Do you Have What It Takes to Be the Lord of Misrule?

If you’re looking for some seasonal work, you might want to try for the Lord of Misrule. Of course, you’ll have to travel back in time, anywhere between the 13th and 16th centuries would be best. Relocation to Britain, Ireland, or Newfoundland may be required. Positions can be attained at estates, royal courts, and even big name colleges such as Oxford and Cambridge. Please be aware the job is also known as Abbott of Unreason or Christmas Prince, so don’t let the title confuse you.

I should point out you don’t actually get paid, at least in money. You do, however, get to enjoy the pomp and ceremony normally saved for true royalty. Servants will be at your command, and trumpets will sound in your honor. Pride, however, is strictly forbidden. Your main goal is to make sure everyone has loads of fun for the 12 days of Christmas, possibly longer depending on the area.  Under your command the whole town will be turned upside down. You let the poor act like the rich, encourage crazy wild behavior, and make sure all the rules of daily life are relaxed. Fun and folly are the order of the day, and it’s your job to see they are adored to the fullest. This you will do by offering your loyal subjects a full complement of dancing, mumming and loads of alcohol.

Wait. What was that second thing? Mummies? At Christmas?

No kids, it’s not a typo on the job description, and it has nothing to do with mummies. That’s a good thing because if you think about it, mummies really aren’t good dancers. Although they do have that whole masquerade thing down.

 

A party of mummers. Sometimes I feel just like that dragon.

 

So what is a mummer?

The word mummer comes from the French word Momeur, meaning to act in a mime, although the mime part went out the window years and years ago. There’s also the German mumme and the Greek mummo, both of which mean mask. Thought to be a leftover from pagan rituals, mumming consists of dancing, parading, caroling, and preforming. As the Lord of Misrule, you have some freedom in planning the details, but weird costumes and rhyming dialogue are essential. Faces should be disguised because Joe from the bakery isn’t Joe when he’s mumming.

Now, historically, when people went out mumming, they threw politeness and decorum in the wind. Anything went, as we can see by this statement from the sheriff of York in 1769:

“All manner of whores and thieves, dice players, carders, and all other unthrifty folke, be welcome to the town, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the high feast of Youle, till the twelve days be passed.”

So basically it was like being in Vegas for 12 days.

 

Mummers play characters from a 1927 version of the play

 

The Mummer Plays

Fear not ye self- conscious job applicant. You don’t need to be a playwright to oversee mummer plays. Luckily for you the plot is pretty much always the same. The cast of characters usually consists of: St. George, patron saint of England and his foe the dragon; the Turkish champion, included as a result of all those religious crusades;  knights, those of the generic variety; and a kookie doctor. The plot revolves around a fight that results in some poor souls death. Tears are unnecessary, however, because the doctor is called in and with a little hocus pocus brings the dead man back to life. Once he is resuscitated, the players ask for food, alcohol, or money. Music and dancing should accompany a mummer visit, an elaborate dance of sword drills can be included too.

Costumes

Once again you can breathe easy, sewing skills are not required. As a matter of fact, the more ridiculous the costume, the better. Men, the traditional players, usually dress up as women, monsters or animals. Shirts covered with ribbons or paper strips are a go too. What could be easier?

Now if you should accept the position of Lord of Misrule, your costume would be much finer. One of Norfolk England’s 15th century lords was dressed in fine silk as he rode majestically through the city streets. I know you’re gonna look great in silk, very stylish.

Oh the fun of Christmas mumming. Waiter, another cup of grog. This time with chocolate sauce!

Pulling the whole thing off

When the time comes, you’ll have your mummers go from house to house, like carolers but more obnoxious. Just send them out and have them knock on doors while demanding gifts in exchange for entertainment. Mummers get to go anywhere they want, even houses that social status would usually bar them from. All they have to do is beg entrance for St. George and his men and their in.

Now if you get one of those highfalutin jobs where you’re dealing with someone with real rank you do the same thing, only on a much grander scale. When mummers went to visit Prince Richard, son of Edward of Woodstock, in 1377 they took along 130 people. Accompanying them were “the sound of trumpets, sackbuts, cornets, shalmes, and other minstrels” along with “innumerable torch lights”. 48 rode in front dressed as esquires, followed by 48 knights, one emperor, one pope, and 24 cardinals. Once inside they played a game of dice with the young prince, letting him win each time, of course, and presented him with trinkets of gold. Afterwards everyone feasted, danced, and had a drink or two. It was all quite nice. So tip of the day, be sure to bring your sackbuts and shalmes. You never know when they will come in handy.

But Why?

You don’t get the connection between a bunch of knights, a weird doctor—who may or may not be related to Dr. Who—and Christmas? Well this might be in your interview so listen up. The two knights you see, represent light and darkness. When the knight dies, it represents the death of nature and the old year. His miraculous resurrection represents its rebirth. It’s all about destiny don’t you know. But if you want to get boring and technical, it’s just a good time of year for it. If you lived in a farming community, there wasn’t much to do in the dead of winter. Without electricity or iphones  nights were long and boring. Gathering the guys for a few laughs and some free drinks is really just the logical conclusion. Guys will be guys after all.

As far as your position as Lord of Misrule, when the season ends so does your glory. It’s not so bad though, your counterparts in the ancient Italian Carnival were killed at the end. You just have to go home and carry on with your normal life as usual. Maybe if you’re lucky, you can get your kids to bow to you now and then, just to recall those fond memories. But I doubt it.

 

 

Notes and Sources:

  • It should be pointed out that mummers plays did happen at other times of the year, especially the feast of St. George (April 23). Christmas, however, is when they really pulled out all the stops.
  • according to legend, St. George was ripped apart into 10 pieces then put back together by the Arch-angel Gabriel.
  • The cast of characters can vary by location. Scotland often used Robin Hood, Ireland liked Fionn mac Cumhaill. You can read about him here. Basically any king or hero could be used.

Sources:

The Illustrated book of Christmas folklore, Tristram P. Coffin

All Silver and No Brass, an Irish Christmas Mumming, Henry Glassie

http://www.medievalchronicles.com/medieval-people/medieval-entertainers/medieval-mummers/

http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/dec/24a.htm

http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com

http://www.christmas-time.com/mummers.html

 

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About The Author

Nicol Valentin

Nicol Valentin is a homeschooling mom of nine who loves history, fiction, and fun.

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