At certain times of the year in the English speaking world, grown men (it's mostly men, although women do get involved these days) dress up in strange attire and enact dramas, which have been played down generations to raise a little cash, which in times of old - and sometimes these times too - was used in the local hostelry. It's fair to say, though, that sometimes, the money is now raised for charitable causes as well.
Mumming plays can be traced back at least to the middle ages and were a traditional part of Christmas at the court of Edward III, as shown in a 14th Century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
These plays, happening around Easter, All Saints Day and Christmas are variously known as 'pace-egging', 'souling' and 'mumming'. Many involve the blacking of faces to conceal their identity and the wearing of fantastic costumes. Most take the form of rhyming couplets, some have songs or dances and most are very entertaining to watch.
Mummers1 were once found in nearly every village in England. Together with mystery and miracle plays they are survivors of folk drama. Mummers plays were originally part of the old fertility rites performed in mid-winter and the May Day festivals to bring back life to the world.
Mummers plays usually take the form of a combat between the hero and villain, in which the hero is killed and brought to life, often by a quack doctor:
I can cure the itch, the scritch, the palsy and the gout. If a man has six devils, I can cast seven out!
Usually each character introduces him or herself by the formula 'In comes I!'. For example:
In comes I Beelzebub
Over my shoulder I carry my club
In me 'and a drip leather pan
Don't you think I'm a jolly old man?
There is a panoply of characters (how many probably depends on the numbers of players, although there is sometimes 'doubling up'), including Fool, St George, Bold Slasher, Father Christmas, Beelzebub, etc.
Mumming plays are carried out in various parts of England (there are in the region of 1,000 Mummers plays in existence in Britain, although the majority are not in current use). Mumming is also carried out in the USA - notably in Philadelphia, in Canada and in New Zealand, but is more often in the form of parades than plays.
Here's one, two, three, jolly boys2, all in one mind.
We have come a pace-egging and I hope you'll prove kind.
And we hope you prove kind, with your eggs and strong beer.
And we'll come no more nigh you until the next year.
Pace-egging is an old Lancashire custom, once widespread throughout England at Easter time. 'Pace' comes from the old English 'pasch' meaning 'Easter', and pace-eggs are eggs specially decorated for the festival. Usually, they are wrapped in onion skins and boiled. This gives a golden, mottled effect to the shells. Decorating eggs this way is a centuries old Easter custom. The name Easter comes from the Saxon spring goddess Eostre, whose feast was at the vernal equinox.
Pace-eggs were eaten for breakfast on Easter Sunday, used as ornaments or for games, or handed out to pace-eggers, who were once a common sight in Lancashire villages. Pace-eggers were fantastically dressed mummers, complete with blackened faces and wearing animal skins, coloured ribbons and streamers. They went in procession through the streets, singing the traditional pace-eggers' song and extracting eggs and money as tribute. Pace-eggers must have been very persistent, for if someone is called a 'pace-egg', it means that he or she is being a pest. As such the term is often applied to children.
Edward I's household accounts include an item of 1s 6d3 for the decoration and distribution of 450 pace-eggs and the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere has a collection of highly ornate eggs, originally made for the poet's children.
Beatrix Potter greeted jolly-boys or pace-eggers of Far and Near Sawrey in the lake District when they called on her at Castle Cottage and Hill Top Farm. The players were Old Betsy Brownbags, Jolly Jack Tar, Lord Nelson, Old Paddy from Cork and Old Tosspot.
The pace-eggers procession survived until quite recently at Burscough, near Ormskirk and included such characters as the Noble Youth, the Old Tosspot - 'I'm a cheery old feller and I wear a pigtail, and all my delight is in drinking old ale!' - who played the role of drunken buffoon and wore a long straw tail stuffed full of pins to catch any bystander unwise enough to grab hold of it.
In the 19th Century, in one party at least, men dressed as Macbeth, a foxhunter, a bishop, Richard III, an Irish umbrella-mender, a quack doctor and an oyster-catcher who begged for eggs and money.
Pace-egging plays are still carried out in parts of Lancashire and Cumbria around Easter. The content of the plays is very similar to mumming plays, except that pace-egging is carried out at Easter and mumming plays are generally performed at Christmas.
The essence of the plays is death and rebirth involving a fight between the hero (usually St George) and the villain, who can vary, but is often a foreigner eg, the Turkish Knight. The corpse is then brought back to life and there are appearances by other characters, most having only tenuous links with the plot. After the play, a collection is usually taken from the audience.
It is likely that the custom has a pre-Christian origin, rooted in a fertility ceremony to ensure good crops for the coming year.
A soul, a soul, a soul-cake.
Please, good missus, a soul-cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Or any good thing to make us merry ...
On 2 November, All Souls Day, men dressed in disguise, (Guisers) and also children, would walk from village to village begging for 'soul cakes', made out of square pieces of bread with currants or sometimes oatcakes. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to heaven.
It has been suggested that in pre-Christian times, soul cakes were baked in order to chose a sacrificial victim to ensure good crops. One soul cake was blackened on the fire and the person who chose that one was ritually killed.
The practice of souling crossed over to the USA and Canada, where it has been cited as one of the precursors of Halloween.
Hunting the Wren/Wren Boys
Hunting the wren4 was a custom once performed as a real hunt, in which a bird was caught and killed and taken in procession, accompanied by costumed men with blackened faces, either on a pole, or in a coffin from door to door. Offerings were collected, after which the wren was ceremonially buried or eaten. Songs such as 'The Cutty Wren'5, tell of the hunting of the wren. The wren in the song appears to be of enormous proportions, and thus a great deal of effort has to be expended in its killing and eating.
Although wrens are no longer caught and killed, this ceremony survives as a type of mumming play in Ireland and stems from an Irish-speaking tradition. In some parts the participants are called mummers, in others, 'wren boys'. Traditionally these plays take place on St Stephen's Day, which is on 26 December.
The plough play traditionally takes place on Plough Monday (the first Monday after 6th January, which is the day on which equipment was overhauled in preparation for the spring ploughing. The Plough Play, was performed by a group of ploughmen known as 'plough jacks' or 'plough stots'. They dragged a decorated plough around the village, stopping at houses to beg for gifts or money. In the absence of these, they would plough up the villager's front garden! The plough was eventually dragged to the church to be blessed.
Mummers, and sometimes longsword dancers, would often accompany the plough jacks. The plough play again has a theme of a hero being killed and miraculously brought back to life.
A Common Ancestry
At an International Mummers Festival, Co. Fermanagh, Ireland in 2000, one of the Aughakillymaude Mummers commented, 'You don't have to scratch us too deep and we are all the same'.
The themes linking these traditions are fertility rites combining the sacrifice and (usually) revival of a hero or king figure to ensure a good harvest. Behind the conventional calendar of seasons are pre-Christian festivals, which the Church converted to its use. However, it was not able completely to erase the pagan rituals.
Where are the Plays Performed?
Mummers plays are performed all over England. A souling or soul cake play is performed in Comerbach, Cheshire, UK. Pace-egging plays are performed in Lancashire, Cumbria, UK. Wren boy performances take place all over Ireland. A plough play is performed in Nottinghamshire, UK.
The Traditional Drama Research Group, Sheffield University is a good starting point with lots of information on where mumming and pace-egg plays have taken place over the last year. It also has a facility for groups to register their upcoming performances. This is a very comprehensive resource with links to folk plays in the USA, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Ireland, Wales and alpine Germany. There are also texts to the plays.
A Soul cake play is performed in Comberbach, Cheshire Comerbach Soulcake Play.
Information on Wren Boy Plays in Ireland is shown in Hunting the Wren in Dingle, together with further information on the tradition in Ireland.
A New Year's Day Mummers Procession is held in Philadelphia, USA Philadelphia Mummers Parade, weather permitting.