Distortion. Mis-hearing, transplants and rationalisation:

Distortion. Mis-hearing, transplants and rationalisation: Insights into some causes of textual differences in mummers’ plays.

Ron Shuttleworth.
Paper read at the Stroud International Mummers’ Festival Symposium 2016

Anyone who has read through a number of collected traditional texts soon becomes aware that there are words and lines that make no sense whatsoever and I thought that it would be instructive to have a light-hearted look at some examples where the reasons for this can be unraveled.

In many of these cases it seems that words or situations have been introduced from an outside source of which the later mummers had no knowledge – possibly an advertisement, a chapbook or a broadside. Faced with words they did not recognise, they made what they could of them, to our further confusion.

A classic case is the text from Shipton-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire which was collected by Reginald Tiddy and published in his book ‘The Mummers’ Play’1. This is one of a localised group where the usual combatants have been replaced by Robin Hood and Arthur-a-Bland, the Tanner of Nottingham, both of whose speeches are taken directly from the ballad of that name. Some of the distortions are so extreme that Tiddy adds the text of the ballad as a footnote. The real point here is that instead of having to guess at their origins, we know precisely what they ought to be.

An example is that is that they had plainly never heard of Nottingham or Arthur-a-Bland because the adversary proclaims “I am a tanner of noting hand / Long time I’ve wrote my name Bold-rauthra-band”. They were also unaware of Sherwood Forest because “Merry Sherwood” comes over as “Mesher Wood …“ Later on a line from the Doctor’s vaunt seems to be taken from a printed pamphlet2 but “And all Pandora’s Box” has become “and all the rantantorious boxes”.

Mention of the Doctor’s lines brings in the pig’s ear which is often made of the names of proprietary medicines and/or diseases. Of these, Elecampane is probably the best known. This was a popular herbal remedy, and the plant, also called lnula Helenium or Horseheal, has huge leaves and big yellow flowers. Later mummers had obviously never heard of it and its mutations are legion3. ‘Elegant Pain’ is an example and it has even been rationalised into ‘Champagne’. There are many other examples of strange cures – for instance ‘Philosopher’s Drops’ becomes ‘Foster Drops’. Looking at adverts in nineteenth-century magazines can be quite revealing.

The apparently common maladies of Ippsy and Pipsy were probably once just Epilepsy4 and should probably be run together in the Doctor’s speech – ‘Ippsypippsy’.

I originally intended to give my examples neatly under my four headings but I find this is not practical as many of them involve more than one.
A good illustration is that in some areas the participators in the Plough Play and Fool Plough ceremonies are called “Plough Stotts” [a ‘stot’ is a young ox]. In some dialects ‘plough’ is pronounced ‘ploo’ and in parts of South Yorkshire ‘Ploo Stott’ has become ‘Blue Stott’. We then get examples of teams trying to rationalise this by introducing the colour blue into their costume. Some words seem to have caused pronunciation problems for many people and ‘plough’ is one of them – Goathland still occasionally to refer to themselves as ‘Pleeaf Stots’ – P l e e a f.

Another classic case involves Sword dances from the North-East in which someone gets killed. To explain it, I need to work backwards. In the more recent instances the stage directions read “the dancers fall to fighting and the Parson rushes into the melée to separate them and is struck on the head”. There is then a lament “Alas our Parson’s dead”. How did it get to this point? In earlier versions the parson is a rector “Alas our Rector’s dead”. Still strange, but if we go back to one of the earliest versions from 18155 we find “Alas our actor’s dead” which makes perfect sense. So ‘our actor’ became distorted into ‘our rector’ which, when rectors became less common, mutated into ‘our parson’. There have been later attempts to rationalise this by introducing a clergyman character as a victim.

Some years ago I was contacted by someone whose local play included the character ‘Bolgier6’. He was convinced that this must have a biblical origin and had searched diligently for the reference without success. I said that I had always thought that it was a corruption of ‘Bold Guizer’. This has given rise to a number of other variants like ‘Bold Guy’ which becomes just ‘Guy’ or ‘Sir Guy’ and even ‘Guy of Warwick’. ‘Bold’ also becomes ‘Beau’ as in ‘Beau Romer’ and ‘Beau Slasher’7.

Another odd name is ‘Royal Prussian King’ or a variation of it. This sometimes appears as ‘Royal a-Proosha King’8 and from Bampton as ‘Royal Appewsha King’. For me the most likely suggestion is that it was originally ‘Royal and puissant King’9, which is reinforced by the fact that it is often not the primary title but appears as ‘In come I, so-and-so, the ‘Royal a-Proosha King’.

A look at the Character Name Index10 on the Master Mummers’ website is quite an eye-opener both for the huge number of characters that appear in the Plays and to the wide variations of spelling etca adopted by some of them. Also surprising is the infrequency of some names which one might have thought were more common.

I suspect that some distortions may be due to the fact that the person recording the play was unfamiliar with the local dialect and/or accent. A friend asked me if I could shed light on a line from a version of the West Lulworth11in a BBC recording. The Doctor is discussing with Father Christmas how to cure a sick horse as follows- “What else art going to do?” – “B1eed ‘im, Father” – Bleed ‘im where to? – “In the eye vein.” – “Well. thee ‘old the flame, and Oi’ll ‘it ‘im”. Question – What is the Flame. It actually is ‘Fleam’ which is an implement used by vets when bleeding an animal. The cutting part projects from the side of the blade and is held against the vein and struck, making a cut of an exact depth. You can see where the error arose if the speaker was using a broad accent – “Thee ‘old the fleam, and Oi’ll ‘it ‘im.” This is confirmed by another version of the text which substitutes the word “knife”.

There is a good illustration of this which has nothing to do with Mumming. Some years ago there was a TV programme about antiques in which the participants were shown an artifact and asked to identify its dialect name from a choice of three. The item was a long pole with a sort of fork with four flat, wavy prongs. The name given was “Elsper”. You can imagine someone from Cambridge University researching dialect in the Fens, seeing this leaning against a wall and asking a local what he called it and being told “Oh, that be an Elsper”. Because our man knew what it was he made a note in his book and failed to ask the next essential question “What do you use it for?” – to which he would have got the reply “We use it for spurring ells, sir”. It was an eel-spear.

I have personal experience of an extreme case of poor recording, mis-representation and editing the facts to suit a preconceived model. In 1972 I was contacted by Barry Ward, an American visiting England whilst studying Mumming for his Ph.D. Coventry Mummers invited him to see us at the Lacock Folk Festval (later the Chippenham Festival) He put the text of our play into his thesis – obviously taken from a poor recording – and this is a prime example of everything that can go wrong with sloppy reporting. In an example of cultural difference he totally misunderstood an ad-lib by the Doctor who is lining up to pull a tooth and asks Jack Finney for “Middle and Leg”. Where his tape failed him he apparently put in lines from another source entirely.

In a later article he says that he taught our play to his students. I hope that they did not include another ad-lib which has sadly been recorded for all time in his thesis without explanation. It was right at the very start of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster and we introduced a character who just said “In come I, Saint Patrick, and you all have five minutes to clear the building”. This was funny for about a week. I was so infuriated that I circulated a ‘Counterblast’, Overall he did hatchet job of deliberate and sloppy misrepresentation and I would still like to meet him and return the favour before I am too old to swing the hatchet.

Other scenarios suggests that someone moves to a new area and injects an often hazy recollection of a local play into the play there.

In Warwickshire we have at least two clear indications of this. The first is at Bishop’s Tachbrook where the Fool and St George open the play and are followed by King of Egypt who is ‘Seeking his Son’. George tells him that he is slain, although at that point no-one has been killed. The King starts a fight with George and then calls out “Come and help me, Black Maraccadoc” who enters and takes over the fight. The King seems to have been introduced from a fuzzy recollection of the Chapbook versions, common in the North, in which George also tells Turkish Knight to “Stand off thou black Morocco dog”.

The text from Stoneleigh in Warwickshire appears to have contributed a number of speeches into an existing play at Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire. These are too numerous and too specific to be due to chance or parallel development. The probable explanation is that Stoneleigh is an estate village for the Leigh family at Stoneleigh Abbey who also had a holding near Chipping Norton. It is entirely feasible that there would have been an exchange of workers between the two estates. It seems likely that Stoneleigh is the original as the Chipping version contains several distortions. For example “Doctor Doctor do thy part” at Stoneleigh has become “Oh for a doctor do depart” at Chipping.

One suspects that some distortions may be deliberately done for humorous effect. It is difficult to believe for instance, that “Tallyantic Ocean” from Greenodd in Lancashire is a genuine mistake although after Shipton-under-Wychwood, anything is possible.

Of course, many people will know of other examples and if anyone has rational explanations for the more obscure ones, I would be delighted if they would share them with me at <mumminguk@mail.com>


  1. Reginald J. E. Tiddy. The Mummers’ Play. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1923.
    facsimile reprinted Paul P.B. Minet, Chicheley. 1972. pp.209-213.
  2. The Harangues, or Speeches of Several Celebrated Quack-Doctors” by
    ‘Various Hands’. Publisher: J Thomson, London, 1762.
  3. Tiddy p.88
  4. Letter from Lillie F Milner to Alex Helm re Kirklington Plough Play,
    dtd 20 Mar 1965. Alex Helm Collection. 22:135.
  5. A Selection of the Most Popular Melodies of the Tyne and the Wear
          by Robert Topliff. c.1815 p.42.
  6. Repton, Derbyshire
  7. Crondall, Hampshire.
  8. Pusey and Uffington, Berkshire; Sherbourne, Gloucestershire;
    Westcott Barton, Oxfordshire.
  9. Christmas Mummers, The: A Sketch from the Past. Joan Cannon.
    The Sign. 33:396. Dec 1937 pp.162-163.
  10. <http://www.folkplay.info/Texts/CastIndex_.htm>
  11. Dorchester/West Lulworth, Dorset. The English Mummers’ Play,                                  Alex Helm pp.83-90.