by Wanderer Werewolf
©2007 Wanderer Werewolf

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   As a side note to my ongoing series on the medieval life, and a small nod to Hallowe’en et al, I thought I might take a look at one of the least-considered, but longest-surviving of all medieval holiday customs:
   Ritual Begging.
   In the modern day, ritual begging survives only in the childhood ritual of Trick-Or-Treat, engaged in by children of many ages… including those of us really too old for it, of course. (Not me, no, but living down the street from a junior college made Hallowe’en interesting, to say the least.) What’s seldom remembered is the history and trouble of ritual begging through the ages.
   The beginnings of ritual begging have been lost to history. The one sure thing is that it pertains primarily to holidays falling in the late autumn and winter: Everything from the end of the harvest to the end of winter. In abstract, it would have started simply enough; a formula for asking a boon of those more fortunate than yourself, developing over time into a full-fledged custom. And develop it did! Every appropriately-placed holiday came in for ritual begging, and beggars quickly discovered you got more for a show than for asking. Costumes, dumb shows (‘pantomime’, here in the United States), singing, and theatrics of all kinds soon flourished during the holidays. Two of the songs still survive:

   Here we come a-wassailing
   Among the leaves so green.
   Here we come a-wand’ring
   So early to be seen
   Love and joy
   Come to you
   And to you good wassail, too.
   And God bless you and send you
   A happy new year
   And God send you a happy new year.

   The more commonly known one, of course is We Wish You a Merry Christmas:

   We wish you a merry Christmas
   We wish you a merry Christmas
   We wish you a merry Christmas
   And a happy new year.

   Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
   Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
   Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
   And bring it right here.

   The problem, then, is what happened if you didn’t have the relevant talents, or if you happened to receive less than you thought you deserved? That, alas, has also been recorded in the carols:

   We won’t go until we get some
   We won’t go until we get some
   We won’t go until we get some
   So bring it right here.

   By the 16th Century, ritual begging had gotten badly out of hand. Mummers (those who begged in costume) were being prosecuted for what the modern world calls ‘home invasions’ and ‘vandalism’. Many were the householders who, after hearing a poorly-rehearsed song, were bowled over by the mummers as they raced to rifle the house. By 1533, England’s Henry VIII had signed into law an edict against all forms of mumming; without the comfortable disguise to hide them, the rowdies stayed away (criminals being, to quote another masked man, a ‘superstitious, cowardly lot’). Unfortunately, deprived of any anonymity, most genuine ritual beggars stayed away as well. The custom, as old as it was, began to wane.
   (As a side note, American trick-or-treating didn’t start until the 1900s, and the phrase ‘trick or treat’ didn’t catch on until the 1930s. While it’s believed it may be a survival of the Hallowmas begging, in which the treats were in exchange for prayers on All Hallow’s Day [November 1], nobody’s ever been quite sure how it got started. The ‘trick’ portion was the reason for so many stories depicting disgruntled adults; while outright burglary was seldom practiced, those who felt slighted tended to wreak havoc on the homestead, and vandalism has never been popular.)
   Now: How can we use this in a game? Consider:
   Mumming, also called guising (‘dis-guise’ means, literally, ‘change face’) grants a level of anonymity that can be quite heady to those who feel oppressed or slighted, as the above examples showed. Any PCs (or NPCs) who want to pull off a successful robbery, or even surveillance, could do worse than to pose as a troupe of mummers.
   Do your heroes have a castle or other holding? They’d best be ready with traditional levels of generosity, or dissatisfied mummers could make their lives miserably complicated. (For an extra twist, remember: In the legends, the Fae were said to be fond of tradition, and easy to offend if you messed up. Talk about ‘social insurance’!)
   On the other paw, mummers are also convenient scapegoats. If the crops of an unpopular farmer are vandalized, the locals may well ascribe it to unhappy mummers—to the joy of whoever actually did it.
   Finally, if your players run out of rations in the dead of winter, a conveniently-placed holiday is a good way to stave off starvation.

   Enjoy! Next time, it’s back to Medieval Society.

   N.B.: Lanterns carved from vegetables were around long before the story of ‘Jack o’ Lantern’ gave them a name in the 19th Century. In the original, the vegetable in question is most commonly a turnip (British Isles), mangelwurzel (Germany) or rutabaga (Sweden), hollowed out to accept a candle.
   Happy Halloween!

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