As I drafted a recent post agonizing over the future of Boston Revels – and by implication, other performing arts organizations – I found myself pondering the origin of the reveling tradition itself. I kept mistyping “revel” as “rebel,’ only to learn that the two words share a common origin. Aha!
A online little research soon led to the Inns of the Court in England and Wales – places that were both a kind of law school and a professional association as well as lodging for members – and to their elaborate entertainments and wild parties that included a lord of misrule.
Suddenly, I was connecting to Thomas Morton and his Merrymount settlement in early New England, something I discuss in detail in my Quaking Dover book.
I’ve long been aware of an irony in the Boston Revels esteem, knowing how alien a Christmas or Midwinter celebration would have been to the city’s Puritan founders, even before getting to any riotous misrule. Now the plot thickened through an awareness of the way Morton was persecuted and his colony forcibly destroyed by Myles Standish at the helm of the New World neighbors.
Today’s family-friendly holiday Revels shows are greatly sanitized from their Medieval forerunners that would have been presented any time between Halloween and Groundhog’s Day – Morton’s big celebrations were for May Day, a seasonal stretch adding yet another pagan dimension.
Moreover, their ancient roots reveal ways English law was independent of the church, diverging the church courts that ruled in continental Europe. The Inns of the Court also nurtured Elizabethan theater and their revels are mentioned in Shakespeare.
Could they even be the source of a rebellious thread in our laws and courts? Or at least of what passes for drama and theatricality therein?