Monday, 11 November 2013

Guisers, Tinteerers, Pace Eggers - Mummers Plays and The Hunting of the Wrens

They are barking mad, they'd have to be, dressing up in odd garb before presenting strange rituals. Bundling into public houses and acting out spontaneous yet well-worn plays, setting up in the high street without scripts performing historic pantomimes. You see these lads and lassies are mummers, guisers, rhymers, pace eggers, soulers, tinteerers, galoshins, guysers or, going back a bit further wrenboys. They come of course from the British isles and, not to argue with Noel Coward who suggested only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun, I think that these people, these men and women of Britain may have spent far too long beneath the old celestial orb. Why they have surely fried the old bean?

These plays are not exclusive to these green and splendid islands. They can also be found in many English speaking nations including areas such as Kentucky, Newfoundland and, would you believe it, Saint Kits and Nevis. (Oh we Angles and Celts can be found in curious places you know!) But the fact remains they started with us. They'd have to wouldn't they?

We need to go back, way back indeed, to the Middle-Ages where such insane activity was recorded in medieval manuscripts even though the facts of what was performed is vague and unclear. Edward III seems to have had a liking for these historic Goons, these off beat pre-Pythons as evidenced by the 14th century manuscript that now resides in the Bodlieian Library. The plays were all spoken in rhyme which is the only thing that links them to their 18th century equivalents and in turn to contemporary Mummers Plays.
The expression 'guiser's literally means actors who disguise themselves. It may have some linguistic connection to the Cockney 'geezer' but I suspect not. Another link is found with the name 'strawboys.' This name was given to those who bound straw into helmets and crude clothes which they then tied around themselves. This practice goes back and can be attributed to the Irish who on St. Stephen's Day would 'Hunt the Wren.' This became known as 'Hunt the Wren Day' and is a tradition as barmy as my Celtic forebears. A fake wren, the bird not the Naval female, was placed upon a decorated pole. Folk would gather all dressed up in straw suits and garish attire as they plated Ceili music and paraded through towns and villages singing their bawdy songs. It was a riot of common people having fun in a manner most beguiling but without a hint of trouble. This connection is made via the sight of mummers standing side by side with strawboys. It is a tenuous link perhaps but I think it possible that these variants existed and influenced each other much in the way classical Indian music influenced Flamenco. A sort of cross fertilization. 

Of course there is a bad guy in these plays but then again there always is. His evil doings are balanced by virtue of the good guy, the hero who usually comes in the form of Prince George. (Isn’t that a German name?)A battle is fought between good and evil and the good guy gets killed. Enter the Quack-Doctor who with a sprinkle of his magic potion, either down the gullet or on the old loaf, revitalizes the prostrate and dead hero back to rude health.

The term ‘quack doctor’ comes from the Medieval Dutch word ‘quacksalver.’ His archaic word has been accepted in contemporary English as being a fake or unethical medical practitioner. The Dutch and original meaning was someone who, equally fraudulent. A quacksalver was a street peddler who shouted their wares and sold them to the unsuspecting public.

It has been suggested that it was the Norman's who first introduced the Mummers Plays to the Irish. I, with my tenuous connection to my Celtic roots (My Great Grand-mama was Irish), would like to believe the alternative that 'we' (suddenly I am Irish again) invented the whole sheebang prior to the arrival of the Romans. After all, whatever did the Romans do for us and more importantly, the Normans?

Today these ancient plays have faded somewhat from sight. A shame I feel as such traditions should not so easily be allowed to slip into the fog of history. There are some gallant, stout hearted souls, who continue the tradition and perform in pubs. Its is something I'd like to see much more of.

What does survive courtesy of folk music are songs and the lyrics to such. The following was performed by Maddy Prior and June Tabor back in the late seventies when the duo made a one-off album entitled 'The Silly Sisters.'  As it is a traditional song I cannot show the authors name and its age is subject to speculation but I would have thought it comes from the 18th century. It may even be as old as being Tudor.

“Well met my brother dear all along the highway riding
so solemn I was walking along
So pray come tell to me what calling yours may be
and I'll have you for a servant man.

Some serving men do eat the very best of meat
such as cock, goose, capon and swan
and when lords and ladies dine they drink
strong beer, ale & wine
That's some diet for a servant man.

Don't you talk about your capons 
Let's have some rusty bacon
and I a good piece of pickled pork
that's always in my house a crust of bread and cheese
That's some diet for a husband man.

When next to church they go
with their livery fine and gay
and their cocked hats and gold lace all around
with their shirts as white as milk and stitched as fine as silk
That's some habit for a servant man. 

Don't you talk about your livery
nor all your silken garments
That's not fit for to travel the bushes in.
Give me a leather coat and aye, in my purse a grote
That's some habit for a husband man.
So we needs must confess that your calling is the best
and we will give you the uppermost hand
so now we won't delay but pray both night and day
god bless the honest husband man.

Image of the Mummers Players of  North Curry, Somerset

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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