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.