New decade, familiar issues

Out with old, in with more of the same?

On the eve of a new decade, here’s a post inspired by the Penrith Observer of December 30, 1919. Which looked at the realities of life in the aftermath of the First World War… and at how Cumbrians had celebrated the Christmas and New Year period several hundreds of years earlier. When you could perform a play in church – as long as it didn’t disrupt the service!

New decade, old issues

Tomorrow night the final leaf of the year’s date tablets will have to be torn off, for 1919 will have run its course. 

So wrote the Penrith Observer, on December 30, 1919.

Twelve months ago the world was looking back with gratitude to the end of a war unexampled in history, with it horrible sacrifice of human life and the expenditure of untold millions of material wealth… Many of the lessons of the war, it is to be feared, are already being forgotten, or deliberately ignored…

…After-war problems have not proved so easy of settlement as many worthy and sanguine people expected. The year now closing has provided a succession of disconcerting trials at home… and the portents are that these will become still worse experiences next year. Politically the nation is unsettled…

It would seem the mood on the eve of the 1920s was more disappointment than hope. Or perhaps I am projecting back from the mood a century later.

Then again, given they were worried that as the new decade dawned:

it is impossible to construct houses at prices which will bring them within the reach of the average working man,’

Housing was ‘the greatest social issue of the time’.

From  a new decade to the 1500s!

It being hard to get excited about the dawn of 2020, here instead is a look back a LOT further – as the Penrith Observer did in 1919. 

‘Waits’ is an archaic word for (street) carol singers.

THE YULE WAITS AND MIRACLE PLAYS. The youngsters of Penrith have a habit of turning the times topsy-turvy, especially in connection with what should be Yuletide singing. 

Parties of them were trying to sing “Good King Wenceslas” in the last week of November—and a sad mess they made of it. 

But as they never got beyond the first verse, perhaps that should be counted as a virtue. 

The writer talks about ‘municipal and private waits’ succeeding the old mystery plays. Which he suspects may not have been much better than than the Penrith kids mangling carols a month early!

The good-old, bad-old days

Life must have been somewhat slow in the country, and these diversions would be very acceptable. As “distance lends enchantment to the view,” so the lapse of a few centuries invests with a certain glamour things which very probably were crude and coarse as we know many of the old miracle plays and mummers’ shows unquestionably were.

Don’t drown out the vicar

The plays used to be staged in churches – ‘just as there were markets in the churchyards and at the church doors’. 

The only rule was they couldn’t take place when a service was going on!

An order in 1571 told church wardens: 

not to Suffer any Lordes of Misrule or Sommer Lordes or ladies or any disguised persons or others in Christmasse, or at May games, or any minstrels or morice dancers or other, at rish (rush) bearings or at any other times, to come unreverently into any church or chapell or churchyarde. and there daunce or play any unseemly parties with scoffes, ieastes [jests], wanton iestures [jestures], or rybaulde talke, in the time of divine service or anye sermon. 

The Cromwellian period knocked most of it on the head, but the plays resumed in other forms after the Restoration.

Thank you for the musicke

THE WESTMORLAND CHRISTMAS PLAYERS. In the second half of the seventeenth century we have many records of players going about from one great house to another during several months in the winter, and giving their performances.

The accounts books of Sir Daniel Fleming of Rydal include sums ‘given to the musicke,’ ‘given unto the pipers,’ ‘given to the players’… and to a wandering musician who entertained the servants in the kitchen.

Among the entries are sums ranging from one shilling to ten shillings (50p) for such delights as:

  • 1661. Dec 27. The Troutbeck Players, for acting here at Rydal The Fair Maid of the West
  • 1662. Dec 30. The Longsleddal Players, for The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex.
  • 1666. Dec 26. The Applethwaite Players, for playing musidors
  • 1675. Dec 31. Give to the New Yeares boyes.
  • 1680-01. Jan 3. Given at Hutton to the piper and the Lord of Misrule’s Men.
  • 1681. Dec 31. Given to New Yeares boyes in money, besides a pie and a candle.

You can read here how the Lord of Misrule actually ruled over the festivities at Christmas.

Wishing you all the best in 2020.