Cakes and ale

Twelfth Night; the end of Christmas by ancient tradition was marked by feasting and revelry. In unreformed nations they give gifts today rather than at Christmas.

The revelry of Twelfth Night was winked at by the unreformed Church – their monkish clergy were shocked by any sort of pleasure, out of jealousy, but realised there can be no life without joy and approved it by making it an exception. It was eventually suppressed under Puritan influence, and yet the warring tendencies never got it right, because trying to fix a rule makes balance impossible, and rules are vital if you are to avoid the burden of thinking, or praying.

Whether revelry was part of the religious devotion or in defiance of it historians will never agree.  Then in stepped Shakespeare:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

The scene in the play is not set on any particular night, and scholars will argue until the end of time about why the Bard chose the name for his play, it is easy to imagine it as taking place at least in the spirit of the eponymous 6th day of January. On that night the two knights, Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek, ate, drank and caroused with the clown so loudly as to wake the household – or at least those of the household who were not with them, or at least Malvolio. The scene is pictured beautifully, the broken, tipsy  conversation perfectly framed, so that the imagination can do the rest. For all the nonsense and the hasty threats and more nonsense again, they are clearly having a riotous good time, committing no sin either at that point, and in storms Malvolio the steward, angered at the disturbance, or at his own jealously at others’ happiness. He has the moral high ground in his eyes and commands them to quieten down.

He is though only a steward; ultimately a servant:

Out o’ tune, sir: ye lie. Art any more than a steward?

(Those who command others to silence in our own censorious age should be send away the same way: “Our of tune – Art any more than a keyboard tapper?” Regrettably they will not shut their mouths, any more than Malvolio did.)

There is more to this that a spat between a kinsman and a servant in far off Illyria. Shakespeare built his theatre in Southwark because the Corporation of London was governed by Puritans who would have no bawdy playhouses within their city. “The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass” says Maria after the Steward has left the stage.

Ultimately, coming back to the calendar and the twelfth day of Christmas, what is the Church to do? Christianity is not about solemnity and the banishing of all joy, or separation from the world: the Gospel is all about God in the World, and about Joy – a spiritual joy greater than anything that even cakes and ale and produce. Drinking and carousing though can slip soon into bawdy songs and immorality so the Church should have nothing to do with it. Then again, was not the Last Supper a chaste Passover meal celebrated with wine and good company?

The Romans in their old religion talked of virtue but practiced shamelessness, so that when the Gospel came among them its first job was to impose a new morality, and it was imposed by the first class to accept the gospel, namely virtuous, modest-living, middle-class shopkeepers and merchants (the very same who made up the Corporation of London in the Bard’s day). That is still needed, but in every generation it leads to the assumption that any enjoyment is too carnal to be permitted, and every generation needs a correction to remind the Gospellers that joy is woven into the Gospel. Real joy is found in filling the senses with the wonder of God’s creation and love: ale-joy is a dulling of the senses against it.  The Romans in their old religion did have ideas of religious restraint connected with their idols, but they also found a need for a release of this on occasions.  The unreformed Church followed suit irreligiously.  Hobbes observed the comparison:

They had their Bacchanalia; and we have our Wakes, answering to them: They their Saturnalia, and we our Carnevalls

I can understand the Puritans in that context. Like Hobbes, they saw the heathenness coming out of old practices and determined to stamp out all  from church practice that was not strictly Biblical – and the revels of Twelfth Night after Christmas are nowhere in the Gospels – nor actually is Christmas as a festival, so they stopped that too. They went on to build a hedge around the law, to prevent immorality before it could get its boots on (or off).

Where does that leave the pursuit of enjoyment? Gathered round a family table, giving blessings for the bounty the Lord has allowed to us and the bond of family; no one can condemn this, surely. Gathered round with friends in the same manner must be a blessing too?  But drunkenness, roistering and debauchery – that is unholy. Now, how does one find a line?

There are some thinks fundamental to British life lived with any degree of enjoyment, and cakes, most of all are the universal comfort in all circumstances essential to life amongst our nation. It is all innocent, in moderation, so if the puritan instinct is about to grip me, I ask:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

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Author: LittleHobb

Solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short