Dragon Hall and the Ghosts of a Medieval Christmas

Dragon Hall Norwich medieval
Dragon Hall, King St, Norwich.
Timber & brick 15th-century medieval trading hall originally known as Splytts.
Community traditions are subject to the vagueries of fashion just as any other aspects of human society. A month ago I mentioned Mummers and a rural tradition that eventually became part of a Royal Christmas for Edward III. This Christmas tradition has ebbed and flowed in popularity across the centuries. It had been widely practised across England through the 18th and 19th centuries, but largely faded as a regular community activity with the onset of the First World War.

timber crown post roof
The medieval timber crown-post roof of Dragon Hall.
So it was with curiosity I went to Dragon Hall in Norwich to see some contemporary mummers. Local volunteer/supporters of the restored medieval hall, now a museum and tourist attraction, decided to revive some mumming entertainment. They performed a light-hearted, rhyming version of St George and the Dragon, a popular theme at Christmas for a mummers’ play. I expect this theme would no doubt have found favour with the successful merchant and alderman, Robert Toppes who had funded the building of the 15th-century Splytts (Dragon Hall) and had been a member of the Guild of St George.

Alice or Joan-ToppesThe old village traditions of mummers’ plays were based on the death and re-birth theme. This theme was incorporated here not by the dragon being killed by St George, but by the death of St George. Having fought the dragon, poor old St George then has to fight a bully of a knight called, Slasher, who cheats and kills him with a much bigger sword. Luckily for St George, working within the traditional re-birth theme, a doctor armed with a magical potion brings him back to life. The play is introduced by ‘Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back’ and along with St George, Slasher and the Quack Doctor are all traditional mummers’ characters portrayed in Christmas shows from 18th-century Southern England. Often acted in disguise these performances allowed poorer members of the community to earn extra money during the festive season.

There was a homespun, local feel to the Dragon Hall performance in keeping with the informal roots of mumming. Although the mummers were costumed they didn’t have masks. I know it is difficult for actors (even professionals) to work from behind masks, but I think that the element of disguising would have added a medieval depth to the piece that the venue of Dragon Hall so invited.

Carved dragon
The carved dragon found in the roof timbers during the restoration of Dragon Hall.

Gift Prep, Postal Dates & Noel on the Horizon

MummersI know it’s only November, but Christmas is now visible on the horizon and for any of you folks, like me, who send gifts abroad to family and friends forward thinking, planning and then making activity are now in full swing. Last recommended posting dates for surface mail are flying past as I write and the airmail dates are looming, and as I like to make gifts such as sweets or preserves I am already busy in the kitchen in my spare time.

coffee hazelnut fudge
Potential Christmas gift – coffee and hazelnut fudge.

I have just made this coffee and hazelnut fudge – a test run – and it looks good and is more interesting and flavoursome than regular fudge. This year I’m also going to try and find a traditional recipe for panforte. This Italian speciality is a rich, nutty sweetmeat from Siena and is thought to date from the 13th century.

Panforte Siena Italy
Panforte – plenty of nuts and dried fruits.

Gift giving is such an integral part of being human, and, at Christmas, it is also uplifting to know you are on the long continuum of Christmas traditions and rituals.

And, now for a little explanation of the top picture. It is an illustration from a 14th century manuscript held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and shows ‘Mummers’. The medieval mumming traditions include entertaining stories of death and re-birth and the triumph of good over evil enacted by disguised/masked participants. Although mumming had been a 13th century village, folk activity, by the 14th century more elaborate and sophisticated mummers’ plays were incorporated into the Christmas celebrations at the English Court of Edward III. This depiction of Mummers comes from ‘The Romance of Alexander’ a text in French verse illustrated by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise. You can see all the pages from the manuscript at the Bodleian Library online and a brilliant enlargeable photo of this specific manuscript page MS. Bodley 264, fol. 21v

Christmas stamp mummers
A UK Stamp showing Medieval Mummers – a Christmas tradition from the Middles Ages.