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Bonfires were lit for major festive occasions for good news and
for anniversaries. There are many qualities of a bonfire:
-They light up a dark night
-They have an element of danger
-Their flickering colors, smoke, and noise provide excitement
-They warm the cold night
-They can provide free heat for cooking and warmth usually paid for by another.
-Bonfires can be a focal point for other activity- speeches, dancing, games etc.....
Perhaps their greatest virtue is that they provide many rewards which can be appreciated by even those who do not agree with the celebration nor support those who have orchestrated it. Bonfires therefore are excelent public relations tools which draw people in.
Bonfires were constructed privately and publicly. They consumed many loads of wood, peats,coals, fenland sedge, and barrels of pitch.Sometimes for effect other things were added - live cats, gunpowder and fireworks. Generally anything that would burn was used. A good Bonfire would clean up a neighborhood.
Some bonfires were small as were those marking the arrival of good news. Others marking national celebrations were quite large and complex. One in London, where fires were both large and popular, was reported to have been four storeys high. Corporations parishes and organizations made regular contributions which are carefully recorded. These records provide very important evidence for the assessment of the importance of the celebration through the centuries.
Lambeth: the churchwardens provided ”wood to make a bonfire when the traitors were taken “ (after the Babington Plot 1586)
Carlisle: The Corporation provided three shillings for:”peats and tar barrels to make bonfires” to proclaim James I.
Darlington, County Durham: The Parish gave: “a tar barrel and a sack of coals” regularly to celebrate the 5th of November with a bonfire in the 1630’s.
Cambridge- Wood and Fenland Sedge were used
Wells: “days of solemnity” including November 5 and royal anniversaries were marked by bonfires paid for by the Dean and the Chapter.
Durham: 3 pounds of gunpowder and 4s 6d of tar barrels were provided to celebrate the victory over the Dutch in 1666
Northampton- bonfires consumed 7 shillings worth of faggots on behalf of the boroughs to celebrate William and Mary in 1689.
Usually additional funding was provided for the ringing of bells along with the fires.
The proper place for the bonfire was in front of your door. Wood was expensive so you would want to be associated directly with the fire if you had paid for it. Public places were also popular for the large scale organized fires. These fires were generally organized by parishes or city corporations , societies and political parties.
Henry VII paid ten shillings each sumer for his midsummer eve bonfire on a regular basis. The Privy Purse paid annually from 1453-1508 for bonfires conducted by the grooms of the hall. These St. John’s eve bonfires grew less popular during the reign of Henry VIII but they remained popular in the countryside. In Simsbury, Dorset in 1634 a summer bonfire was lit however, it received significant complaints from puritan reformers. The custom of bonfire was thought to have been linked to pagan times when they were used to mark special days.
There are many explanations for the origin of bonfires. While pagan ancestry has been mentioned by many there are no direct connections between bonfires and expulsion to hell or surrender to diabolic enemies or druidic fire festivals. In the middle ages it was said that bonfires or bonefires repelled dragons which were said to hate the smell of burning human bones.
Etymologists have also had fun with the term bonfire. Some have traced the term to bone fires and human sacrifice however, it must be noted that bones do not burn well at all. In Tudor times the term for the fires was infact bone fires. Another word origin is however, found in bane fire or fire of woe.
There is much speculation which claims that the November 5th celebrations are only replacements for Celtic and Nordic fire festivals: Samhain and nod-fyr (need fire). These are infact All Hallows (Halloween) and All Souls days. These fires were used to clear up the burnable byproducts of the harvest while celebrating these important pagan dates. Later these holidays lost their bonfires with the rise of the puritan reformers. While it is true that the celebration of all Hallows does coincide with the pagan Samhain it is also true that the only reason for the celebration of the date of November 5 is that it was the date selected for the opening of a particular parliament and marks the discovery of a particular plot and that neither of these occurrences can be tied to any pre planning related to pagan dates, customs or observances. There is no credible evidence for the continuous survival of pagan celebrations of Samhain down to the 17th century. Fire festivals of the 18th century are most likely inventions. While the direct link to a particular holiday or celebration is absent it is true that the custom of using bonfire for celebrations of all kinds is quite ancient. While some try to link the burning of Effigies to ancient human sacrifice it must be noted that the original celebrations of the 5th of November did not include the burning of effigies of the Guy, the Devil or others. This custom originated in the 1670s.
In a European context we can link festive bonfires to the German freudenfeur or the French feu de joi. They could have perhaps been described as “bon”. In the Elizabethan era fires were associated with: the flames of hell, fires of Protestant martyrs , destruction, cleansing and regeneration. Generally bonfires were associated with pleasant events. Or events in general- bonfires burned catholic martyrs but also welcomed in the re instated catholic religion .
Thomas Holland of Oxford (1589-1612) stated:
“(bonfires should) be used by the people of this land only as significant arguments to express their sincere affections in joy”.....(bonfires)”have been reputed tokens of joy” for over a hundred years.Accesion bonfires were “the ancient and daily practice of this honorable realm”
About 100 years later Francis Osborne noted:
“the bonfires and loud acclamations used still by the people upon the day of (Elizabeth’s) inauguration” and spoke with approval of them.
John Stow described bonfires as follows:
“After the sun setting there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labor towards them. The wealthier sort also before their doors near to the said bonfires would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drink, and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifully, whereunto they would invite their neighbors and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity, praising God for his benefits bestowed on them. These were called bonfires as well of good amity amongst neighbors, that being before at controversy were there by the labor of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies loving friends”
This is an important observation. The relation of the bonfire custom
and of the celebration of the 5th of November would later focus upon
both reconciliation and atonement as it spread to the United States.
This is one of the underlying foundations for the custom of effigy parading and burning as well as the collection of compensation from those condemned by the courts of the streets. In 1642 for example, religious radicals in Chelmsford celebrated the rejection of episcopacy with bonfires however, they also plundered the fuel from the hated Laudian rector's wood yard.
Stowe also records that bonfires were used as protection against plague- their use was multidimensional.
Accession days such as that of James I and of Charles were marked by bonfires. Holidays of joy. They marked weddings. In June 1625 it was noted that:
“all the streets were full of bonfires” This does not mean one or two- In Fenchurch street there were above thirty. Bonfires were lit for the birth of royal children and the treaties of peace with Spain, and even for the recovery of the king from illness, the opening of parliament and victories in the civil wars (by both sides). November 5, however, was the most important bonfire celebration of them all.
Bonfires existed for their practical values of warmth, and light and spectacle. They were generally the province of the rabble but the production of wealthy donors and organized politics. As with celebrations bonfires are multidimensional entities which can be used equally by both sides of an issue but will also entertain and warm those who have no interest in either side.
(Source: (when not cited above) -David Cressy., Bonfires and Bells.”National
Memory and the
Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England.,University of California Press,
Hardy on Bonfires
3 -The Custom of the Country
Had a looker-on been posted in the immediate vicinity
of the barrow, he would have learned that these persons
were boys and men of the neighbouring hamlets.
Each, as he ascended the barrow, had been heavily laden
with furze faggots, carried upon the shoulder by means
of a long stake sharpened at each end for impaling them
easily--two in front and two behind. They came from
a part of the heath a quarter of a mile to the rear,
where furze almost exclusively prevailed as a product.
Every individual was so involved in furze by his method
of carrying the faggots that he appeared like a bush on
legs till he had thrown them down. The party had marched
in trail, like a travelling flock of sheep; that is to say,
the strongest first, the weak and young behind.
The loads were all laid together, and a pyramid of furze
thirty feet in circumference now occupied the crown
of the tumulus, which was known as Rainbarrow for many
miles round. Some made themselves busy with matches,
and in selecting the driest tufts of furze, others in
loosening the bramble bonds which held the faggots together.
Others, again, while this was in progress, lifted their
eyes and swept the vast expanse of country commanded
by their position, now lying nearly obliterated by shade.
In the valleys of the heath nothing save its own wild
face was visible at any time of day; but this spot
commanded a horizon enclosing a tract of far extent,
and in many cases lying beyond the heath country.
None of its features could be seen now, but the whole
made itself felt as a vague stretch of remoteness.
While the men and lads were building the pile,
a change took place in the mass of shade which denoted
the distant landscape. Red suns and tufts of fire one
by one began to arise, flecking the whole country round.
They were the bonfires of other parishes and hamlets
that were engaged in the same sort of commemoration.
Some were distant, and stood in a dense atmosphere,
so that bundles of pale straw-like beams radiated around
them in the shape of a fan. Some were large and near,
glowing scarlet-red from the shade, like wounds in a black hide.
Some were Maenades, with winy faces and blown hair.
These tinctured the silent bosom of the clouds above
them and lit up their ephemeral caves, which seemed
thenceforth to become scalding caldrons. Perhaps as many
as thirty bonfires could be counted within the whole
bounds of the district; and as the hour may be told on
a clock-face when the figures themselves are invisible,
so did the men recognize the locality of each fire by its
angle and direction, though nothing of the scenery could
The first tall flame from Rainbarrow sprang into the sky,
attracting all eyes that had been fixed on the distant
conflagrations back to their own attempt in the same kind.
The cheerful blaze streaked the inner surface of the human
circle--now increased by other stragglers, male and female--with
its own gold livery, and even overlaid the dark turf
around with a lively luminousness, which softened off into
obscurity where the barrow rounded downwards out of sight.
It showed the barrow to be the segment of a globe,
as perfect as on the day when it was thrown up, even the
little ditch remaining from which the earth was dug.
Not a plough had ever disturbed a grain of that stubborn soil.
In the heath's barrenness to the farmer lay its fertility
to the historian. There had been no obliteration,
because there had been no tending.
It seemed as if the bonfire-makers were standing in some
radiant upper story of the world, detached from and
independent of the dark stretches below. The heath down
there was now a vast abyss, and no longer a continuation
of what they stood on; for their eyes, adapted to the blaze,
could see nothing of the deeps beyond its influence.
Occasionally, it is true, a more vigorous flare than usual
from their faggots sent darting lights like aides-de-camp
down the inclines to some distant bush, pool, or patch
of white sand, kindling these to replies of the same colour,
till all was lost in darkness again. Then the whole black
phenomenon beneath represented Limbo as viewed from the brink
by the sublime Florentine in his vision, and the muttered
articulations of the wind in the hollows were as complaints
and petitions from the "souls of mighty worth" suspended therein.
It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into
past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had
before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the
original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay
fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread.
The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had
shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now.
Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same
ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty
well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now
enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled
Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention
of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.
Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant
act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is
sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous,
Promethean rebelliousness against that fiat that this
recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness,
misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods
of the earth say, Let there be light.
The brilliant lights and sooty shades which struggled
upon the skin and clothes of the persons standing round
caused their lineaments and general contours to be drawn
with Dureresque vigour and dash. Yet the permanent moral
expression of each face it was impossible to discover,
for as the nimble flames towered, nodded, and swooped
through the surrounding air, the blots of shade and flakes
of light upon the countenances of the group changed shape
and position endlessly. All was unstable; quivering as leaves,
evanescent as lightning. Shadowy eye-sockets, deep
as those of a death's head, suddenly turned into pits of
lustre: a lantern-jaw was cavernous, then it was shining;
wrinkles were emphasized to ravines, or obliterated
entirely by a changed ray. Nostrils were dark wells;
sinews in old necks were gilt mouldings; things with no
particular polish on them were glazed; bright objects,
such as the tip of a furze-hook one of the men carried,
were as glass; eyeballs glowed like little lanterns.
Those whom Nature had depicted as merely quaint
became grotesque, the grotesque became preternatural;
for all was in extremity.
---Source: Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy
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THE WRONG INCENDIARY
I stood looking at the Coronation Procession--I mean the one in
Beaconsfield; not the rather elephantine imitation of it which, I believe,
had some success in London--and I was seriously impressed. Most of my
life is passed in discovering with a deathly surprise that I was quite
right. Never before have I realised how right I was in maintaining that
the small area expresses the real patriotism: the smaller the field the
taller the tower. There were things in our local procession that did not
(one might even reverently say, could not) occur in the London procession.
One of the most prominent citizens in our procession (for instance) had
his face blacked. Another rode on a pony which wore pink and blue
trousers. I was not present at the Metropolitan affair, and therefore my
assertion is subject to such correction as the eyewitness may always offer
to the absentee. But I believe with some firmness that no such features
occurred in the London pageant.
But it is not of the local celebration that I would speak, but of
something that occurred before it. In the field beyond the end of my
garden the materials for a bonfire had been heaped; a hill of every kind
of rubbish and refuse and things that nobody wants; broken chairs, dead
trees, rags, shavings, newspapers, new religions, in pamphlet form,
reports of the Eugenic Congress, and so on. All this refuse, material and
mental, it was our purpose to purify and change to holy flame on the day
when the King was crowned. The following is an account of the rather
strange thing that really happened. I do not know whether it was any sort
of symbol; but I narrate it just as it befell.
In the middle of the night I woke up slowly and listened to what I
supposed to be the heavy crunching of a cart-wheel along a road of loose
stones. Then it grew louder, and I thought somebody was shooting out
cartloads of stones; then it seemed as if the shock was breaking big
stones into pieces. Then I realised that under this sound there was also
a strange, sleepy, almost inaudible roar; and that on top of it every now
and then came pigmy pops like a battle of penny pistols. Then I knew what
it was. I went to the window; and a great firelight flung across two
meadows smote me where I stood. "Oh, my holy aunt," I thought, "they've
mistaken the Coronation Day."
And yet when I eyed the transfigured scene it did not seem exactly like
bonfire or any ritual illumination. It was too chaotic, and too close to
the houses of the town. All one side of a cottage was painted pink with
the giant brush of flame; the next side, by contrast, was painted as black
as tar. Along the front of this ran a blackening rim or rampart edged
with a restless red ribbon that danced and doubled and devoured like a
scarlet snake; and beyond it was nothing but a deathly fulness of light.
I put on some clothes and went down the road; all the dull or startling
noises in that din of burning growing louder and louder as I walked. The
heaviest sound was that of an incessant cracking and crunching, as if some
giant with teeth of stone was breaking up the bones of the world. I had
not yet come within sight of the real heart and habitat of the fire; but
the strong red light, like an unnatural midnight sunset, powdered the
grayest grass with gold and flushed the few tall trees up to the last
fingers of their foliage. Behind them the night was black and cavernous;
and one could only trace faintly the ashen horizon beyond the dark and
magic Wilton Woods. As I went, a workman on a bicycle shot a rood past me;
then staggered from his machine and shouted to me to tell him where the
fire was. I answered that I was going to see, but thought it was the
cottages by the wood-yard. He said, "My God!" and vanished.
A little farther on I found grass and pavement soaking and flooded,
the red and yellow flames repainted in pools and puddles. Beyond were dim
huddles of people and a small distant voice shouting out orders. The
fire-engines were at work. I went on among the red reflections, which
seemed like subterranean fires; I had a singular sensation of being in a
very important dream. Oddly enough, this was increased when I found that
most of my friends and neighbours were entangled in the crowd. Only in
dreams do we see familiar faces so vividly against a black background of
midnight. I was glad to find (for the workman cyclist's sake) that the
fire was not in the houses by the wood-yard, but in the wood-yard itself.
There was no fear for human life, and the thing was seemingly accidental;
though there were the usual ugly whispers about rivalry and revenge. But
for all that I could not shake off my dream-drugged soul a swollen, tragic,
portentous sort of sensation, that it all had something to do with the
crowning of the English King, and the glory or the end of England. It was
not till I saw the puddles and the ashes in broad daylight next morning
that I was fundamentally certain that my midnight adventure had not
happened outside this world.
But I was more arrogant than the ancient Emperors Pharaoh or
Nebuchadnezzar; for I attempted to interpret my own dream. The fire was
feeding upon solid stacks of unused beech or pine, gray and white piles of
virgin wood. It was an orgy of mere waste; thousands of good things were
being killed before they had ever existed. Doors, tables, walkingsticks,
wheelbarrows, wooden swords for boys, Dutch dolls for girls I could hear
the cry of each uncreated thing as it expired in the flames. And then I
thought of that other noble tower of needless things that stood in the
field beyond my garden; the bonfire, the mountain of vanities, that is
meant for burning; and how it stood dark and lonely in the meadow, and the
birds hopped on its corners and the dew touched and spangled its twigs.
And I remembered that there are two kinds of fires, the Bad Fire and the
Good Fire the last must surely be the meaning of Bonfire. And the paradox
is that the Good Fire is made of bad things, of things that we do not want;
but the Bad Fire is made of good things, of things that we do want; like
all that wealth of wood that might have made dolls and chairs and tables,
but was only making a hueless ash.
And then I saw, in my vision, that just as there are two fires, so there
are two revolutions. And I saw that the whole mad modern world is a race
between them. Which will happen first--the revolution in which bad things
shall perish, or that other revolution, in which good things shall perish
also? One is the riot that all good men, even the most conservative,
really dream of, when the sneer shall be struck from the face of the
well-fed; when the wine of honour shall be poured down the throat of
despair; when we shall, so far as to the sons of flesh is possible, take
tyranny and usury and public treason and bind them into bundles and burn
them. And the other is the disruption that may come prematurely,
negatively, and suddenly in the night; like the fire in my little town.
It may come because the mere strain of modern life is unbearable; and
it even the things that men do desire may break down; marriage and fair
ownership and worship and the mysterious worth of man. The two
revolutions, white and black, are racing each other like two railway
trains; I cannot guess the issue...but even as I thought of it, the
tallest turret of the timber stooped and faltered and came down in a
cataract of noises. And the fire, finding passage, went up with a spout
like a fountain. It stood far up among the stars for an instant, a
blazing pillar of brass fit for a pagan conqueror, so high that one could
fancy it visible away among the goblin trees of Burnham or along the
terraces of the Chiltern Hills.- source:
A MISCELLANY OF MEN
By G. K. CHESTERTON
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