Folk Play Distribution Map: Historical Dates from eERD

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Animated Folk Play Distribution Map: Extant & Published from eERD: 0-2s per frame animation

Dates Extant (left) - 0.2s per frame - Dates Published (right)

Available maps: Date Extant Date Published Both
Size: Large Small
Speed: 0.1 0.2 0.5 1.0 sec per frame Manual


These maps show data from 'Electronic ERD' (Cawte et al, 2009).[1] Two types of date are available - date extant and date published. They are based on the 10km National Grid squares. Each marker aggregates data for the grid square and may therefore represent one or several locations. The individual frames of the animations cover rolling twenty year slots, overlapping by ten years with the adjacent frames - e.g. 1900-1919 > 1910-1929 > 1920-1939, etc. This makes the animation smoother and easier to contemplate.[2]

Dates Extant

Cawte et al defined 'date extant' as: "the last known date of performance." What does this mean? It does not necessarily mean the date when the play ceased to be performed. If the play was current when the account was collected or published, who knows how long it continued afterwards or indeed how long it had already been in existence. The one thing that can be said with confidence is that the dates generally do not represent when the play was first performed. Even the earliest known dates, had we had them, would not have indicated that.

Dates of Publication

Although some published play accounts reported current performances, most concerned past performances, often a ceased custom remembered by older members of the community. The interval between the relevant performance date and the date published naturally varies, but seems to be between twenty and thirty years on average.

One has to wonder why the accounts were published when they were. A few publications reported current performances. Many were accounts of past community life, which one would expect to be distributed fairly evenly over time. Many publications also resulted from the collecting that was stimulated by the appearance of particular books on folk plays, such as those by E.K.Chambers. These produced peaks of publication activity.


A useful animated map would show movements such as wave patterns sweeping across the country, or perhaps spreading out from a particular point of origin. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case with either of these maps. Both distributions seem to cover most of England and certain parts of the neighbouring nations, with variation only in the density of coverage over time. The maps therefore do not reveal the plays spreading out from some originating location. At a push one could perhaps say that the "Dates extant" map shows the retreat of the custom, in which case it would appear that they disappeared last from Northern Ireland. However, this could be more to do with differences in the timing of collecting activity than the actual decline.

What is interesting is that the overall pattern of distribution is fairly constant over time, and this therefore suggests that the previously noted lacunae in the distribution (e.g. East Anglia and the Fens) are not accidental.

The other interesting thing is that the variations in density over time in the two maps seem to be similar, but with the publication date patterns lagging twenty to thirty years behind the dates extant. As discussed above, this is what one would expect.

What else do the maps show? If you have any ideas, please add comments below or email me.

Peter Millington


  1. The records for a complete decade can easily be retrieved from 'eERD' by searching for dates containing suitable character substrings. For instance, searching for dates containing "187" will find all dates from 1870 to 1879, as well as approximate dates such as "early 1870s". 'eERD' lets you search for pairs of such dates. It can also plot the results on maps, which in this case form the frames of the animations.
  2. A trial map using discrete decades produced jerky animation. The presence of many approximate dates meant that maps using rolling ten year slots were not possible, at least not for the dates extant.


E.C.Cawte, A.Helm, N.Peacock & P.T.Millington (2007) Electronic ERD: An Index to English Folk Drama
Internet URL:, 2007, Accessed 13th Mar.2013

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