It’s a couple of days after Christmas and it’s pitch black as we clamber out of the car. As the engine is turned off it becomes completely silent – a silence broken suddenly by the clunk of the boot opening, the desperate sound of bells being muffled and attached to legs, and the thump and quiet cursing at a localised avalanche of instrument cases. There is whispering. Through my limited field of vision (due to the mask I’m wearing) I can see torchlight sweeping across the road lighting the way. The house we are visiting is up ahead, just across the road towards Lands End. Its occupants are expecting us, but they don’t know exactly when. It’s likely that most of the people from the nearby cottages and farm are in there too. We are guise dancers, and in just a moment we will break the winter silence with music and drum, before banging loudly on the door demanding entry.
A party of guise-dancers entered a beer shop at St Ives and obtained an interview with the landlord, whom they well plied with drink until his eyes blinked like two revolving lights and his dizzy head manifested unmistakable signs of a desire to change places with his lower extremities.The Cornish Telegraph, January 1863
In the far southwest of Britain lies Cornwall, both a county and a Duchy, with a strong sense of identity that it is separate from England. It has its own language, Kernewek – a Celtic language and a cousin to Welsh and Breton. The Cornish people are protected under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, affording them the same status as the Scots, Welsh and Irish. Yet little is known about Cornish culture outside Cornwall. In a constant state of survival and revival, a rich pattern of customs and traditional music takes place throughout the year, just quietly happening, parallel to the image of Cornwall as a tourist destination full of sandy coves and palm trees.
In the southwest of the county lies West Penwith. A peninsula in its own right, it is sometimes described as ‘Cornwall’s Cornwall’; the last 14 miles of mainland exhibits granite cliffs, rich fields, wooded valleys, wild moorland and a scattering of rugged stone towns and villages. It shelters a plethora of folk traditions, drawing people who like to take part in them, keep them going, or revive them. The beauty of this place runs deep.
Many folkie people will be familiar with the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, and Helston Flora Day as busy and famous Cornish traditions. But tucked away in the far west, Penzance also has its own. Montol – the Cornish word for ‘balance’ – is held annually on the 21st of December. Created in 2007, it is a modern festival that brings together various Cornish wintertime customs. This is where you will see ‘guise dancing’, an ancient Christmastime mumming tradition, in all of its grotesque and curious glory.
At Montol, Penzance is overrun by hundreds of people in complete disguise. They roam the streets and take part in organised parades. Groups skip from pub to pub giving performances of music, dancing, and bizarre acts of ‘theatre’ or games that make no sense. Others push or carry downright odd props around amongst the crowds for their own amusement – and for the confusion of others. Early on in the evening, there is generally a bonfire with ‘beasts’ dancing around it. Then, later in the night, hundreds gather before a second bonfire at the foot of the town on which a chalk figure, or ‘the mock’, is burned. If you’d arrived in Penzance on holiday that evening, searching for your Airbnb might lead to feelings of regret. But, if by chance you’d brought a suitably strange costume (no ‘fancy dress’ here), you could join in. Everyone’s welcome.
There have always been old hands ready to show new ones what to do, with memories of the antics of their forebears.
Ever since the Middle Ages, during the Twelve Days of Christmas, guise dancers could be found entertaining each other and their communities all across West Penwith, down to the Lizard and as far east as the town of Redruth. Latterly, it was generally confined to St Ives and West Penwith, before a series of revivals and introductions spread it further across Cornwall. Traditional guise dancing has had its ups and downs but it has never left living memory. There have always been old hands ready to show new ones what to do, with memories of the antics of their forebears.
The earliest Cornish references to disguised mumming, which involves complete disguise in grotesque or elaborate costume and very little dancing, come from 15th-century accounts at Lanherne, a little further east near Newquay. Money was recorded as being spent for the ‘disgysyng’ in the account roll for the manor of Lanherne in the winter of 1466/7. The survival of these accounts is remarkable. Firstly, these mundane expenses were usually absorbed into general figures of formal manorial accounts and notes like this, written on paper, don’t generally survive. Secondly, the surviving notes only cover the Christmas period – the exact period we’re interested in. The document also mentions the purchase of bells for Morris dancing, but that’s for another story.
It’s not until 1750 that we get our first specific mention of guise dancing in print. Robert Heath’s A Natural and Historical Account of the Islands of Scilly contains a fabulous description:
“At Christmas time, the young people exercise a sort of gallantry among them called goose-dancing; when the maidens are dressed up for young men, and the young men for maidens. They visit their neighbours in companies, where they dance, and make their jokes upon what has happened in the islands, when every person is humorously told of their own without offence being taken. By this sort of sport according to yearly custom and toleration, there is a spirit of wit and drollery kept up among the people. The maidens, who are sometimes dressed up as sea-captains and other officers, display their alluring graces to the ladies, who are young men equipped for that purpose; and the ladies exert their talents to them in courtly and amorous addresses: their hangers are sometimes drawn, after which, and other pieces of drollery, the scene shifts to music and dancing; which being over they are treated with liquor, and then go to the next house of entertainment.”
By 1804, guise dancing was already described as ‘ancient’ in a letter published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on 14 January:
“Sir, it is the wish of several of your subscribers, that you would favour them, in an appendix to the poetry in your Gazette of 24th December, with the best account you can collect of the origin and particulars of the ancient custom of geese or guize dancing, with the ceremonial used on the occasion.”
The editor published a fulsome description, also noting the similarity to the ‘guisers’ of northern England and southern Scotland, linking guise dancing to the survival of a wider mumming tradition. There are many related traditions, such as molly dancing, but each survives with their own unique features.
I began guise dancing in 2013 in Penzance at Montol. Traditionally, guise dancing ‘season’ started on Christmas Day and ended on Twelfth Night, often with a big celebration and parades. It’s this celebration that inspired the format of the modern Montol Festival, which actually pulls the start of guise dancing season forwards by a few days to December 21st. The date might be modern, but the traditions within are not.
At first, I didn’t really know how ancient the tradition was, or even what it was called. It just seemed like a fun and risqué thing to do when my friends asked me to join in. Wandering around the streets in complete and strange disguise whilst playing games? What’s not to like! I’m in.
Simon Reed, one of the founders of Montol, told me to wear, “anything old, mock posh”, and to wear a mask – “you’ve got to be completely unrecognisable”. From my subsequent reading of contemporary newspaper stories, some of the scenes on the streets of Penzance would have been absolutely recognisable 150 years ago. References to fabulous, elaborate and grotesque costumes and bizarre props are plentiful, sometimes with groups getting together to start making them months ahead. And that’s still accurate today.
In 1846 the Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on a lecture given by Richard Edmonds on traditions and customs. In it, we get a glimpse of Penzance in the early 19th century:
“The guise dancers (the same as the guisards of Scotland) may be seen in the streets of Penzance in the evenings from Christmas Day to Twelfth Day, going to and from the houses wherein they are permitted to perform, attired in fantastic costume and variously disguised. A well-known character amongst them, about thirty years ago [~1816], was the ‘hobby horse,’ or person carrying a piece of wood carved into the form of the head and neck of a horse, with some contrivance for opening and shutting the mouth with a loud snapping noise, the performer being so covered with a horse cloth, or hide of a horse, as to resemble the animal, whose curvettings, biting, and other motions he imitated. Some of these ‘guise dancers’ occasionally masked themselves with the heads, horns, and skins of bullocks, a practice not entirely discontinued.“
But guise dancing wasn’t universally enjoyed, as the historian Margaret Courtenay wrote in 1886:
“These “goose-dancers” became such a terror to the respectable inhabitants of Penzance that the Corporation put them down about 10 years since, and every Christmas Eve a notice is posted in conspicuous places forbidding their appearance in the streets, but they still perambulate the streets of St. Ives.”
Margaret Courtenay mentioned that guise dancers, “still perambulate the streets of St. Ives.” Today, known as a tourist hot-spot, St Ives is famous for its art, beaches, crowds, and Tate Modern. On Boxing Day, many staying in the town wear fancy dress and head out onto the streets. Perhaps what they don’t know is that this is a nod towards the utter pandemonium created by costumed guise dancers in times past. If you go on holiday there, picture the following scenes.
Early in January, 1863 The Cornish Telegraph reported:
“On Friday evening the 9th inst. a party of guise-dancers entered a beer shop at St Ives and obtained an interview with the landlord, whom they well plied with drink until his eyes blinked like two revolving lights and his dizzy head manifested unmistakable signs of a desire to change places with his lower extremities. In this unenviable state (which, by the bye, is better described than felt, we should think) four of the strongest of the party took the somnolent landlord by the arms and legs and ere could he say ‘What doest thou?’ spirited him into the open street, where a goodly number (as if by magic) started into the middle of the road and formed a procession singing the Old Hundredth with a more than mournful twang, and away they marched towards the beach (the house is situated near the sea side) landlord and all.
The hands that held him were too strong and whilst he was cursing his tormentors and invoking vengeance on their devoted heads he was borne out into the tide.The Cornish Telegraph, January 1863
“Someone at intervals gave short sentences from the Burial Service. As may be expected, the sudden and by no means welcome termination of a good day’s business roused into fury all the drink be-clouded and drink-debased energies of the poor fellow, but all his imprecations were met with the remark ‘Prepare, Evil! prepare; thy time is short indeed.’ His struggles and cries were all in vain and in a short time the edge of the water was reached. And now as the sobered man heard the rippling of the waves, he seem to fear the result, and made a superhuman effort to free himself, but alas! The hands that held him were too strong and whilst he was cursing his tormentors and invoking vengeance on their devoted heads he was borne out into the tide, whilst one, with a fine nasal accent, pronounced aloud, ‘We now commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’; if no one else will have him, the d—l must,’ and down they threw their burthen (wretches that they were) and scampered off, leaving their victim to scramble ashore as best he might. Fortunately, the only effect produced in the landlord is a determination to hate guise dancers in general with a perfect hatred. Who the delinquents are is a mystery.”
Every year since the 1860s, guise dancing, or wearing any disguise at all in the streets of St Ives, was expressly forbidden, with posters displayed in prominent places reminding one and all of the ban. Every year, it was spectacularly ignored.
In 1898 a resident of High Street, right in the centre of town wrote:
“St Ives streets at night are a perfect pandemonium. Parties of men, boys and girls parade the thoroughfare dressed in all sorts of outrageous and fantastic disguises. These are invariably followed by a noisy throng, singing, screaming, and shouting — some of the ‘musical’ instruments used being concertinas, tin pans, flutina and bones, ‘May horns,’ etc, etc. The noise and hub-bub sometimes is hideous in the extreme, and the language used at intervals is not very choice. One night there was a conflict between two of the parties, which nearly ended in a fight — on this occasion the air was full of oaths and foul language.”
The newspapers report guise dancers getting up to all sorts in many west Cornish towns and villages, including grand Twelfth Night revels. But the tragedy of the WWI saw a rapid decline in its practice. Guise dancing continued in a more subdued and polite way in St Ives and St Just, with the former seeing a ‘revival’ of guise dancing (parallel to the traditional ‘impolite’ version which hadn’t completely gone away) by the St Ives Old Cornwall Society, including competitions and processions. Elderly people I’ve spoken with remember it as an activity for children, but a few remembered being frightened when the guise dancers came to visit. A small group from St Ives have continued to practice guise dancing to this day, and guise dancers have skipped a month or two to take part in the town’s Feast Day in early February.
A group called the Madron Guise Dancers, from the village of Madron just outside Penzance, kept things going from the 1930s and into the 1970s, and plenty of people remember them.
And now, rather than 12 days of mayhem across many towns and villages, we have one – Montol on December 21st – which has to be seen to be believed. The good-natured pandemonium has been handed back to Penzance. The spirit of guise dancing has grown year-on-year and the town’s inhabitants, like their forebears, are now mobilising and planning months in advance.
But it’s too much fun to dress up, play music, perform tricks and pranks, guess who’s who, dance (or try to) and push large, heavy and strange props about for just one night of the year. Small groups of friends, like mine, are heading out again to the villages and hamlets and knocking on doors – by invitation (some things do have to change) – between Christmas and New Year.
Medieval tradition is alive and well down in the southwest of Cornwall.