Dancing with Oxen


The players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, circa 1900, reproduced via Wikimedia Commons. While the Durham Oxen dance is no longer performed, the Abbots Bromley horn dance continues to this day.

The players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, circa 1900, reproduced via Wikimedia Commons. While the Durham oxen dance is no longer performed, the Abbots Bromley horn dance continues to this day.

We’re counting down an ‘advent’ calendar of highlights from the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Discovering Festive Traditions in the North East of England, which launches on 19th April. This exhibition celebrates some of the forgotten folk traditions, religious rituals, performance history, and plays from the region.

We’ve labelled our countdown as a kind of ‘advent’ calendar, which is appropriate given that Christmas is perhaps the best known moment in the liturgical calendar around which festivities and rituals continue to be held. With six days before launch, here’s a Christmas tradition that is not widely celebrated any more: animal dances.

In the North East as in other parts of England, animal impersonations celebrated Plough Monday, the first day of work after the Twelve Days of Christmas. In Durham the Priory Almoner’s Accounts indicate that local young men would impersonate the plough oxen and collect money for drink.

Some animal-related rituals were frowned upon. On 4th September each year, the day of the Feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert, Lord Neville of Raby used to claim the right to enter Durham Cathedral, with his foresters blowing their hunting horns, and to make an offering of a freshly killed stag on the high altar. This was something which had distinctly pagan echoes, and was subsequently banned.

There are lots of links between what we now think of as religious traditions, and folk traditions. Also featured in the exhibition are stories of Maids Processions and the North East’s own versions of Robin Hood, both of which similarly connect the two strands together. Come along to find out more.

Plays, Processions and Parchment runs from 19th April to 22nd May in the Chapel of Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Entry is free. Visit the website for more details, and to see the accompanying programme of weekly talks. The exhibition is curated by Records of Early English Drama North East

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