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Column 20th December 2017

The German, French and English origins of madcap Mumming

Ok it’s Christmas in Wantage, we’ve had the Dickensian evening (not many costumes this year), the Mayor’s Carol Service and the Silver Band playing Christmas music as they wander around the Town. Next it will be the Mummers in the Market Place on Boxing Day.

Christmas plays are one of the oldest surviving features of the traditional English Christmas.

This kind of performance in England goes back for almost a thousand years and is based on the mystery plays still performed in Chester, Coventry, Lincoln, Wakefield and York which date from the 1300’s.

Mumming since the 18th Century is best described as early pantomime and the plays are intended to show the struggle between good and evil.

The word Mummer probably derives from the German word ‘mummerspiel’, literally meaning masked play.

The generalised format is for a presenter to announce participants, a hero enters who proclaims his warriors skill. An opponent enters, who challenges him and they fight; typically one is slain or wounded. A (quack) doctor is called on who professes his healing powers and cures the fallen man.

The characters here in Wantage are King Alfred (the hero) and a Napoleonic Officer called Beau Slasher (the opponent). The presenter is Molly, the Doctor (locally known as Dr Squires). “Jack Vinney” and Old Father Beelzebub make up the other main performers.

It is possible that Jack Vinney is a corruption of Jean Vianney, (also of the Napoleonic period); a famous French priest associated with supernatural healing powers (the Catholic Church in Wantage is dedicated to St Jean Vianney).

Old Father Beelzebub is a kind of soothsayer figure and “brings a rhyme to please you all” which traditionally reviews the political and public events of the year in a satirical manner.

Wantage Mummers have performed their play (based on an old tradition from Steventon) every year since Boxing Day 1975.

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.

Our Mummers have raised more than £20,000 for charity so far and we hope that they will continue to do so for many years to come.

I must offer thanks to the Mummers for much of this material comes from their excellent book “In Comes I” which celebrates 40 years and is available to buy from them on Boxing Day.


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