A short note on Mumming play

Mumming play is a primitive form of folk drama associated with funeral rites and seasonal fertility rites, especially the spring festival. As recently as the middle of the 19th c. it was widespread throughout Britain – there is a description of such a performance in Thomas Hardy’s novel Return of the Native – and there is reliable evidence that it has been performed regularly as far afield as the islands of Nevis and St Kitts in the West Indies.

Though the texts’ stem from oral tradition there is a good deal of uniformity in the mumming play, which is performed by Mummers. The main characters are St (or Sir) George, a Turkish knight, a doctor, a fool in cap and bells, and a devil (usually Beelzebub). Sometimes there is a Father Christmas and Jack Finney, or Johnny Jack the sweeper. The plot (which is probably not earlier than the 17th c.) and action is very simple: St George introduces himself as a gallant Christian knight and is challenged by the Turk. They duel and one of them (usually St George) is killed. The Doctor then appears and delivers a boastful litany of the ailments he can cure. He finally revives the dead man. There follows a collection of money (often by the devil).

The theme of the mumming play is clearly death and resurrection, which suggests that it may be connected with a pagan spring-festival rite. But there is no evidence for such rites until long after the Middle Ages.