To see a strange outlandish fowle,
A quaint baboon, an ape, an owl,
A dancing bear, a giant's bone,
A foolish engine move alone,
A morris-dance, a puppet play,
Mad Tom to sing a roundelay,
A woman dancing on a rope,
Bull-baiting also at the Hope;
A rhymer's jests, a juggler's cheats,
Or players acting on the stage.
(Henry Farley, 1616)
I was watching Tom Holland's recent documentary on the mythology surrounding dinosaur bones. The ancients interpreted such bones within the framework of their understanding, and saw fabulous creatures like griffins (possibly derived from protoceratops), dragons, and titans or giants. It was not until the use of comparative anatomy that the modern reconstruction of the dinosaurs began; before that, they were fitted into a mythological history, in which they had been wiped out in a global catastrophe such as the Biblical flood.
Mythological histories play a large part in our understanding of our own past even today. Virtually everyone, including Morris dancers, will tell you that the dance embodies pagan fertility symbolism, and it is certainly understood in those terms. And yet that is almost certainly an early modern attribution, and very far from the truth, just as monuments of the Neolithic age were once enfolded in the same terms as druid's temples.
Stephen D. Corrsin, writing in Folklore noted how: "At the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century, the ideas and terminology of rites, rituals, and pagan religious ceremonies pervaded English writing on performance practices such as morris dances and sword dances, and mumming and pace-egging." (1)
Part of the problem lies in the re-invention of history. The early studies of folklore and mythology, which we find in Frazer's Golden Bough or Lady Raglan's work, tend to start with an idea and select evidence to confirm that idea, often turning speculations into cast-iron facts, when of course, they are very far from that. It is like a join the dots puzzle where some of the dots can be fitted to make one picture, if one ignores some of the others, or brush them aside.
So what is the history of morris? The first reference to the English Morris dance is 1458:
when Alice de Wetehalle, a widow with property in London and Suffolk, left to her heirs a silver cup 'sculpted with moreys dauns'. At about the same time the English translation of a Norman French romance, The Knight of the Swan, included 'morishes'. They appeared at court in 1492, when Henry VII paid for the first of what became a favourite royal entertainment. Market towns were taking the morris up from the 1500s. During the late fifteenth century its cast of characters, the Lady, the Fool, and the set of dancers, became a common motif for artists all over western and central Europe. The plot of their action was the wooing of the lady by all the others, and the winning of her hand by the Fool. The dance which they performed was distinguished by its exceptional vigour, with much capering and rapid arm movements. But although it was clearly a very widespread phenomenon, none of the European appearances seem to be earlier than Alice de Wetehalle's bequest.(2)
The morris seems to have begun as a dance in the court, which then became popular outside the court. This transmission of popularity by Royal patronage can also be seen in the Christmas Tree, which became a popular part of Christmas after Prince Albert had made it part of the Royal celebration of Christmas in Victorian England. We can even see traces of the same today in naming of children over members of the Royal family. The Royal touch lends a mystique and popularity that should not be underestimated.
In the courts, there were masques which were orderly dances and entertainments, but which were preceded by anti-masques.
The anti-masque is a spectacle of disorder which usually starts or precedes the masque itself. It is characterized by impropriety and is transformed by the masque into goodness, propriety, and order, typically by the King's presence alone. It was also contrasted with the masque by the use of the lower class as characters. This then was supposed to harmonize with the king and the higher class.(3)
The antimasque was performed was performed entirely by professional actors and dancers, and provided the contrast before the stately masque which followed. Actors were often skilled dancers at the time. The printer Thomas Platter mentions seeing the actors dancing "marvellously and gracefully" after a production of Julius Caesar in 1599. But the courtiers who danced in the main masque were not actors, and there was a distinctive difference in expression between antimasque dancing and the masque which followed:
A great deal of music was performed during the presentation of a masque at court. When the king entered the masquing room and took his seat on the chair of state, loud music -- a wind consort -- was heard. The performance which followed usually fell into two parts: an antimasque and a main masque. The grotesque or comic antimasque always contained at least one dance and sometimes included singing. When this world of misrule or vulgarity vanished (at a visually spectacular moment known as the transformation scene), more loud music was heard. The masquers (courtiers, and not professional actors and dancers like the performers in the antimasque) were revealed and came forward to music. (4)
The morris dance then was unmistakably antimasque material, designed to be vulgar and brash to point up the contrast which followed the transformation scene. Antimasques were dances which did not derive from the peasantry, but which depicted the courtly idea of the peasantry, and provided social stratification in dancing. The morris itself seems to have been a craze sweeping the courts of Western Europe which were notoriously fashion conscious, much as crazes and fashions sweep across our own society without apparent rhyme or reason.
Shakespeare also takes a morris dance and places it in Two Noble Kinsmen, but this is to play up to the Queen:
Consider the morris dance in Two Noble Kinsmen. Far from being genuinely rustic, it was borrowed directly from Beaumont's masque for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine. Moreover, the court received these plays favorably. The Winter's Tale and The Tempest were performed at court in 1611; both were also performed, along with twelve other plays, as part of the wedding festivities for Princess Elizabeth and the Elector Palatine in 1612. (5)
But by Elizabeth's time, the morris dance was already well established, and considered an ancient dance. We must be careful not to read too much into that supposition. There is no evidence of the dance before 19 May 1448, "when Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services." As Ronald Hutton observes:
The earlier performances before royalty may have been by people with faces darkened to resemble the 'Moors' or Arabs after whom the morris is possibly named. At Shrovetide 1509 Henry VIII had torchbearers 'apparelled in crimson satin and green like Moriskoes, their faces black'. But by Christmas 1515 the 'moresk' dancers at court certainly appeared something like the modern morris sides: six people wearing white and green jackets with hanging sleeves, tiny dangling pieces of copper, and a large number (348 between them) of small bells. They were accompanied by a fool in a yellow silk coat and two ladies in satin representing Beauty and Venus. A gold cup owned by the king was decorated with five morrismen and a lady, while the Christmas revels of the princess Mary, in 1522, included nine dancers in coats and bells. At Kingston the coats and bells had already appeared in 1507. By 1520 the former were specified as being of spangled twilled cotton and the latter were apparently strung on garters as they were later in the century, and have been ever since. There were always six in the troupe. 86 So the costume of the morris, if not the number of performers, was becoming standardized. But we have no record of the steps.(2)
Hutton suggests that it might have developed out of earlier English leaping dances, called routs and reyes, "because those terms vanish as the morris appears", and he observes that:
by now the point ought to have been substantiated that although some of the rituals and customs carried on in early Tudor communities were very old, many had been either introduced or embellished only a few generations before or even within living memory. The churchwardens' accounts from the years around 1400 show few of them compared with those from the period around 1500, and the fourteenth-century household accounts likewise refer to them much less than those of the early sixteenth century. Literary evidence and the edicts of churchmen suggest that some earlier customs had died away by the later middle ages, to be replaced by others. (2)
The most complete study of the morris was by John Forrest in "The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750". He lays to rest completely the notion of a pagan dance at its origin, and comes to the following conclusions:
* morris has no single origin point
* morris is not and never has been a single or simple phenomenon
* morris has evolved continuously throughout its documented history
* morris is not especially "folk" or rural
* styles of morris from different contexts have had a constant evolutionary influence on one another (pp. 26-7
Forrest discerns three basic types of Morris in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the solo jig, the processional, and the 'Lady' Morris. Most records from this early period refer to the latter, in which a woman stands in the middle of a group of male dancers. The woman (and later a man dressed as a woman, probably because the part was felt to be demeaning to a woman), was said to be the 'Lady' or 'Maid Marian'. Lowe speculates that the original Lady was supplanted by the Maid Marian, the latter being part of the Robin Hood May-Game which was commonly enacted on the same occasions that Morris was danced.
In 1575, Robert Langham reported on a courtly Morris at Kenilworth, "Well, sir, after these horsemen, a lively Morris dance, according to the ancient manner: six dancers, Maid Marian and the Fool." (8)
But as time went on, and the dance spread, it evolved and changed. Probably as it moved out from the warmth of the courts, and into the open streets and fields, it moved from Christmas to the warmer times of the year. Morris dancing outside, in snow or hail, on a bitter freezing night, may keep the dancers warm, but there will be few spectators. In the warmer months, it could attach itself and form part of the traditional country pastimes like fairs.
Courtly morris of the fifteenth century was a Christmas-tide entertainment involving a group of men with bells on their legs, dancing frenetically in an attempt to woo a lady. After this display of male vitality she, in fine fickle, gave her heart to a fool. Not only did this little scenario find favour in the palaces of England, soon it was spreading among the common people. First along the Thames to nearby towns and then, by the sixteenth century, throughout England. Along the way it became less a feature of Christmas than of the Maytime or summer games.(9)
The origins of the term itself are obscure. Here are two explanations:
The term morris probably developed from the French word morisque (meaning a dance, the dance), which became morisch in Flemish , and then the English moryssh, moris and finally morris. (5)
Most sources agree that the English morris dance derives its name from the Spanish moresca, or "Moorish dance." In Spain the dance is supposed to represent the encounter between Moors and Christians, and it retains this theme in its name (Moros y Cristianos); (6)
What is clear is that morris dancing has evolved over the centuries, and in its current form, it may have been influenced by the folklorists who saw a pagan origin, and who thereby incorporated motifs into the dance as a kind of reconstruction.
Most notably, this was the work of Sir Edmund Chambers in 1903 in his popular book "The Mediaeval Stage" where, intoxicated by the work of James Frazer, he stated that it must have been an ancient fertility dance. While modern day researchers find little of Frazer's work holds up to scrutiny, his opinions were accepted almost without question for about 60 years.
The musician Cecil Sharp was inspired by this to collect 150 examples of morris which by then was dying out, and revived it at the new centre of a folk movement. He clashed with Mary Neal, who was teaching morris to a girls club, and had first asked Sharp to collect examples of it, as Sharp propagated the idea that in its "original purity" the dance had only been performed by men, and henceforth women should be excluded. This was in fact relying heavily on Chambers, who was very much a biased source, and not a professional historian. When Barbara Lowe's 1957 study showed that this history was mistaken, this was largely ignored - by then, the status quo, and the supporting fabricated history had been well established.
So if you are a woman, and you ask to put on the morris dancers hat, don't assume you will get pregnant, which is the modern folk-belief. Mind you, I know of one woman who did, and she did give birth later in the year!
(1) Folklore, Vol. 115, 2004, Stephen D. Corrsin
(2) The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700, Ronald Hutton, 1994
(4) Music in the English Courtly Masque, 1604-1640. Peter Walls, 1996
(5) Moorish Dancing in the Two Noble Kinsmen. Sujata Iyengar, Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, 2007
(7) The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750,
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