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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XIII. Masque and Pastoral

§ 3. Mummings and Disguisings: development of these into the Masque

In this account, we have what is probably the oldest and simplest form of what is afterwards the masque. It is called “a mumming,” and the performers are “mummers.” The word means that the disguised performers say nothing that would betray their identity. They dice in silence, using only dumb show where they wish to signify their meaning. But they are all disguised with vizards, the old word for mask; they are accompanied by musicians; they dance together among themselves when their “mumming” business is over and torchbearers conduct them on their way. Simple as their scheme was, the entry of masked mummers with blare of trumpets and blaze of torches into the great banqueting hall must have been highly picturesque. The impressiveness of the moment is splendidly given by the dramatist:

  • Night, like a masque, is entered heaven’s great hall,
  • With thousand torches ushering the way.
  • In this particular “mumming,” the vizarded procession represented the emperor and pope as coming with attendant knights and cardinals to greet the uncrowned king. When a “mumming” was regarded from the point of view of the dress assumed by the “mummers,” it was called a “disguising”; and, by the sixteenth century, this name quite superseded the other, as, in the seventeenth century, it was itself superseded by “masque”; so that Ben Jonson, in 1622, makes Notch aver, “Disguise was the old English word for a masque, Sir”; to which the groom of the revels answers, “There is no such word in the office now, I assure you, Sir; I have served here, man and boy, a prenticeship or twain, and I should know.”

    “Mumming” came to be applied particularly to the custom, practised usually at Christmas time, of going round in masking habit from house to house and gaming with dice; the game itself was called “mumchance.” There are many allusions to it in the Elizabethan dramatists. Finally, we may notice in this example of a disguising, the “8 or 10 with black vizardes, like devils, nothing amiable”; these are the germ of the Jonsonian antimasque.

    For our second typical instance, let us go to the reign of Henry VII in the year 1501. The marriage of prince Arthur to Katharine of Arragon was celebrated in London with great magnificence. The walls of Westminster hall were “richly hanged with pleasant clothes of arras,” and, in the upper end, had “a Royal and great Cupboard” erected, upon which was displayed a “goodly and rich treasure of plate.” The king and queen took their seats “under their Clothes of Estate,” and all the nobility “were ordered in their Roomes.” To this great assembly entered a “most goodly and pleasant disguising convayed and shewed in pageantes proper and subtile”: of which “the first was a Castle right cunningly devised sett uppon certaine wheeles and drawne into the said great hall of fower great beastes with chaines of gold.” The beasts were two lions, a hart and an ibex, personated, each one of them, by two men. In the castle were “disguised VIII goodly and fresh ladyes looking out of the windowes of the same,” and, in the turrets, “fowre children singing most sweetly and harmoniously.” The castle was drawn into the hall and up to the king’s state, and then set on one side to allow of the entry of a second car, this time “a shippe,” having “her mastes toppes sayles her tackling and all other apperteynances necessary unto a seemly vessel as though it had been sayling.” The ship cast anchor in front of the king, next the castle. On board the ship was a lady, in apparel like to the princess of Spain. Hope and Desire go from the ship to the castle as ambassadors from the knights of the mount of Love; but the ladies in the castle will have nothing to say to the knights. “Incontinent came in the third Pageant,” a mountain, with eight knights upon it to whom the ambassadors recounted their ill-success with the ladies. Thereupon, the knights make a great show of assaulting the castle, and the ladies surrender. The cars are wheeled back, and the knights and ladies “daunced together divers and many goodly dances.” The cars then came back for the masquers and took them away; after which, prince Arthur and his bride and other distinguished people in the audience danced, including young prince Henry and his sister Margaret. This “disguising” was succeeded on the following evenings by three others, nearly as elaborate as the first. The whole display makes it quite clear that the early sixteenth century had not much to learn from the early seventeenth. The splendour of these shows reached a high water mark in the reign of Henry VIII, and then, again, in the reign of James I, when the mechanical and artistic genius of Inigo Jones introduced new contrivances and a more elaborate arrangement of scenery, suppressing almost entirely the processional character of the masque and the early car.

    Our second example of a masque has added to the first the important item of the pageant or car. This, of course, suggests a connection between the “disguising” and the medieval miracle-plays, which were performed on the movable waggon called a pageant. It is easy to see how the grandeur of the cavalcade would be increased if the emperor and pope were put in cars. In the British Museum, there is a design by Albert Durer, dated 1522, of a triumphal car for Maximilian, which may serve as an illustration of the way in which a car would become a “pageant”—an elaborate structure to hold masquers. This pageant, as the above example shows, is capable of very varied developments. But, as the car becomes more elaborate, it cannot easily form part of a long procession; to draw it the length of the hall taxes the ingenuity of the carpenters; and, finally, it becomes stationary, suggesting something approximating to the modern stage at one end of the hall. The car, moreover, when it is a ship or a lanthorn or a “herbour,” requires some explanation; and an exposition of the device of the car is added to the original dance of the masquers. This is the masque in its simplest outline—certain men or women disguised, who arrive in some setting which corresponds to their dress, and which has to be explained before they dance their measures; they retire as they came.

    The disguisings had an extraordinary vogue under Henry VIII, and they found a historian whose prose descriptions have hardly received the attention which their great merit deserves. Edward Hall was a lawyer and a politician. His parents were in sympathy with advanced reformers. He affords, therefore, a remarkable instance of the passion for pageant displaying itself in a hard-headed political trimmer, bred up in a sober and serious middle-class family. Pageant was Hall’s one passion. His English style takes on a new distinction when he begins to describe the splendid succession of festivities which distinguished the reign of Henry VIII. His masterpiece is, perhaps, his account of the Field of the Cloth of Gold; but, everywhere, thanks to his enthusiasm, his accounts of masques and entertainments are gorgeously coloured and wonderfully full of movement.

    He is the writer who notes the coming of the word “masque.” On the evening of Epiphany, 1512,

  • the kyng with a XI other wer disguised, after the maner of Italie, called a maske, a thyng not seen afore in Englande; thei were appareled in garmentes long and brode, wrought all with gold, with visers and cappes of gold, and after the banket doen, these Maskers camein, with sixe gentlemen disguised in silke, bearing staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce, some were content, and some that knewe the fashion of it refused, because it was not a thyng commonly seen. And after thei daunced, and commoned together as the fashion of the Maske is, thei toke their leave and departed, and so did the Quene and all the ladies.
  • This passage raises problems which are still under discussion. What was the “thyng not seen afore in Englande?” What was the “thyng not seen afore in Englande?” What was the “thyng not commonly seen,” which made some of the ladies refuse to dance? In short, what was the difference between the “disguising,” familiar in England for centuries, and this innovation “after the maner of Italie, called a maske”? The probable answer is that there was a difference in dress which was connected with a difference in procedure. The masquers not only danced with one another but, after their own dance, they chose partners among the spectators. This introduced into the masque a new element of courtship and intrigue. For this device to maintain its proper piquancy, the disguise of the masquer must be complete; his costume must, like a domino, conceal any peculiarities of mien and shape which might betray him if he wore a more closely-fitting disguise. Whether this sufficiently explains Hall’s language must be considered a question still under discussion: but two points are clear. There is a common conviction, both in France and England, that, in some of its characteristic aspects, the masque was Italian. Ronsard says that “masquerade” came from the Italians, and mentions “ses vestemens, ses mœurs et ses façons,” as the things which were copied. Reyher, after quoting Ronsard, suggests that this borrowing from Italy took place au moment des expéditions françaises de la fin du XVe et du dèbut du XVIe siècle. In our own literature, Marlowe’s “I ’ll have Italian maskes by night’ is familiar. But, secondly, the motive of intrigue, whatever its derivation, was a most important addition to the masque’s attractiveness. Clearly, it was much appreciated by Henry VIII. It is a breath of natural drama introduced into what is essentially undramatic. Because it is natural drama, it is often the means by which the masque gets a place in dramatic literature. The masque in Love’s Labour’s Lost is delightfully dramatic, and it is an excellent comment, so far as it applies, on the passage in Hall. It is in a masque that Romeo loses his heart to Juliet; and, more interesting still, Henry VIII conceives his passion for Anne Boleyn, in the same way, in the masque of the first act of the play. Many other instances occur in the dramatists, where this dramatic moment in the masque is utilised. But, in the masque itself, this item remains an episode upon which the deviser of the masque never lays his hands; in Henry VIII’s reign, the undramatic character of the masque shows no sign of changing.