The Giants of Pontefract

After feasting on venison with Pontefract’s aldermen, Jonson was walking wearily to his bed when he was mobbed by dancing giants. Our account suggests that this, with accompanying music, had been arranged to welcome Jonson, though it may have been that his arrival in Pontefract simply coincided with one of the town’s festivals.

Processional giants, built on wicker frames, and covered with cloth, were carried in towns and cities across England in midsummer and other festivities. Until the mid sixteenth century they often represented religious figures, perhaps the patron saint of the guild that owned them, or David’s combatant, Goliath. The Pontefract giants may have been housed in the castle in the early seventeenth century: as the trusty three military men touring England in the 1630s were to report, ‘we view’d the spacious Hall, which the Gyants kept’.

Although the practise was widely suppressed after the Reformation, the ceremonial use of these effigies continued for several decades in cities including Newcastle and Chester. Such was the gigantic figure of Gogmagog who appears in several places. A poem on a German giant residing at Charing Cross in 1660, describes

German giant

 

His whole proportion is upright, and streight,
‘Tis nine foot fully, and a half in height:
Not much in debt to Age, his Body clean,
Up to his Stature, and not fat, nor lean;
His Hand exceeds in bigness, and his Span
‘Bove twice th’extensions of another man.

 
and of others in England…

In his Dimentions set forth at Guild-Hall,
Know ’tis a Poet onely can define
A Gyants posture in a Gyants line,
The Art falls short of Nature, and must err,
When Rules are given her by the Carpenter…
And thus attended with his direful Dog,
The Gyant was (God bless us) Gogmagog.
And He who (fear’d by his prodigious Frame)
Not long since kept the gates of Nottingham;
And many others who have left to all
Succeeding times their proud Memorial[Anon.]

Giants still exist today, though their original religious associations have usually changed to a representation of national or regional heroic figures, or to reflect local folk traditions. Christopher the Salisbury Giant is the oldest one surviving in England, dated from before 1570. Formerly owned by the Tailor’s Guild, he is now incarcerated in Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Giants like this are still symbols of civic pride, carried in town festivals, intended to bring a joyous air and a larger-than-life structure to such events.

Groups of giants from English and European towns, such as the Dorchester giants, today travel around festivals in the UK and Europe, such as these at Steenvorde

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

At the Samson festival in St Michael im Lungau

Before the Barcelona Olympics, 625 giants gathered from all over Europe in the nearby village of Matedepera, and in 2000 nearly 70 giants were listed in the British Isles.
British Isles Giant Guild: www.giants.org.uk/

Further reading: Daniele Di Bartolomeo, ‘Giants in European Festivals and Processions: a Short Note’, on the ENBaCH website, the European Network for Baroque Cultural Heritage: routeofbaroque.enbach.eu/

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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