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What is a Mummery?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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A mummery or mummer's play is a type of folk play. Many mummeries feature pantomime, with allegorical plots and characters drawn from folk belief and mythology. The practice of mumming is quite old, and mummeries can be seen in many parts of the world today, typically at historical revivals and on special occasions. Performing in a mummery requires no special skills, depending on the character one plays, and some people enjoy participating in this form of folk art as a way of celebrating their culture and heritage.

Historical evidence suggests that mumming emerged in England, probably during the Middle Ages, and spread from there to other regions of Europe. Early mummeries were performed exclusively in pantomime, and the mummers often wore masks and other disguises, explaining the term “guisers” to refer to performers in a mummery.

Mummers traveled from home to home putting on their performances on special occasions, and they also performed at fairs, in front of monarchs during various royal progresses, and in court. Some monarchs, including Henry VIII, even performed in mummeries themselves, enjoying the ability to disguise themselves for a night.

In addition to featuring figures from folktales, mummeries often include themes of good and evil, with loyal knights bravely fighting against invaders and other representatives of evil. Many mummeries also have a whiff of the mystical, with a powerful sorcerer or doctor who has the ability to restore life to a slain hero. Classically, the theme of resurrection was very common in mummeries, and in many cases the resurrected character represented the monarch or nation, triumphing over evil and becoming stronger in the process.

The story in a mummery is often exaggerated and heavily staged, and historically, mummeries often contained veiled political commentary. In an era with complex social codes, it would have been easy to embed commentary in seemingly innocuous fun, and mummeries were used to criticize regimes or to directly target specific rulers.

Today, mummers dress up in vintage costumes and they may wear masks or face paint, or go bare-faced. They perform in parades, and on special days they may revive the tradition of mumming in the streets, traveling from home to home. The mummery is especially alive and well in Britain, where is has been practiced for hundreds of years, and in some former colonies, this art form has also been preserved.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By SailorJerry — On Nov 09, 2011

I've heard that about Henry VIII, how he enjoyed dressing up and disguising himself. The thing is he was extremely tall for his era and stood a head above his men. He would dress up in costume and the ladies, including Queen Catherine (the wife of his youth; they were married for I think twenty years or so) would have to pretend not to recognize him even though he was the tallest.

The fat came later, but of course it was another clue for recognizing him! He was actually very fit as a young man, according to both how people described him at the time and the suits of armor he left behind. (It's funny to see pictures of them lined up and watch them expand!)

You know about kings having economic and political power, but you don't always think about people having to humor them in their weird little games like this!

By summing — On Nov 09, 2011

I once saw a small traveling circus that was passing through Wichita Kansas. They were a European style circus. They did not have any animal acts, it was mostly acrobatics, theatrics and clowning.

But they also had a traditional mummery act. It was a story about a knight serving two different kings. It was kind of an over the top story but all the actors sold it and it became very watchable.

I have seen a lot of theater in my life but I've never quite seen a performance like that. They did so much with so little. A lot of it was juts the physicality of the actor's performances making you believe that something big was happening in the story.

By anon139620 — On Jan 05, 2011

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania carries on the tradition of mummery every New Years day with a very long parade. This parade features hundreds of participants and beautiful costumes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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