Mummers, Trust, and the Threat of Violence

If you’re like me, you have a (very) vague sense of “mummers.” Or “mummers plays,”  or of Philadelphia’s “mummers’ parade.
Turns out mummery (or mumming—hard to know what noun form to employ) takes on some curious forms. Particularly in parts of rural Newfoundland.

Check this out:

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Residents of small isolated fishing villages on the northern peninsula of Newfoundland have participated in the ritual of “mumming” for centuries. According to the tradition, small groups of villagers, or mummers, disguise their identities and go to other houses to threaten violence, whereupon the people of the houses try to guess the intruders’ identities.
A study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia argues that this tradition is a manner of communicating trust and trustworthiness. The mummers who threaten violence must prove themselves trustworthy by not committing a real act of violence, and the hosts of the invaded home must demonstrate trust by not responding to threats with fear or violence, said Christina Nicole Pomianek, an MU doctoral student.
“In this ritual, participants are making themselves vulnerable at the hands of the other,” said Craig T. Palmer, assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science. “It’s a way for community members to prove their trust and commitment to each other.”

If even remotely true, this is one of those quaint social innovations that is firmly rooted in and serves to elucidate human nature.

There is no such thing as trust without risk, I would argue.  Blind faith is not trust at all, because it rules out risk as irrelevant.  And if you are dealing in probabilities alone, you are similarly not dealing with trust, but with statistics.

Trust exists at that interesting boundary line, where you must take a step forward not being entirely sure that there will be solid ground to support your step.

You’re invaded by dressed-up mummers.  In all likelihood, they are just the boys up the road, doing the halloween-like ceremony.  But there’s always the chance—well regaled in lore—that one or more of them really are out to rape, pillage and burn your house down.  Do you keep one hand on the shotgun?  Or decide to trust?

You’re a dressed-up mummer, going down the lonely dark road in Newfoundland to drop in those strange old folks down the dark road you only see in town rarely. That’ll add some edge to your life.  You mean them no harm, you want to play the game and have a drink after—and make some friends.  But they may have a shotgun handy too.  Do you play the game to the hilt? Or rip off your mask to guarantee your life—but ruin the game?

The Columbia researchers speculate that the timing of the holiday—early winter—supports the need to develop trust during the long cold dark season to come.

How clever—a mutually created mutual threat, almost certain to be resolved—but not quite guaranteed. In order to create trust.

Makes sense to me.

Many thanks to Ed. (short for "editor") of Blawg Review  for tipping me to this; it comes courtesy of Andrew Sullivan’s online column The Daily Dish at

4 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, I feel compelled to point out that, as Newfoundland, as  part of Canada, has a significantly different set of cultural attitudes towards firearms than the US, the odds of anyone reaching for a shotgun are not all that high.

    On the other hand, you might risk  get hitting over the head with a bottle of screech.

    (If you want to sample some fine Newfoundland culture while you think about Newfie mummers, try listening to Great Big Sea — one of my favourite bands, hailing from Newfoundland. I can’t seem to find a link to them performing The Mummer’s Song, but good runners up are Captain KiddOld Polina, and The Chemical Worker’s Song. )

    There’s actually been much written, by sager heads on mine, about the influence of dark winters and harsh weather fostering a sense of cooperation and community in Canadian culture.  (The average population density is one person per square mile.) I think our pioneer history feels closer at hand in Canada than it probably does for most people in the States.  And in that kind of environment (harsh conditions and isolation plus a sense of belonging), it really makes sense to trust that things will work out if you have to ask for help from a neighbour, or a stranger, or if you see someone in trouble and offer them help.

    I’ve always found that when I’m in a high-stakes situation (theatre production, political campaign, big work project) that the fast friendships  I make are hard to replicate in a lower-stakes environment.

    Would it be fair to say that external stressors have the potential to amplify relationship-building?

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Aye, Shaula, ye’ve caught me role modeling the quintessential Ugly American behavior–assuming that everyone looks like Americans do!
    Thank you for the correction, and for the lovely musical link.
    I think you’re quite right to link stress situations with bonding; for the same reasons, wartime friendships are incomparably deep. 

  3. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Don’t beat yourself up, Charlie.  I don’t think this is a particularly American behaviour.

    I think that most of use project our own experiences on the world around us.

    Having worked in cross-cultural work situations for years, I used to think I was quite good at dropping or at least recognizing my own cultural baggage…and as I get older (and hopefully wiser?) I feel like I see more and more how much I still project my life experiences onto other people and misinterpret those people as a result.

    Back on a more business-related note, when I was a tech recruiter I dealt with a lot of start-ups.   The experience of working in the pressure cooker of starting a business made for some very close-knit teams; but as the companies expanded, there were challenges to integrating new hires in with the "lifers".

    I gather that all of this is what "team building retreats" are trying to get at.  The closest I’ve been were my  annual department weekend holiday in Japan: the men chain-smoked and got tanked on whiskey, and the women poured the drinks and tried (half-heartedly, at times) to prevent the men from falling in front of oncoming trains, all while we traipsed around various regional tourist attractions.  While it probably did have a bonding and stress-relieving effect on the men, I think it left us girls feeling grateful the department vacation only happened once a year. 


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