Five North East Traditions You Would Like to See Revived


Devil costume featured in the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Festive Traditions in the North East

Devil costume featured in the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Festive Traditions in the North East

As part of our Records of Early English Drama exhibition on Festive Traditions in the North East, we asked you what traditions you would like to see come back into fashion. Here’s our collection of the top five themes that emerged. Which is your favourite? What have we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter via #FestiveNE.

Performing in public

Many of the exhibits and examples showed how communities used to come together to put on and to watch performances in public spaces. In the medieval period, long before television and even before the advent of special theatres for drama, people were singing, dancing and acting in the streets. For example, mystery plays as featured in the exhibition told the story of Christ’s life for a public and often illiterate audience – and although they involved religious themes, they would also be a chance for the community to meet, enjoy watching or even acting, and perhaps to share a joke much as theatre or television do today.

Similar events that you wanted to see performed again in public today included story telling sessions on streets, maypole dancing in the Market Square, mystery plays and mummers plays, and morris dancing.

There will be a chance to see aspects of some of these at the Theatrum Mundi drama festival in July 1st to 12th. And the following week sees Streets of Brass, a reminder that street performance is actually still alive in Durham.

Drawing by Peter Gaber, specially-commissioned drawing by Peter Gaber, specially commissioned for the exhibition, imagining the Boy Bishop in procession at Durham Cathedral with his attendants.

Drawing by Peter Gaber, specially-commissioned drawing by Peter Gaber, specially commissioned for the exhibition, imagining the Boy Bishop
in procession at Durham Cathedral with his attendants.

Religious ceremonies

The exhibition was hosted in Durham Cathedral, and as mentioned above many medieval performances had a religious theme behind them, so it’s perhaps no surprise that many of you who visited wanted to see traditions with a Christian focus.

These included going to church on Sunday, faith and community processions on feast days, and Boy Bishops, Durham’s tradition of electing a boy from a local parish to serve as Bishop for the day.

As the exhibition showed, the North East had a rich set of rituals, many of which ended with the Reformation (check out this story of Durham’s “rotten, ridiculous robe” for one example). Although religious in inspiration, many were also great community events and were missed by local people once they were ended.

The crucifixion of Christ, from the York mystery cycle. This play will be performed in Durham in July 2016 as part of Theatrum Mundi.

The crucifixion of Christ, from the York mystery cycle. This play will be performed in Durham in July 2016 as part of Theatrum Mundi.

Processions

As the name suggests, Plays, Processions and Parchment was not just about drama. It explored all types of performance, including traditional processions. These included things like the elaborate Corpus Christi procession, which marched from St Nicholas’s church, up to the west door of the cathedral; Corpus Christi day was accompanied by plays performed by different town guilds as part of the celebrations.

Along these lines, some of you thought that travelling theatre companies would be a nice idea, along with marches from parish to parish, connecting different communities.

Work and politics

Many of the traditions in the medieval and Renaissance period were attached to special days in the religious calendar, but also had an economic value behind them. Often, plays would be put on by guilds of craftspeople, with each play reflecting their talents; for example, the pin-makers might put on a play about Christ being nailed to the cross. In a continuation of this trend, many more modern North East traditions – not just festive or performative traditions – also emerge from work and industry.

Steel making, coal mining, shipbuilding and trade unionism are all things that you felt had a rich tradition behind them, and that you would like to see revived in the region.

It is very appropriate that our Theatrum Mundi theatre festival, which brings medieval and Renaissance traditions back to the streets of Durham, takes place on the same weekend as Durham miner’s gala, which is the most important march today.

Banners at Durham Miner's Gala 2014, by Turloughmor, reproduced under CC-BY-2.0 licence.

Banners at Durham Miner’s Gala 2014, by Turloughmor, reproduced under CC-BY-2.0 licence.

Family matters

One of the reasons mystery plays and religious festivals were so popular was not simply that they carried a sincere Christian message, but that they brought people together. Everyday neighbourliness, beyond the community feeling of special festivities, is a tradition that some of you felt has now been lost.

Community spirit, the convention of going to buy fish and chips on Fridays, washing day on Mondays, and unlocked doors – all these are ways our lives used to be shaped by a feeling of commonality with one another.

What do you think about some of these traditions? What other North East traditions have been forgotten and should be revived? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter via #FestiveNE

And if you want to see traditions like Boy Bishops and mystery plays – along with stage dragons and a dance with death – then check out Theatrum Mundi.

Theatrum Mundi, 7th to 12th July 2016

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