An article by Professor Emeritus Ronnie Mulryne, English and Comparative Literary Studies
In Britain and many Commonwealth countries, Bonfire Night symbolises the gunpowder plot of 1605, in which King James I narrowly escaped assassination. But what are the origins of fireworks in Europe? Prof Emeritus Ronnie Mulryne, former Director of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, provides some reassurance that our European ancestors enjoyed entertainments just as foolish, and seemingly dangerous, as we do today.
It’s well known that fireworks as a form of entertainment originated in China in the seventh century, and for an extended period played a significant part in festivities in that country, as they do today. We know that Byzantium and the Arabic lands went pyrotechnic at an early date too. It’s not certain, however, when fireworks were first employed for entertainment in the West. It is clear, however, that they were being extensively used for public display in the early modern period.
The earliest documented record we have of fireworks as entertainment comes in a description of an event at Vicenza in 1397, and after that the floodgates opened (so to speak). Fireworks took their place as part of festivities in 16th- and 17th-century Italy, France, Spain, the German lands, the Scandinavian countries, England and Poland.
A particularly brilliant pyrotechnic display was staged on the Thames in 1613 for the wedding of Frederick V, Elector Palatine to the Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James VI and I – later the ‘Winter Queen’ and ancestress of much of the present-day royalty of Europe. I have worked extensively on the texts in English and German that record the wedding journey of the princess and her Protestant husband, from its London beginning via the Palatinate lands to its conclusion in a spectacular ‘carousel’ or public celebration in Heidelberg, with parades, ‘floats’, music and artillery.
There was plenty of ephemeral architecture to greet the couple along the route and much rejoicing and celebration and displays of loyalty, but little by way of fireworks. Perhaps that theme was played out owning to the vast expense and ambition of the spectacle on the Thames – something like half a mile of the river was cordoned off for the event, huge crowds attended, there were rockets, ‘fireballs’, and a semi-dramatic narrative including a maiden imprisoned in a tower surrounded by servant girls completely enveloped by fire. The mayhem was completed by a Naval encounter in which, according to the commentators, three ships were attacked by, and succumbed to, eager assailants armed with ‘fiery rockets and fireballs’.
As this last mention suggests, there existed a close connection in the early modern period between fireworks and the development of gunpowder for military purposes. In German, the same word, ‘Feuerwerk’, is used for both explosives and the apparently more playful item we associate with remembering Guy Fawkes – though the origins of the association are of course less than playful, and the conspiracy, with its Warwickshire connections, went near to achieving a pretty serious outcome.
Professor Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly expresses the firework-gunpowder connection: ‘it is the same gunner who bombards the enemy in war who designs and operates the fireworks that mark the peace’. Our investigation of early modern fireworks fully endorses this perilous association: men as well as property were maimed or worse by what were billed in advance as public rejoicings.
Warwick researchers frequently find themselves in unexpected places, for example studying pyrotechnic welcomes for French kings or Habsburg princes. The website of the British Library holds among its many treasures three festival books focusing specifically on fireworks, part of the Library’s collection ‘Treasures in Full: Renaissance Festival Books’.
This online resource for scholars studying many aspects of Renaissance culture was developed under the direction of myself and Dr Margaret Shewring of the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at Warwick, and was one of the earliest contributions to what is now a rapidly-expanding digitised corpus of texts. The ‘Warwick’ section of the website, brought together with colleagues from universities across the UK, contains the texts of more than 250 books in a range of European languages.
So, if you fancy reading festival books (in their original languages) describing Fireworks in Vienna for the wedding of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor and Margarita Teresa, Infanta of Spain (1667); Fireworks in Paris in honour of St Louis and of Louis XIII (1613); or Fireworks for the Entry into Lille of Louis XIV (1680), turn to the British Library website.
Equally, you could turn to the two-volume Europa Triumphans collections of texts in print, this time with en face English translation, edited by myself, Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly and Dr Margaret Shewring, where one fine essay, contributed by Marie-Claude Canova-Green (Goldsmiths), discusses ‘Fireworks and Bonfires in Paris and La Rochelle’ in connection with the defeat of Protestantism in the latter city in 1628. Not as exciting you may think as Hyde Park on Bonfire Night, but reassuring to know that your European ancestors enjoyed entertainments as foolish, if as spectacular and seemingly dangerous, as anything the 21st century has to offer.
Ronnie Mulryne gained his PhD at Cambridge. He has had a long and distinguished academic career, culminating as Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Director of the University of Warwick's Centre for the Study of the Renaissance.
He directed the University of Warwick/British Library Festival Books digitisation project and has published numerous books and articles, chiefly on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, on early modern and today’s theatres, and most recently on European Festivals of the Renaissance period.
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