Folk Play Distribution Map: Plays in the J.M.Carpenter Collection

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Folk Play Distribution Map: Plays in the J.M.Carpenter Collection
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red Location of a play collected by Carpenter


James Madison Carpenter was an American scholar from Harvard University who undertook extensive fieldwork in England and Scotland in the late 1920s and 1930s. His main interest was folk song, in particular ballads and shanties, but between 1933 and 1935 he also collected folk plays. Carpenter said that he collected 300 folk plays. Later examination of his papers revealed that these came from about 154 locations, often with two or more texts from any given place (Roud & Smith, 1998). Unfortunately, he did not analyse or publish the results of his collecting, as a consequence of which his collection was unknown to British scholars until the late 1970s, after he sold it to the Library of Congress, Washington DC.

At the time of writing, research on the Carpenter Collection is ongoing, under the leadership of Julia Bishop, although the team has already produced an online catalogue of the collection (Bishop et al, 2003-2008). This catalogue currently includes Ordnance Survey grid references for many of the listed locations, however many coordinates are still missing, partly because Carpenter's phonetic (mis)spelling of some placenames makes them difficult to identify. The project has not yet plotted maps showing where Carpenter collected, although it has presented statistics for the number of texts broken down by county (e.g. Roud & Smith, 1998, p.497).

This map has been prepared using entries for the Carpenter Collection in Electronic ERD (Cawte et al, 2007).

Although Carpenter collected throughout Great Britain, it is evident that to a greater or lesser extent Carpenter visited play locations listed in existing folklore publications to guide his research, collecting from these and surrounding villages. In particular, he visited the locations of many of the plays in R.J.E.Tiddy's book (1923), as well as the Lincolnshire plays discussed by C.R.Baskervill (1924).

The map shows that Carpenter's folk play collecting was clustered in five main areas, largely reflecting the sources he had consulted. Foremost are the Cotswolds, where Carpenter built extensively on the work of Tiddy. The few plays from western Cornwall, probably also build on Tiddy's work, although less successfully. The group of plays he collected from the East Midlands (mostly Lincolnshire) also reflects the cautious help he received from local folklorists such as Ethel Rudkin. The cluster from Yorkshire and North East England seems to expand on work done on Sword Dance plays by varous members of the English Folk Dance Society. This leaves the group of plays he collected in south east Scotland, for which there are no obvious precedents.

E.K.Chambers' book The English Folk-Play was published in late 1933. Carpenter comments on it in his notes and also obtained copies of most of the scripts listed in Chambers' appendix. By then, however, he was already well into collecting plays in bulk, so it seems probable that Chambers' play list had a limited effect on Carpenter's collecting pattern. (Compare maps - Animated comparison.)

The conclusion to be drawn from geographic distribution of the plays Carpenter's collection is that he essentially fleshed out the existing corpus of information in the areas in which he collected. It was therefore not ground breaking research, although of course we welcome the extra texts, the contextual information, and the tunes for the incorporated songs (which most other contemporary collectors failed to note). South eastern Scotland is the exception to this conclusion, because this is an area where no one had really been before. These plays are potentially the most interesting ones in his collection.

Peter Millington


C.R.Baskervill (1924) Mummers' Wooing Plays in England
Modern Philology, Feb.1924, Vol.21, No.3, pp.225-272

Julia C.Bishop (2003-2008) The James Madison Carpenter Collection Online Catalogue
Sheffield: rhiOnline Publications, 2003-2008
Internet URL:, accessed 18th Jul.2009

E.C.Cawte, A.Helm & N.Peacock (2007) Electronic ERD: An Index to English Folk Drama
Internet URL:, 2007, accessed 18th Jul.2009

Steve Roud & Paul Smith (1998) James Madison Carpenter and the Mummers' Play
Folk Music Journal, 1998, Vol.7, No.4, pp.496-513

R.J.E.Tiddy (1923) The Mummers' Play
Oxford: University Press, 1923
Reprinted: Chicheley: Paul P.B.Minet, 1972, ISBN 85609-014-X

This map was generated from Electronic ERD: An Index to English Folk Drama.
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