Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England
"All students of popular culture," Tim Harris wrote in 1995, "would acknowledge the intellectual debt they owe to Peter Burke's seminal study Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe." (1) Now in a third edition with substantial revisions and a new preface, the book defines "popular culture" as the culture of "ordinary people," which included "folksongs and folktales; devotional images and decorated marriage chests; mystery plays and farces; broadsides and chapbooks; and, above all, festivals...." Burke's central claim was that in 1500, the elite were culturally "amphibious," participating in this popular "little tradition" but also in the "great tradition" of the grammar schools and universities, the Latinate discourses of classicism, medieval scholasticism, and emerging Renaissance humanism. (2) But developing standards of taste and decency caused the gradual withdrawal of the European elite from popular culture, a process that began at the end of the sixteenth century and ended with the nineteenth-century antiquarian "discovery" of folk culture. It was at that decisive moment of cultural separation that the popular became identifiable as a discrete category, and romanticized as the authentic expression of the common people.
Review Essay, “Literature and Popular Culture in Early Modern England.” Shakespeare Studies 40 (2012): 230-39.
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