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bonfires


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Throughout recorded history, it has taken very little persuasion to get English people to make a bonfire. Not only do fires appear regularly as an integral part of certain calendar customs such as November the Fifth, Queen Elizabeth I's accession (17 November), New Year, and midsummer, but a bonfire was also the way the people celebrated national victories and royal occasions, either spontaneously or by order of the appropriate authorities.

November the Fifth and Queen Elizabeth celebrations had definable historical origins, and similar things went on at each:mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in divers habits, and the effigies of two devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled with live cats who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire; the common saying all the while it was the language the pope and the devil in a dialogue betwixt them. (1677: Letter from Charles Hatton describing 17 November celebrations, quoted by Cressy, 1989: 177)

mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in divers habits, and the effigies of two devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled with live cats who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire; the common saying all the while it was the language the pope and the devil in a dialogue betwixt them. (1677: Letter from Charles Hatton describing 17 November celebrations, quoted by Cressy, 1989: 177)

Even before that time, however, bonfires were in use as anti-papal devices and celebrations. About 1536–40, a report written to advise Henry VIII on how to get across to the people the new propaganda against Rome suggested that they should go in procession and make ‘bonfyers’ to celebrate their escape from its clutches, in a similar way as they celebrated the victory of the battle of Agincourt (quoted in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 20 (1957), 176–9).

Midsummer fires, however, are older and of more obscure origin. The important description by the 16th-century chronicler John Stow is detailed under midsummer. An earlier description, by the 14th-century monk John Mirk, proves to be quoting from continental sources, but his derivation of ‘bonfire’ from ‘bone-fire’ is accepted by the OED, while others, including John Stow, have presumed the first syllable to be from French bon for ‘good’, or from ‘boon’, revealing the idea of fire as doing good in itself or as a symbol for good neighbourhood. Adams points out that in no other European language does the word for bonfire have any connection with bones. Further confusion arises from a range of dialect terms, balefire, banefire, banfire, and so on, which are quite logical localized pronunciations, and the notion that these preserve a memory of an ancient pagan god (Baal) has nothing to support it beyond wishful thinking. Similarly, the fashionable idea that midsummer bonfires in England are survivals of an extensive Celtic tradition has very little to support it, despite the custom's popularity in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Indeed, the paucity of bonfires in Gaelic Scotland and most of Wales argues against a pan-Celtic fire festival.

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