Author: Ruth Tipton, Trainee Archaeologist
To give a brief summary to a fascinating pastime, mumming is a practice similar to carolling in which amateur players visit houses and pubs to perform short plays. It is unknown where exactly the practice originated although some link it to the Roman feast of Kalends-a festival which celebrated the New Year and lasted from January 1st-5th. One of the customs of this festival was for men to dress up as women or animals and roam through the streets, performing various bold and sometimes lewd antics to onlookers. These activities were frowned upon by Christian authorities who tried to stop these festivities and customs. However, despite their best efforts, they could not completely stop these masquerades. It may be that this custom persisted and developed into the practice of mumming.
Regardless of its exact origins, Christmas time mumming dates back to the Middle Ages. In costume, people (often of the lower classes) would take to the streets, visiting homes and teasing (or sometimes praising) others and often demanding food or drink from each household they visited (a practice not unlike modern day trick-or-treating). Eventually, some ‘mummers’ started to perform short plays (called mummers’ plays) in order to entertain others. These plays were passed down via an oral tradition so details often varied slightly. This leads us up to one such play:
Dating back to at least the mid-19th century, ‘The Derby Tup’ was a short play, which involved costumed performers playing taking the role of Man, Woman, Butcher and Tup (‘tup’ is a dialect word referring to an uncastrated male sheep). The man and woman would introduce themselves and the Tup to onlookers. After which, they would summon the Butcher who would then pretend to stab the Tup to death. Yes, that’s right, doesn’t it make you feel warm and fuzzy inside? Speaking of which, the butcher would then describe (in verse, of course) distributing the body parts to the public. Oh, did I forget to mention the Tup was often played by a child?
Though it sounds macabre, the play was a black comedy and seems to be fondly remembered. Despite this, however, the tradition seems to have all but died out with performances few and far between. This is likely, in part, due to the play being passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. That said, you can still find the odd performance. So don’t be sheepish the next time a Tup comes knocking at your door. You may be in for a festive treat.
The White Boys (Ny Guillyn Baney), Peel, 2020. by Culture Vannin.
The Derby Tup Performance
Title Photo – Harthill Tuppers outside The Phoenix Inn, Ridgeway, December 2015 – Credit: Richard Bradley
Featured Photo – Derby Tup performance