Saturday, 14 January 2012

Attacking cultural experience

The late-eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century saw two major changes in the cultural experience of English society. [1] First, there was erosion of the older popular culture as a result of the withdrawal of patronage by the governing elite, the gradual dismantling of the agrarian social and economic frameworks that gave it justification by widespread industrialisation and the attacks on its public expression by a combination of religious evangelicalism and a secular desire to promote work discipline. By contrast, secondly, a more commercial culture developed, entrepreneurial, market-led and largely urban and bourgeois. This involved modification of both the content and transmission of high culture and, in the nineteenth century, the promotion of popular cultural products like circuses, prize and cock-fights for profit. Cultural experiences, like economic and social ones, were adaptable.

The attack on popular culture was part of the assault on the life-styles and recreations of the labouring population that had been gathering pace since the sixteenth century. [2] It had two linked thrusts: a religious belief that popular culture was profane, irreligious and immoral and a secular concern that it was detrimental to economic efficiency and public order. The desire to turn people into sober, virtuous and godly citizens motivated by an interest in work and social discipline is generally held to have been resolved by the mid-Victorian turn to recreation and sport, ‘justifying God to the people’ through the ‘soft-hearted benevolence’ of cricket, cycling and football.

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Bair-baiting in the seventeenth century: engraving, 1796

However, Dominic Erdozain argues that the problem of pleasure was inflamed by the ecclesiastical remedy. Just as the early Victorians came to identify sin with ‘vice’, their successors came to associate salvation with an increasingly social and physical sense of ‘virtue’. The problem of overdrawn boundaries between church and world gave way to a new and subtle confusion of gospel and culture resulting in a sense of cultural crisis, a challenge to the hegemony that called for moral regeneration and stricter disciplining of the lives of the labouring population. Historians have praised the mood of engagement and adaptation but the costs were profound. Sport came as an invigorating tonic but it could neither sustain its new patrons nor fulfil their missionary task. Instead, it became the perfect vehicle for that humanistic, ‘unmystical’ morality that defines the secularity of the twentieth century. [3]

Attacks on popular culture after 1830 can therefore be seen as a response to pressures on existing forms of social control, of demographic and urban growth and the consequent erosion of paternalism. Evangelicalism played a major role in this critique of popular culture and succeeded in obtaining some agreement across the governing elite to its central moral tenets through groups such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. [4] Its views had their greatest success with the mercantile, commercial and professional groups, who looked with both economic and social distaste at the irrational and sinful nature of much popular culture and were appalled by the gratuitous cruelty to animals this involved. Methodism had greater impact on the working population and on artisans and small shopkeepers through its incessant attacks on the worldliness and sensuality of popular culture. Distaste for present pleasures was also a characteristics of secular radicalism. For articulate radicals, popular culture was too closely linked to the paternalistic social order. It offended their emphasis on reason and their stress on moral and intellectual self-improvement; books, education and debating rather than bear baiting, races and circuses. Secular radicals, no less than evangelicals, sought to redeem the working population.

This ideological attack was combined with what Thomas Carlyle’s ‘abdication on the part of the governors’. The aristocracy and gentry gradually withdrew from participation in popular culture and no longer championed it against reformers. Society was becoming less face-to-face, except on special occasions, with social groups confined to their own cultural worlds. The layout of country houses and gardens demonstrated a move towards domestic privacy. This was more than just symbolic and reflected a much broader ‘cutting-off’ of the lives of aristocracy and gentry from the lives of the labouring population. Rural sports, customary holidays and apprenticeship rituals came to be seen not as socially desirable but as wasteful distractions from work and threats to social order.


[1] Easton, S., Howkins, A., Laing, S., Merrick L., and Walker, H., Disorder and Discipline: Popular Culture from 1550 to the Present, (Temple Smith), 1988, and Borsay, Peter, A History of Leisure: The British Experience since 1500, (Palgrave), 2006, are good general surveys. Golby J. M., and Purdue, A.,W., The Civilization of the Crowd, (Batsford), 1984, Malcolmson, R.,W., Popular Recreation in English Society 1700-1850, (Cambridge University Press), 1973, Cunningham, H., Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, (Allen and Unwin), 1980, provide perspectives on the issue of custom and leisure.   Bailey, P., Leisure and Class in Victorian England: rational recreation and the contest for control 1830-1885, (Routledge), 1978, and Walvin, James, Leisure and Society 1830-1950, (Longman), 1979, take the arguments forward into the late-nineteenth century. Holt, R., Sport and the British: A Modern History, (Oxford University Press), 1989, and Tranter, N., Sport, Economy and Society in Britain, 1750-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 1998, are the best introduction to this area of leisure.

[2] Ibid, Brown Richard, Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, pp. 435-440.

[3] On this issue see, Erdozain, Dominic, The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion, (Boydell Press), 2010.

[4] See, Harrison, Brian, ‘Religion and recreation in nineteenth-century England’, Past & Present, Vol. 38, (1967), pp. 98-125.

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