Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids

A Journey Through the English Ritual Year. Sara Hannant

I can’t imagine that there’s anyone who’d be interested in buying this book who wouldn’t, on seeing the title. think of another volume probably already sitting on their shelves.

Steve Roud’s The English Year is, IMHO, the definitive work on the history and practice of English rites and rituals – covering, in eye-popping detail, pretty much every egg-rolling, face-pulling, pig-tossing, whip-willowing event the villagers of every county in the land have invented (or to be more accurate, usually reinvented in the late 20th Century) since antiquity and although he does fail to mention Greenwich’s very own nutty event, tumbling, I’ll forgive him that one as it was outlawed in 1857 and no one’s bothered to revive it (yet.)

I have to say that, as the proud owner of a fabulously pastel-tinted-hardcover copy of  The English Year it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d need another month-by-month coverage of events, but I do have to give Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids points for winning over Roud’s masterpiece in two ways. Firstly, Roud spectacularly fails to alliterate his title (though the subtitle does include  ’from May Day to Mischief Night,’ which proves that the letter M is very important in English folklore.)

But, seriously, folks, the one thing that, now I think about it, Roud doesn’t really include in The English Year is illustrations. He has a few, but the emphasis is very much on the text and including lots of information. And it’s quite hard, if you haven’t actually had to get out of the way very fast of the path of a flaming tar barrel dragged by a couple of scary chaps in stripy jumpers or, indeed, if you’ve been too hungover to get up for the annual ivy-covered-man’s shindig at the Globe Theatre (ahem) to know what it looks like.

Sara Hannant, being a photographer, has taken the visual route through the English year, trudging around the country seeing people getting as close as they can to their roots. She’s a relative newcomer to English rites and rituals, having been fascinated by Deptford’s annual Jack in the Green May Day celebrations in 2006 and must have spent a considerable amount of time with people in very odd costumes/makeup/leaves ever since – at least one one the events, the Lewes Fireworks, must have been last year, since, along with the usual pope and local ‘enemies of the bonfire’, the ‘guy’ ( always a topical figure stuffed with fireworks who’s paraded around the streets then set fire to) was an alarmingly realistic David Cameron with Nick Clegg as a puppet.

Hannant has taken a good selection of happenings, from the social events that would have brought villages together to the spiritual, though of course many will have had a spiritual base when they were begun. The only thing that seems to link them all are the sundry unlikely items which almost always turn out to be ‘symbols of fertility.’

I found it an oddly moving book. The pictures are thoughtful – from wide angle shots through to single faces and odd objects and something that really struck me that there’s no faux ‘mistiness’ or attempt to look olde worlde, which I’ve seen in other books on ritual. Much of our traditional eventing seems to take place at night, but given how dark a good two thirds of our nights are, that’s understandable.

I like too, that Hannant realises that these events are not just for the participants. Something I’ve always been impressed with locally is the way the Blackheath Morris Men will often get up before dawn to go and dance on the heath to mark a solstice or an equinox, and they feel no necessity to have any kind of spectators. They do it for themselves. But other events have more watchers than doers and I can never work out whether this is welcome or not.

I was particularly taken, not by the image of the actual Druids at Stonehenge (I’m sorry, I know its a failing, but I just can’t take Druids seriously…) but the photo on the next page of the hundreds of spectators, nearly all of whom are holding up cameras, mobile phones, cam-corders etc.

From a local point of view, there’s a splendid few pages devoted to Hannant’s inspiration, the Deptford Jack in the Green, and Fowler’s Troop. I like the scantily-clad lady throwing offerings to the Thames next to a couple of fertility-bathtubs, but my favourite shot is the fabulously incongruous image of a bloke entirely covered in leaves looking as though he’s just about to hop on the tube at Monument.

There are good, pithy captions with each set of photographs giving enough information to understand the context of the events, but the emphasis is on the images.

There are very, very few events in this volume that don’t appear to have been revived in the late 20th Century. That doesn’t  matter. This is not a history book. If you’re looking for that, get Roud. This is more a (literal) snapshot of what is going on within English folklore now, in the early 21st Century when, more and more, people are looking to their past to make sense of the present.

I said I found it an oddly moving book. There’s an exhibition of photographs from the book at the Horniman Museum running until next September. I should imagine seeing them even larger will make them even more haunting.


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One Comment to “Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids”

  1. Paula Dempsey says:

    I’ve just come back from the exhibition at the Horniman and ordered this book (weirdly, there were none on sale there). I agree,it is not a history book but in its own way it is the perfect companion to Steve Roud’s book and a delightful snapshot of folkloric England in the 21st century.