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“A History of Mumming” by Stephen Rowley

Review of the talk “A History of Mumming” presented by Stephen Rowley on 14th November 2021 via Zoom, attended by an international audience of over 90 participants from USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Ireland and UK.

John Burrell of Knaresborough Mummers writes:

“Having co-founded and performed Mummers Plays with the Knaresborough Mummers for 47 years, my interest has always been focussed on “getting the show on the road” – organising tours and looking at new ways and new plays to grab the public’s attention. Two of our members, Chas Marshall and Stuart Rankin, researched and produced an excellent booklet “Return of the Blue Stots” forty years ago. They also tried to bring together existing evidence and fragments of information, attempting a History of Mumming for occasional workshops we ran all those years ago. However, as many at this talk probably know, research has moved on considerably and it was a perfect opportunity to get an understanding on what I’ve been doing for all those years!

early mummers - featuresFollowing an introduction to his own activities and experiences, Stephen quickly illustrated the differences between Mumming and Mummers Plays, explaining the characteristics of House Visiting traditions, their geographical spread and the influence of religion and the earlier tradition of Carnival. These traditions involved disguise, with masks but the action was mimed, the only “words” being uttered being “Mom, Mom, Mom”! Curiously, a game of dice, usually weighted, was a central feature! Mention was made of improvised costumes with coats being turned inside out, a tradition we continue with our Blue Stots play!

“The talk moved on to an element of sophistication creeping in, in the form of Courtly Mumming where the earlier elements of House Visiting are still present but the whole production is geared to Kings and the aristocracy, eventually introducing the poetry of John Lydgate to give the action a storyline, yet still only mimed by the participants. Evidence of Mumming is also referred to in the plays of the period, including Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labours Lost.”

“Stephen explained how the Reformation brought about a big change in that the Puritans clamped down on folk traditions and even Christmas! However there was a huge positive resulting from that period in the advent of printing. Chapbooks telling stories, jokes, recipes and little plays were produced which could now be distributed throughout the country! Eventually, a personification of Christmas appears to revive the tradition and give a feelgood factor!

Seven Champions of ChristendomAnd so we arrived at Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom, a collection of myths, fantasy and history, which was cited as the inspiration for many different stories based on fragments of the collection and now easily copied and distributed throughout the country by ‘chapbook’.

“Ah, now at last we arrive at The Mummers Play, in the 18th Century where we find Mock Plays acted by Mummers, with rhyming stanzas, including heroes and villains portraying historical events. Stephen explained these were parodies of the popular Heroic Dramas of the post-Restoration period. They included influences from Pantomime and Music Hall – humour, parody and satire. The plays were printed in ‘chapbooks’ and copied by other printers producing variations in different parts of the country. I was quite amazed to find that The Doctor character owed itself to the Italian Commedia dell‘arte from the 16th Century with its own history of tricks and “business”.

Il DottoreStephen mentioned the Golden Bough by James George Frazer which mistakenly pointed researchers towards Pagan beginnings based on no evidence whatsoever – I too had fallen foul of this myth!

“There followed illustrations of how the various strands of mummers plays developed and migrated to other parts of the world, based on Stephen’s personal experiences. I was pleased to hear about how characters have been changed, protagonists from different times included, modern characters incorporated and speeches cut or modified to achieve better “flow” and entertainment! I confess to having felt guilty about doing this when actually it was part of the process!

“This was a riveting and informative talk by Stephen, who was an excellent knowledgeable speaker. We ran over by ½ hour but I could honestly have stayed all night, with a very interesting Q&A session and I was very taken when one of the contributors concluded that Mummers Plays are a “glorious mess – revere and develop!”. Well done!

by John Burrell of Knaresborough Mummers near Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Stephen reflected: 10 years ago, at the start of the Mummers Symposium, it wasn’t possible to write this story.  The research presented at the symposium has then inspired further research and so on, eventually revealing a coherent history.

Donations from participants raised money for Bowel Cancer West:


Here are some resources you might be interested in:

About Stephen Rowley

Mummers-screenStephen Rowley founded the Mummers Symposium in 2011 – an annual meeting of mummers, folklorists and academic researchers from around the world.  He is also a musician and dancer, founder of the International Mummers Festival, the International Pipe and Tabor Festival, and The Taborers Society.  He has performed and taught widely in Europe, USA, Russia and Australia.  He has a particular interest in the festival procession dances of the Iberian peninsular and their music.

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