A discussion of the origin and history of morris dancing

The first thing to remember about this subject is, simply: Don’t believe anything. Including this. There is a lot of hogwash being circulated on the subject of the “origins” of morris dancing — especially by morris dancers (such as me). Enormous amounts of speculation based on little or no data, faulty assumptions, wishful thinking, and bad logic. Get your information from multiple sources, ask what the evidence is, draw your own conclusions, and above all, beware.

The second thing is: not everything that is called “morris dancing” is necessarily related, and some things that are not called “morris dancing” may be. Nomenclature is a dangerous basis for historical theories.

The third thing is: even a particular type of morris dancing probably has multiple antecedents. It’s misleading to talk about “the origin”.

Based on what I’ve read, my capsule summary of what seems to be the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence is as follows:

0) There is no reason to believe morris dancing ever had anything to do with pagan fertility rites.

1) There probably was nothing called “morris dancing” in England much earlier than the 15th century. Around then, a form of dance typically called by names like “moreys daunce” was imported from somewhere in Europe as court entertainment; this may have been the dance form (or one of several dance forms?) going by names like “morisco” on the continent. The dancers wore colorful, fairly elaborate costumes with pendant sleeves and attached bells. Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a “maiden” (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favors the dancers compete.

2) By the early 16th century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. Later in the century, the morris became attached to village fetes, particularly in the springtime; Shakespeare says “as fit as a morris for May Day” and “a Whitsun morris dance.” In the process of going from court to church festivals to village festivals, some changes in the dance may have occurred. By this time we have references to dancing with hankies (this might have been a substitute for the pendant sleeves). Will Kemp danced a solo morris from London to Norwich in 1600 (see his Nine Daies Wonder). There was a brief fad of morris in the theatre; see The Two Noble Kinsmen, attributed to Fletcher and Shakespeare. Fletcher and Kemp both refer to women morris dancers; one can infer that women’s participation in the morris was not uncommon in this era. Fletcher’s morris dancers number twelve, six men and six women; little can be deduced about the choreography.

3) It has been hypothesized that the morris was largely forgotten under Cromwell, and that afterward it was “revived” by the expedient of taking the accoutrements of the old morris — the bells and hankies — and using them in adaptations of ordinary social country dances. The truth is probably not that simple; Playford’s collection of country dances went through several editions during the Protectorate, demonstrating that dance was not as thoroughly suppressed as one might think. But the resemblences between Cotswold morris dances and some of the Playford dances are suggestive of a connection. Cecil Sharp read this as evidence that the social dances were derived from the morris, but vice versa seems more likely by today’s scholars. In this sense, what was called “morris” in the 18th century may have had very little to do with what was called “morris” in the 16th century. Remember what I said about the dangers of relying on nomenclature?

4) By the mid 18th century in the South Midlands region, morris dancing with bells and hankies was a fixture of the Whitsun ales (village festivals). By this point, the morris was in the hands of common folk who couldn’t afford the fancy costumes of a couple centuries earlier, and they were resorting to ordinary clothing decorated with ribbons and flowers. There was a separate variety of morris, called bedlam morris, being done in a swath from the Welsh border counties through Warwickshire and Northamptonshire down to Buckinghamshire; the bedlam morris seems to have been mainly or exclusively done with sticks.

5) By the late 18th century the bedlam morris had exerted an influence on the Whitsun ale morris, so that the latter often had both stick and hankie dances. As a result of the element of competition in the Whitsun morris ales, the dances often became quite elaborate in their choreography. These were the dances Sharp mainly collected, commonly (though inaccurately) called “Cotswold” morris, and are what is often thought of as the morris today. Remember what I said about multiple antecedents? There’s evidence of at least three for Cotswold morris: the European-derived 16th century morris, social country dances, and bedlam morris. Meanwhile the bedlam morris continued to be a relatively simple style done in the Welsh border counties, and ended up being what we now call border morris.

6) As for sword dances, Northwest morris, molly dancing, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the Derbyshire processional morris, the Welsh Cadi Ha, and other such possibly-related things — I don’t know.

Remember what I said at the start: DON’T BELIEVE ANYTHING, including what I just told you. (I don’t even believe myself a lot of the time, which is why this page gets tweaked every once in a while.) Take a look at:

  • Keith Chandler’s Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles: The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900, Hisarlik Press (1993), ISBN 1 874312 06 0. Recently revised and republished along with other writings by Chandler on CD-ROM. An essential work for anyone with an interest in the history, context, and “meaning” of Cotswold morris.
  • Dance Magazine, 12/92, p. 40
  • Sing Out!, Summer 1988, p. 14
  • Smithsonian Magazine, May 1981, p. 118
  • Anthony G. Barrand’s book Six Fools and a Dancer, available from Carriage House Books, 57 Washington Street Brattleboro, VT 05301
  • Michael Heaney and John Forrest’s Annals of Early Morris, available from CECTAL, Sheffield University
  • John Forrest’s Morris and Matachin, available from CDSS — but don’t believe it without also reading …
  • Michael Heaney’s “A New Theory of Morris Origins: A Review Article” — I don’t have the exact reference, but it’s in Folklore sometime around 1985
  • P.A.M. Borys’ trilogy of articles circa 1991 in The American Morris Newsletter
  • John Forrest’s The History of Morris Dancing, 1438-1750, University of Toronto Press (1999), ISBN 0802009212.