Waits were one tradition that fell away with time but the Mummers have remained, although changed, across the years, which is how it should be. Mumming is a folk tradition and folk traditions need to change if they are not to turn into museum pieces or self-consciously twee nonsense. The villages have changed, the villagers have changed, and if the old ways are to remain alive, vital and relevant, then the folk traditions need to change too. They are not nice wee performances to entertain smart city dwellers with their quaint, picturesque, funny country ways; they exist to bring the villagers together, to give them a common purpose and a feeling of belonging, to let the young people work with the old people, whereby both can learn to respect the other and discover their own place in their own community.
They are alive, and they must grow, develop and change; if they are merely preserved, they will shrivel and die, as pickled and dry and brittle as a bitter widow, cold and grudgingly tolerated but ultimately unloved and faintly embarrassing. This is why Shakespeare scares so many people, as the purists seek to preserve his works in vinegar but I have seen, for instance, a performance of Macbeth, performed in a broken old barn on a blasted heath in the middle of winter, done in modern dress and with solid northern accents, and all before an audience of a few dozen souls, that was more alive, significant and, damn it, more entertaining than anything that was ever made by a Hollywood committee with a budget of mega-millions. I’ve heard ‘better’ folk music sung in the back room of a village pub by the local postman on his second-hand guitar than I have when I’ve paid half a week’s wages to sit two hundred yards away from some bloke who considers himself to be considerably cooler if he wears his sunglasses indoors.
Anyway, Mumming. There are some people who say the word goes all the way back to the Greeks, from mommo – μομμο – meaning ‘mask’ and there might well be something in this, although it's more likely that it comes from the old German mummer, meaning 'a disguised person' and vermummen meaning 'to mask one's face, to wear a disguise'. I’ll tell you about what used to happen in the ancient Greek theatre another time, but the Mummers plays started, well, nobody knows when, because they are a folk tradition and things weren’t written down about such things when only the winners bothered about writing down what they did from one day to the next. Ordinary folk were far too busy being oppressed to worry about it. Or at least that’s what some historians would like you to think. Actually, the folk were far too busy enjoying doing their Mumming to bother about it, and what mattered would be remembered because it mattered and what wasn’t important would be forgotten because it didn’t matter, because that’s how their minds worked back then, when they were alive and living in a tradition.
|A Victorian Mummer's Play|
Mummers were Mumming in the Middle Ages, performing their plays with their set patterns at Christmastide to audiences in village pubs and in village squares, with locals dressing up as stock characters in prescribed roles, following the patterns of the plays that were as old as the oldest old people remembered, turning them and twisting them to local themes and local concerns, but all the time holding to the overall feel of the Mumming tradition. The Romans dressed up during Saturnalia, disguising themselves and getting up to mischief, and this habit continued after the Empire fell, with ordinary folk dressing up as legendary characters, mythological figures and such like and performing for their neighbours, often on Christmas Eve but also at other times of the year.
|A Party of Mummers comes to call|
One strand of this developed into the mediaeval Mystery plays, which were scenes taken from the Bible and given a folksy English spin, and the other strand became the more secular Mummer’s plays, which featured such incongruous players as St George, Achilles, Father Christmas, Judas Iscariot, a Turkish Knight, a Dragon and a pompous, bumbling Doctor. The plays had a common theme, with (usually) Father Christmas acting as a narrator, two of the ‘heroic’ figures would fight, amidst great bluster and mock classicisms, and one would kill the other only to be brought back to life by the Doctor’s magical physick.
|A Mummers' carol|
The actors (exclusively male) dressed up in home-made costumes and disguised themselves by, for instance, wearing masks or blacking their faces with burnt cork, giving us another name for them, ‘Guisers’, and they were also locally called Geese Dancers, Pace Eggers and Hobby Horsers. Quite often, the mummers went from house to house, performing their dramas in return for food, drink or money, and were a welcome Christmas entertainment for the most part, with their harum-scarum antics and high cockolorum, although sometimes things turned decidedly unpleasant when mummers with a long-held grudge exacted their revenge on an unsuspecting neighbour.
Indeed, in 1400 a dozen plotters disguised themselves as mummers in a plot to assassinate King Henry IV, only to be discovered hours before they could carry out the deed, leading to the customary hanging, drawing and quartering so beloved by the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets. Ironically, Richard II, who was deposed by cousin Henry, had enjoyed a splendid ‘mummerie’ held in his honour at London just before Candlemas 1377, amidst great pageantry and jollity. The mummery of the ordinary people was enjoyed by other monarchs but were tidied up and polished to become the Masques of the Tudor and later courts. Henry VIII, when he wasn’t busy dismantling many of the country’s other ancient establishments, tried to ban mummery and guising, with anyone who went about in masks, beards or disguises liable to be arrested as a vagabond, thrown into gaol for three months and fined at the King’s pleasure but this didn’t check the popularity of mumming and the plays can still be seen, alive and well, in various towns and villages at Christmastide across England to this day.