*** DEBUG END ***

Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

06 January 2023

A group of mummers enact their play at Malcolm Guite’s local

WE WERE treated to a Christmastide tradition in our local, the White Swan, when a troupe, or “side”, of mummers came in, as promised, to enact their play. They came somewhat past their hour, but this was understandable, as they had been mumming earlier, at the Hop Inn, where, it seems, they hopped and danced and played so well that the locals detained them for a few more drinks.

But, once they assembled at the White Swan, we were well rewarded for our patience; for they played with great gusto, and with a wonderful and easygoing mixture of the old and the new. All the old characters were there: St George; the Turkish Knight; Father Christmas (properly decked in green fir-trimmed robe and crowned with holly — none of this post-Coca-Cola red and white); Beelzebub, duly horned; and, of course, the Doctor, with his magical life-restoring serum.

There was also an extra that I’d not seen in mumming before: Beelzebub was accompanied by his monstrous hell-hound Black Shuck, who did much more of the scarifying than his master. This was fitting for East Anglia; for it is in this part of England that tales of the dog abound. There is, for example, an account of him running through a church in Bungay, on the southern edge of the Broads, in A Straunge and Terrible Wunder by Abraham Fleming, in 1577: “This black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God hee knoweth al who worketh all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape. . .”

The Edwardian folklorist W. A. Dutt went so far as to suggest that these tales of Black Shuck represent a folk memory from the days when the Vikings settled in these parts: a memory of “the old Scandinavian myth of the black hound of Odin, brought to us by the Vikings who long ago settled down on the Norfolk coast”.

But this mummers’ play, for all its old traditions enshrining folk memory, both pagan and Christian, was also played for laughs, with plenty of contemporary references, from the pantomime punning — when, having been told in rhyming couplets that the Turkish knight had been “slayed”, the whole company, and, indeed, the whole pub, burst into the Slade anthem “Merry Xmas Everybody” — to more serious echoes: when the Doctor arrived and revived the afflicted to great rejoicing, there was more than a nod to the heroic NHS during Covid. We all applauded the resurrection of the dead.

I was glad to see it all still going on, notwithstanding the efforts of the puritans, also numerous in these parts, to ban it altogether. For them, “mummery” was a term of abuse, and, indeed, they went so far as to call the eucharist a “popish mummery”. They were wrong, of course, to the extent that they meant that word to signify a foolish play of falsehood; but, if we were to take mumming in its deepest sense, as a dramatic representation — indeed, recreation in the present — of a collective memory of the death and resurrection that changed everything, then maybe to call the sacrament a “mummery” is to hint at another facet of its mystery.

The White Swan stands hard by St Nicholas’s, our parish church, and, just as the landlady of the White Swan welcomed the mummers, so I was glad to see that she herself and some of the mummers were welcomed and exchanged the Peace with us all at the midnight mass.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events


Church Times Month

March 2024

For the whole of March, Church Times is offering completely FREE online access, so you can share stories without a paywall.

We are also asking our readers to spread the news of the Church Times among their friends, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers (and non-churchgoers).

Find out more


Keeping faith in Journalism: a Church Times Webinar

11 March 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses trust between the media and the public

Online Tickets available


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


You are able to read this for FREE as part of Church Times Promotional Month, where for the whole of March, we are offering unlimited web access to the newspaper.

From next month to explore the Church Times website fully, you will need to sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers will return to only being able to read four articles for free each month.