America's Gateway to the British Isles since 1996


History Directories
British Monarchs
Sources & Texts
Church History

Morris Dancing

Although the link between Druids and megalithic sites is tenuous at best, there seems to be no reason to doubt that both the celebration of ancient Celtic festivals and the rituals performed at stone circles and other megalithic sites included dancing in one form or another. Evidence for the latter is virtually non-existent, but folklore and other clues suggest, for example, that dance may have been performed at Stonehenge if only through the suggestive description by Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, who calls Stonehenge the Dance of the Giants ("chorea gigantum"). Much later, Morris dancing used to take place around the ancient barrow at St. Weonards in Herefordshire. Morris dancing, in fact, has been claimed to be a remnant of a pre-Christian Celtic, or Druidic, fertility dance.

Morris Dancers outside The Old Neighborhood Inn
Morris dancing also figures among the evidence in support of the claim that dancing formed part of the celebration of Celtic festivals. Among the earliest references to Morris dancing are those made by Shakespeare, who, in "All's Well that Ends Well" (II.ii.21), makes it clear that the Morris dance was commonly performed on May Day (May 1). That Morris dancing was associated with May Daycelebrations in the early 17th century is also suggested through King James I's "Book of Sports" which permitted among the amusements to be enjoyed on a Sunday the continuation of "May games, Whitsun ales and morris dances, and the setting up of May-poles..." The Whitsun ales referred to are a beer produced for Whitsun (or Whitsunday, celebrated in the Christian calendar as Pentacost) which Shakespeare, in "Henry V" (II.iv.18), says was also a time when Morris dances were performed.

The origins of Morris dancing are lost in the mists of time. It survives today as a form of folk dance performed in the open air in villages in rural England by groups of specially chosen and trained men and women. It is a ritual rather than a social dance which the dancers take seriously. It is felt that the dances have a magic power and serve both to bring luck and to ward of evil. Attempts to uncover the origins of Morris dancing have focused mostly on the name. Some believe Morris to be a corruption of the word "Moorish" and therefore to have originated in Africa. In order to explain how African dancing could crop up in England, it has been suggested that Moorish captives were brought back from the Holy Land by crusaders. Or, alternatively, it has been suggested that John of Gaunt (1340-1399), Duke of Lancaster, following the failure of his campaign in Spain to claim the kingship of Castile and Leon, returned to England with Spanish Moors as captives.

In this sense, the word "morris" would seem to be related to "morisco", which is a form of court dance performed in Italy. However, Joseph Strutt (1749-1802), in his "Sports and Pastimes of the People of England", doubts this was the origin of Morris dancing, stating that "the Morisco or Moor dance is exceedingly different from the morris-dance...being performed with the castanets, or rattles, at the end of the fingers, and not with bells attached to various parts of the dress." Otherwise, Strutt suggests that the morris-dance originated from the "Fool's Dance" (traceable to the 14th century), in which the dancers dressed in the manner of the court fool, and from which can be traced the bells used by morris dancers.

If Morris is a corruption of a similar-sounding word, it could equally well be "moorish" in reference to, at the time of Shakespeare, boggy land, and later used in connection with moorland or heathland. It has also been suggested that the word Morris is derived from the Latin word "moris" meaning tradition or custom. Then again, it might be derived from the game "merelles", forms of which were called "ninepenny morris" or "nine men's morris" (referred to, for example, by Shakespeare in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", II, i, 98). On the continent, the name was applied to the stepping, dance-like game of 'hop-scotch.'

Attempts to discover the origins of the dances performed have revealed a general connection with other ritual folk dances elsewhere in the world such as santiagos, moriscas, and matachinas of the Mediterranean and Latin America, and the calusari of Romania. The ultimate source of this type of dancing, however, remains hidden. The suspicion, though, is that they are of pagan origin performed as part of ancient fertility rites. The music and dances were perhaps intended to attract beneficial influences, while the bells, fluttering handkerchiefs, and clashing sticks served as the means to scare away malevolent spirits.

Traditional Morris dancing is today associated with the Cotswolds, a region of England located between Oxford and the Welsh border. Cotswold Morris is danced in sets of six dancers arranged in two rows of three. For some dances, handkerchiefs are held in each hand, while for other dances short sticks are carried, and struck against each other or against those of a partner. Part of the costume includes bells, usually worn tied below the knees.

Costume varies from one Morris team, or 'set', to another, with each village also producing its own steps and dances. Morris men usually wear a white shirt, white trousers or dark breeches, and black shoes. Coloured sashes or baldrics worn over one or both shoulders, or a waistcoat, serve to distinguish different teams. The Stroud Morris Dancers in Stroud, Gloucestershire, for example, wear white trousers and shirts with red and green sashes (the colours of Stroud) shown performing the Stick Dance, Sidmouth, England

The Manley Morris Men dancing in the North West tradition.
Other teams, such as that dancing in front of the Old Neighbourhood Inn at Chalford Hill in Gloucestershire, are dressed in dark breeches and bowler hats. A variant of Cotswold Morris is Border Morris, associated with the Welsh border counties, which has sides of four, six, or eight men who darken their faces and wear 'rags' and dark trousers. Border Morris is danced more vigorously than Cotswold Morris and involves much clashing of sticks. Cotswold Morris is usually performed from May 1 to September, while Border Morris is traditionally performed in the winter months. Another form is North West Morris, in the North West of England, which is more of a processional dance with sides of at least nine men wearing clogs.

I have been Morris dancing for years with a many different sides and have a slightly different interpretation. All of the dances come from country festival dates. There are no records of this dancing in the Anglo-Saxon, Norman or Plantagenet periods. Records from the Elizabethan period onward coincide with processionals and Christian religious festivals. I even attend the Littleborough Rushbearing (All Saint's Day) that is good evidence to support that the Church came to encourage Morris dancing as celebration. These periods of extravagance were intersected with austerity during the puritanical reformations and other national tragedies such as the Great War where Morris dancing declined, and was revived. It is now a living tradition.

The sticks are to clash out the rhythm and often mimic agricultural activities. Take for example, in Field town village, the dance called "balance the straw": this actually follows two taps of the fork vertically before passing the hay up to the dray cart. Hankies are to extend upwards movement and were first used in church processionals down to the alter to make the dancers look like they drifted through the air like the saints - the feet follow this movement in the double step and slows. Bells let you tap out a cheerful rythm using your lower legs, and exaggerate galies, leaps and capers in syncopation with the musician. Morris Dancing was for only ever for public performance and was never a private or guarded activity. It survived through a Christian period due to its religious conformance to temporal (worldly) practice and belief. May Day historically has been adopted by farmers, the Church, worker's unions, schools, civic organisations as well as the Morris dancers.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance seems to be the only non-christian exception and could be linked to Norse tradition. Although carbon-dating of the antlers probably falls within the Norse -Christian period.

Citing links to Morisco is loosely plausible, but the welsh traditions of Morys seem to reflect Morris Dancing is specific to the UK and are rarely considered because the records are in old welsh from 250 years ago that are hard to translate. Moorish interpretations are better tended towards mumming or souling plays and court dances that are not strictly Morris traditions and celebrate national stories through characters and appeared much later. Chorea gigantum refers to folklore surrounding geoliths, and you can find examples almost anywhere in the UK including many natural geological features (Wrekin Edge for example). These are not areas we associate with any traditional Morris dance and were avoided by Christians that feared witchcraft.

The honest truth is that we practice a country tradition that was collected from the remaining sides in 1899 and those were good, Christian men. These old traditions were recorded from individuals that had not danced in decades could be viewed quite speculatively. At Bledington village, the old boy they collected the dance from had osteoarthritis in his legs: this was recorded as part of the dance and many dancers hook their legs inwards on the stepping today to stay honest to the account. The most common dancing styles today take the traditional notations and revive the spirit of the dance when it was competitive between villages in the mid to late 1800's when young lads would try to gain more height and exuberance to surpass the peers from a neighbouring side (team). The John Gasson Jig competition is a good example to show the direction of the tradition today, although there are no formal competitions for full sides.

An explosion of new styles dating from the last century will the main legacy sculpting Morris dancing into the future (welsh border, molly, raglan etc.). It is very difficult finding new members for traditional sides but there is certainly no pagan influence. It is a living tradition welcome anyone interested to join a local Morris side and experience it directly.

Simon Cole, 3 January 2015

Online resources:
The Morris Ring

Copyright ©2011, LLC   Questions? Comments!