Seasonal folk plays performed by troupes of actors known as mummers
or guisers (or by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers,
tipteerers, galoshins, guysers, and so on), originally from England,
but later in other parts of the world.
They are sometimes performed in the street but more usually as house-to-house
visits and in public houses.
Although the term mummers has been used since medieval times, no
play scripts or performance details survive from that era, and the
term may have been used loosely to describe performers of several
Mumming may have precedents in German and French carnival customs,
with rare but close parallels also in late medieval England. The
earliest evidence of mummers' plays as they are known today (usually
involving a magical cure by a quack doctor) is from the mid to late
18th century. Mumming plays should not be confused with the earlier
Mummers and "guisers" (performers in disguise) can be traced back
at least to the Middle Ages, though when the term "mummer" appears
in medieval manuscripts it is rarely clear what sort of performance
A key element was visiting people in disguise at Christmas. At one
time, in the royal courts, special allegorical plays were written
for the mummers each year, such as the court of Edward III, shown
in a 14th century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
However, apart from being in rhyme, these plays were nothing like
the current traditional plays, whose documented history only goes
back as far as the mid-18th century.
| Although usually
broadly comic performances, the plays seem to be based on underlying
themes of duality and resurrection and generally involve a battle
between two or more characters, perhaps representing good against
evil. Usually they feature a doctor who has a magic potion which
is able to resuscitate a slain character.
Early scholars of folk drama, influenced by James Frazer's The Golden
Bough, tended to view these plays as debased versions of a pre-Christian
fertility ritual, but this view is discounted by modern researchers.
In mummersí plays, the central incident is the killing and restoring
to life of one of the characters. The characters may be introduced
in a series of short speeches (usually in rhyming couplets) in which
each personage has his own introductory announcement, or they may
introduce themselves in the course of the play's action.
The principal characters, presented in a wide variety of manner
and style, are a Hero, his chief opponent, the Fool, and a quack
Doctor; the defining feature of mumming plays is the Doctor, and
the main purpose of the fight is to provide him with a patient to
cure. The hero sometimes kills and sometimes is killed by his opponent;
in either case, the Doctor comes to restore the dead man to life.
The name of the hero in the English tradition is most commonly Saint
George, King George, or Prince George. His principal opponents are
the Turkish Knight (in southern England), or a valiant soldier named
Slasher (elsewhere). Other characters include: Old Father Christmas
(who introduces some plays), Beelzebub, Little Devil Doubt (who
demands money from the audience), Robin Hood (an alternative hero
in the Cotswolds), Galoshin (a hero in Scotland), etc.
frequent presence of Saint George, the Dragon rarely appears in
these plays, though it is often mentioned; a dragon seems to have
appeared in the Revesby Ploughboys' Play in 1779, along with a "wild
worm" (possibly mechanical), but it had no words to say. In the
few instances where the dragon appears and speaks, its words can
be traced back to a Cornish script published by William Sandys in
To most groups, mumming was a way of raising extra money for Christmas
and the play was taken round the big houses. Most Southern English
versions end with the entrance of "Little Johnny Jack his wife and
family on his back". Johnny, traditionally played by the youngest
mummer in the group, first asks for food and then more urgently
for money. Johnny Jack's wife and family were either dolls in a
model house or sometimes a picture.
Those involved with mumming groups were often unwilling to admit
to it as they did not like to confess to begging. However it seems
that it could be quite lucrative, it is said that three nights of
mumming often raised as much as a whole month's wages for the agricultural
labourers who mostly made up the groups.