Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Sale 2010: It's here!

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Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Palace of Westminster in 1605 with House of Lords marked in red. The cellar below stored the barrels of gunpowder. (Detail, John Rocque's map of London, Public Domain image)

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

Origins and Tradition

On 5 November 1605, during the reign of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, an intricate plot to blow up the Royal family and Houses of Parliament, and everyone in it, was discovered and averted. “Remember, remember the 5th of November...” has not been forgotten to this day. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot have been the subject of annual remembrance throughout the centuries. Sermons of deliverance, bonfires & fireworks, ‘Penny for the Guy’, and the modern film V for Vendetta reflect the ex
tent to which this treasonous plot shook the foundations of British society (figuratively, although not - as was intended - literally).
Modern 'Bonfire Night' or 'Guy Fawkes Night' began immediately after the discovery of the plot, with the passing of the 5th of November Act 1605, ordering that 5th of November be kept free for a day of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot.
In Great Britain, Guy Fawkes Night has traditionally centred around an effigy (or "guy") representing Fawkes being ritually burnt on the bonfire. In the weeks before bonfire night, children display a "guy" and request a "penny for the guy" in order to raise funds with which to buy fireworks. Only in Lewes, Sussex, are the older anti-Catholic roots of Guy Fawkes night still on prominent display, where Pope Paul V is still among the several effigies set alight as part of celebrations that also commemorate the Marian persecutions of protestants. In more recent years Guy Fawkes Night has struggled to keep pace with the increasing popularity of Hallowe'en, which was an almost unknown festival (with the exception of Scotland) until the 1970s.
An image of the House of Lords in 1807 (centre building), surrounded by timber and rubble, suggests security measures had hardly improved since 1605.
Although mostly a British custom, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations are found in various places around the world (accompanying the British colonists). For example, students at the University of Toronto in Canada burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, while the entire festival was banned in Australia in the 1970s because of the danger from fireworks.

An account of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, written 16 November 1605

Below is an account from the Venetian State Papers of how the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. One of the most interesting aspects for the modern reader is the realisation of just how lax early modern concepts of security were. The cellars under the houses of parliament had been leased, and there was no security preventing people coming and going around the parliament houses.

Calendar of State Papers, Venice and Northern Italy, volume 10 (1603-1607), pp 288-292 Report of the Venetian Ambassador, Nicolo Molin, to the Doge and Senate.
‘The King came to London on Thursday evening, the 10th of this month, and made all preparations for opening Parliament on Tuesday, the 15th. This would have taken place had not a most grave and important event upset the arrangement. About six months ago a gentleman, names Thomas Percy, relation of the Earl of Northumberland and pensioner of the King, hired, by means of a trusty servant, some wine cellars under the place where Parliament meets, and stored in them some barrels of beer, the usual drink of this country, as well as wood and coal. He said he meant to open a tavern for the use of servants who attended their masters to Parliament. But among this beer, wood, and coals, he introduced thirty-three barrels of gunpowder, besides four tuns, the size of Cretan hogsheads, intending to make use of it at the right moment. About two months ago Lord Salisbury received anonymous letters from France, warning him to be on his guard, for a great conspiracy was being hatched by priests and Jesuits; but, as similar information had been sent about a year ago by the English lieger in France, no great attention was paid to these letters, and they were attributed to the empty-headed vanity of persons who wished to seem more conversant with affairs than became them. Finally, on Monday last, a letter was brought by an unknown person, for it was dark, about two o’clock of the night, to a servant of Lord Monteagle, who was standing at the door. The unknown said, “Please give this to your master; and tell him to reply at once, as I will come back in half an hour for the answer to carry to my master.” The servant took the letter, and went upstairs and gave it to his master, who opened it and found it was anonymous, nor did he recognise the hand. The substance of the letter was this, that the writer, in return for the favours received at various times from Lord Monteagle, had resolved to warn him by letter that he should on no account attend Parliament the following morning, as he valued his life, for the good party in England had resolved to execute the will of God, which was to punish the King ... and the Ministers for their bitter persecution employed against the poor [Catholics] ... Lord Monteagle read the letter, and great astonishment took it to the Earl of Salisbury, who at once carried to the King, and under various pretexts ordered a search of all the neighbouring houses to see if arms of anything of that sort, which might furnish a clue, were hidden there. Meantime the King read the letter, and in terrified amaze he said, “I remember that my father died by gunpowder [Lord Darnley’s murder at Kirk O’Field]. I see the letter says the blow is to be struck on a sudden. Search the basements of the meeting place.” The Chamberlain, with three or four attendants, went straightway to carry out this order. First he enquired who had hired the basements; then he caused the door to be opened and went in. He saw nothing but beer barrels, faggots and coal. Meantime those who had searched the neighbouring houses came back and reported that they had found nothing of any importance, and when the Chamberlain returned and reported that he, too, had seen nothing but the barrels, faggots and coal this increased the alarm and suspicions of the King, who said, “I don’t like these faggots and coal. Go back and shift all the wood and all the coal and see what is underneath, and use all diligence to come to certainty in the matter.” The Chamberlain went back, and after shifting the wood, he found underneath some barrels of powder, and after shifting the coal he found more barrels. In confusion he returned to the King and told him; and orders were at once given to a certain knight to take a company with him and to set sentinels in various posts to watch who approached the door of the cellars. About two in the morning they saw a man approaching with a dark lantern, but no so well closed as to hide the light completely. The guards cunningly drew back and left him free passage to the cellars, the door of which had not been securely fastened as it was at first. The man went in, laid a train of powder and fitted a slow match, the powder and tinder reached the powder barrels. His intention was to fire the train in the morning. When he had finished his business, as he was coming out, he was surprised by the guard, who asked what [he was doing] at that hour at that place. [He replied] that he had come there, as he had a fancy to see his property. They saw a bag in his hand, and found in it little bits of slow match, and when they turned on the light they saw the train of powder. Thereupon they bound him and took him to the Palace, where some of the Council were awake, waiting the issue of this affair. The man was brought into their presence, and at once confessed that he was servant to Thomas Percy, who had left the evening before, he knew not where for, and was quite ignorant of these facts. He further confessed that it was his firm resolve to have set fire to the mine that morning while the King, Queen, Princes, Clergy, Nobility, and Judges were met in Parliament, and thus to purge the kingdom of perfidious heresies. His only regret was that the discovery of the plot had frustrated its due execution, though it was certain that God would not for long endure such injustice and iniquity.
After the Lords of the Council had briefly examined the prisoner, they informed the Lord Mayor, ... so that he might place the whole City under arms, and keep a sharp lookout. This was done, and not only that night, but all next day, which was Tuesday, the citizens were kept under arms. The other Lords of the Council, who had gone home, were summoned, and two hours before dawn they all met at the Palace. The prisoner was then introduced under strict guard. When questioned he replied, “My Lords, I cannot and will not say more than I have already said, namely that I was resolved to obey the will of God, who wishes to punish severely in every way the King and the Ministers for the persecutions they employed and still employ against the poor afflicted Catholics. I am deeply pained that I have failed to carry out so pious and holy a work.” Asked if there were many who were aware of this design, he replied that there were very many, but that he would never name them. The he knew quite well that he would suffer a martyrdom of most cruel torments, which he was resolved and ready to endure, but from his lips nothing should ever issue that might hurt or injure another. That he was guilty he confessed, but no further confession need be looked for from him. ... His Majesty was amazed that so vast and so audacious a scheme should have been hatched in the mind of a man of such low and abject estate. “Let us go,” he said, “not to Parliament, but to Church to thank God, who has saved me, my family, all you nobles and the whole kingdom from a great and terrible disaster. For, beyond a doubt, had the plot succeeded the kingdom would have been in such confusion that God only knows when it would have recovered. The city would have fallen a prey to these wild people, and all strangers, who are hated, would have been put to the sword. In short, had it been successful, it would have been the most stupendous and amazing event that ever was heard of”.
The prisoner was taken to the Tower, ‘and for two successive days he underwent the most excruciating torture without saying anything, except that the conspirators were twelve in number, whose names he would not mention’.

Where's Guido?

The unnamed man in the Venetian account was none other than Guy Fawkes. (Fawkes called himself Guido, after fighting with the Spanish in the 80 Years war, but was christened as Guy). Fawkes was defiant when caught and promised never to give up the names of his accomplices, but after two days of torture he broke and revealed the full list of conspirators. Sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, Fawkes avoided the worst aspects of the execution by throwing himself from the scaffold and breaking his neck. His body was nevertheless mutilated and divided, with parts sent and displayed around the kingdom as a warning to others.
Although bonfires were adopted from 1605 to celebrate the failure of the plot, the burning of effigies only became common from 1673 - and at that time the effigy was usually the pope, not Fawkes. The burning of the pope was provoked with heir to the throne James, Duke of York's open adoption of Catholicism, and underlined the essentially anti-Catholic nature of the event through most of its history. Only in the 19th century was Fawkes marginally rehabilitated, both with the religious motivations of his actions being played down, and popular antipathy to parliament and politicians tending to encourage a jokey sympathy with Fawkes, described as "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions". Astonishingly, he came in at number 30 in a BBC vote of the 100 greatest Britains.

Further details about the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes can be found on Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer Sale 2010: All ebooks reduced to $10, or 10% off a short-term MEMSO subscription

During the dog days of summer, when all good historians have to decide whether to head to a library or answer the call of the tantalising sunshine outdoors, what could be better than an ebook sale of historical souces? Stock up on rare books, and research that article on the beach instead!

The TannerRitchie Summer Sale offers big savings on every book in our catalogue.

  • Download any ebook for $10
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This sale only lasts until 15 August!

Visit to take advantage of the discounts!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Grand Day Out (Warning: this blog contains scenes with bad language, ugliness, death and attempted murder. Reader discretion is advised.)

Coronations have always been occasions for great displays of wealth and status. The coronation of George IV, previously the notoriously extravagant Prince Regent, on 19 July 1821, was certainly no exception. The cost has been calculated to be approximately £19,000,000 at today's prices, 13 times more than the coronation of George III. Despite the cost, the day's events were punctuated with a degree of chaos and discomfort that would not be tolerated at any modern event, but was viewed with stoic good-humour by the attendees in 1821.

William Fraser’s Annandale Family Book of the Johnstones, Earls and Marquises of Annandale, contains an absolutely fascinating letter written by Mary Hope to her father, the naval hero and British politician, Sir William Johnstone Hope. Mary's letter provides a vivid account of every detail of the coronation itself and, more interestingly perhaps, of her own experiences behind the scenes. The result is an often witty commentary of the gaffes, the drama and the glamour – let alone the sheer physical endurance of attending such an event.

The longest day

Mary’s day started early on the Coronation Day. She was roused at midnight by ‘bells ringing, guns firing, carriages rolling, and every outrageous noise that could indicate London gone mad’. She dressed and breakfasted on mutton chops at 2:30am, before setting off down the Strand to Somerset House. And while the morning was beautiful and ‘our silver shone most brightly under the rising sun’, upon arrival Mary’s party had to navigate through ‘hundreds of lounging, half-sleeping soldiers, who, not being yet on active duty, looked like the dead and dying after some great conflict, having been there from 11 the night before’. But then the first of many calamities struck. Amongst the throngs of people, Mary got separated from her party. ‘There was no time for faints or fits, so I made for the first opening. I found myself on the steps of the throne’! Mary thought herself lucky that she had been in the throne room before and could extricate herself quickly so that ‘his Majesty might not think I intended to personify the queen’. But given the King’s low regard for his wife, Caroline of Brunswick, it is highly doubtful that he would have minded in the least. But more on that later ....

By 5am Mary had made it into Westminster Abbey – but had to wait another 5 hours before the procession actually began. Finally, at 11 the trumpets announced the entrance of the procession, with the peers accompanied by various 'very ugly' ladies, and the king (who was by this stage in his life very obese) dressed from head to toe in gold, with a train so heavy that it had to be carried on the shoulders of pages. The king was met, however, with a rapturous reception of such enthusiasm that it threatened to overwhelm the proceedings.

The first casualties

Indeed, so rapturous was the entrance of ‘the king and the burst of the Hallelujah Chorus, with the vast magnificence and sublimity of the whole scene’, that ‘one gentleman dropped down in palsy, and another in a fit, of which he actually died before he could be carried out. His screams and that of his wife were dreadfull indeed.’

When the lords went up to give their homages to the king, Mary Hope was able to record the most stunning of the costumes on display.

“You really cannot fancy a fairy scene of such splendour, with a bright sun shining on it, and to look up the hall at that moment when the Royal Band played God Save the King, coronets, plumes, hats, handkerchiefs, all flying in the air and a loud echoed blessing from every mouth on the king's head.”

The Queen's English

The greatest scandal of the day, however, came when Queen Caroline, the king's estranged wife, tried to enter Westminster Abbey in an effort to assert her place as the king's consort. Caroline was no longer living in England, and the king would have preferred to have divorced her, but for the threat of scandal that might arise because of his own mistresses. The queen actually managed to get as far as a few steps inside the Abbey, before she was forcefully asked to leave. The queen's fury was clear, and 'her language and swearing were so dreadfull [the men present] could not repeat it'. Meanwhile, the queen was roundly heckled by the crowd, who chanted 'go to Como, go to Como', while 200 of her 'friends' managed to cause enough of a scene that a soldier was stabbed in the thigh during the scuffling. This unpopularity was a reversal for just few years before, when the queen's esteem with the public had vastly outstretched that of her husband. It is hard not to see some connection between the rough treatment the queen received at the Abbey and her falling ill that night, which began a rapid decline that lead to her death a few weeks later on 7 August.

For Mary Hope, meanwhile, more patience and extreme fortitude was required while the king took a two hour rest after the coronation before embarking on the great celebration banquet in Westminster Hall. It was not until 7pm when the author finally managed to grab a glass of champagne 'to keep soul and body together' - the first thing she had tasted since 2am, 17 hours before.

The Coronation Dinner

If the Queen's outrageous display at the doors of Westminster Abbey had not been enough, further unplanned excitement happened at regular points during the monumental feast. Certainly, today's royal occasions tend to be planned and executed with a military precision that seldom sees even the smallest errors made. By contrast, the coronation dinner was something of a comedy of errors. To commence the banquet, Lords Wellington, Anglesea and Howard rode their horses into the hall to announce dinner, with about 30 pensioners following behind bearing the golden dishes of meat. The Lords were then supposed to retreat their horses backwards and exit the hall – which was a disaster just waiting to happen. And so it was. Lord Howard, 'in a great fright' and 'swearing like a trooper', pulled his horse back in such a way that 'its ample tail nearly swept some of the gentleman pensioners off the land of the living'. Having avoided the threat of finding a horse on their plate, the diners finally readied themselves to eat – only to find that Lord Anglesea, thinking that his duties finished when dinner was on the table, had clocked off for the night. ‘So a herald was sent to say his Majesty could not dine till he came and took the [plate] covers off. ‘ And since he couldn’t walk with his riding gear on, Anglesea had to be greatly supported by others when he re-entered the hall to complete his duties – to the great of amusement of the guests. Until, that is, in amongst all the drama, it was discovered that nobody had remembered to provide any spoons. Since the king wished only to eat soup, his displeasure at finding himself without eating implements was not without notice.

At 9:30pm, nineteen and a half hours after her coronation day began, Mary finally began her journey home. She had traveled to Westminster by boat, and now she and her aristocratic company had to clamber over the hundreds of sleeping soldiers who filled the streets, exhausted after 30 hours on duty. Once home, Mary still had the energy to go out again to watch some fireworks, before finally going to bed, whereupon she slept for 15 hours. But Mary's journey home was easy compared to many of the wealthiest nobles of Great Britain. Mary estimated 2000 ladies and gentlemen were forced to use the benches of the House of Lords as a temporary bunkhouse, while 500 carriages and their horses were stuck in a traffic jam to Hyde Park Corner. Frederic Hope and a Miss Kinnaird had to sleep in the open air, using Frederic's robe to cover themselves, and his cocked hat as a pillow.

Hardly any assassination attempts

And with that scene of nobles sleeping rough on the streets of London, Mary Hope brings her account to an end ... but then remembers another small, insignificant detail that she adds almost as a postscript.

“I forgot an incident that caused much commotion at the banquet. Glengarry, in full Highland garb, [got] into the peeresses box and [exclaimed] 'he was defrauded of his rights in the refusal of some title', drew from his belt a pistol and pointed it at the king! The horror it caused you cannot imagine”.

Glengarry was immediately 'pinioned' by constables and his gun was found to be unloaded, but one cannot imagine such a scene being viewed as an afterthought at any modern coronation. But Sir Walter Scott was ‘enchanted with the whole scene, and is the only one who can describe it’ [Scott in fact used Glengarry as the basis of Fergus Mac-Ivor, a wild clan chieftan, in Waverley]. More surprising still, Glengarry (or Colonel Alasdair Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, to give him his full title) was viewed with 'mild amusement' by the king in later years, despite the fact that the clan chief made a habit of scandalous, flamboyant and unauthorized appearances at royal events, particularly during the king's famous visit to Scotland in 1822.

Is media and the scrutiny of the public eye to blame for society’s expectation of perfection on occasions such as this? It is a shame if it is – because I for one would far rather witness an event such as George IV’s coronation than a carefully scripted and sanitized event devoid of any humanity, human error and all the hilarity that that brings. Today's press would undoubtedly view George IV's coronation as a public relations disaster by any measure. By contrast, in 1821 is was seen as a complete success – disasters, foul-ups and appalling security lapses notwithstanding.

[Public domain images of George IV's coronation and George IV in 1821 via Wikipedia.]

Saturday, June 12, 2010

But why would 'A Man for All Seasons' hate Tennis?: The private face of Sir Thomas More

The featured document for this month’s blog is taken from the Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, and is an abstract of a letter written by Desiderius Erasmus to Ulrich van Hutten in July 1519.

It is a very rare occurrence in the academic world for historians, especially of the medieval and early modern periods, to feel that they ‘know’, with any degree of certainty, the personal side of public historical figures. Because of the fragmented and piecemeal nature of the source material, the private lives and personae of public figures is quite often a mystery. As a result, educated guesses can only be made as to their personalities, mannerisms, tastes, traits and characteristics – if they can be made at all - unless, of course, one comes across a letter which is in-depth character profile of a noted public figure. In 1519, Erasmus had written such a letter at the behest of Ulrich von Hutten – the outspoken German critic of the Catholic Church, who had just come out in support of Martin Luther. The subject of Hutten’s enquiry was Thomas More.

At the time of writing, Thomas More was just 41 years old and had only recently begun his political career by entering the service of Henry VIII as privy councillor. It had been two years since the publication Utopia, and 18 years since he and Erasmus first met at the University of Oxford. According to Erasmus, More was initially ‘disinclined to a court life through hatred of tyranny and love for equality, and could not be induced to take service at court except after great solicitation from Henry VIII.’ Erasmus’ letter catches Thomas More in the early years of his ascendency – he had still yet to rise and fall. A knighthood, the chancellorship, and his tragic end stemming from his criticism of Henry VIII’s break from Rome, divorce from Catharine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn still awaited him.

So, here is the man Thomas More as seen through the eyes of Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Physical Description

More is somewhat below the middle height, but perfectly symmetrical in all his limbs; of a fair complexion; face inclined rather to fairness than pallor, with very little red, except a slight bloom; hair inclining to black or dark brown; thin beard; gray eyes covered with specks, which, as a mark of genius, is much admired in England, and indicates a generous nature. His inside corresponds to his out. He has a pleasant smiling look; and, to tell you the truth, is more inclined to pleasantry than gravity; though he is entirely free from buffoonery. His right shoulder is a little higher than his left, especially when he walks – not a natural defect, but an acquired ill habit. As compared with the rest of his person his hands are a little clumsy. He has always been careless of his dress.’

His voice is penetrating and clear, but not musical, although he is fond of music; his speech plain and distinct. He wears no silk, purple, or gold chains, except when he cannot avoid it; and dislikes all ceremony.’

Dietary Preferences

More ‘is indifferent in the choice of his food; generally drinks water, and sometimes, to please others, beer, little better than water, out of a tin cup. As it is the fashion to drink healths in England, More has learnt to pledge his guests summo ore [at the top of his voice]. His favourite diet is beef, salt meats and coarse brown bread well fermented; he prefers milk and vegetable diet, and is fond of eggs.’


More’s ‘chief pleasure is in watching animals; he has a variety of them; for instance, an ape, a fox, a ferret, etc. Any rarity or exotic he purchases readily, and his house is well furnished with curiosities. He has always been fond of female society and female friendships.’

He likes liberty and ease, but no one is more active or more patient than he when occasion requires it. He is friendly, accessible and fond of conversation; hating tennis, dice and similar games. He is very much given to jesting; wrote and acted little comedies when a lad, and loves a jest even when made at his own expense ... He is equally at home with the wise and the foolish; and in female society is full of his jokes. No one is less led by the judgment of the vulgar, and yet no man has more common sense.’

Family Life

`[More] married a very young girl, of good family [Jane Colt], quite uneducated , as she had been brought up entirely in the country; had her instructed; made her an accomplished musician; when he unfortunately lost her [d. 1511], after she had given birth to three daughters, Margaret, Louisa and Cicely, and a son named John, and some other children. Unable to live alone, he married a widow [Alice Middleton] some months after, neither young nor handsome (nec bella, nec puella [neither a beauty, nor a girl], as he himself is fond of saying), but a good housekeeper, to look after his family; with whom, however, he lives on very amicable terms. Nothing can show his influence over her more completely than that, though she is advanced in life and is very attentive to housekeeping, More prevailed upon her to learn various musical instruments. He manages his whole household in the same admirable way: there is no noise or contention; no vice, no bad repute; and, perhaps, no family can be found where father and stepmother and son live together on such excellent terms. Moreover, his father [Sir John More] has just married a third wife, and More swears he has never seen a better one’. Earlier in his letter, Erasmus predicts More will live long because he has robust health and ‘his father is a very hale old man’.

Academic Pursuits

As a young man he devoted himself to Greek, for which he was nearly disinherited by his father, who wished to bring him up to the law – a profession which above all others in England leads to honour and emolument, but requires many years of hard study. He lectured on St. Augustine De Civitate Dei, and was fitting himself by a course of study and seclusion for the priesthood; but as he could not give up his wish for a married life, he abandoned this design.’

Legal Career

When he [More] lived entirely by his profession, he gave every man true and faithful advice, urging them to make up their differences, though it was contrary to his own interest. When that was not possible, as some persons take pleasure in litigation, he showed them how to proceed at the smallest cost. He was for some time a judge for civil suits in London, - an easy and an honourable post, as he sits only on Thursday till dinner time.’ Erasmus original manuscript letter elaborates more fully on Thomas More’s career as a judge, until being sent on various embassies by Henry VIII, who takes great pleasure in his company and conversation. ‘Will all this favour he is neither proud nor boastful, nor forgetful of his friends, but always obliging and charitable.’

Thomas More ‘is a good ex tempore speaker; has a ready wit and a well stored memory, so that he speaks without hesitation. [John] Colet was accustomed to say of him, that ‘he was the only genius England.’ In his devotions he prays ex tempore, and he talks with his friends on a future life with perfect sincerity and assured hope.’

Just 16 years later, this funny, optimistic, friendly 'genius' would die on the scaffold for refusing to swear allegiance to the Act of Succession, thus becoming perhaps the most famous casualty of the English Reformation. It is small consolation, perhaps, that More took his sense of humour to the scaffold, where he joked with the lord lieutenant, "I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, I can shift for myself", while he also protested that, since his beard had committed no crime, it should be spared the axe, and carefully arranged it out of harm's way.

[Image: Study for portrait of the More family, by Hans Holbein the Younger, from public domain image at Wikipedia]

Friday, January 1, 2010

Mummer mia! Thespians and thieves on New Year's Day

Happy New Year!

New Year's Eve and Day are still celebrated more extensively, and vigorously, in Scotland than anywhere else in the world, necessitating a two-day public holiday to rest and recuperate afterwards.

Pitcairn's Criminal Trials in Scotland, records that as early as 1506, people were taking advantage of the holiday traditions for personal profit. That year several people were hanged as punishment for theft 'by way of mumming under silence of night'.

Mumming was, and still is in some places, a central feature of New Year's celebrations, and also other holidays throughout the year (more details at People would dress up in fancy dress and masks to go about accompanied by music. In this disguise they were allowed freely to enter people's houses to perform their 'mummings' - dancing, singing and music. In the 18th century mumming became more closely associated with mummers' plays, rather than the more general entertainment that predominated before. A synonym for mumming is 'guising', which remains a popular practice in Scotland, although now associated almost exclusively with the costumes worn at Halloween.

Mumming also provided the perfect opportunity for theft, which if discovered resulted in the ultimate punishment. As Pitcairn's editor noted, another peculiar tradition - in this case embedded in common law - saw people executed for 'dishonourable' crimes such as theft or 'stoutreif', but allowed to make amends by paying compensation to the victim's family for acts such as murder and slaughter, especially if done in 'hot blood'.

Mumming survives in a number of places around the world. Most famously, Philidelphia's Mummer's Parade on New Year's Day, which has combined the British tradition with many other European customs to create a unique event.