Original ERD - The English Folk Play

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

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The first paragraph here mentions J.G.Frazer's (1890) Golden Bough, and the supposed ritual origins of the play to which ERD owes its title. Frazer's theories are no longer regarded as valid by today's anthropologists and folklorists, including the surviving ERD authors. See the entry for "Frazer, James George" in Simpson & Roud's (2000) Dictionary of English Folklore.

THIS publication is the second part of a study of the geographical distribution of the ceremonial dance and associated customs in Great Britain.[1] The material is extracted from an Index which has been in preparation since 1955: this section is the largest in the Index, and its subject, the Folk Play, has the most clearly recognisable parallels outside the British Isles. By the term 'English Folk Play' we mean one or other of three types of Play in the English language, defined later (p.37), which we believe to be a form of the ceremony of revitalisation discussed by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough, and by others.

We have included in our list all examples known in the British Isles, and some from North America which seem to be of British origin, but have omitted similar customs from other countries, important though they are (see ORIGINS, p.23). Plays of any date are included, but the earliest known fragment which resembles later examples is dated 1738 from Exeter. The description in Croker (1800) of a performance in Cork in 1685 seems to refer to a play, but the absence of any text makes it impossible to be certain. Many other accounts are not clear, and it is sometimes difficult to be sure if the performance included a play of the type which concerns us (see CLASSIFICATION, p.14). Some old references are however, too important to ignore, and for this reason we have added an Appendix which shows plays impossible to classify [2], which we feel unable to list as Folk Plays but which could well have some relevance for other students of the subject.

We have omitted one example of an old play. In 1473 Sir John Paston wrote of an unsatisfactory servant, that he had kept him three years to play Saint George and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Paston (1897)): Paston had left his estate at Caister on Sea, Norfolk (TG5211), and this presumably is where the play occurred. We were inclined to include this play in our list, until we found that Manly had published a fragment of play text relating to Seynt Jorge, Robin Hod, and the Shryff off Nottyngham, from the MSS of Sir John Fenn, attributed to a date 'before 1475'. Fenn first edited the Paston letters (Manly (1897)), and it seems possible that this is a fragment of Paston's play. It is not related to our subject.

1 The first part, 'A Geographical Index of the Ceremonial Dance in Great Britain', dealing with the Ceremonial Dances, was published in J.E.F.D.S.S., 1960 (Cawte et al, 1960)).

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2 In this edition, the records in Appendix I have been merged with the main geographical listings, marked "Doubtful". They all have extant dates before 1800.

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J.G.Frazer (1890) The Golden Bough
London, Macmillan & Co., 1890

J.Simpson & S.Roud (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-19-210019-X

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