J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Politics of Pope Night

In 1765, Boston's Whigs convinced the Pope Night gangs to eschew their normal festivities (insulting Catholics, bashing each other over the head, burning things, and having a banquet) in favor of a peaceful demonstration of their unity against the Stamp Act (marching, then straight to the banquet).

When I first read about that shift, I thought the gangs had been politicized—drawn into the merchants' conflict with Crown revenue officials. But when I thought more about Pope Night, I saw that the holiday had always been political. The earliest accounts of elaborate commemorations in Boston come from the 1740s, the same decade in which the Pretender's son Charles ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") marched on London. Attacking the Pretender in effigy was therefore not an old ritual but a comment on current politics. By attacking the Pope, the youth of Boston and other New England towns were showing their patriotism.

And that display gave them license to do what Puritan New England normally wouldn't allow. Blasting noise through trumpets, horns, and conch shells! Demanding money from genteel households! Public bonfires! Wasn't that the sort of misrule that had turned English Puritans off Christmas?

Furthermore, there was a lot of overlap between the costumes of Pope Night and English mummers' plays, such as the one shown above: boys with blackened faces and pointed caps, young men dressed as devils and women, crowds ringing bells and blowing horns, appeals for money. Some English celebrations featured rolling stages, much like the Pope Night wagons.

Boston had rules against theatricals. In the mid-1700s town selectmen still forbade Punch and Judy shows. The first documented mumming in eighteenth-century Boston dates from after the Revolution. Yet Pope Night pageantry was an annual public event, probably the most theatrical in colonial New England.

I suggest that the region's town fathers couldn't say no to young men and boys who wanted to demonstrate their patriotism and anti-Catholicism. Even if the holiday involved misrule and something like theatrics, it commemorated the deliverance of the nation from a Catholic plot and warned of the usurpers lingering in Europe. The youth of New England got away with their Pope Night revelry because of its political dimension, which insulated it from criticism.

(I first made this argument in a short article in the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife volume titled The Worlds of Children, which looked at Swiss artist Pierre Eugène du Simitière's on-the-spot drawings of Pope Night in Boston in 1767, which had not been published before. They're in the archives of the Library Company of Philadelphia.)

TOMORROW: Where did the Pope Night Pretender go in the late 1760s?

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