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The pace egg plays

Published 03 April 2012

Midgley Pace Eggers

This month's feature has an Easter theme and the collection we are showcasing is the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture.

The University of Leeds is fortunate in being one of only two higher-education establishments in England to have comprehensive research collections related to dialect and folk life (the other being the Archives of Cultural Tradition at the University of Sheffield).

The material in the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture consists of the archives of the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies, and includes collections with significant linguistic and cultural research value.

The photo is of the West Yorkshire Midgley pace-eggers, taken during the 1940s. The origins of "pace egg plays" or "mummers' plays" can be traced back to Celtic, Egyptian and Syrian traditions. There are several theories as to the meaning of "pace" - it is possibly derived from the Latin pascha, meaning Easter, or the Hebrew word for Passover. However, it may simply be a dialect form of the word "peace".

It is unusual for the play to be performed at this time of year, as it is in West Yorkshire. In most parts of England the plays are held at Christmas, New Year or on All Souls Day in November, where it is also referred to as "soul caking". The play is nearly always performed by boys.

Passed down through generations by word of mouth, the pace egg play has changed over the years in many different ways, varying considerably according to region. The play's characters also differ slightly depending on where and when it is held. In the Midgley version the players comprise; a Fool, St George, Bold Slasher, Doctor, Black Prince, King of Egypt, Hector, Toss Pot and the Bugler.

All the plays have a hero and a villain, usually St George and the Black Prince, who take part in combat, symbolising the emergence of Spring and its victory in battle over Winter. In the photograph you can see the Doctor in the centre surrounded by the other players wearing floral head-dresses and light-coloured tunics decorated with rosettes.

The tradition of pace egg plays is still very much alive in some areas, such as Heptonstall in West Yorkshire, and will be enjoyed by generations to follow.

Happy Easter and "I'll hope you remember 'tis pace-egging time"!

Photo reference: LAVC/PHO/P2119 - Midgley Pace Eggers (1940)