Distribution of English mumming plays: some first thoughts

Mumming play- Wantage – 26/12/13

 A couple of years ago I gave a paper at a post-medieval archaeology conference in Leicester which conveyed some general thoughts about morris dancing costume and regalia (a topic which I’ve explored in other blog posts). The paper was mainly focussing on the way in which costume was used and its wider social importance. I was primarily looking at the Cotswold morris tradition of the South Midlands, rather than taking a wider national perspective on traditional public dance traditions. I touched briefly on the fact that there are some records of high-status families paying for new kit for a local morris side to perform at a family event. This led Ronan O’Donnell to ask a perceptive question about whether morris sides were more common in ‘closed parishes’, that is to say parishes in which most or all of the land was owned by a very small group of landowners, often only a single family, as opposed to ‘open parishes’ which had multiple landowners. This issue of the number of landowners has importance beyond a simply economic one, as it had consequences for a range of other factors including provision of social support and religious freedom.

Although I haven’t pursued the open-closed question in detail here, Ronan’s question did make me start to think about the wider social context of morris dancing and other traditional practices. Whilst Cotswold morris has a fairly circumscribed geographical distribution with few outliers, I’ve been thinking about the social context of a related tradition, the mumming play, a form of stylised, traditional drama performed at certain seasons, particularly Christmas. The cast were usually young men or children and in some ways it constituted a form of structured, socially sanctioned ‘begging’.

Distribution of mumming players based on Chambers 1933

Because of the underlying corporate nature of the practice I was toying with the idea that there might have been a relationship between the distribution of mumming plays and the spread of the most cooperative forms of agriculture. I tried playing with this idea and plotted the distribution of known mumming traditions (mainly 19thcentury records) against the English rural ‘central province’ which is essentially the region of English landscape that was dominated by the medieval open field system, a form of farming that involved a significant level of co-working and corporate responsibility, and a consequence, a high degree of settlement nucleation.
When plotted against each other, there is certainly a broad correlation, but it was not terribly precise – clusters of mumming plays can be seen outside the central province, particularly Berkshire, Hampshire and Sussex – there are other outliers, notably a small cluster in Cheshire and a couple in Cornwall.
Distribution of mumming plays plotted against the
main landscape provinces
(from Roberst and Wrathmell 2003)
Instead I tried another variable- and plotted the degree of settlement nucleation against the distribution of mummer plays. The precise variable I used as the Hamlet Dispersion Score calculated for Wrathmell and Robert’s Atlas of Rural Settlement in England (2003), which plots the extent to which settlements were dispersed or scattered or alternatively clustered into nucleated points. In the map, the most nucleated areas as blue and the most dispersed areas are pink/red.
This plot fits the distribution of mummers plays much better and encompasses the Hants, Sussex, Berkshire outliers. There are two things to note though- it works less well for the Cheshire group and the Cornwall group. In the latter case,  Cornwall has a very different tradition of traditional folk drama that I need to be explore more and it may be that there are different influences at play here. I still need to mull over the Cheshire examples.
Distribution of mumming plays plotted against
settlement dispersion scores
(from Roberts and Wrathmell 2003)
However, I would draw some tentative initial conclusions. The distribution of mumming is more related to settlement type rather than perhaps the underlying pattern of agricultural organisation (although of course the two are related). It does show that the basic distribution of mumming is not random and does seem to be influenced by other factors, most likely nucleated settlement. This makes sense; a tradition that is a broadly cooperative venture bringing together a peer-group is more likely to be carried out in a context where that peer group is able to interact on a fairly regular basis and where there is the social and physical space for this kind of venture to develop. These conditions are less likely to be met where settlement patterns are dispersed and consist mainly of isolated farms and hamlets rather than nucleated villages.
So where do we go from here. I think the key challenge is to avoid simplistic models of causation; these traditions although occurring within a broad system of constraints and affordances provided by settlement type are likely to also have been influenced by other factors operating on a far more local and contingent basis. For example, it is apparent that there is a large area of nucleated settlement where there are no significant records of mumming – particularly Bedfordshire, most of Northamptonshire and most of Buckinghamshire. Whilst nucleated settlement may provide a suitable context of mumming it is clearly not the cause of it.
At the moment I’d like to take this forward in two ways – first, I want to return to Ronan’s initial question about ‘open’ and ‘closed’ parishes and see whether there is any relationship between the kind of social practice represented by mumming and the socio-economic structure of the parish within which they occur. Are there certain scenarios beyond a crude measure of nucleation that might constrain or enable these traditions? Secondly, I’d like to try and really drill down and look at the social and physical context of mumming in a number of case study areas. I’d envisage this might include looking at the social origins and networks of those taking part in mumming – Keith Chandler’s brilliant social history of morris dancing in the South Midlands Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles is an inspiration here. But I’d also like to try and physically map the residence patterns of participants and trying to understand precisely where performances took place. Obviously, this will rely on finding traditions where there is enough evidence to start answering this question, but my current plans are to take two groups of plays as case studies- those in York area and those in South Oxfordshire, areas. We shall see what we shall see….
Some practical notes: I got my list of mumming play traditions from EK Chambers English Folk Drama– it dates to the 1930s and there are certainly more recent additions to the corpus, but not enough to change the overall distribution. The distribution of the central province and settlement nucleation are from Brian Roberts and Stuart Rathbone’s Atlas of English Rural Settlement with the digital data taken fromthe HE website. The data was all brought together fairly crudely on Google Earth, but I hope to move this to QGIS given some time

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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  1. Initial reaction — this is actually about the distribution of REPORTS of mumming plays rather than their actual occurrence — of course the latter can't be known. It seems unlikely that the incidence of reporting would be unrelated to the nature of the settlement/community in which the play occurred.


  2. Yes – an important issue is what is the nature of the distribution of data I'm looking at. My initial response though would be that there are certain areas, such as Cambridgeshire, where there was a high level of 19th century antiquarian/folkloric activity thanks to the presence of the University where no plays have been recorded- one would have expected them to have been collected had there been any. Equally, there are other unrelated traditional activities that have been more widely recorded outside the central province, e.g. wassailing traditions, certain dance traditions (clog) which suggest that this may not simply be a matter of reporting bias. It would be interesting to plot the activities of 19th/early 20th century collectors to get a sense of which areas might be under-over represented – thanks for your comment


  3. By using Chambers (1933) you are starting with a woefully out of date and incomplete sample of mumming plays. The sample I would have expected is E.C.Cawte, Alex Helms and N.Peacock's \”English Ritual Drama: A Geographical Index\”, 1967 – updated 2007 online at:http://www.mastermummers.org/erd/If you compare the distribution maps from Chambers (1933) and Cawte et al (2007) using the following link you will see what I mean:http://www.mastermummers.org/atlas/comparemaps.php?map1=Chambers1933.php%3Fmaptype=outline|Chambers1933-outline.jpg&map2=../erd/playclasses.htm|../erd/playclasses.jpgThe outliers on the Chambers map you mention become part of the main distribution in the latest map.By the way, the areas with the highest concentration of mumming play records tend to reflect the activities of certain collectors rather than any intrinsic vigour of the customs in those areas. However, this does not mean that there was no collecting in the areas with no plays. East Anglia and most of the counties bordering Wales really did lack plays.You are not the first person to propose a link between the mumming distribution and farming practices. See Cawte et al's chapter on Distribution at: http://www.mastermummers.org/erd/distribution.htmI suggest that you re-compare the comprehensive mumming map with Roberts & Wrathmell's map. I personally am not convinced that two correlate with each other. Even if they did, we have to remember the statisticians' mantra “correlation does not imply causality”. As Cawte and Peacock footnoted in their revised edition, the pattern of distribution of mumming plays \”is therefore a subject ripe for further study\”.


  4. If this were Facebook, I'd hit the Like button. Can contribute in no way (except to say that I think some aspect of mumming carries on in Newfoundland), but do love to read discussions around social practices of 'ordinary' people.


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