Today I want to tell you about Mallard Day. It is celebrated once every hundred years by the Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford. Okay, it won’t be happening this year, the next Mallard day will be in the year 2101, but let’s look at it anyway. On Mallard day, the chosen ‘Lord of the Mallard’ will be carried around the grounds of the college at shoulder height in a sedan chair. He will also be carried over the roof of the library. There will be someone walking in front of him, carrying a wooden mallard, on a pole. There will be lots of people taking part in this procession. Some will be carrying long white staffs, others, torches. It is a night time event. All the while, the Lord of the Mallard will be loudly singing the Mallard Song. That’s an odd thing isn’t it? It won’t really seem any less strange when I explain what it’s about.
What they are celebrating, is the finding of an overgrown mallard in a drain whilst the foundations of the college were being dug in 1437. There is a document detailing the event which appeared in 1750. Supposedly it is based on an original fifteenth century manuscript, but it is a work of fiction. According to the legend, the college’s founder, Henry Clichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, was trying to decide where to put his new building. He had a dream that a: “righte godelye personage” told him that, if he built it in the High Street, next to the church, as he dug the foundations he would find: “…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele yfattened and almost ybosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college.” So he started to dig, and presently heard: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes”. He said a few prayers, reached into the hole and pulled out a duck the size of: “a bustarde or an ostridge.” The bird flew away and the Fellows of All Souls have been looking for it ever since.
Originally it seems to have been more of an annual event. The first surviving mention we have of Mallard Day was in 1632, when three young ‘Mallardyzers’ were disciplined for bringing strangers into the college and causing a disturbance and damage during the night. Then, in 1658, there were complaints about people singing the Mallard Song in a rude manner at two or three in the morning. This was during the period of the of the Commonwealth and it did not go down very well at all with the troops of Oliver Cromwell, who were stationed nearby. Cromwell and his military junta did not stand for this sort of nonsense. They could fine you for swearing, have you whipped for playing games on a Sunday, they would even take your Christmas dinner away. There are a couple of reports of Mallard Day from later in the seventeenth century, where it seems to have been some kind of initiation ceremony.
By the eighteenth century they’d rather given up the procession part of the event in favour of an evening of drinking and singing the Mallard Song. It was revived again in 1801 as a one-off event to celebrate the new century. This was described as a much more solemn and dignified event than those of the previous century, although obviously someone was still carried over the roof, accompanied by flaming torches, at four in the morning, while he loudly sang a song about a duck. On this occasion the ceremony involved a real duck. The Mallard ceremony was repeated in 1901, when the Lord of the Mallard was future Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. There are two descriptions of the ceremony, one from the college warden and one from the daughter of a fellow, who was watching through the gate. Both mention the Mallard Song and the procession across the roof of the library and also tell us that a bonfire was made of the torches at the end. The 1901 ceremony seems also to have included an actual duck, as the warden tells us that its wings and head were cut off and thrown into the flames. It may have been a stuffed duck though. There was much dancing around the bonfire and the lady watching from a distance thought she caught a glimpse of a gaitered leg. The warden tells us that afterwards, drops of Madeira were sprinkled into everyone’s glass of port from a silver salt-cellar shaped like a mallard. This represented the blood of the bird and was considered a less barbaric alternative to previous occasions when the actual blood of an actual mallard had been used. If, by now, you’re starting to feel a bit sorry for mallards, it might be worth looking at this, from Stewart Lee.
The ceremony was repeated in 2001 with 117 participants who were all fellows or ex-fellows of the college. A wooden duck was used instead of a real one, women were allowed to join in for the first time and the evening ended with a firework display. I feel I should point out that the people who attend this ceremony are not a bunch of rowdy young students. All Souls has no undergraduates. These are all serious academics. The song they sing is very silly, here’s my favourite verse:
Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to Thigh;
His swapping tool of Generation
oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.
All you need to know is that the word ‘swapping’ or, as it appears in the bogus manuscript, ‘schwoppinge’ means extremely large and impressive. This verse, with its reference to the bird’s huge genitalia was removed in the nineteenth century on grounds of decency, though I believe it was restored in the millennium. Incidentally, the largest bird penis, does indeed belong to a duck. But not the mallard. That honour belongs to the Argentinian Lake Duck which has a penis anything up to 42.5 cm long, the same length as it’s entire body.