Prior to its appearance in some depth in Abbey Champion, EJO had previously mentioned Mummers and their traditional Christmas performance in Abbey Girls Go Back to School. The interest in such traditional plays is a natural sideline to EJO’s interest in folk dancing which pervades the entire series of Abbey books.
But the performance of The Peace Egg is an integral part of the plot in Abbey Champion – and hence is worth looking at in a bit more detail.
The Folk Play in Abbey Champion is mentioned by Cecily in Abbey Champion when Littlejan goes to ask her for advice about the current (sorry) state of the Hamlet Club.
“And after the school is over, so that things won’t fall flat, you should revive the Folk Play.”
“What’s the Folk Play? I know you talk about Folk Dancing, but I never heard of a play.”
“You’d perform it at Christmas, before the whole school. Give Alison a big part—St. George, if she’s tall! That will win her heart. The play was done once by the Hamlet Club, but it was years ago—in Maidlin’s reign, I think. The present generation of girls won’t know anything about it.” And Cicely told of the old mumming play, really the sword dance play, found in small bits in different parts of the country, but nowhere complete.
“Sometimes you find the play, but no sword dance. More often the play has been lost, but the dance remains. I found a play in an old book for children, made up from all the different versions, and altered it to make it suitable for girls to do; some of the words in the original were weird, to say the least of it.” And she went to a desk and rummaged in drawers and pigeon holes; then drew out a few typewritten sheets. “If you like the idea, use it as a bait to pull in your seniors. Have a look at it while I run up to see how Teddy has taken his tea. Then we’ll have an hour in Ceylon.”
She returned to find Joan grinning over the manuscript.
“Mrs. Everett, what a weird thing! But it would be fun to do. I’d love to be the Fool—or Slasher—or the Doctor; he’s priceless.”
“He’s a very fine part. The Fool is really the Priest, you know.”
“The Priest?” Joan Two’s eyes widened. “But why is he called the Fool?”
“The Fool—the simple man of the village—therefore the innocent and good man—and so the Priest. Doesn’t he marry St. George to the King of Egypt’s daughter?”
Littlejan grinned again. “Such a priceless wedding! Yes, of course, the Fool marries them. But how very odd!”
Cicely told of the death and rebirth of the year at midwinter, acted in the death of one or more characters in the play, and his being brought back to life by the comic Doctor. You always find the dead man who comes to life again, in every version. Other characters change or are forgotten; but the dying and coming to life are the heart of the play and can’t be left out. Sometimes it’s the Fool who revives the dead man, I’ve been told.”
“How marvellous!” Littlejan was drinking in the unfamiliar folk lore breathlessly. “Oh, we must do the play!”
From the snippets of information given above it does seem more than likely that the play that Cicely shows to Littlejan is the one by Juliana Ewing. She found it in an old book for children (tick) and adds it was made up from a number of different places (also tick).
Googling gives a great deal of information about The Peace Egg – which incidentally is a term used to a specific genre of folk play as well as the title of a book published in 1888 by Juliana Ewing. Her version was compiled from three northern English chapbook * texts and a version from Silverton, Devon
* Chapbook is a generic term to cover a particular genre of pocket-sized booklet, popular from the sixteenth through to the later part of the nineteenth century. No exact definition can be applied Chapbook can mean anything that would have formed part of the stock of chapmen, a variety of peddler The word chapman probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for barter, buy and sell.
From Project Gutenberg I have found several things about this particular piece which may be of interest, but they are quite large and so I’ve split them up into three separate pages.
Part One: Juliana Ewing explains how she came to write her version of the Peace Egg
Part Two: The story in which the Peace Egg features and which occasioned numerous requests for her to publish the play.
Part Three: Her version of the play itself.