Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

By Ronald Hutton | Go to book overview

7
MUMMERS' PLAY AND SWORD DANCE

The typical Mummers' Play opens with a native introduction in which one of the performers craves the spectators' indulgence, asks for room and promises a fine performance. When this is concluded the two protagonists appear, and after each has boasted of his valour they fall to fighting. In this duel one or the other is wounded or killed. A doctor is then summoned who vaunts his proficiency in medicine and proceeds to revive the fallen hero. Here the main business of the play ends. It is now the turn of minor characters to enter and provide irrelevant amusement of a simple sort. One of them collects money and the performance finishes with a song.

So wrote Reginald Tiddy, in the first full-length study of the play, published (posthumously) in 1923. 1 By then it was already clear that in this 'classic' form it was found all over southern England and the south Midlands, and performed in the Christmas season. Several elements of it were also present in plays presented in the east Midlands on Plough Monday, in Cheshire in November, and in the north-west at Eastertide, to be described later; and also in the north-eastern Christmastide Sword Dance. Over much of the West Country, Father Christmas made the introduction, while everywhere St George or King George was the most common champion, fighting either a Saracen knight or a swaggering soldier called, most frequently, Slasher. The doctor was ubiquitous, and often had an assistant, and the combats could be single or multiple. The lesser characters were most often a fool, who also danced and played music, a man with a club and frying-pan or dripping-pan (usually called Beelzebub), a poor man who speaks of his wife and family, and a sweeper and money-collector (most often named Devil Doubt). The tone was consistently comic and the structure loose, with no integrated plot, love interest, or sense of historic setting. Scores of local names were substituted for those commonly given to the cast and, although they were roughly divided into two regional traditions by the Thames valley, there was both a consistent framework of action across the whole range and tremendous differences of detail everywhere. Costumes consisted usually of shirts or smocks hung with ribbons, bits of cloth, or strips of paper, but again there were many variations. The actors, always male and usually young, could be called Mummies, Guisers, Guizards, Seven Champions, Johnny Jacks, or Tipteerers, as well as Mummers. By 1900 they were rapidly disappearing in all their old haunts.

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Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgements and Note xiii
  • Contents xv
  • List of Plates xvii
  • List of Maps xx
  • 1 - The Origins of Christmas 1
  • 2 - The Twelve Days 9
  • 3 - The Trials of Christmas 25
  • 4 - Rites of Celebration and Reassurance 34
  • 5 - Rites of Purification and Blessing 42
  • 6 - Rites of Hospitality and Charity 54
  • 7 - Mummers' Play and Sword Dance 70
  • 8 - Hobby-Horse and Horn Dance 81
  • 9 - Misrule 95
  • 10 - The Reinvention of Christmas 112
  • 11 - Speeding the Plough 124
  • 12 - Brigid's Night 134
  • 13 - Candlemas 139
  • 14 - Valentines 146
  • 15 - Shrovetide 151
  • 16 - Lent 169
  • 17 - The Origins of Easter 179
  • 18 - Holy Weekz 182
  • 19 - An Egg at Easter 198
  • 20 - The Easter Holidays 204
  • 21 - England and St George 214
  • 22 - Beltane 218
  • 23 - The May 226
  • 24 - May Games and Whitsun Ales 244
  • 25 - Morris and Marian 262
  • 26 - Rogationtide and Pentecost 277
  • 27 - Royal Oak 288
  • 28 - A Merrie May 295
  • 29 - Corpus Christi 304
  • 30 - The Midsummer Fires 311
  • 31 - Sheep, Hay, and Rushes 322
  • 32 - First Fruits 327
  • 33 - Harvest Home 332
  • 34 - Wakes, Revels, and Hoppings 348
  • 35 - Samhain 360
  • 36 - Saints and Souls 371
  • 37 - The Modern Hallowe'En 379
  • 38 - Blood Month and Virgin Queen 386
  • 39 - Gunpowder Treason 393
  • 40 - Conclusions 408
  • Notes 428
  • Index 519
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