Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 8. Ridings and Mummings

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 8. Ridings and Mummings

Pageants, in this narrower sense of the term, were often called “ridings”; and in London, as is well known, this kind of exhibition secured a popularity which has survived the lapse of many centuries. The Norman conquest, supposed to have been largely responsible for bringing horsemanship into permanent popular favour in England, certainly introduced the refining influences of chivalry into these occasions of contact between court and people; they continued to be in favour throughout the whole of the Plantagenet, and down into the Tudor, period; and it is needless to specify examples of “ridings in Chepe” or along the green Strand to Westminster by kings, queens and other royalties, or by the lord mayor, who, from 1457 onwards, substituted for his “annual riding” a procession still more characteristic of London and the true source of her wealth, by water. At the same time, particular note should be taken of the measure in which these ridings, by the introduction of characters of national historical interest—such as St. Edmund and king Arthur in the “riding against Queen Margaret” at Coventry in 1445—fostered the patriotic sentiment to which the later chronicle histories made a direct appeal, co-operating with the influences of ballad literature and general popular tradition. “Disguisings” was a still more general term, applied to all processional and other shows of the kind dependent on costume and its appurtenances, without any approach to dramatic action, but, at least in Tudor times, accompanied by dancing. The old term “mummings,” which, at one time, was applied to the unexpected appearance of masked and disguised revellers, who invited the company to dance, was also used more widely in much the same sense as “disguisings,” though the account of the “mummers’ plays” and their origin which will be found in the next chapter lends colour to Collier’s assertion that a “mumming” was properly a dumb show as well as an assumption of disguise. The development of these amusements into a form of composition, the masque, a name first heard in the reign of Henry VIII—the Italian origin of the species did not prevent it from becoming one of the glories of English literature, although always standing apart from the main growth of the English drama—will be separately treated in a later chapter of this work. Meanwhile, “disguisings” of one sort or another, besides serving to foster the love for the assumption of character—for “being someone else”—had helped, as we shall see, to build a bridge by which players and plays passed into the sunshine of court favour, and, under the influence of the renascence and humanistic learning, encouraged the growth of a species of the religious drama in which the didactic element, clothed in a more or less conventional series of abstract conceptions, gradually asserted its predominance.

It was not, however, from half fortuitous, half barren survivals, or from exhibitions primarily designed to gratify the eye, that a drama could spring which was not only to mirror, but to form part of, the national life, and more and more so as that life advanced in vigour, in intensity and in self-consciousness. As will be shown in the chapter devoted to the discussion of this all-important aspect of the beginnings of English drama and of English dramatic literature, it was from the services of the Christian church of the Roman obedience that, in England as elsewhere in Europe, the medieval religious drama directly took its origin; and it was thus that the growth with a survey of which down to the days of the puritan revolution these volumes are to be occupied actually began. How could it have been otherwise? On the one hand, those services, culminating in that of the mass, display their symbolical design by a variety of processes illustrating in turn all the dogmas which the church proclaims as possessed of commanding importance. On the other, the very circumstance that her worship was conducted according to one rule, in one ecclesiastical tongue accepted by all nations, shows how the main effect of that worship lay not in its words but in its symbols.