Mummers of the British Isles

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Up until the 1970s it was commonly thought by those who were influenced by the paganism of 'The Golden Bough' that Mumming originated from the Saturnalia festivities of ancient Rome, which arrived in Britain when the Romans occupied the country.[1]

Modern research into the origins of Mumming however, has shown that this is a completely untenable notion, principally for the complete and utter absence of anything even remotely resembling a Mumming Play being recorded or even mentioned before the late seventeenth century. It is now considered by all reputable authorities that the overwhelming evidence points to them being plays based on a series of chapbooks performed by men and boys in order to raise money for holidays and festivals or when, if farm workers, they were laid off work in the winter.

Mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, but only in the context of Mummers being professional actors, the plays are usually performed at around the time of significant church holidays e.g Christmas (St Stephen’s Day Mummers), Easter (Easter Monday Pace Eggers) and All Souls Day (Solecakers) and always involve the death and magical resurrection of one or more of the characters.

A typical Mummers Play will have characters such as:

Betsy Bub – a male/female character who introduces the play and claims to be the mother of the protagonists.

St George – the hero.

The Turkish Knight – the villain.

The Doctor – his magic revives the dead character.

Big Head and Little Wits – a fool.

Betsy Bub (Beelzebub) introduces the characters as her sons and calls St George into the room. He enters and boasts of his prowess. He is followed on by the Turkish Knight who threatens him and typically calls him a ‘Christian Dog.’. They fight and then one of them is slain, much to the distress of Betsy Bub. She calls for a Doctor who, after more boasting of how he can cure the sick and raise the dead to life again, proceeds to give the ‘dead’ man some medicine. This brings him back to life; they sing a song and the Fool passes a hat around begging money for strong drink.

The blasphemous nature of the plays, the suggestion that a Doctor can raise the dead and the practice of the Mummers having their faces hidden from the audience by ribbons or rags and the begging that is associated with the plays has resulted in the past in the practice being illegal.

Most, but not all, traditional plays died out in the First World War but there has been a recent revival of both traditional and contemporary plays.

The Mumming Plays of Britain, Ireland and Newfoundland bear no resemblance to American Mummers Parades and, other than the name, have no connection with them.

Notes

  1. Google Books
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