Mummers Plays: What are they?
Mummers Plays, or Mumming (Momyng), are ritualistic performances that might be well over 800 years old. They are traditionally associated with the Christmas period (Midwinter Solstice). In other parts of the country, however, they are performed at Easter (Pace Egging) and at All Souls Day near Samhain (Soulers).
These plays at one time were thought to be linked with pagan rites showing the triumph of life over death (death and resurrection) and good over evil. However, it is now fairly certain that the type of play popular today (like the Wantage Mummers performance) did not exist before the mid-18th C. Medieval references to Mummers Plays (Momyng) refer to a different type of masked play; there were also Mystery or Miracle plays with a religious basis. These roving groups of players were certainly the stuff of ancient history, but there is no link to the current plays with these groups before the mid-1700’s.
Maintaining the anonymity of the players is a key feature, as villagers thought it bad luck if they could identify a performer. Mummers have therefore always sought to conceal their identity either by masks, blacking their faces or covering themselves with strips of paper or rags and tall hats if theatrical costume was unaffordable. It is generally accepted that mummers were male.
We have performed the Wantage Mummers Play since its revival on Boxing Day (December 26th) 1975. It is based on traditions from the villages around Wantage, like Steventon in Oxfordshire, and is a typical mid-Berkshire/ Oxfordshire mummers play of the hero-combat type. At one time, hundreds of villages across England had a mummers play to perform: in fact, all counties except Suffolk and Norfolk. The last traditional play performed in this area was in 1881 when it was staged for Lady Wantage at Lockinge House.
The following are freely available:
- Old Father Beelzebub's complete account of our play, and its historical context, incorporating the latest thinking on the history and evolution of Mummers Plays.
- Presentation to the 2014 Mummers Unconvention
Other Useful Links
- The Icknield Way Morris Men sponsor the Wantage Mummers.
- Old Father Beelzebub’s Speech for 2021 now available to buy. Proceeds donated to Leukaemia UK, the charity supported for this year.
In Comes I: The history of the revival of the traditional Mummers Play from the Wantage area and 26 years of Old Father Beelzebub's Doggerel. (Paperback – 31 Mar. 2016)
£10 (ex P&P) Proceeds donated to the charity supported for this year.
Order Now! Limited number left of this first edition
The Yew Tree
The Yew tree was considered sacred by the Druids, who believed it to represent an emblem of immortality. In view of the nature of Mummers Plays, we considered this an appropriate choice for our web site.
Taxol is a naturally occurring substance (a diterpene) found in the Yew tree. It inhibits cell division and it is this property that makes it the basis for the treatment of certain kinds of cancer.
Following our successful 2021 live performances, £1,500 was donated to Leukaemia UK. Our sincere thanks for all your support.