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Saturday, 24 December 2011

A few more Renaissance games and pastimes for Yule

The holiday season of Yule called for many boisterous games to be played amongst the adults, when for the twelve days of Christmas, in an echo of the Roman Saternalia, the positions of the high and the low were to some extent reversed.  A King of Misrule called King Bean was chosen by the expedient of baking a bean into one of the loaves of bread; whoever found it was King Bean, crowned with a crown of bread, and in charge of organising entertainment.  Little work might be done in the holiday season in any case as the fields lay fallow; it was too early to marl and fertilise them and the majority of animals had been killed.  It was a time to relax and this was recognised as a way to keep the peasants happy and ready to go to work on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Epiphany.

Many villages also had a tradition of mummers at the solstice with Morris – ie, Moorish – dances, in which some variant of the Moor, representing Winter, was killed by some variant of Jack-in-the-green, otherwise the Green Man, often as a nod to Christianity renamed St George.  Other characters tended to be the Hobby, a comic horse, The fool, with a bladder on a stick and rather broad capers and jokes, and Betty, a later addition to the cast, a cross-dressed youth with outrageous skirts whose role was to throw those skirts over village maidens. It was sometimes considered lucky to pass between the legs of Betty but I suspect the whole business may have been rather intimidating to the younger girls.  This is one of the origins of the Morris dancing we know today.  The mummers tended to come from a small number of families and were also responsible for any May Day mummeries too.

Yule was celebrated first by dragging the Yule Log into the Great Hall of the village’s squire, this was burned every night and was chosen to last until Twelfth Night.
Drinking games were common.  Other games included,

Hoodman Blind
Nowadays we should recognise this as Blind Man’s Buff and would consider it a game for children’s parties.  With adult players it became a lot more boisterous and could involve a lot of groping that was normally considered improper as the hooded one sought to catch a victim. 

Turn the Trencher
There is an excellent description of this in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, showing it to be a game played up to the early 19th century at least.  There are a number of variants but the simplest is that someone spins a wooden trencher in the same way as one would spin a coin, calling out a name.  The named person must catch the trencher before its spin finishes and it falls or be subject to a forfeit.  Forfeits can be simple and innocent [as in Alison Uttley’s example to cry in one corner, laugh in another, sing in another and dance in another] or might involve drinking a whole tankard in one breath, or kissing, or other more boisterous pursuits. 

In addition there would be a lot of dancing and the obligatory feasts provided by the Lord of the Manor including mince pies – made of real minced meat and a lot of sugar and spices, including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to represent the three gifts of the Magi, and baked in a crib-shaped pie.  Frumenty, cracked wheat cooked in, if available,  milk [or for the rich, almond milk] or water with dried fruit added was the forerunner to our Christmas pudding; traditionally it was also served with venison.  The low table, King Bean or no, probably saw a lot less venison than the High Table.

Wassail comes in two forms, the singing of songs, usually a traditional Wassail song around from door to door, the forerunner of our modern custom of carolling [bearing in mind that in the Renaissance and Medieval periods a carol was a dance] as a respectable form of begging for the young folk of the village; and the older pagan custom, still often extant, of wassailing the apple trees on the eve of Twelfth Night, and pouring a libation of the previous year’s cider to make them fruitful.  Courting behaviour in the orchards was also considered to encourage the trees to be fruitful though I suspect that the best form of contraception for enthusiastic and tipsy Wassailers was probably the cold. 


  1. Best form of contraception was the cold, eh??? This was a fun entry...This reader will permanently think of the second Monday of the new year as "Plough Monday" even if these days most of us shovel through papers and bills rather than the soil of an open field....

    What is interesting is the notion that these various dances were associated with Moors and Islam. Given that some of them would have been unacceptable in most Islamic settings, urban, rural, or court, I am wondering how they came to be associated with Islam?? and is there any connection between "Jack-in-the-Green" and the "Green Knight" of the medieval poem???

    Raising a wassail libation for the author on the holiday!!!


  2. The association with the Moor is purely that the Moor is a strange foreign beast against whom the knights have fought. Islam doesn't enter into it as the average peasant [or even many of the educated] hadn't really got a clue about the religion of the Moors beyond the fact that they 'weren't like us' which is always a crime. Black was a colour of death and associated thus with the death of the year. Simple as; no intentional racism. The Green Knight has been hypothesised by some sources to symbolise the wild or green man aka Jack-in-the-green, but other sources disagree as there are some slightly contentious translations concerning his footwear. The formalising of these dances only really begins in the 16th century, and what may have occurred before is largely lost though I believe some villages boast early origins which may or may not be spurious.
    The libation is greatly appreciated...