In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Folk Custom and Entertainment

  • Introduction
  • Collections of Studies
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
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  • Castigation Customs

Medieval Studies Folk Custom and Entertainment
Thomas Pettitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0115


Custom is the segment of performance culture that comprises activities closely associated with recurrent circumstances in the life and working of a given society. Customary performances can have a seasonal incidence (marking festivals defined by the calendar or the rhythms of agricultural processes) or can be linked to the life cycles of individuals (e.g., birth, coming of age, couple formation, death); some can be triggered by strictly sporadic local occurrences. Performances tend to be ceremonies, pastimes (in which all participate), or entertainments (with a clear distinction between performers and spectators), the first tending to be custom specific, the others typically associated with festive auspices but less exclusively linked to a particular festival. Custom is traditional, in that while over time change inevitably occurs, performances remain recognizably similar from occasion to occasion. A very broad segment of medieval European drama qualifies as customary: passion plays and mystery plays of the great cities are as seasonal in their incidence and as stable from year to year as the Robin Hood plays or summer versus winter shows of the villages. Demarcation between custom and drama is accordingly arbitrary, and the same applies to the field of pageantry, which can plausibly be seen as an oikotype of the more ceremonial forms of customary performance, associated with the rich and powerful. It was not only queens who were escorted to their weddings in a demonstrative bridal procession, and not only royal courts that were intruded on at Christmas by disguised dancers. If the latter have blackened their faces rather than acquired golden masks (or if the bride is accompanied by a beribboned sprig of rosemary rather than magnificent regalia), the performance will tend to be distinguished as a “folk” custom, but the term is notoriously problematic. In German usage, Volk (like its cognates in the Scandinavian languages) has national (or even ethnic) connotations. It specifies the culture of the indigenous population as opposed to the subcultures, often confined to an elite, with external roots, be they ancient (e.g., Greek or Roman) or more recent (that of a powerful neighboring nation)—and usually in a different language. When applied to cultural traditions (including customs), “folk” in English, however, has connotations of the backward, rural, and humble, reflecting the introduction of the term “folklore” as a synonym for the “popular antiquities”—earlier beliefs and practices abandoned by the elite since the Middle Ages, but persisting among the nonelite.

General Overviews

Several of these introductory sections will be affected by the circumstance that medieval folk custom is not a scholarly discipline or recognized field of research in its own right, and so it is usually explored by scholars within other fields, each of whom brings distinct interests and perspectives to the material. This also means that customs have to share attention with other features of medieval culture, or that medieval customs have to share attention with customs from later periods.

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