According to social anthropologist Robert Redfield, who wrote in the 1930’s, there were two cultural traditions in Renaissance Europe. Although they did not correspond exactly to the two main social groups of elite and common people, they represent the two major different cultural experiences.
The elite participated in a phenomenon he labeled “Great Tradition” while the common people participated in the “Little Tradition.” The Great Tradition was learning that was transmitted formally in the grammar schools and universities and was not open to all. Latin was its language. On the other hand, the “Little Tradition” of oral cultural and ritual behavior was transmitted informally in the taverns, marketplace and church and was open to all.
For the elite, the two traditions had different functions. The “Great” was serious, the “Little” was play. While this definition of popular culture is an easyto-grasp model, it is limited in that it does not account for the great varieties in popular culture both in the countryside and in the Renaissance cities. Not only were there regional variations in folk festivals, but each organization or guild had its own hierarchy with particular rituals associated with each step or level within its structure. In addition, the townspeople were literate and shared their customs and traditions through the written word. This was in contrast to the experience of the illiterate peasants, separated not only geographically, but also intellectually from the experience of reading and writing about themselves.
The great interaction between the two traditions was formalized by an intermediary group of semiliterates who belonged to what is sometimes called the “chapbook culture.” The members of this culture had gone to school but not for long. They knew enough about both traditions to mediate between them. This connection was significant because it was through these semiliterates that the themes and meanings of rituals and festivals were put into writing.