Original ERD - Distribution [1, 2]

Compiled by E.C.Cawte, A.Helm & N.Peacock. Online ed.: P.T.Millington

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THE maps show the areas of the three types. The Sword Dance and Wooing plays are regional, as are the customs reviewed in Cawte et al (1960), but the Hero-Combat play is more widespread, and several factors are probably responsible for its distribution. It is understandable that plays are not found in the thinly populated areas, of Scotland and Central Wales for example, but this does not explain the blank in East Anglia, or some other well-populated areas. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the population density in East Anglia (100-150 per square mile), although low compared with some other parts of England, was larger than that of Lincolnshire (50-100 per square mile), where the Wooing plays are known. The pattern is also modified by differing intensities of collection, as when a collector increased our collection of Buckinghamshire plays by 35%, and another doubled the number from Leicestershire. This still leaves some unexplained gaps; Miss C.S.Burne found only two plays in Shropshire, close together, and very near the Staffordshire border though she was plainly looking for them there and elsewhere (Burne, 1883), and similarly Mrs Leather only found one in Herefordshire, and that very near Gloucestershire (Leather, 1912). We have made an extensive but unsuccessful search to discover any papers left by Miss Burne and Mrs Leather in order to establish whether they contained more references to the Play. In view of the lack of information on this subject and the wealth of detail on other associated customs in the district, it seems unlikely that either author would have omitted any further examples. One of us visited these two counties a few years ago, and enquired after the Play in a number of places, but it seemed to be almost unknown, and in central Northumberland the same seems to be true, for the Guisers commonly went about at Christmas, but no trace of the Play was recalled (Cawte Coll.).

Distibution of the Ceremony in Ireland

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Distibution of the Ceremony in Great Britain

The map does show that the Play has been a very widespread ceremonial custom. Although the Wooing and Sword Dance types are shown to have the most clearly defined areas, it will also be seen that the Hero-Combat plays have infiltrated the preserves of the other two. The plays are rare in the highlands of Wales, the Pennines, Cumbria and Scotland, and commonest in an area south of a line drawn from the mouth of the Dee to the mouth of the Humber.

We have not found any patterns of distribution which correspond with those shown on the map, although we have considered dialect, geology, and the distribution of inherited disease processes. The one exception to this is that Gray (1959) distinguishes between two forms of agriculture, the Anglo-Saxon two or three Field System and the Celtic Runrig System. He gives evidence that the former was more resistant to enclosure than the latter, and gives a map on which he shows two lines which are the boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon two or three Field area. Characteristics of this area were large villages and large stable agricultural communities, and it encloses almost all the dense areas on our map. One dense area outside Gray's lines comprises Lancashire, the Pennine valleys of the West Riding, and Cheshire. Plays in the northern part of this area differ from those elsewhere in being performed at Easter and in following the chapbooks. In Cheshire, the time of appearance is All Souls', and the ceremony is associated with Souling proper and the Wild Horse, and only rarely has an independent existence of its own. The only areas between Gray's lines where few plays are recorded are Shropshire and Herefordshire (previously mentioned), Worcestershire, and the western part of East Anglia. All of these are on the edge of the three-field area and Herefordshire had an exceptional form of this system.

We feel that the similarity between Gray's area and our principal dense area is more than fortuitous. It seems that the population within Gray's area was better able to maintain the teams of players, and their resistance to change is reflected both in their maintenance of the Play and their opposition to enclosure.

Rural depopulation in the early part of the nineteenth century must also be considered. This was caused by the unemployment of the farm labourer, because the small farmer could not keep pace with the need for capital improvement. In the early nineteenth century along the Suffolk/Essex border the decaying textile industries further increased unemployment among weavers and woolworkers, who began, circa 1850, to seek employment in London and ten years later, from the same area, began a movement to the industrial north-west. East Anglia never really recovered from this exodus, and it is a reasonable guess that the tradition died as people moved. What is found in the north-west and other places today may bear the unknown imprint of East Anglia, but it is now improbable that exact details will be known.

In Northern Scotland and Central Wales the lack of population and the fact that English is not the first language must be considered. It should be mentioned that both Central Wales and East Anglia are almost bare of all the customs we consider in our MS Index, and not only of the Play.

In Ireland the Play has been common in most of the counties of Ulster and along the east coast in the counties of Louth, Dublin and Wexford. The single record in Cork is far removed in time as well as space from the others. The example from Mayo, though not completely recorded, was beyond question an Hero-Combat play. It may be a relic of the English settlement in the time of Cromwell at Tuam 15 miles away, as this was the only large English settlement in mid-Connacht. The east coast gap between the counties of Louth and Dublin corresponds to the gaeltacht of Omeath which is now extinct, and the gap between Dublin and Wexford corresponds with the county of Wicklow, which was never part of the English pale, and was Gaelic-speaking in places until shortly before the present century. The English pale of Dublin is indicated by plays and so is a narrow strip of medieval English pale in the counties of Kildare, Carlow, and Kilkenny. Within the limits of our information, wherever Gaelic has been spoken by a considerable proportion of the population, the play is unrecorded. This distribution strongly suggests that the Play is of English origin. One man recited play fragments, probably from County Sligo, in English, though the rest of his considerable repertoire of traditional verses was in Gaelic (N.A.Hudleston Coll.).

Nevertheless, the Irish plays have distinctive features, particularly the names of some of the characters, and it seems likely that these plays have been extant in Ireland for a considerable length of time. The Play has survived in spite of a high rate of emigration, and the density of population in Ireland as a whole is comparable with the least thickly populated parts of England one hundred years ago.

The most useful generalisations are that much more work is needed on the distribution of these customs and that the original, single Play has divided into three and become bowdlerised for a more polite society than that to which the original performers took Fertility.

1 Some of the facts on which the arguments in this section are based come from H. C. Darby: An Historical Geography of England before 1800, C.U.P., Cambridge, 1951 (First edition, 1936).

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2 We are not aware of any research being done since the publication of ERD to explain the national patterns of distribution of the plays, although there has been some work on localised dissemination. This is therefore a subject that is ripe for further study, given the large amount of additional material that has been gathered, and advances in historical geography.

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© 2007, E.C.Cawte, N.Peacock & P.Millington ( Rev. 22-Nov-2007