Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers' Plays
Peter Millington, Nottingham, England
American Morris Newsletter, Nov./Dec.1989, Vol.13, No.3, pp.9-16
This has been a difficult article to write. I am told you are an informed bunch of readers, so you will probably have heard that Mummers' plays originate from a pagan fertility ritual. This may be a much-cherished theory, after all it has been around for a hundred years, changing little. However over the past decade or so this view has lost favour as a new generation of folklorists has researched the subject. But whilst the old theory has been shown to be flawed, alternative theories are only just emerging.
In this article therefore I intend to assemble the currently known facts and viewpoints. In the process some of the problems with the old theory should become self-evident. I will then try to suggest an alternative history for the plays.
Types of Play
Let us get it clear in our minds what these plays are. They are short dramas with rhymed texts, traditionally performed in association with certain annual festivals - mostly Christmas, but in certain regions Halloween, All Souls' Day, New Year, Plough Monday or Easter. There are three main types of play;
The most prominent is the Hero/Combat play. It starts with an introductory prologue and is followed by challenges and a sword fight between the hero and an antagonist. As a result of this, one of them (not always the villain) is "slain" and a quack doctor is brought in to perform a cure. This is usually achieved with a degree of comedy and may be the major scene of the play. To finish, a number of supernumerary characters may enter, chief among whom is Beelzebub, and often the whole affair finishes with a seasonal song.
Saint/King/Prince George is the most common hero of the play, but others may be found in sub-types of the play. These include; Robin Hood and Galatians, Scotland's typical hero. In some cases there may be more than one combat.
The second main type of play is the Recruiting Sergeant play, and is found in the English East Midlands. It is usually associated with Plough Monday (the second Monday in January). Here Tom Fool is the introducer, but this is followed by a three way operatic scene between a Recruiting Sergeant, a Farmer's Man and the Lady. Basically the Farmer's Man forswears his sweetheart and joins the army, so the Lady decides to marry the Fool. There next follows a scene between Old Dame Jane and Beelzebub or Eezum Squeezum which ends up with Dame Jane being knocked to the ground. A quack doctor is then brought in to perform an intricate comical cure. The whole thing ends up in a song. Sometimes, King George and other Hero/Combat characters are included in these plays.
A handful of these plays collected in the 1820s and performed at Christmas, featured a multiple wooing scene instead of a recruiting scene. Hence they are often called Wooing plays. In the relevant scene, a number of suitors - a Lawyer, and rich Heir, a Farmer, an Ancient Man, etc. - try in turn to win the hand of a Lady. None of them succeed, and she decides to marry Noble Anthony (the fool) instead.
The last type of play is the Sword Dance play, found in Yorkshire and north east England. This is a linked sword dance with drama thrown in. Here the characters are the dancers, whose lines are normally spoken in single verses one character after the other. In the dance the Fool is "executed" in the time honoured fashion of putting the sword lock round his neck and drawing the swords simultaneously. Then after a series of alibis from the dancers, someone is brought on - usually a quack doctor - to cure the victim.
Those then are the three main types of play. It should be obvious that the common linking factor is the presence of a quack doctor. Indeed it would not be out of place to call them Quack Doctor plays to distinguish them from other English folk plays such as the Derby Tup.
The costumes of the actors are worthy of note. Many sides wore costumes intended to portray the character being acted, much as you would expect in a regular stage play. However many sides wore non-representational costumes instead, typically smocks or shirts covered with patches, ribbons, paper strips, etc. Also the face was commonly disguised either by blacking up or by obscuring the face with the headgear.
The Earliest Plays
The earliest play for which we have a text is a chapbook published in Newcastle by J.White. This is undated, but research into the book trade has indicated that it must have been published sometime between 1746 and 1769. Its title page reads, "ALEXANDER AND the KING of EGYPT. A MOCK PLAY As it is ACTED by the MUMMERS every CHRISTMAS." This would appear to indicate that the play was already established, but doesn't tell how long it had been established. Our assumption is that the Mummers were as we think of them now, but it would not have been out of step with Eighteenth Century theatrical publishing practice for them to have been a stage-based company. Eight editions of this chapbook are known, the most recent being published around 1900.
There are a couple of references to apparently earlier performances. The first is a manuscript describing a performance in Cork, Ireland. It was written about 1800, and was thought to relate to a performance in 1685, but is now believed to be of much later date.
There is a vague reference to a Christmas mummers' play in a poem "The Mobiad" written by Andrew Brice in 1738 and published in 1770. A footnote to the poem quotes a St. George speech from a play described as being "lately" performed around Exeter in Devon. The footnote was obviously added after the poem was written, and it is conceivable that the footnote was only added just before publication. Otherwise, it could be the oldest fragment of text we have. The words are almost identical to lines in the "Alexander and the King of Egypt" chapbook, indicating a fairly close relationship.
The Known History of the Plays
Apart from the above cases, texts and descriptions of performances only really start to appear towards the end of the Eighteenth Century, and show no real differences with later hero/combat plays. The texts of some of these early plays share lines with the chapbooks, otherwise they appear to paraphrase them.
A special case among the early plays is the 1779 play from Revesby, Lincs. This is a Multiple Wooing play, lacking a quack doctor, and was a special production for the famous botanist Sir Joseph Banks. No similar plays are recorded again until the 1820s when a single notebook gives the texts of the only other known Multiple Wooing plays and the first true Recruiting Sergeant play. Both these and the Revesby play are very heterogeneous affairs, being pastiches of material drawn from a variety of sources; chapbooks, literary plays (even Shakespeare), wassail carols, etc. This suggests that they were recent creations.
From the 1830s and 40s, other chapbooks began to appear, most notably those entitled "The Peace Egg" from northern England, and "The Christmas Rhyme" from Northern Ireland. Some editions were still being published in the 1930s. The chapbooks clearly played a major part in propagating the hero/combat plays, although the Recruiting Sergeant plays seem never to have been published in chapbook form.
The early Nineteenth Century saw the dawning of an interest in what we now call folklore, and the publication of play texts in folklore books. Some of these books were pretty widely read - for instance Hone's "Everyday Book" - and local works often enjoyed regional popularity. We know that many teams used such books as sources for their texts. A case in point are the Recruiting Sergeant plays.
By the latter part of the Nineteenth Century the Recruiting Sergeant plays had evolved into a fairly standard form and transferred themselves from Christmas to Plough Monday. Hence they are also termed Plough Plays.
In the mid to late Nineteenth Century, the plays appear to have been at their zenith. From the 1890s, folklorists and theatre historians started to take a particular interest, and both collecting and academic publishing mushroomed. It is difficult to say if the performance of the plays really began to decline at this time, but undoubtedly the First World War dealt a crippling blow to them.
Some traditional sides continued to perform between the Wars, and in addition, revivals involving folk enthusiasts were performed. The Second World War dealt a second major blow, the number of traditional adult sides being reduced almost to the handful which remain today. The Marshfield Paper Boys and the Rippon Plough Stots are two examples, but there are no longer any traditional sides performing these Recruiting Sergeant plays. Children's teams were less affected, and in parts of northern England a healthy tradition continues today.
The folk revival took off in the sixties, and a large number teams have been formed by enthusiasts much along the lines of Morris Ring sides. Although these sides usually use authentic texts, they often perform at any time of the year, unlike the traditional sides. Some of the older revival sides such as the Coventry Mummers and Nottingham's Owd Oss Mummers have been going long enough to be regarded as new traditions in their own right.
The familiar theory is that the plays originated in some pre-Christian ritual, of which more later. Whether you favour this or alternative ideas, the key point has to be whether or not there were earlier Mummers' plays.
I think that we have to conclude that there were no Mummers' plays earlier than the mid Eighteenth Century - i.e. no earlier than about the time the first chapbook was published. Both folklorists and theatre historians have been researching Mummers' plays for a long time and thousands have been collected. There are now as many if not more records of plays as there are of morris dancing, but no earlier plays have been found.
With other customs, including Morris dancing, although historical records may not yield detailed descriptions of the customs, unequivocal records have been found - e.g. bills for Morris bells. My favourite early record is of a court case of 1597 in North Muskham, Nottinghamshire, in which ten men, appearing in costumes, were ordered to turn back the furrow they had ploughed across the church yard on "Plow Daie". For the plays we have none of this sort of record.
So where did the plays come from? It is not sufficient to suggest that they started with some individual writing the text for a chapbook. The chances are that this may be the case, but it doesn't explain why they are only performed at particular times of year, why some teams wear such strange costumes, etc.
We can start to make life easier for ourselves by examining the component parts of the plays and examine their precursors.
Precursors to the Plays
First let us look at the festivals with which the plays are associated. It is easy to overlook the fact that in every case the plays are only one of the traditions practiced at that time. Furthermore, the plays are in the minority, house visiting customs such as carol singing being far more common. For these non-play customs, historical records older than the plays are relatively plentiful, and in some cases quite detailed.
As an aside, The name "Mummers" is not unique to the plays either. Medieval Mummers are well documented. They cavorted in masks, including in animal masks, but they didn't perform plays. Even in modern times we have Mummers, who go house visiting in disquise but who don't do plays. These coexist in the same place with plays performed by Guisers. The situation is the same for all the other names used in Britain and Ireland, such as Guysers, Pace Eggers, etc.
Taking dramatic precursors of the plays we are on rich territory. There were earlier folk plays, but not with any obvious relationship with our plays, other than occasional shared characters. It would be odd in England if we did not find records of St. George and likewise Robin Hood. Texts of two old Robin Hood plays are to be found in the Child Ballads. These are in rhyme, and have a similar dramaturgy to our plays, but are textually dissimilar. The artisans' play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" perhaps gives a feel for how they were performed.
Surprisingly, parts of the play texts are also found in earlier sources. The most notable case is a version of the speech of the Doctor which was originally published as a broadside. As noted before, most of the Multiple Wooing plays had large chunks of text copied from identifiable literary sources, much to the disquiet of some theorists. One early scholar, C.R.Baskervill, a supporter of the pagan ritual school of thought, said, "Indeed, one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with the ritual elements of the plays lies in the fact that the very features in which these elements are clearest show a strong literary influence exerted at various periods..."
There were earlier quack doctors in plays, the Doctor having been a stock character in stage drama for a long time. Perhaps the most important is the Doctor in early English Pantomimes, which owes its origins to the Italian Commedia dell'arte.
English Pantomimes are I feel a much overlooked influence on folk drama. This is surprising, bearing in mind the continuing popularity of pantomime, and of its offshoots, "Punch and Judy" puppet plays and circus clowns.
Influence of Pantomime
The influence of English Pantomime on Mummers' plays is worthy of further comment. English pantomime is a direct descendant of the drama of Italian Commedians who first came to the country in the Seventeenth Century. Stock characters, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc. ... and yes a Doctor, were transferred wholesale into panto. They remained a central feature for two hundred years until effectively disappearing at the beginning of this century.
Pantomime's rise in popularity was early in the Eighteenth Century, and a standard pantomime format soon evolved. The Harlequinade was interwoven with an "opening", a play on any other theme. The number of Italian characters was reduced (sadly the Doctor was was one casualty), but the costumes and methods of performance were retained.
The popularity of early pantomime was such that it cannot have failed to have had some effect on traditional customs and plays. The similarities between these pantomimes and the Mummers' plays are interesting.
First of all, the lines were in rhyme, not a unique feature. However, pantomime required a set sequence of events and a rigid though witty method of acting. Harlequin for instance had to be perpetually attitudinising in one of five recognised postures, never pausing, but passing rapidly from one to the other. Many Mummers' plays are similarly non-realistic. Also the high point of the pantomime was a transformation scene which has its parallels in the cure of our plays.
Thus far the similarities are perhaps a touch general. If one looks at the costumes, things are more striking. The most important feature of the pantomime costumes is that a character wore the same outfit regardless of what the play was about, with little or no attempt at representing the role in the "opening". Harlequin for instance always wore his typical diamond-patchwork outfit, always carried his bat, and always wore his black mask. This exactly mirrors the situation with the ribbon or paper costumes of many English folk plays. The masks too are obvious forerunners to the black face make up common to many folk plays. With Harlequin, we could almost be describing a folk play character - say Beelzebub. Indeed Beelzebub in at least one chapbook is illustrated wearing a Harlequin costume. Even more significant is the fact that the Quack Doctor broadsides which preceded the chapbook plays include an illustration of the doctor with an assistant (a Merry Andrew) dressed as Harlequin.
The interaction between early pantomime and folk plays is undeniable. The fact that the rise of pantomime was shortly before the first records of Mummers' plays suggests that pantomime influenced the folk plays, and not vice versa. Both forms of drama continued in parallel and it is interesting that the early folk play scholars did not notice the link. Perhaps the very commonplace and literary nature of pantomime could have led folklorists to ignore the parallels, either conciously or otherwise. But then they were trying to look back in time way before the pantomimes, to pre-Shakespearean drama or further to Ancient Greek and hypothetical pre-Christian drama
Pantomimes therfore have been an important influence on folk plays, but other things have influenced them too. Folk songs and dances have readily been incorporated. Also, where the plays have been added to pre-existing customs, the costumes and other features of the original custom may in some cases have been inherited by the play customs. So for instance many Plough Monday sides trailed a plough round with them, just as their forebears had done centuries before.
Another neglected factor is religion. In Europe, most folk plays dramatise stories from the Bible, particularly the Christmas and Easter stories. In England we appear to lack this sort of play, no doubt under the influence of the Puritans. However apart from the obvious inclusion of Christmas carols in some plays, religion may manifest itself in some of the costumes. In some areas, the actors wore white decorated costumes, resembling many of the European Christmas story costumes, with tall caps reminiscent of crowns and mitres. Perhaps there is a link here.
Religious influence is most noticable in the costumes of the well known Midgley Pace Eggers. These wear red or pink smocks, which is the correct liturgical colour for their Easter performance. Also their headgear is based on a four-cornered college cap or "Mortar board", the direct ancestor of which was the biretta worn by the priesthood. Interesting though this may be, the Midgley costumes are unique.
As an informed audience, you will now doubt have read or heard that Mummers' plays originated from some pre-Christian fertility rite. This view held sway for so long that I feel I have to give a short explanation of where it went awry.
As you may gather from the above, the idea that the plays - specifically the dramatic elements - should come from any thing pre-Christian is difficult to imagine. This is because the historical record dries up in the early Eighteenth Century.
The problem with the old schnolars was their methodology. They started off with a number of assertions - that the plays had pagan origins - that modern plays were relics of some larger "original custom". Then they set about finding the evidence to prove these assertions. They thought nothing of comparing practices two thousand years or two thousand miles distant whilst ignoring the material in between. By this means they missed the crucial material of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, an area where there is still plenty of scope for research.
Their theories may have been wrong, but where the old scholars went right was in recognising that the Mummers' plays were worthy of study. For their collections as least we owe them a debt of gratitude.
A New Scenario
Putting together all the points that discussed earlier, what can we now see as the origin of the Mummer's plays?
First of all we need to consider the plays separately from the festivals. The festivals clearly have longer histories than their plays. The origins of the customs are not really a subject for discussion here. However I will point out that the geographical zones of the different times of occurance appear to correspond with regions which had their own legal traditions in pre-Tudor times - e.g. Souling in the County Palatine of Cheshire, Plough Monday in the Danelaw, and Pace Egging in the County Palatine of Lancaster. This leads me to suggest that some of the traditions may have had their origin in local legal customs.
The plays appear to have been added to the activities of the annual festivals from the Eighteenth Century onwards. Their texts may have been originally composed by individuals, but they were modified and paraphrased during transmission. Their scripts, costumes and methods of acting clearly mirrored the practices of contemporary stage theatre, and drew source material from earlier literature, including broadsides. Published texts were in important factor in widely distributing the plays throughout the country.
Views on play origins have changed. The pre-Christian theory no longer finds favour, but alternatives are only just emerging. Much work is being done under the umbrella of the Traditional Drama Research Group, an informal bunch of perhaps a dozen people. They publish a newletter "Roomer", and organise the once annual, but now less frequent "Traditional Drama 19..." conferences at Sheffield, England, in collaboration with the University's National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT - formerly CECTAL). The papers presented at these conferences are now being published in a new periodical "Traditional Drama Studies", also a joint venture.
For further information on the group write to;
Traditional Drama Research Group
c/o National Centre for English Cultural Tradition,
University of Sheffield,
Sheffield, S10 2TN,