All posts by Mel Harrison

Engendering the stage on tour: Hocktide

This is the first of a series of blogs that will spotlight various forms of early modern performance by a range of gendered, classed bodies. Using examples drawn from archival sources such as the Records of Early English Drama project, we hope this is a space that allows (re)discovery of the many energetic and challenging performances and skills exhibited across England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These snapshots of performances and performers, from those on street corners to those who played in noble households, might challenge some of our ideas about early modern music, dance, and drama, and the hierarchies we have constructed around them.

This series will attempt to follow some of the touring routes of the early modern professional playing companies, most of whom originated in London. They toured frequently, not just when the London theatres were closed because of the plague, along routes that were well planned and well-travelled. Their own performances were part of a much wider culture of performance in both rural and urban areas; they were in competition and conversation with dancers, musicians, tumblers, animal trainers, acrobats, fencers, and many others, as well as civic parades, pageantry, and community drama such as the mystery play cycles.

Our first stop is on the road to Oxford: the Berkshire towns of Reading and Windsor for the Hocktide celebrations. 

HOCKTIDE

Hocktide was a raucous and physically robust festival spread over the Monday and Tuesday two weeks after Easter that marked the transition from spring to summer and raised money for the parish. It began as a day for collecting the termly rents, before developing into a larger celebration. The first day, women of the town roamed the streets, playfully tying up unwary men and demanding money for their release. The second day, the gender roles were reversed, with the men ‘hocking’ money from the women. The money collected went to support the parish. Records from Berkshire indicate the women were much more successful than the men in raising money: their total sums were usually double that of the men. The women of St. Laurence parish, Reading, won 10 shillings from the men they bound on 22nd April 1555, while the men only gathered 4 shillings 8 pence from the women the following day. (All figures taken from the Records of Early English Drama Berkshire, ed. Alexandra F. Johnston, 2018.) The women of St Mary’s, Reading, were even more successful that year, collecting a whopping 22 shillings 8 pence. Perhaps this can be attributed to men being more likely to have spare cash they were able to donate to the parish.

Hocktide does seem to have been a more female-focused event, as with many of the pre-Reformation and medieval civic performance traditions; the triumphant women of St Mary’s were treated to a supper paid for by the parish at a cost of 3 shillings 4 pence in 1555, with no comparable record for the men. This communal meal must have had a victory celebration feel to it, as women celebrated their organisation skills, financial savvy, and physical prowess. By banding together and roaming the public spaces of the town, they took up space in the streets and public buildings, exerting dominion over the men of the town. By physically restraining the menfolk and taking control of their bodies and their purses, they performed a reversal of what happened to a woman’s autonomy, body, and possessions upon getting married. Of course, all was righted the following day, as the men playfully revenged themselves upon the townswomen. Hocktide began to fade away across most of England by the end of the sixteenth century, helped along by religious disapproval of the topsy-turvy sexual dynamics and carnivalesque frivolity the games invoked.

It was not just Protestants who disapproved of Hocktide: in a 1450 letter sent by John Lawern, the Bishop of Worcester to the clergy and cathedral almoner, he complains of a ‘noxious corruption tending to reduce persons of either sex to a state of (spiritual) illness’. The symptoms of this ‘illness’ included:

‘women feign[ing] to bind men, and on another (or the next) day men feign to bind women, and to do other things – would that they were not dishonourable or worse! – in full view of passers-by, even pretending to increase church profit but earning a loss (literally, damnation) for the soul under false pretences. Many scandals arise from the occasion of these activities, and adulteries and other outrageous crimes are committed as a clear offence to God, a very serious danger to the souls of those committing them, and a pernicious example to others.’

Notebook of John Lawern
Bodleian Library: MS Bodley 692 f 163v 6 April 1450

Even accounting for hyperbole, it seems a range of illicit sexual behaviours were conducted under the auspices of Hocktide. We can see traces of this behaviour in the last remaining place to celebrate Hocktide today: Hungerford in Berkshire, a little to the west of Reading. There, the ‘Tutti-men’ visit each household to collect a penny and solicit a kiss from the women of the house, sometimes even going to extreme lengths:

A black and white photo from the 1930s of two women at the first floor window of a brick house with vines. A man is standing on a ladder and kissing one of the women, while the ladder is held by two other men.
Hocktide celebrations, 1930. Photo: Hungerford Virtual Museum

Hungerford continues to celebrate Hocktide today, as this BBC News report shows:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-27214352

The Hocktide of today continues the playful inversion of gender roles that the medieval festival initiated. Hocktide was a space for men and women to lapse from strictly regimented expectations of class and gender and behave in potentially promiscuous ways with members of the opposite sex to whom they were not married. There were plenty of opportunities to speak, flirt, and dance with others, who were able to performatively protest, pointing to the ropes ‘tying’ them up to safeguard reputations. Those who raged against the practice, such as Lawern, may have been reassured by the order in which the events occurred: much like the winter Lord of Misrule games, events began with an upturning of social norms, before the second day which saw the men of the town assert their authority over their wives, sisters, and daughters, reclaiming the public space and their power.