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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe
by Peter Burke
p. 1978
Harper Torchbook Edition

  Although the time period under discussion is remote (1500-1800) the topic covered is one which has seen a lot of action since the late 70s.  In this sense Burkes Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe reads more like an anticipation of much scholarship in this area from the 80s onward, then a definitive statement on the topic.  It's certainly no fault of the author.  The field of "indo european poetics" literally did not exist when Burke was writing, so you can't blame the guy for not being hip to certain characteristics of indo european poetics that seem to united much of the early popular culture of Europe.

   To give a simple example, in Calvin Watkins excellent survey of Indo-European poetics, How to Kill a Dragon,  he describes the common Indo-European feature of descriptive alliteration the "saucy servant" for example.  Burke describes a similar feature as being common to European traditions of recited poetry, but can only speculate as to how this similarity came to pass.

   Burke's task is also complicated by the fact that intellectuals didn't pay much attention to "popular culture" until the German-lead "Discovery of the People" in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Thus, for the earlier periods surveyed in this book, Burke is left with the tools of supposition and guess work.  Burke is more on target when he describes the general themes of Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Like many a diligent scholar of the 60s through 70s, Burke adopts a "structuralist" approach to his subject, first laying down "the structures of popular culture": Its transmission, forms, important themes and events, before discussing how popular culture changed in the later part of the period.  His description of the structures of popular culture in early modern europe is hampered by the lack of primary sources.  I didn't really need a book to tell me that wandering minstrels played a crucial role in transmitting folk songs in the 1500s, nor do I need a professor to elucidate the fact that there was a continuum between religious and popular culture during this time period.

   Burke is more valuable when he describes the two fold change in  Popular Culture which took place between 1500-1800, the first part of this change Burke dubs "The Triumph of Lent" (over Carnival.)  This was a time period where Church authorities- both Protestant and Catholic, took action against the popular festivals which were the hallmark of Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Their actions were grounded in a variety of concerns, from religious to aesthetic, and the Triumph of Lent took place in two distinct phases- the period before the 1650s, and the period after, when the spread of the printing press and economic development made the transmission of their anti-popular culture ideas easier and more effective.  Another way to look at this Triumph of Lent is as an attempt by religious authorities to remove Church rituals from the realm of Popular Culture as well as an attempt to remove pre-Church attitudes and practice from the realm of Popular Culture.  Did they succeed? Yes.

   The second type of change is that brought about by Social Change.  This Social Change is largely attitrubted to the Commerical Revolution of the 18th and 19th century.  During this time, poorer people became wealthier and more literate, which created greater demand for the Popular Culture in circulation. Ironically though it was at this point that the wealthy began to disengage from the masses and their culture.  In that process lay the groundwork for the distinction between "high" and "low" culture, which, in my opinion, continues to haunt discussions of artistic merit down to the present day.  The separation between Popular and "High" art which began to occur in the 18th century almost immediately spawned the counter trend of the "Discovery of the People."

  It is from this counter trend that we derive many of our modern ideas about the value of popular culture.  For example, the "Folk" movement is a direct result of the 18th/19th century counter trend.  Unfortunately, this counter trend focused mostly on collecting existing works of Popular Culture and little attempt was made to conserve older sources, leaving us with the aforementioned lack of primary materials (at least as of 1978.)

  In Burke's description of the upper classes abandoning popular culture in the late 18th, early 19th century one can see the fore-shadowing of our own time period, where intellectuals and the wealthy disparage mass media as being unfit for consumption.  Think of the stereotype of the Volvo with a PBS sticker on the bumper.

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