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Cormass Procession

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

When Dunkirk was under the dominion of Charles V., he found the people so turbulent and seditious that, in order to divert their attention from publick affairs, and furnish them with objects which should by turns keep them in expectation and make them busy, he invented several kinds of shows and processions which required great preparations, and were in the highest degree splendid and striking. Among these is one called the "Cormass," of which, though it is still continued, I do not know that any description is extant. I have therefore sent you a particular account of it, as I saw it in the year 1755, for the entertainment of your readers, and am, etc.,

The Cormass is exhibited on St. John's Day, the 24th June; the morning, which when I saw the show was very fine, was ushered in with the ringing of bells, in a merry peal called the "Corillons;" the streets were double-lined very early with soldiers, and about eight o'clock were crowded with people. The houses were full from top to bottom, of persons of both sexes and all conditions, and the number of spectators could not be less than 40,000, exclusive of the inhabitants of the town. Every countenance expressed the utmost impatience and curiosity, and about half-an-hour after ten the show began. After High Mass had been celebrated at the principal church, from which the procession was to be made, the townsmen, classed according to their different trades, like our livery companies, appeared first, walking two and two, with each a burning taper of wax in his hand, at least a yard long. They were dressed, not in gowns, but each in the best apparel he could procure, which was made in the fashion of their great-great-grandfathers, as they have a notion that the older the fashion of their cloaths, the greater is the dignity of their appearance. After each company came a pageant, containing an emblematical representation of its trade, such as were formerly used at our Lord Mayors' Shows, and the pageant was followed by the patron saint, most of which were of solid silver, finely wrought, and some were superbly adorned with jewels.

The companies were followed by a concert of vocal and instrumental musick, the choruses of which were extremely grand and solemn. After the musick came the fryars, or regular clergy, in the habits of their different orders, two and two. These were followed by the secular priests, according to their different degrees, two and two; they marched in a slow solemn pace, with looks of great devotion, holding their heads and hands in an attitude of adoration. After the secular priests came the abbot, in a most magnificent dress richly adorned with silver and gold, the train of which was supported by two men drest like cardinals. The Host was borne before him by an old man, with a white beard, of a most venerable appearance ; a great number of boys in white surplices strewed frankincence and myrrh under his feet, and four men supported a large canopy of wrought silver over him. At a little distance from these were four other men, one behind, one before, and one on each side, each of whom carried a large silver lanthorn, with a light in it, on the end of a long pole finely carved and adorned.

At the end of the street there was a grand altar, ascended by a flight of many steps, where the procession stayed. Here the abbot came from under his canopy, and taking the host from the old man, went up the steps, where he held it up as high as he could reach. At this elevation every individual of the vast multitude present fell on their knees, as well those on the house-tops as those in the street.

The procession then went on, and after this ceremony, which with the procession to the altar took up about two hours, the people seemed to assume an air of chearfulness and jollity; for till now they had preserved all the solemnity of devotion.

As the procession advanced forward, other persons and pageants issued from the great church, and in about half-an-hour I saw a vast machine moving towards me, consisting of several circular stages, one above another, in a pyramidical form. On the stages next the bottom, which were the largest, there were many fryars and nuns, all holding white lilies in their hands. In the stage next the top were two persons representing Adam and Eve, and several others in white flowing garments and wings, which were intended for angels. On the uppermost stage, which held only one person, was a figure re-presenting the Almighty, to whom the eyes of all on the lower stage were turned with looks of reverence and adoration. This whole inmache, which was drawn by horses, was intended to represent heaven.

The next was an enormous figure in size and shape somewhat resembling an elephant; the head and eyes were very large, and it had also a huge pair of horns, on which sat several boys dressed like devils, with frightful masks and crape dresses. The monster was hollow within, and the lower jaw was moveable, so that upon pulling a string it opened to a vast width, and discovered more devils that were within. These devils who worked the jaw were also employed to pour out liquid fire through a spout contrived for that purpose. This machine, which was also drawn by horses, was intended to re-present hell, and was surrounded by a great number of men intended to represent devils of a larger size ; these were also dressed in crape, and had masks of a most hideous appearance, with tails of various kinds and lengths—some of cows, some of horses, and some of hogs; and each had a long stick, with a bladder at the end, filled with peas, with which they beat the people as they went along, to the no small diversion of the spectators. Between this machine and that which represented heaven, several young ladies drest in white, with wreaths of flowers on their heads, and palms in their hands, passed in small carriages, one at a time, and were intended to represent souls that had been delivered from purgatory.

This machine was followed by a man frightfully dressed, to re-present Lucifer, who, armed with a pitchfork, was led in chains by another man, dressed so as to represent St. Michael the Archangel, with a large pair of wings and a long weapon with a crooked blade intended to represent a flaming sword. Lucifer, at the end of every ten or twelve paces, fell down, when Michael trod upon his neck, and flourished over him his flaming sword.

Michael and Lucifer were followed by a person drest in a coat of various colours, hung round with bells, who carried in his hand a hoop, which he frequently jumped through, and showed abundance of tricks, but who he was intended to represent I cannot tell. Then came a grand carriage, covered with a superb canopy, from the middle of which hung a living dove ; under the dove was a large table covered with a fine carpet, and kneeling at the table was the figure of a woman, with a book before her, drest in white; on one side of her was another figure drest in white, with wings, and a lily in the right hand, and pointing upwards. This was designed to re-present the salutation of the Virgin Mary.

Next appeared a great company of boys, who gave us a dance and moved forward. Then came another great stage, representing a stable, with the Virgin Mary standing by a manger, and the Child lying in it. In a kind of scene, which was finely painted, there appeared a rack with hay, and two oxen feeding ; two men, in very magnificent Oriental habits, stood near the manger, supposed to be the wise men of the East, directed by the appearance of the star, which was artfully suspended by a wire over the manger, and one of them, every time the procession stopped, harangued the multitude in a long speech. This machine was followed by another fool with a hoop.

The next machine was a fish, which could not be less than 15 feet long ; it was moved by men and wheels concealed within, and upon the back of it rode a boy richly drest, and playing on a harp. The gold, silver, and jewels which decorated this fish were said to have cost above £10,000, and to have been furnished by the merchants of the city, whose sons and daughters were the principal actors in the show. Then came another fool with a hoop. Next appeared a representation of Joseph flying into Egypt ; a woman representing the Virgin, with a young child in her lap, was mounted on an ass, which was led by Joseph, who was drest exactly as he is painted on this occasion, with a long beard, a basket of tools at his back, and a long staff in his hand. St. Joseph and his spouse were attended by several &vils, who were found necessary to beat off the people that crowded too close upon the procession. These were followed by another hoop-dancer. Then came a carriage, very large and magnificent, on which was a person representing the grand monarch, sitting on a throne, drest in his royal robes, with the crown, ball and scepter lying before him on a table covered with embroidered velvet. His most Christian majesty was attended by several devils, hoop-dancers, and banner-bearers. This machine was immediately followed by another, in which the queen was represented sitting on a throne, and dressed in her robes, with the ensigns of royalty before her in the same manner. She was attended by a great many ladies and maids of honour, and the jewels that were about the crown and in her head-dress were of incredible value. On this stage there was a fine band of musick, and many dancers very richly drest.

The next pageant was a representation of Bacchus, by a large figure drest in flesh-coloured silk, with a great many bacchanals about him, holding goblets at their mouths as if they were drinking. Then came more devils and hoop-dancers.

The next represented a kind of sea-triumph. In the front sat Neptune, with his trident and crown, in a large shell, and surrounded by boys drest in white, who were perpetually throwing out and drawing in a line with a lead at the end, as if sounding for the depth of water.

After this appeared six men in their shirts, walking with poles, which were at least 25 feet long and very large, decorated with bells and various sorts of flowers. When they came to particular places they stopped, and all began to shake their poles with great violence, in order to break them, which was not easy to do. Their utmost efforts, however, were used for that purpose, for he that broke his pole by shaking was for that year exempted from all parish duty. When a pole was broke there was a shout of universal joy, but for what reason I cannot tell ; and I was told that on this day all the poles were broken but one. These pole-bearers were followed by a large ship, representing a man-of-war, placed on a frame with wheels, and drawn by horses. The sails were all spread, the colours flying, and the guns, which were all of brass, fired very briskly as it passed along. Upon the quarter-deck were three men, one representing the admiral, another the cap-tain, and another the boatswain, whistling; on the other parts of the vessel there were sailors, some dancing, others heaving the log ; boys were placed in the round-tops, and the whole was a compleat model.

After the ship came a vast machine representing a wood. In this wood were several fellows dressed so as to resemble our sign of the Green Man ; a green scaly skin was drawn close over their own, and their faces were concealed by masks. These mock savages appeared from time to time at different openings of the wood, with each a pewter syringe in his hand, from which they squirted water on the people as they past. This noble piece of ingenuity was the contrivance and production of the Jesuit's College, and caused infinite diversion and laughter among the mob.

The wood was followed by a very tall man, dressed like an infant in a body-coat, and walking in a go-cart, with a rattle in his hand. After him came the figure of a man 45 feet high, with a boy looking out of his pocket, shaking a rattle, and crying incessantly, "Grand-papa ! grandpapa !" This tall figure was drest in a long robe of blue and gold, which reached quite to the ground, and concealed several men that moved it, and made it dance.

The next was a figure nearly of the same stature, mounted on a horse of a size proportioned to the rider. This machine was extremely striking and elegant; the figure of the man was executed in the most masterly manner, and the horse was one of the finest pieces of workmanship I ever saw. It was made in a moving posture, with two of the feet raised from the ground, and concealed in its body several men, who moved it along, and produced many motions in the rider, who held a general's truncheon in his right hand. The last figure was that of a woman, equal in stature to the two men that pre-ceded her, and not inferior in elegance and splendour. She was dressed in red, with a gold watch by her side as big as a warming-pan; her head and breast were richly adorned with jewels; the eyes and head turned very naturally, and being moved by men concealed within, she gave us a dance and past on. Thus ended the Cormass —a procession scarce exceeded by any now known in the world.

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