What is a mumming?

A mumming is a type of folk play, known in many areas of Europe but particularly common in England, Scotland and Ireland, that combines music, dance, and sword fighting in episodes involving the death and revival of a character or characters. (The name derives from a French word meaning masked.) They most probably developed from earlier sword dances, many of which continued to be performed after the appearance of the mummings. The sword dances, in turn, may derive from the folk festivals of agricultural communities; their form suggests descent from a ritual that may have included actual sacrifice. With their central incident of death and revival, the mummings are thought to symbolize the resurrection of the year. Grafted onto the pagan core, which dates back to at least 1000 AD, are elements of Christianity, British history, and mythology.

Texts of the mummer's plays have been collected from all over the British isles, most of them recorded in the nineteenth century. Prior to that the scripts existed in an oral tradition, passed down from person to person. Like most folk drama, these plays have altered over time as players have added incidents and characters, dropped others, and altered continuing elements. Thus the extant versions contain materials added at various times and places since the earliest appearance of the form. The existing scripts are based on the memory of the participants at the time, who generally knew nothing about the origins or original significance of the various elements of the play. Although performances were not uncommon through the mid-nineteenth century, there are few performances now.

Although they may have originally been part of spring festivals, celebrating the triumph of spring and the death of winter, mummings were most often performed during the Christmas season. The players, known as mummers, were amateurs and all male. They went from house-to-house, performing their play as part of an on-going event. Sometimes performances were also done in the town square, often preceded by a procession. The performances may have been under the supervision of a local guild; the spring St. George procession, for example, was in the charge of a semi-religious fraternity.

The mummings can be divided into three types: the Hero-Combat Play, the Sword Play. and the Wooing Ceremony. Of these the largest group is the Hero-Combat Play, of which The Play of St. George is a typical example. (The particular version you will see has been adapted by John Gassner with additional adaptations by the production team.)

The essential characters seem to be the presenter, who introduces the play and the other characters, the hero and his challenger(s), and the doctor, who revives one or all of the combatants. Secondary characters often appear and the nature of the central characters, particularly the challengers, varies. Saint, or Prince, George remains the protagonist is almost all versions. For more on the characters in our version, see "How did Father Christmas (and a Turkish knight and the King of Egypt and his daughter) get into the play?"

A mumming has three sections, the presentation, the drama itself, and a procession. (These sections can be seen clearly in the St. George mumming that will be presented in class.) Since these performances were not presented in a theater, but rather in private homes or open spaces, the players were in close contact with their audiences. As the mummers entered the performance space, the presenter would clear a roughly semi-circular area for the performance. He promises the spectators a great battle and introduces the other characters. The combat begins with a challenge by the hero, who usually boasts of his great deeds. The challenge is taken up by a combatant who fights a comic duel with the hero. Either the hero or the challenger may be vanquished. In either case, the doctor is called for and he performs a cure on the victim. Sometimes St. George fights only the Knight, sometimes only the dragon; other times the combat is repeated and he fights dragon and Knight in turn. Sometimes the dragon dies and is revived, sometimes the knight, and sometimes St. George. What is important in the event is the death and revival, not whom it happens to. The performance ends with a procession, which may include dancing, and the taking up of a collection

The mummings represent an authentic folk tradition, with strong roots in both ritual and carnival, which has been relatively uncontaminated by any "authority." That is, it shows little influence of literature, formal drama, or official doctrine. For our purposes it gives us some sense of a popular performance tradition that strongly influenced the development of the medieval mystery cycles.

Return to Introduction to The Play of St. George


Return to Medieval Home Page