Craig Fees, “Notes and Comments: The Greek Mummers: A Challenge”, Folklore,102:1 (1991), pp. 108-110


Whether or not you count Folklore as a science, you can still expect it to adhere to the standards of argument set by Science. It was therefore something of a disappointment to see Gareth Morgan repeating claims in Folklore 101:2 which he had made in Folklore 100:1 and which I had criticised in some detail in Folklore 100:2, without first answering those criticisms or even acknowledging them.1 It was a bit like finding claims for a cure for the common cold reprinted in The Lancet despite published criticism that some members of the experimental control group had been misdiagnosed as having colds when in fact they had pneumonia, whooping cough or flu, and that individuals in the ‘treated and cured’ group had not been physically examined before treatment and may never have been ill in the first place.

Morgan’s claim, as stated in Folklore 101:2, is

that the nature of similarities between English and Pontic plays is such that we may be able to postulate a common origin in late medieval times. There is already a prima facie case for this, if we accept the thirteenth-century relation of the words mummers and momoeri ... [to wit] that ‘Momoeri’ is the origin of the word ‘Mummers’ and its analogues in Western European languages . . . (pp. 150, 144).

As I showed in Folklore 100:2, there are only two problems with the argument behind this claim: it ignores the rules of evidence and it violates logic.

Indeed, so certain am I of my case that I am prepared to wager £50 against a similar amount that Morgan cannot defend his thesis to the satisfaction of a board of professional folklorists with experience not only of literature but of fieldwork: if I lose, my £50 to go to a charity of his choice; if he loses, his money to go to a charity of my choice. To be fair, we could have the panel chosen by the Presidents of the Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society. [This wager was not taken up, and is now expired. CF 06/02/2022]

My willingness to make this bet stems from the fact that folk-drama has for too long been the sport of inadequate evidence and of argument without substance. The fine work done by amateurs and professionals in the field is continually being overborne by the dead hand of Chambers and a tradition which ought to have died a death before the Great War, not to mention the last one. For every two steps forward researchers take they must take one and a half backwards, and it is time that this exciting and rewarding field were freed from the impoverished claiming which stands for argument. Even if Morgan is right I cannot lose: if he can prove Greece is the origin of the British mummers’ play to a standard which professional folklorists can accept, then more power to him: that would be terrifically exciting.

But he cannot, partly because he has not taken on board the critique and the scholarship of British folk-drama of the past decade.2 For example, he says of the fifty Pontic plays published by Samouilidis that ‘Few of these have the verbatim texts with which we are so richly endowed in British Studies. One reason for this is the sheer difficulty for most Greek readers of the Pontic dialect.’ And yet this is precisely the case in Britain, where local dialect speakers were often (and still can be!) unintelligible to educated collectors, and where one of our problems is precisely the lack of texts which we can confidently take as ‘verbatim’ (whatever that problematical word may mean): ignorantly and intentionally, collectors from the beginning have ‘translated’ and corrected the texts of performers. Even where a performance has been tape-recorded, the ‘text’ can be differently transcribed by different listeners, and in at least one case, in a thesis held at the University of Leeds, a dialectologist has transcribed a text in International Phonetic Association notation, and in rendering this orthographically (in normally recognisable letters) has demonstrably altered it.3

All this means is that much of the criticism which has been levelled at British folk-drama scholarship over the past decade or so is probably appropriate to Samouilidis, upon whom Morgan draws for most of his argument. Educated collectors and commentators translate, re-formulate, affect, change — or, indeed, as Morgan himself suggests on p. 146 of his most recent article, create: he describes an anomalous case in which ‘the verse is authentic Pontic dialect’ but ‘smells of the lamp’ and has ‘its origins in an antiquarianized literary memoir in 1950 . . .’ Before any conclusions can be drawn from Samouilidis’ information, his information and arguments must be subjected to extensive and informed criticism. For this, he could usefully be translated.

But let us turn to this vitally important term ‘momoeri’. Morgan says that thirty-four of Samouilidis’ fifty play texts ‘are called by this name (sometimes as an alternative).’ Its singular form ‘momoeros’ ‘is applied in particular to the chief member of the troupe . . .’

Can he tell us how frequently the latter is the case, and can he assure us that in giving ‘momoeri’ either as the primary or alternative name for their plays—assuming they did (this would be useful to know for certain, and would emerge from an analysis of the fieldwork)—the local performers were not responding to nor anticipating the word expected by the (outside/educated) collector? That is, what history is there of collecting/antiquarrying among these people—what history is there of tourism and ethnography?

This question relates to the origin of the term ‘momoeri’, which Morgan wants to date to the 13th century, but which apparently appears in texts only after the First World War. This is to say, after Lawson, Wace and Dawkins (whose ‘work still remains basic’, to quote Morgan) described many Balkan performances and catalogued many local dialect terms for performers and performances, none of which was ‘momoeri—but consistently used the word ‘mummers’ in their English-language discussions of the same. Without knowing definitely when the term ‘momoeri’ is first attested I do not know if this constitutes a prima facie case for a 20th-century antiquarianizing coinage of ‘momoeri’ from their use of ‘mummers’, a coinage which was then taken by collectors, enthusiasts and tourists to the performers, who have kindly offered it back.

I do know, however, that I have disputed the derivation of the term ‘momoeri’, and that by Morgan’s rules of argument (see Morgan, 100:1, p. 86; Fees, 100:2, p. 242, paragraph 2 of point 5), this ought to invalidate ‘momoeri’ as the source of ‘mummers’. Which therefore means, by the same rules of argument, that ‘momoeri’ performances cannot be the origin of the British mummers’ play.

But given that the term ‘mummer’ appears in the 14th century, and does not refer to anything recognisably like a ‘British Folk Play’ until four centuries later; given that ‘momoeri’ is apparently not attested until six centuries after the word ‘mummer’; given that the Balkan folk play is not described until a century after the British play is first attested, is this really surprising?



1. Gareth Morgan, ‘Mummers and Momoeri’, Folklore 100:1 (1989), pp. 84-87. Gareth Morgan, ‘The Mummers of Pontus’, Folklore 101:2 (1990), pp. 143-151. Craig Fees, ‘Mummers and Momoeri: A Response’, Folklore 100:2 (1989), pp. 240-247. The three articles are all heavily footnoted, brief and readily accessible, so I have not felt it necessary to encumber this note with more of the same. All the points made here are pretty copiously documented in ‘Mummers and Momoeri: A Response'

2. To be fair, much of this critique has been made in unpublished theses, in papers delivered at the late Traditional Drama Conferences in Sheffield (some of which have begun to appear in Traditional Drama), and in Roomer: The Newsletter of the Traditional Drama Research Group, and are not necessarily as readily available as the scholarship which is the subject of criticism. But this is not true of all of it, and the greater part of even that material which is not so readily available can be relatively easily acquired.

3. Annie Langrick, The Phonology of the Dialect of Bubwith (Yorkshire) (B.A., University of Leeds, 1948).