One Crayon Coloring Book
Europe. In fourth grade it looked like a coloring book. By the time I hit junior high matters had not improved but actually worsened to include some of Russia. Then high school happened and while Europe had a common currency, and language, it still looked like an incomplete puzzle. College and graduate school came and went and with it came the fall of the Soviet Union, which allowed Europe, the hungry beast she is, to gobble up more territories and colors into her belly. I remember reading Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun and learning that there was a difference (evidently, very big) between being French and being Belgium. There seemed to be more than colors and languages separating cultures in Europe, small traditions based on religion or region along with ingrained socio-economic differences divided people. However, Peter Burke’s theory of being able to look at Europe as a singularly defined entity allowed me to see that European culture isn’t the division of these small tribal communities, but actually how they bleed into each other and create interloping spheres of influence.
Burke’s ambitious book, which now sits in its third iteration, seeks to establish simultaneously the reality of cultural cross-pollination without the temporal or geographic constraints that act as normal barriers. In Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, Burke argues that not only is it entirely possible to see Europe as a singular culture, and therefore a singular identity, but that it is imperative of the reader to assume that the cultures ranging from 1500 to 1800 would agree. However, Burke manages to convince the reader that what ties cultures together and what throws them apart is something more important than governmentally applied borders.
According to Burke it is important to look at the story as a whole, and acknowledges, “more recently, in the case of early modern England, a number of scholars have stressed the importance of regional cultures.” To break down the continent into smaller, more compartmentalized, regions one can see the cultures divided by social constructs such as environments, economies, religions and ethnic traditions. Burke, looking at the continent as a whole, sees that these smaller divides only bleed into and influence each other to create a singular European identity. Begging authority from pre-existing studies, Burke argues one can go even further back from the map to see Europe as Indo-European as he alleges the Grimm Brothers had. However, within the same paragraph Burke asks, “is this going too far” which one can, and should read, as Burke asserting that yes, it is.
Cultural changes among the common people is not as starkly divided as those of the people of elite classes, in fact the traditions of the common people bind together communities that could have been divided by lines on a map. Burke’s goal is to “say something about the common stock, the elements from which the local patterns were made.” Burke attributes this cross-cultural pollination of ideas to the mutability of people in common classes. Discussing the every-day life of the common people of pre-industrialized Europe, Burke describes the society as “organized on a hand-made, do-it-yourself basis.” Culture, as Burke alludes, is transmitted not as a sentient idea but as the by-product of natural human interaction. Crediting these people as being “active bearers,” whom he describes as being actively passive in their role as cultural ambassadors. It is in this manner that Burke talks about the transmission of culture, discrediting the High/Low argument from many predecessors.
Burke cites Jonathan Swift as a creditor for the belief in a sinking cultural ideology. While this is a credible theory it actually is not entirely correct. Looking at the recent Fashion Week in New York, and the sympathetic weeks in Paris and London one can easily see that what Hilfiger and Jacobs designed for Fall will show up on the streets of Manhattan immediately, diffusing down to the large suppliers of Macys in a few months and then appearing in knock-off form in Target and finally in ill-fitting misinterpretations at Wal-Mart. This idea of sinking culture is accurate, but only if one looks at it from an outside glance. The real inspiration for these designers actually comes from the street fashion, or what Burke would argue as the common people. Vogue, a multi-million dollar publication, working in a billion dollar industry devotes three pages (a large section in a magazine that half advertisements) to what is called “street fashion.” These pages show what people who work outside the fashion industry are doing and what trends are being created at the “street” level. This is where the trends actually come from and what the elite classes will eventually emulate and polish into their own. In other words, Madonna would never have vogued unless Paris had not burned first! Burke would identify this as proof that the high low was not a “sinking” transmission as Swift would assert, but a circular two-way street.
While Burke does acquiesce that there are examples of sinking process, such as “the English yeomen of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries” whom “built houses in the style of the local gentry” it is logical that this emulation comes less from style than from substance. Ultimately Burke dismisses the sinking theory as “too crude, too mechanical, suggesting, as it does that images, stories or ideas are passively accepted by popular painters, singers and their spectators and audiences. In fact they are modified or transformed, in a process that looks from above like misunderstanding or distortion but from below like adaptation to specific needs.” Substance over style is the running theme of common people who worry more about farming trends than fashion trends.
While Burke succinctly puts his psychological thumb on the pulse of the common people, he instantaneously acknowledges the incorrect use of the thumb. While taking a pulse use of the thumb is never correct, as the reader cannot determine the difference between the subject and his or her own pulse. In his collection methods Burke runs the same danger. Burke has the danger of chasing down false leads, reading personal bias and finding accusatory documents pretending to be information in his quest for what he terms “an elusive quarry.” Burke, boldly and intelligently, cuts his critics to the punch by identifying the problematic issues of collecting data through mediators. Ideally, when a cultural anthropologist, such as Zora Neale Hurston, wants to study a culture she goes to this culture and collects the data first hand. The information is correlated in notes, which include not only the actions she witnesses, but the function it plays in the community, along with the interactions of group members, and in Hurston’s case, film footage of the events. However, Burke has taken on the task of hunting down information from the dead. As he points out the folklore may exist, but what is missing is “the tone of voice…and so are the facial expressions the gestures, the acrobatics.” What is lost with this form of data collection may be the most important information of the cultural tradition. How something is performed may be inherently more important than the words or actions taken by the actors.
What Burke points out is even more dangerous is that the collection of the data, which is out of his hands as a historian, is that this information comes from outsiders. “The only surviving seventeenth century texts of Russian popular songs were recorded by two British visitors, Richard James (chaplain to the English merchants in Archangel) and Samuel Collins (physician to the Tsar).” Burke uses this example to drive home to his reader the real danger that taking these documents as gospel poses. First both of these men are outsiders to the Russian culture, however it goes beyond being just British. They are also there to serve people outside the common class and therefore are only observing this as entertain pedestrians. James, a chaplain to the merchants, serves the well-to-do merchant class who would not sing folksongs, or perhaps hum them with no cultural understanding of the history or meaning. Collins is obviously an outsider to this as his connection to the Russian people is the Tsar.
Going beyond this Burke points out the problems of depending upon court documents, as often the collection of folk tradition was an attempt by the church to undermine or punish the practice of said tradition. Any information from historical texts like this must be viewed through a suspicious eye. However, while it is easy to accuse the elite class as being the downfall of popular culture, the common classes take the destruction of tradition into their own hands often. Culture isn’t static, it’s mutable and is often shaped and melded to the culture that it is moving into to better fit the people it will meet. “The individual singer or storyteller may be a mediator in a sense, because in early modern Europe oral and written, town and country, great tradition and little tradition all coexisted and interacted.” This idea can be chased back to Shakespeare’s work, specifically The Taming of the Shrew, which has three different endings as the play was originally written, then produced, then reproduced over the distance of geography and outside of the original author’s control. Aside from court documents, poems and scriptural literature also serve as sources of information for Burke. While these are beautiful they can be problematic in poetry is often written with the audience in mind, and sometimes even for a benefactor, which can corrupt the authenticity of it as the work will reflect the views of the wealthy patron and not the common persons. These are difficult enough but the temporal distance of the researcher and the research but that the value of this study is valid and worth the risks.
By looking deeply and critically at popular culture and its affect on politics and social structure one can better understand the communication of common and elite cultures, and also see the needs, goals and fears of both. For example, the division of Catholic and Protestants can be addressed by looking at the restructuring of Saint’s tales. “The differences between the Catholic and Protestant approaches might be symbolized, if not summed up, by what happened to St. George. A chap-book life of St. George, published in Augsburg in 1621, tells the story of his life and martyrdom without any references to the dragon, which was presumably rejected as apocryphal.” While Catholicism would embrace the mystical quality of the life of Saint George, a modern day reader can clearly see that the Protestant reader would reject this tale. The cultural differences go well beyond Levi-Strauss theory of binary opposites. Protestantism came out of the rejection of the mystical ties to the ancient and Hebrew texts and rituals that Catholicism clung to. It was also a rejection of Catholicism’s willingness, arguably, overly accommodating, view to the induction of local customs into the rites of the church. Burke gives the reader the lens to see this divide goes outside the scripture and actually is a cultural fight. This also shapes the view of culture when the upper class withdraws from common interaction and the two-way street comes to resemble a tollbooth. “By 1800, however, in most parts of Europe the clergy, the nobility, the merchants, the professional men – and their wives – had abandoned popular culture to the lower classes, from whom they were now separated, as never before, by profound differences in world view.” This profoundly new world-view would the changing of socio-economic structures from that of the intrinsic to the international. The common person could not participate in a global economy as the merchant, or professional man could at that time and this economic disability set the two classes at odds. The natural aspiration of the emerging middle class was for social mobility upwards, which only widened the gap.
This gap in culture becomes one of elitism, changing the meaning of the word people. “The term ‘people’, which was used less often than before to mean ‘everyone’, or ‘respectable people’, and more often to mean ‘the common people’.” This change in terminology went hand-in-hand with a change in perception of folk tradition. “A French writer, later in the eighteenth century, found the Paris Carnival an embarrassment even to watch, for ‘all these diversions show a folly and a coarseness which makes the taste for them resemble that of pigs’.” Thomas Hardy would wait until 1891 to resurrect the pride of local tradition in his Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and then only allowing it to go as far as Victorian ethics would allow.
Europe as a single color was something that Burke hoped to find in his search for popular cultural traditions. Ultimately, what he serves to do is show the reader that while this may have been a reality it is no longer, as the socio-economic ties have become the new culture. This division of people separated by the ability to purchase and not purchase was addressed by Burke, but was dropped in order to identify the more cultural dominant traditions. Unfortunately this aspect of cultural division proves to be the only crayon that counts.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 87.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 91.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 133.
 R.J. Culter. The September Issue. A&E Indie Films, 2009.
 Jennie Livingston. Paris is Burning. Miramax, 1991.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 95.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 96.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 103.
 Mules and Men. Harper Collins, 1935.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 105.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 104.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 113.
 Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. W. W. Norton; Reprint edition (September 19, 2005)
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 300.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 366.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 367.
 Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe 3rd Edition. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing LTD, 2009), 370-371.