Mummers and pagans and wrens, oh my!

Posted on February 2, 2012


I really don’t have anything to post at the moment, so I figured I’d reprint this piece on Mummers that I did for a Celtic magazine around 1999 or 2000. 

William Kurelek's "Fox and Geese." Notice that while none have apparently fallen through the ice, one kid is tangled in the barbed wire fence, unable to get free, while the other kids just run around in circles. The country is a cruel, cruel place.

In the tiny village of Wainfleet, where I spent an important (and decidedly strange) portion of my childhood, all the children would play Fox and Geese the day after Christmas.

This game, as far as I could determine, consisted of gathering together on the frozen canal, stamping out a wheel-shaped pattern in the snow, and then falling through the ice.

All things considered, I think I would have preferred Mummering.

Mummering, as most readers know, is a British Isles tradition in which grown men (and more recently, women) disguise themselves, act extremely silly, then ask for money. While this may not be a particularly dignified tradition, it certainly beats plunging into ice-cold water for free.

There are almost as many names for mummers as there are theories of their origins. They are called “Guiser,” ” Guizards,” “The Seven Champions,” “Johnny Jacks,” “Tipteerers,” and “Hogmanay-men.” Whatever they’re called, however, it all means the same thing: British people talk funny.

As if this weren’t confusing enough, however, some also call them the “Wren Boys” and “Morris Dancers,” both of which are entirely different traditions. In general, however, most people know them simply as “mummers.” This, when you stop to think about it, is probably the least appropriate name of the lot since it means “silent” (i.e. “Mum’s the word”).

And the mummers are decidedly not silent.

The standard Mummer’s Play consists of King (or Prince or Saint) George expressing the need to kill someone, preferably a Saracen knight. As it turns out, such a knight just happens to be available, often with the name of Slasher, and the two go at it until Slasher is mortally wounded.

At this point, Slasher’s mother appears, wailing for a doctor. In some variations, however, the George character (for reasons never made fully, or even partially, clear) has a change of heart and requests the aid of a doctor himself. The call then goes out for a ten dollar (actually a ten pound) doctor, whereupon a voice from offside replies: “There is no ten dollar doctor.” The request, quite reasonably in my view, is then changed to a five dollar (or pound) doctor.

Mummers in Exeter, Devon, UK, 1994.

Mummers in Exton, Devon, UK. (Image via Wikipedia)

Although that describes the basic plot, it hardly begins to encompass the numerous personnel involved. One by one, additional players appear: Big Head, Divilly Doubt (or Devil Doubt), Johnny Funny, Betty or Betsy, Jack Straw, Tom Fool, and Beelzebub who always carries a club and frying pan. As each appears, he or she recites a piece of nonsense verse having absolutely nothing to do with the preceding action, but instead exhorts the crowd to give money.

Like the story-line, the origins of the plays are wonderfully obscure. Scholastic interest began in the early 1800s by folklore collectors such as John Brand and George Ormerod, who saw the plays simply as colourful “droller” and a means whereby working men could earn a bit of extra cash for Christmas.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, a new respect was being shown to mummers. This was largely due to Thomas Ordish, a civil servant who classified the various Mummer’s Plays and suggested a connection to the sword-dance and ancient Germanic rituals.

English: James George Frazer (1854-1941)

James Frazer (Image via Wikipedia)

Shortly after this, Sir James Frazer wrote his book, The Golden Bough, in which he posited that modern folk rituals were really the remnants of a prehistoric pagan religion. Despite the fact that Frazer’s theory had little evidence backing it up, and many scholars tearing it down, it was soon accepted wisdom that the knockabout comedy known as the Mummer’s Play was actually a Neolithic rite, led by a Mother Goddess, to waken the earth from its winter sleep.

The figure of the doctor, obviously, had originally been a shaman.

With so many people supporting this belief, it’s a downright shame that although the records of 16th and 17th century England are filled with references to mummers, this ancient performance of death and resurrection isn’t mentioned until the 18th century.

Closely connected to the mummers, although in an obscure fashion, are the Wren Boys. Their pageantry, such as it is, derives from a traditional story concerning birds. According to this story, the birds found themselves without a king and decided to give the position to whoever could fly the highest. Naturally, the eagle beat all other contestants. Or so it appeared until a wren, clinging unnoticed to the eagle, took off like a feathered X-15 and flew a few yards higher.

To celebrate this, a wren is killed on St. Stephen’s Day (more familiarly known here as Boxing Day) and the Wren Boys parade with pipes, sing the Wren Song, and perform various entertainments to collect money for its burial — a burial which a reasonable person might point out wouldn’t have been necessary if they hadn’t killed the bird in the first place.

Toronto is fortunate to have its very own Wren Boys troop which, for the past fourteen years, has kept the tradition alive — despite not being exactly sure what the tradition is all about.

“I think it may have to do with some ancient pagan ritual,” says Jonathan Lynn who often plays the role of king during their performances, “but I couldn’t say for sure.”

Pat O'Gorman is sure Jonathan Lyn has all the answers.

Pat O’Gorman, another regular Wren Boy, clarified matters for us by saying, “I don’t really know the origins. You should ask Jonathan Lynn.”

Regardless of origins, both the mummers and the Wren Boys perform vital functions. They are a means whereby inhibitions can be cut loose for a time, adults can have a bit of childlike fun, and a cultural tradition can be continued.

Best of all, no one has to get dunked in ice cold water.