies of folklore and the fairies of modern cinema and generic popular culture, and as such this is an interesting and illuminating study.

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A gimpse of Abbot John Reeve?

A Benedictine monk, probably Abbot John Reeve, kneels at the high altar of Westminster Abbey during the funeral of Abbot John Islip. Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Gough Maps 226 © The Bodleian Library (detail)

A recurring theme of this blog recently has been the search for images of abbots of Bury St Edmunds. Last year I drew attention to a surviving depiction of Abbot Bunting in a painting of the State Opening of Parliament in 1512, while earlier this year (with the help of Martin Harrison) I identified a probable depiction of Abbot Curteys in stained glass in Brandeston church. Now it is the turn of Bury’s last abbot, John Reeve.

On 16 and 17 May 1532 John Reeve (alias Melford), the last Abbot of Bury St Edmunds (d. 1540) officiated at the elaborate obsequies for Abbot John Islip of Westminster (1464-1532) at Westminster Abbey. The funeral, described in British Library Add. MS 5829, was one of the grandest ever held for a Benedictine abbot in England, and has been called ‘the funeral of the Middle Ages’, insofar as it was one of the last great events of monastic England before the dissolution. A depiction of the event was recorded in a remarkable illuminated manuscript, the Islip Mortuary Roll, now part of the Muniments of Westminster Abbey.

The original, black and white Islip Mortuary Roll © Westminster Abbey
George Vertue’s 18th-century copy of an alternative version of the Islip Mortuary Roll © The Bodleian Library

The Islip Mortuary Roll is in black and white, but in Oxford’s Bodleian Library there is an 18th-century copy of the Mortuary Roll in full colour, made by George Vertue. This copy contains enough differences from the Westminster Mortuary Roll to make it clear that it was copied from a different version (Vertue was a skilled antiquarian artist, not given to artistic licence). According to correspondence from the 1740s, Vertue made his copy from a ‘draught’ of the Mortuary Roll in the possession of John Anstis, the Garter King of Arms. All we know of the provenance of this ‘draught’ is that it came from Warwickshire, but Matthew Payne has argued that it was an alternative, coloured version of the Mortuary Roll which therefore gives us a remarkable glimpse of the interior decoration of Westminster Abbey on the eve of its first dissolution.

However, this second version of the Islip Mortuary Roll may give us a glimpse of something – or rather someone – else as well. One of the differences between the coloured copy and the original surviving roll is the presence of a kneeling monk on the north side of the abbey’s high altar in Vertue’s copy – no monk is present in the Westminster Abbey version. The illustration appears to portray the moment when Islip’s funeral procession reached the presbytery at Westminster – that holiest part of the abbey church where monarchs were crowned. The monk at the northern end of the altar appears to be in the most liturgically prominent position in the scene, and is therefore presumably John Reeve – who we know presided over the proceedings.

Whether George Vertue was aware that the figure might be Reeve is something we cannot know – and we can only speculate as to why one version of the Mortuary Roll omitted Reeve and the other included him – but we may have here an 18th-century copy of a contemporary portrayal of Bury’s last abbot. Given that there has hitherto been no known surviving representation of Abbot Reeve at all, this identification is a tantalising possibility.

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English Social and Local History at Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education

Today I delivered a day of remote teaching for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education on the Undergraduate Diploma in English Social and Local History. My three lectures focussed on the medieval church (including monasticism), the medieval manor and parish, and medieval towns, and were followed by a seminar on each subject.

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‘Christmas Ghosts’ for the Churches Conservation Trust

The three living and three dead, Harley MS 2917, f. 119r © The Trustees of the British Library

This afternoon I delivered my second live Facebook lecture for the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), following on from my lecture on ‘Macabre Church Lore’ in October. The theme this time was ‘Christmas Ghosts’, and my talk traced the origins and evolution of the Christmas ghost story from early England to the BBC’s annual adaptations of the ghost stories of M.R. James. On Tuesday I filmed a special feature for the CCT which will be made available closer to Christmas, and whose character will be revealed then!

As it happened, I also spoke about M.R. James today on BBC Radio Suffolk, where my usual ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment focussed on M.R. James’s Suffolk roots and the seasonal significance of his ghost stories. You can listen again here (from time signature 1:15:00).

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Christianity on Hadrian’s Wall in The Catholic Herald

A fragment of a leaden Christian chalice (5th-century) covered with scratched graffiti © Vindolanda Charitable Trust

My article ‘Christianity on Hadrian’s Wall’ has just been published in the December edition of The Catholic Herald. In the article I discuss a discovery announced in August this year, a fragment of a leaden chalice dating from the 5th century covered with Christian graffiti. This was excavated from an apsidal building at the Roman fort of Vindolanda (Chesterholm) that seems to be a post-Roman church constructed within an earlier building after the site went out of military use. The Vindolanda is a unique find so far from the post-Roman era, and lends weight to the idea that some of the former forts of Hadrian’s Wall became religious sites. The article explores this question as well as the broader evidence for early Christianity on Hadrian’s Wall and in the ‘Old North’ (which is today northern England and southern Scotland) before and after the withdrawal of the legions.

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The ‘curse of St Edmund’ on BBC Radio Suffolk

This morning I was once again interviewed by James Hazell on BBC Radio Suffolk for the ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment, this time on ‘the curse of St Edmund’. On the eve of St Edmund’s Day, I outlined some of the grisly fates that have befallen those who defy St Edmund or infringe the rights and liberties of Bury St Edmunds and its abbey. You can listen here (from time signature 1:15:00).

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Friday the Thirteenth on BBC Essex

This morning I spoke on BBC Radio Essex about the origins of the belief that Friday 13th is an unlucky day, as well as other ‘superstitions’, including the belief that witches make use of eggshells to sink ships and the different views on the luckiness of unluckiness of black cats. You can listen again to my interview with Ben Fryer on BBC Essex’s Breakfast show here (from time signature 3:10:47).

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Translating the Act of Remembrance into Latin

Many of the great British institutions where the use of Latin is (or was, until very recently) commonplace in worship suffered enormous loss of life in the two World Wars, and it may well be that Acts of Remembrance were translated into Latin a long time ago for use in the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge and in some of the great public schools. However, I am not aware of any of these Latin versions of liturgies for Remembrance Day. In the interests of adding to the liturgy of the Church of England a Latin version of a liturgy that does not appear in the pages of the Liber Precum Publicarum (the Latin version of The Book of Common Prayer, last published before the Great War), but has become a key element of the Church’s year, I have translated into Latin the Act of Remembrance devised by the Church of England in 1968. This is the short Act of Remembrance which will be familiar to anyone who has attended a short Remembrance Day or Remembrance Sunday service at a war memorial. There were also earlier Acts of Remembrance dating back as far as 1918, which can be viewed here on the website of the Prayer Book Society.

My Latin translation of the Act of Remembrance can be downloaded here: Actus Commemorationis.