balzac, ben jonson, detective fiction, dorothy l sayers, midcentury, murder must advertise, ronald hutton, stations of the sun
Having recounted one tale of a literary reference I thought I’d found (but which turned out to be no such thing), today I’ll relate one which I’m convinced actually is there. It seems suitable for this time of year, as it connects British seasonal customs, Dorothy L. Sayers and a masque written for Christmas by Ben Jonson.
I found the reference backwards, so to speak. I didn’t notice it whilst reading the text of the novel and see its connection to the world beyond, but rather stumbled across it in a historical text, and remembered its presence in a novel. Of course in the paragraph above I’ll told you the points which are to be connected so many of you reading this will probably get to the solution much more quickly than I did. But I’ll tell it the way it happened.
I was reading Ronald Hutton’s study of British seasonal customs and yearly rituals, Stations of the Sun. It’s not a subject I know much about, but I admire Hutton’s work enormously, and I often find ideas from his Triumph of the Moon and Witches, Druids and King Arthur influencing my own thinking on other topics. Stations of the Sun proceeds chronologically through the year, detailing the traditional customs associated with particular dates, discussin the sources we have for them, and giving some historical explanations for them. Dances, libations, garlands, folk plays, flower languages, swinging burning hides round rooms; all come under Hutton’s scholarly attention.
This time I was particularly intrigued by the hogglers. Hutton explains that they appear in records around the season of Christmas, and named as “Hognels, Hogglers, Hogans or Hogners, or Hoggels, or by other versions of those names.” They turn up in parish records in the fifteenth an sixteenth centuries, in “Gloucestershire, Somerset and Devon, Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and the Lincolnshire Fens”. He notes that in Sussex, Surrey and the west country references to Hogglers appear in the majority of Tudor parish records. They contributed to church funds by their activities (presumably hoggling, hoganing, etc), sometimes in considerable amounts, and in Sutterton and Wigtoft, neighbouring villages in Lincolnshire, they kept a special light burning in the church.
At Tintinhill in the middle of Somerset the hogglers had a guild, and at Chagford on the edge of Dartmoor, they had a steward. At Bolney in the Sussex forests, the “hognel time” stretched right through January. What the records do not tell us is who on earth the hogglers were, and what on earth their hoggling involved. They were apparently some kind of club or group, which gathered to do something around the twelve days of Christmas, and they obviously gave away money, whether theirs or – surely more likely – money raised by their hoggling. It struck me as a terrific example of the joy of history that we should know that at around this time of year, five hundred years ago, the Hogglers were hoggling away busily, and that parish records should meticulously record their hoggle, without ever troubling to explain who they were or what they got up to. The people writing those records knew, the people reading them knew, and we are shut out of the game.
All of which has nothing to do with Dorothy L. Sayers, who never hoggled so much as a hognel in her life. So far as I know. But Hutton introduces the subject of Hogglers by comparing them to Mummers and saying that Hogglers appeared to be more peaceful and benign. It seems that Mummers often had something of a bad name, due to the fact that they wore masks when setting out on their frivols and frolics. Indeed the masks may have been part of the point, allowing that temporary confusion of identity, rank and role provided in other customs by ritual drinking games, carnival “authorities” like the boy bishop or the Terra Filii, or the festive cross-dressing of some customs.
Certainly the mask is important in the etymology of mumming. I only knew mumming as a form of folk play, but Hutton’s book informs me that the term in its various European versions signifies the wearing of masks, and “may have derived from ‘mommo’, the Greek word for a mask.’ Like hoggling, we get our earliest information about mumming from official records: the first reference to it seems to be an order banning it in Troyes in 1263. The city corporation prohibited “momment” amongst the people of Troyes, which, as any historian will tell you, is pretty strong evidence for a significant quantity of it going on.
London followed suit in 1405, and other English cities did likewise, on the grounds that “mummers”, “maskers” and “guisers” passed anonymously round urban centres, committing crimes (so the authorities said) for which they could not be held accountable. In Henry VIII’s reign a law noted “a company naming themselves Mummers” which entered noble houses and departed without making their identities known, and the law prohibited the wearing of “visors” as a remedy.
This was all news to me. My associations with “mummer” was a folk play carried out in the public bar of my cousin’s pub on the edge of Exmoor, and I knew “mommo” as the origin of “Momus”, the Early Modern name or a carping theatrical or literary critic. What caught my attention even more was the first term used to designate the activity in Britain: not “momment” or “mumming”, but the French-sounding word “momerie”. That chimed with Hutton’s comment that by 1616, in Christmas His Masque, Ben Jonson could assume that an audience would recognise a visor and a pied suit of clothes as the costume of a mummer.
I looked up that masque, and found the beginning involved the entry of Christmas and his children, which include characters like “Carol”, “Mis-rule”, “Minc’d Pie” and “Mumming”. The latter, as Hutton noted, is dressed “in a Masquing pied suit[e], with a Visor”. A man in a pied suit, with a visor, indulging in some “momerie”. The Sayers connection is clear.
In Murder Must Advertise, Dian de Momerie is the centre of the “de Momerie crowd”, an aristocratic set who take cocaine, gatecrash respectable parties and hold fancy-dress orgies at country houses. The confusion of identities provided by the fancy dress is a plot point in the first extended sequence in which the reader sees their activities. They are infiltrated by Harlequin, a figure in a pied suit and wearing a visor across his eyes, who entrances and insults Dian de Momerie until she falls in love with him. The novel emphasizes the odd double or triple life which Peter Wimsey leads during these events, spending his days as the advertising executive Death Bredon and his nights as the elusive Harlequin.
A very brief search for de Momerie as a family name suggests that Sayers invented it: I haven’t find any French or English family with that surname (though would be very interested if someone else has.) I thought I’d found it in a story by Balzac, but it turned out to be a reference to “de momerie et de farce”. It is the perfect name for Sayers to give her dissolute artistocrat, with the irony of pairing “Dian”, the chaste goddess of the moon, with the “Momerie” which Dian gets up to in her endless round of night-time parties. The entrance of Harlequin in the costume of Mummery begins a nocturnal battle in which he prevails, mostly by out-mumming her.
Sayers could have come by Dian’s name in two obvious ways. Firstly by her knowledge of Early Modern English literature and culture, which is displayed throughout her works. Jonson is not a particularly favourite writer in her works, but the fact that she knew Spenser, Burton, Drayton and others implies she would have been familiar with the much more famous author. She need not have got the reference to a pied suit and visor (which was more famous as Harlequin’s costume by the early twentieth century) specifically from Christmas His Masque, but it is an interesting combination of the costume and the term Mumming.
Secondly, she could have found it in her exploration of French literature, as detailed in Suzanne Bray’s “Dorothy L. Sayers and the French Language” I suspect it was a combination of the two, with the linguistic origin of “mummery” and the Early Modern English costume sparking the idea for Dian’s name and providing a thematic spine for the fancy-dress plots of Murder Must Advertise. We may not know whether Sayers ever hoggled, but we do know something of her literary and cultural references, and I am persuaded that Dian de Momerie’s name is a literary joke.
I wonder if hogglers have an etymological connection with hogmanay, which also falls in Christmastide…? Although as far as I can tell, hogglers collected donations and hogmanay is associated with giving gifts.
My other thought is that I wonder whether this is something – like other traditional practices linked with “superstitions” – that either the reformers or the Puritans suppressed, and whether there might be any traces in laws or regulations of that time which give clues as to the nature of the activity…?
Penelope Wallace said:
Well, you’ve convinced me! But please continue to enquire as to the nature of hoggling!