The Medieval mummer was an amateur actor who performed in village plays at harvest time and Christmastime. The tradition began in ancient times and continues to the present, as commemorated by such events as the annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade.
The tradition of mummers and their acting -- called mummery -- can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. Their work spread throughout Europe, and mummers began to spread throughout England in the 15th century. The informal roots of mummery eventually led to traveling bands of actors -- players, jongleurs, minstrels and their helpers -- who performed at fairs, holiday celebrations and other events to earn their living.
Types of Mummer's Plays
In the earliest years, mummers' plays portrayed ancient fertility rites. Later, reenactments of legends like "St. George and the Dragon" became popular. As Christianity spread, Bible stories were adapted into plays.
In addition to providing entertainment to peasants and nobility, mummery helped to spread and alter the local culture by disseminating new ideas and beliefs. Mummers' plays were especially effective in helping to spread the Christian faith.
Medieval mummers were always men; women's parts were played by young men whose voices had not changed and who were clean-shaven or had not yet begun to grow a beard.