Original ERD - Origins

Compiled by E.C.Cawte, A.Helm & N.Peacock. Online ed.: P.T.Millington

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Master Home >> eERD Home >> Original Chapters >> Origins
This chapter, more than the others, has been the victim of ERD's own success. This is because research that ERD inspired and facilitated subsequently revealed flaws in much of the evidence this chapter quotes, and invalidated most of the theories it outlines. Consequently and significantly, these theories are no longer supported by the surviving authors Cawte and Peacock.
This chapter reflects the state of English folklore scholarship in the 1960s, and it is both reasonable and healthy for things to have moved on. It would be churlish to dissect the chapter here, so instead interested readers are invited to follow up the references. The main criticisms are summarised in Millington (1989), and reviewed in more detail in Millington (2002).
The origins of the plays are still uncertain, but the evidence points to them emerging in the early to mid 18th century, or just possibly the late 17th century (Cass & Roud, 2002)
Helm himself revised his conclusions regarding the influence of Richard Johnson and John Kirke's respective works on the Seven Champions of Christendom, no longer regarding them as direct textual sources (Helm, 1980, p.4)


THE play of the Roumanian Calusari is preserved on film in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. In this, all the action takes place within a circle formed by some of the performers holding between them strips of wood. The men who form this linked circle maintain throughout the action a jigging movement; the links they hold are raised or lowered according to the need for doors or windows as the 'plot' demands: the constant jigging seems to be a primitive dance, but without the complex evolutions of most dances recorded recently. The action shows that this linked circle is a crude representation of the marriage house in which the life-cycle drama is performed, without the censorship imposed by a more polite society.

In a part of Thrace which is now in Turkey, Dawkins (1904-1905, 1906) reported an annual ceremony shortly before Lent. The two principal actors, Kalogheroi, wore animal skins, padded out with straw, over their heads and shoulders. They were always married men. Two unmarried men dressed as Brides and another man dressed as an old woman in rags, and carried a piece of wood swaddled in rags, to represent a bastard baby. Two or four 'Gypsies', two or three 'Policemen' with whips and swords, and a bagpiper, completed the team. They collected food or money, with the owner's consent or without, and the old woman and one of the Gypsies performed an obscene pantomime in front of some of the houses. In the afternoon the Gypsies mimed the forging of a plough share, the baby grew and demanded a wife, and one of the Kalogheroi married one of the Brides. This Kalogheros was 'killed' by the other, lamented by his wife, and then he suddenly came to life again. Next the Brides were yoked to a real plough share, which they dragged round the village square, while seeds were scattered behind it, and the actors cried, 'May wheat be ten piastres the bushel! ... Yea, O God, that poor folk be filled,' and more to the same effect.

A similar performance was reported by Wace (1909-1910, 1912) in Thessaly and Southern Macedonia on the eve of Epiphany. Bands of about twelve provided four actors and two semi-choruses. While the latter sang, an Arab molested a Bride, and then fought and killed the Bridegroom. His death was lamented by the Bride and then he was revived by a comic doctor. The performance ended with dancing, and once again an obscene pantomime (not described) by the Bridegroom and Bride. Similar characters, without play, were reported from Skyros in the Aegean. The resemblance of these customs to the English Folk Play, especially the Wooing or Bridal plays from Lincolnshire, which sometimes included a team of men drawing a plough, is most striking.

The Balkan performers first enacted fertilization in front of the houses, then they represented death and resurrection. When they followed this by sowing seed and invoking a bumper harvest, they were clearly using sympathetic magic. This seems to be very near the original religious rite. It seems entirely reasonable not only to regard our British plays as the remnants of a magical fertility ceremony, but also to think that they once resembled the Balkan performances even more closely than they do now. For fuller details see Dawkins (1904-1905), Dawkins (1906), Harrison (1903), Lawson (1899-1900), and Roumanian Calusari (Film), some of which are discussed in Ridgeway (1910).


Ordish, in his two published studies of the Play, makes it clear that he regarded the sword dance as the basis. It is possible that his lack of interest in the choreography of the complex dance figures led him to expect a less highly developed dance form than was found by Cecil Sharp some twenty years later (see Ordish, 1891 and Ordish, 1893, and his unpublished papers in Ordish Coll.). The sword dance combines highly developed dance movement with an involved dramatic action. In some examples there is a wooing as in the Wooing plays. The dance follows, and the swords are woven into a star, which is put round the neck of a supposed victim; the swords are withdrawn, and the victim falls as if dead. He is later restored to life, usually by a comic doctor. In some Austrian examples of the sword dance the swords are locked round the neck of the Fool, who gives an ear-splitting scream as the swords are raised high in the air, and he appears to be strangled. (Cawte Coll., Wolfram (1935)). Similarly, at Earsdon, Northumberland, when the dancers locked their rappers round the Betty's neck, they called it 'Hanging the Betty'. The significance of the star of swords to the performers is clear, though this may be a rationalisation.

No satisfactory explanation has as yet been forthcoming for the lock of 'swords'; as a means of execution it is singularly inept and clumsy, and only as the climax of a linked dance does it become effective. In some similar German dances, the lock was used to hoist aloft either one of the dancers or some local dignitary. If the idea of the lock as a means of execution is discarded, and it is viewed as a symbol and means of regenerating life instead of a means of its termination, then the English version draws nearer to the Roumanian marriage house, since the linked 'swords' of the former are probably only a choreographic development of the latter, grown in importance as understanding dwindled. Many of the linked dances appear to have lost part, or all, of the dramatic element, and it seems that recent performers, seeing the ceremonial only as a means of raising money, were apt to concentrate on the more attractive feature, the dance, and forget the action which had become time-wasting and money-losing.


Here the action is nearer to the Balkan examples, though still garbled. Some texts have all three generations represented - Dame Jane with her Baby, and the Ploughman who woos the Fair Lady. Most of the performers were farm-workers (very often ploughmen), whose income, though not spectacularly high, was roughly constant, so that the need to raise money was not so pressing and the text accordingly survived in a more complete form. Indeed, an individual gang was often raised from the workers on one farm, and one of the reasons given for the lapse of the custom in the East Midlands is the break-up of the large estates. Furthermore, people working close to the land realise more clearly than most the need for fertility of crops and animals, although it is not suggested for one moment that towards the close of the nineteenth century — or even much earlier — the performers seriously considered or understood the primitive ritual they were continuing.

No description of a linked dance has survived in this area, and the picture is confused by vague nineteenth-century references to sword dances, which all could, and probably do, refer to the sword fight in an Hero-Combat or Wooing/Hero-Combat play with one or two exceptions. The antiquarian Oliver (e.g. Oliver, 1837) is a particular trouble, for he inserted much the same passage about a sword dance, Maid Marian, and so forth, into each book he wrote. At Wainfleet on the Wash, there is a report of 'an intricate sword dance' as late as 1890, but nothing more definite than this has survived (Heanley, 1901). The notable example of an Sword Dance play in Lincolnshire is at Revesby (Morrice Dancers, 1779). The script is still to be seen in the British Museum, in a neat hand, and in good condition. It is probably not the work of a performer, who would be expected to write in a large, clumsy hand, with no punctuation or indentation: examples of such writing are to be seen in the same collection, and it does not seem to be a text collected by some antiquarian gentleman. It starts as follows: 'October ye 20.1779. the Morrice Dancers (named in Dramatis Personae) acted their merry dancing &c. at Revesby in the Ribbon dresses &c. and two men from Kirtley without any particular dresses sung the song of Landlord and Tenant....' The Dramatis Personae are then listed, and the text follows. This listing of the performers by name is rare, the date of performance, October 20th, is unique for a play, conflicting with the Christmas season mentioned in the text, and some of the performers did not come from Revesby. October 20th was the date of the annual fair at Revesby, when Sir Joseph Banks kept open house (Cameron, 1952), and the performance was probably an 'out of season' one specially arranged for him. The text is a long one, rather confused, and bears very little resemblance in detail to other texts we have. There is a wooing, certainly, and a killing (as in the Sword Dance plays apparently), but no revival in the text, and the wording is unusual. The standard fragment from Exeter (1738) and the complete text from Romsey (see p.87), collected only twenty or thirty years after the Revesby one, are in sharp contrast. The Romsey one has many of the verbal formulae still in use in Hampshire in recent years, and would be considered commonplace by a Hampshire mummer of today. The Revesby text, on the other hand, seems to be much on its own, and does not even resemble the texts collected in the same county in the 1820's (Mummer Plays, Co. Lincoln, 1823-1842). The Revesby MS belonged to Sir Joseph's sister, and was signed by her, and we think it likely that he had this text compiled for a special performance, or even that he compiled it himself: the year 1779 was the year of Sir Joseph's marriage (Smith, 1911). The text leaves little doubt that a linked dance was performed, but we think it poor evidence that it was indigenous to Lincolnshire.


The preliminaries in the previous two types suggest that these ceremonies are the remains of the oldest and most primitive customs left in this country. The Hero-Combat play, although more widespread, has been modernised and bowdlerised to a great extent, and this is no doubt due to the prevalence of chapbooks, and the acceptance of this type in the Victorian nurseries (e.g. Ewing, n.d.). It is again suggested that once the original purpose was lost, the prime motive became financial gain. In England the action was gradually shortened so that the number of performances (and the money collected) could be increased, whilst in Ireland, where it is the custom to perform in an open space, the text has become longer and longer so that more passers-by can be encouraged to make a contribution (N.A.Hudleston Coll.).

If our contentions are true, the ceremonials of recent years are remaining portions of a much longer action, nearest completeness in the Sword Dance and Wooing areas, and which may have covered most of the British Isles. Remains of the wooing, in a very literary form, may be preserved in the extreme west of the country (see p.14). In the Chiswick, Middlesex, Play, the character Swiff Swash and Swagger says:

'Once I courted a damsel,
She's often in my mind,
But now, alas! she's proved unkind.'

but does not develop the wooing beyond this. The Bride remains as the woman who laments the fallen champion, and, in the west country, the Gipsy and Old Woman may survive in the characters of Father and Mother Christmas.


The notion that St George and the Dragon are integral characters of the Play probably springs from the belief that the origin of the play texts is to be found in Richard Johnson's Famous Historie of the Seavern Champions of Christendom (Johnson, 1824), first published in 1596 and subsequently added to by others. Parts of this came from the earlier metrical romance of Sir Bevis of Hampton, in particular the story of St George and the fair Sabra. Johnson's book was adapted as a stage play by John Kirke in 1638 (Kirke, 1638). The prose form proves, on examination, to be an unlikely source, and the stage version only slightly more likely. In Chapter One of the former, St George was the son of the Lord High Steward of England, born by a Caesarian operation with the image of a dragon on his breast, a blood red cross on his right hand and a gold garter on his left leg. Just after his birth he was stolen by Kalyb, an enchantress, and kept by her for fourteen years, at the end of which time he imprisoned her in a rock and freed six other champions who were likewise held her prisoners. After a nine months' stay in Coventry, the champions set out on their individual travels, St George going to Egypt to kill a dragon. This he did, and won the hand of Sabra, the King of Egypt's daughter, who was courted by Almidor, Black Prince of Morocco. The rest of the Historie is concerned with the adventures of the seven champions against giants, magicians, dragons, etc., in all of which they were successful, until eventually, at the end of Book II they died. Book III, added by a different author, is concerned with the adventures of their sons.

Kirke takes some of this wildly improbable material and turns it into a five-act play, Act I of which recounts, with minor variations, St George's early history, and introduces Suckabus, a clown, son of Calyb and Tarpax, who becomes George's servant. Later, a Chorus tells in retrospect of George's encounter with the Dragon, and how he rescued Sabrina, daughter of the King of Morocco. Eventually George is tricked into fighting the champions, whom he overcomes, but all ends well with a dance by all the heroes. The basic theme of both is however, the supremacy of Christianity over Islam, and not death and resurrection which is the subject with which we are concerned. Kirke's play was widely performed as a puppet play in this country (Dean-Smith, 1958, 249), and it seems likely that this was the primary source of the chapbooks and has some bearing on the texts, but not on the ceremony.

Many of the texts begin with a boastful résumé by George of his adventures, which are almost exactly those given at the start of Johnson and Kirke. Johnson gives them in prose, Kirke in blank verse, and the Mummers in rhyming couplets. Kirke adds the combat of the champions and their dance to Johnson. The characters of the King of Egypt and the Prince of Morocco in the Play are obviously derived from Johnson but Sabra or Sabrina never appears in the Mummers' ceremony except by mention only, usually as the King of Egypt's daughter. There the resemblance ends, and we suggest that instead of treating these two early writings as origins of the Mummers' Play, it would be preferable to regard them as the source of a separate chapbook version made popular by the puppet play. It seems likely that since then there has been an exchange of text and characters between the older ceremonial play and the more recent literary one. In 1756, Bishop Percy, referring to a ballad entitled 'The Birth of St George', said that 'the incidents in this ... are chiefly taken from the old storybook of The Seven Champions of Christendome, which, though now the play-thing of children, was once in high repute' (Percy, 1938). This supports our contention that St George's adventures were circulated in chapbook form after the success of Johnson and Kirke.

It seems reasonably certain that if these chapbooks are the direct descendants of the older St George chapbooks, they must have been adopted by the performers as the older traditional version was lost. These versions lack spontaneity and life, the lines are dull, and there is none of the verve which even the most nonsensical traditional versions have. When people migrate to an industrial area they tend to leave many of their traditional customs behind them, and it might therefore be expected that only in industrial areas would the traditional text be lost and replaced by the chapbook version. This has in fact happened, because, although chapbooks were printed in London as well as locally, only in the industrial north has their use been recorded.


This theme is of great antiquity and widespread distribution. It was told of Dionysos by the Thracians, of Adonis by the Syrians, of Attis by the Phrygians, of Osiris by the Egyptians and of Hyppolytus by the Greeks, and the sophisticated performers of the Thai classical drama still enact the story of Suwannahongs who was killed, sought by his wife, restored to life, and who reigned in his wife's kingdom after killing the king, his father-in-law. The necessity for a physically fit king, and the need to kill him before he weakens, is still a living belief. The King of the Shilluks, in the Sudan, must demonstrate his strength by killing three bulls single handed, and some of his wives must always be pregnant. When it appears his strength may be waning, he is ceremonially strangled while sleeping (Hastings, 1963).

Sir Alan Wace noted the resemblance between what he saw in Greece and the worship of Dionysos (Wace, 1909-1910, Ridgeway, 1910). There are two reasons for postulating a connection between the latter and the English Folk Play. Firstly, the play resembles those of the Balkans, and secondly, the Festival of Dionysos occurred about the same time as Epiphany when most of the English plays appear. Furthermore, the sacred marriage was one of the rituals in the annual cycle of Dionysos, and it appeared also in the annual cycles of the gods of the early kingdoms of Mesopotamia. Here, the parts were often played by the king and his daughter, and the ceremony took place within a fragile 'marriage house' or bower. Thus we can carry back the themes of our Play to the earliest periods of history and say that they most probably have their roots in pre-history (Smith, 1958).

The dying god, or king (they can be much the same), renewed his life for the benefit of the community, but fertility became merely 'luck', the death became the result of a combat, and the miraculous revival was rationalised into the attentions of a comic doctor. The degeneration is less complete in some examples. It is the primitive dramatic attempt to ensure fertility which the texts seek to explain, though it is inexplicable in the terms of a more sophisticated society.


E.Cass & S.Roud (2002) Room, Room, Ladies and Gentlemen …: An Introduction to the English Mummers’ Play
London, English Folk Dance and Song Society, 2002, ISBN 0 85418 185

A.Helm (1980) The English Mummers play
Woodbridge, D.S.Brewer, 1980, ISBN 0-85991-067-9

P.Millington (1989) Mystery History: The Origins of British Mummers’ Plays
American Morris Newsletter, Nov./Dec.1989, Vol.13, No.3, pp.9-16 [Full Text]

P.Millington (2002) The Origins and Development of English Folk Plays
PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield, May 2002 [Extended Abstract]

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© 2007, E.C.Cawte, N.Peacock & P.Millington ( Rev. 02-May-2016