The History of Morris Dancing

There are many theories and few hard facts that tell us of the history of Morris Dancing. If we stick to the facts, it is perhaps easier to work backwards. So first, the present and latter part of the 20th century. Today and for several decades, Morris Dancing is flourishing. There are sides all over England, hundreds on the Internet, thriving outposts in Holland, the eastern USA and California and no doubt many other places too. Wickham Morris are such a side, based in Hampshire and this article is written by their Ex-Squire - Dennis Wheeler.

In the 1970's and 1980's there were many debates about whether or not women should be allowed to dance and following on from this whether mixed sides as against men's or women's sides were traditional. However today, there are fewer sides who are not either mixed, or happy to associate with women's or mixed sides.

Also over the last few decades, sides have branched out inventing dances, inventing traditions, deciding to specialise in a particular tradition or dipping into a variety. In particular there are more and more sides dancing the Border tradition which was almost ignored in the revival around the turn of the twentieth century.

Now lets head back to the early part of the twentieth century. At this time Morris Dancing was in its revival, in the latter half of the 19th century it had died out in village after village, but there must have been just enough vestiges left to interest Cecil Sharp and Herbert MacIlwaine. These two souls almost single handedly went around the villages and wrote down in 1906 a book of what was known of the tradition and in particular a description of the Headington, Ilmington and Tideswell dances. In this their first book, they had to invent a way of describing the dances as up to this point the tradition had been purely oral.

These 3 villages are typical of the description of Sharp and MacIlwaine in that all had in fact stopped Morris Dancing before they arrived to document it. At Headington it seems that every year there were dances up until 1887 but then there was break until 1899 and then stopped again. The knowledge here came from one man who danced as a lad of 18 in 1868 and was foreman of the side for 15 years. He used to sing the melodies to his son in a cradle and so the link was carried on - just.

At Ilmington the side disbanded when their pipe and tabor player died in 1867, got going again briefly in 1887 and 2 members described the dances to Sharp and MacIlwaine. And at Tideswell, one processional dance was all that either existed or remained.

As far as can be found, it seems that Morris Dancing had been going on year after year in the villages. But, presumably as the industrial revolution gradually reduced the agricultural workers with a migration to the towns, it died out in village after village. When the authors completed their book, they went on to describe other traditions from Adderbury, Bampton, Winster, Eynsham. People read the first book and provided information to Sharp (by this time MacIlwaine had died). Bampton seems to be one village where the tradition managed to continue through the latter part of the 19th century until at last written down by Sharp.

So it is to Sharp that the very survival of the tradition is probably due. But in his writings, as he himself was at pains to note, he was recording something already partly forgotten. He was talking with people who had almost forgotten the dances or who were too old to demonstrate and had to describe the dances. So we should not be surprised if it is sometimes unclear about exactly what happened when.

Sharp's books are full of fascination, providing you have the stamina to read the dry style! For instance he says that Morris is traditionally a man's dance, but immediately goes on to suggest that women too can dance and recommends that the 'movements necessitate a short skirt, six to nine inches off the ground'.

Going back further, it seems that the Morris Dancers used to dance each year, usually once at Whitsun. But having said that there seem to be a wealth of different oddities of tradition. For example in the Forest of Dean there was a procession headed by a man carrying a long pole with white flag and the 2 front dancers carried swords used for very complicated movements. In other villages, there was a King and Queen, or a sword bearer with a sword with a tin impaled on it containing currant cake. A fool with a short stick tied to a calf's tail or pigs bladder might be used and so on and so on.

The conclusion reached by Sharp is that the dancing comes from a very old tradition that has seasonal and pagan observances that seem to date back to primitive religious ceremonial. Though similar dances and styles exist through Europe, there can be little doubt that the Morris Dancing seen today is still a good representation of a very old English custom.

What of the name 'Morris'. There is a theory that Morris dancing derived from the Moors, but though it is fairly clear that the word morris is derived from the word Morisco (ie from the Moors) it is thought that the dance and its name have different derivations. The dance came first and with it, at least in some villages the idea of the dancers having blackened faces. The only black people known were the Moors, hence the name was associated with the dancers.

But much of the above is supposition. There is some documentary evidence dotted through our history to support it such as from the 15th century of Morris dancing in England and back to the 12th century of 'Morisca' dancing in the Spanish court. We also know that in 1494, Henry VII was entertained by "the mourice dance", in 1458 Alice Wetenhale left a gilded cup in her will, describing it as being engraved with morris dancers and in 1448 the Goldsmiths of London paid 7 shillings for "Moryssh dancers". In addition there are pictures that may be the precursors of todays Morris Dancers doing what may be a hey in 1344 and dancers looking almost exactly like Wickham Morris in 1725. Since this nicely backs up the oral history retold and transcribed by Sharp, we tend to think that the above explanation is probably along the right lines.

Now in returning to the present, lets look at Adderbury in particular. As for the other villages the tradition died out about 1850, but before that had been danced every year. When Sharp got to Adderbury, he found one man, aged 83 - a Mr Walton. He had danced as a youth and then became its leader and danced for 20 years until it disbanded. Probably, Sharp managed to record the movements well enough, but he notes that owing to Mr Walton's great age the steps had to be based on common sense and other traditions that Sharp already knew.

The dancers wore white shirts, no hats, double baldricks of 3 inch ribbons of red and blue plus 10 red white and blue rosettes. More ribbons tied around elbows and wrists, plus bells on the shins completed the picture. 5 dances were written down - Constant Billy, Lads a Buncham, Sweet Jenny Jones, the Buffoon and the Black Joke. Then in the 1950's and 1960's Lionel Bacon with help from Roy Dommett in particular dug back into the old manuscripts and identified 19 dances. Since then others have been invented in the same style, and Wickham Morris dance 3 of the original dances, plus several others and the style though still clearly Adderbury has been modified and adapted to suit the side.

If anyone wants any more data, I recommend John Cuttings excellent book - "History and the Morris Dance".

© Dennis Wheeler

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