Yes, just about as English as it's possible to be. But we know there are figures in Munich from the 14th century showing the Moriskentance. We know that countries across Europe have "Morris-type" dances in their folk repertoire. And most famously, the Basques have dances that appear to be very "Morris-like" There are also tribal dances in Africa where men have bell pads on their legs. So, which way did it go - from them to us. or from us to them? Sorry, no-one knows. But here the dance has taken root & survived, and in some way helps to define Englishness - at it's best it is danced with grace & vigour, panache and a certain eccentricity! Foreigners love it and think we are so lucky to have the dance; the average Englishman hates it and thinks it sissy!
old is Morris Dancing?
The earliest known representation of a Morris Man is found on a Mazer, or Loving Cup, given as a gift at a wedding in the 15th Century. But as it was simply a figure, presumably people knew and understood what it was, and arguably the dance was old even then. The figures from the Munich Town Hall are slightly older, and similar figures appear in the stained glass window in Betley Church in the Midlands.
In England there are records of the Morris going back to the 16th Century, references in Chaucer and pictures in stained glass windows dating back to Medieval days.
Two great scholars of the Morris put forward different theories. Russell Wortley believed the dance came from the rituals of pre-Christian priests, while Roy Dommett has said that he believes it was invented by John O’Gaunt’s troops while on campaign in Spain. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two.
What we do know is that the dance figures and movements were common in Tudor times, and the basis of the dance you see today comes from around that time.
does the name "Morris" come from?
No-one really knows. There have been many theories on this, but the most commonly expressed that it comes from the Spanish "Moorish" is very doubtful. The word had many spellings – Moris, Morice, Mores – but when the Cambridge Morris Men toured the Cotswolds in the 1920’s they called themselves the Travelling Morrice to avoid confusion with the Morris car Company!
Today the word includes all forms of the dance – Clog dancing from the North West, Sword dancing from the North East and North Midlands, dances from the Welsh Borders and from East Anglia, as well as what is commonly understood to be Morris dancing, the dance from the South Midlands.
it a fertility rite?
If the dance is very ancient it may well have had a link with the changes of the year, but if you accept the more modern theories then, no. The problem is the confusion thrown up by the Victorians. In his book “The Golden Bough” Frasier suggested all kinds of magical and mystical beginnings for everything, with scant regard for evidence or the truth. The book was the hit of the age and influenced among others Vaughan Williams, William Morris, and the early folk song and dance collectors.
The only thing we can say with certainty is that the Morris in its various forms was usually performed on the community Feast Day. Those days may have been linked to some ancient calendar custom and therefore, possibly, fertility, but the dance was probably only part of the celebration. Therefore it is usually said that Morris is a Celebratory custom – it will help you to celebrate anything, whether you are pagan, Christian, or, if the Spanish Theory is correct, Muslim.
Sacred & Profane. If we believe the length of Morris roots, it comes from a time when ritual, religion and superstition were blurred. Ordinary people - those practicing The Morris, were unlikely to differentiate. We see Morris closely connected with celebrations with Pagan roots - Wassail etc, and we also see references to Morris embedded in church windows dating back to the Middle ages. Morris dancing was simply the People celebrating whatever was important in their lives. Certainly the Church has embraced the Morris, every Morris Ring Meeting includes a formal church service often addressed by most distinguished clergy, Morris is dances at celebrations of birth, marriage & death inside & outside church. Plough Monday provides an excellent example where the plough is blessed in Church, then paraded around the village with (crop) fertility dancing.
do you wear white?
Actually, wearing white is a red-herring - and many Morris sides wear other kit. The key costume elements are the colours worn to identify teams. In olden days dancers wore little else but their working clothes embellished by "favours" which denoted which village they came from. Commonly these were in the form of arm bands and repeated in the decoration of bell pads. Later, this extended to Baldricks - the sash-like straps (single or double) mimicking sword belts and trimmed with rosettes - again in "village colours". White shirts were commonly worn in everyday life & became standard kit. Many clubs retained breeches which were common wear in olden days. White trousers emerged alongside decorated waistcoats (again in "club colours") at the time of the post-war Morris revival in the '50s, mimicking the old working trouser made from moleskin, which bleached white in the sun. ESMM date from this time and sport whites and waistcoat decorated with the local emblem of St Felix's ship. Our "colours" are red & yellow trimmings over turquoise magenta & blue.
do the sticks, handkerchiefs & bells represent?
Bell, Book & Candle to the Morris. See Pagan above. These are symbols meant to represent the acts of frightening away "evil" spirits and promoting fertility c.f. the short sticks used in the Heddington dance "Bean Setting" - evocative of planting the beans in the ground.
Where do the Victorians fit in?
By the end of the 19th century the Morris had nearly died out. A music teacher from London, Cecil Sharp, saw some dancers in Headington Quarry, a village on the edge of Oxford, on Boxing Day 1899. From this first meeting he, and many others, went on to collect the dances from all over the English Midlands, and eventually from all over England. The dances they collected were the few that the remaining dancers could remember – or could make up to please the collectors! Since then many new dances have been added, and most are true to the old village traditions. For example, ESMM regularly dance “Balance the Straw” in the Fieldtown style, and “Skirmish” in the Bledington style, which dances date from the 1950’s and the 1980’s respectively. But this is true to the tradition – the Headington Dance “Getting Upstairs” is set to the first minstrel song to arrive from America in 1829.
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