SOCIAL EVENTS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London festivals celebration mummery plays sergeant extortion gratuities
Subject: Undesirable Christmas customs
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Book I, ff. 223, 238
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 669-70.
Original language: Middle English and Latin (the former modernized by me, the latter translated by Riley)
Location: London
Date: 1418-19


The mayor and aldermen order, on behalf of the king and his city, that no-one whatsoever, regardless of status or position, during this holy season of Christmas be so bold as to walk about at night engaging in any fashion in mummery, plays, interludes, or any other form of dressing up in false beards, painted masks, or with faces made up or altered in any way; upon penalty of imprisonment and payment of a fine determined at the discretion of the mayor and aldermen. Except that it is lawful for every person to make merry in a respectable manner inside his own home. Furthermore, they order, on behalf of the king and his city, that each respectable person who resides in any street or lane of this city should hang from his house each night during this solemn festival a lantern containing a candle, burning for as long as it lasts, upon penalty for each default of 4d. paid to the Chamber.

[ .... ]

Forasmuch as it is not becoming or agreeable to propriety that those who are in the service of reverend men, and from them or through them have the advantage of befitting food and raiment, as also, of reward or remuneration in a competent degree, should, after a perverse custom, be begging aught of people, like paupers; and seeing that in times past, every year at the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity [25 December], according to a certain custom, which has grown to be an abuse, the vadlets of the Mayor, the Sheriffs, and the Chamber of the said city, – persons who have food, raiment, and appropriate advantages, resulting from their office, – under colour of asking for an oblation, have begged many sums of money of brewers, bakers, cooks, and other victuallers; and in some instances have more than once threatened wrongfully to do them an injury if they should refuse to give them something; and have frequently made promises to others, that in return for a present they would pass over their unlawful doings in mute silence; to the great dishonour of their masters, and to the common loss of all the City: – therefore, on Wednesday, the last day of April, in the 7th year etc., by William Sevenok, the Mayor, and the Aldermen of London, it was ordered and established, that no vadlet or other serjeant of the Mayor, Sheriffs, or City, should in future beg or require of any person, of any rank, degree, or condition, whatsoever, any moneys, under colour of an oblation, or in any other way, on pain of losing his office.


Christmas was one festival season at which liturgical drama might be performed. The kind of "plays" referred to here, however, are unlikely to have been of that type – unless perverted or profaned in form. It seems more probable that those being banned were rather some kind of revelry – the predecessor to masques – tomfoolery, or just plain rowdiness, perhaps distantly inspired by the religious plays, but considered by the authorities inappropriate for Christmas. The passage suggests that Christmas was already taking on celebratory features in the modern sense.

Mummery in particular was a characteristic of "misrule", a concept closely associated with Christmas. In a mayoral order sent to the aldermen on 13 December 1405, they were reminded to keep a well-armed night-watch patrolling the streets throughout the Christmas season, with special instructions to arrest anyone going about wearing a mask or a false face, and to ensure each house had its lantern burning outside during Christmas.

The second passage presents a different instance of misrule, in the form of begging for a Christmas "bonus" which – following a long tradition – has become in some cases an extortion (protection money). Christmas was typically a season at which officials received an instalment of their annual salary, but the bureaucratic officials (clerks, sergeants) might also – as at fifteenth century York – receive oblations (gratuities for good performance) on top.

Not all Christmas customs were undesirable. 'Decking the halls with boughs of holly' (and ivy) was a common practice by the close of the Middle Ages; the gathering of greenery for decorative purposes (both at this and at other festivals). was generally tolerated by those whose trees or bushes might be despoiled by the public. The Christmas dinner was actually a return to unrestricted eating after several weeks of partial fasting, lasting up to Christmas Eve; it was a time when the wealthy were enouraged to open their tables to the poor, although this ideal of charitable generosity was probably in practice restricted to invitees of similar social status. Seasonal entertainments included playing card or board games, and mounting plays at parish level, perhaps on the Nativity theme, but probably on a range of subjects. Carols – both religious and decidedly secular (to the point of bawdiness) – were sung, although we are not certain in what context, but probably outside of church. Boxing Day had its equivalent in New Year's Day gift-giving, although the surviving evidence shows this only for the nobility. With Christmas began a series of important festivals punctuating the medieval calendar up until midsummer.



Relatively informal and short plays, involving few actors and little by way of props or costumes, and lasting under an hour.

"New Year's Day"
The Christian year officially began on March 25 (the Annunciation to Mary that she was carrying Jesus), but the old Roman practice of January 1 as the changeover point remained strong in popular perception.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: August 11, 2006 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2006