HISTORY OF MORRIS DANCING

 

(Left) CHIPPING CAMDEN MORRIS MEN - 1896

No one knows for certain the origins of Morris Dancing. It may well have its roots in rites celebrating fertility and the coming of spring. Dancers would blacken their faces with soot so they would not be recognised by the local priest, and would resemble "Moors". This gave rise to "Moorish Men" or "Moorish dauncers" and hence to Morris.

Another train of thought suggests the dancing came from Spain and was brought back by John of Gaunt, second son of Edward III around 1387, when his army returned from the Spanish wars.The first record of a Morusk dance is at Lanherne Cornwall in 1468. At Betley in Staffordshire in an old house there is a painted glass window dating from 1470. It shows a Morris side with their musician, a fool, hobby horse, and two Robin Hood characters, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. In the middle is a Maypole.

Over time the dances were assimilated by the established church, and by the 1500s Morris was being performed for Easter, Whitsuntide, and saint's days. In fact Morris dancing became so much an accepted institution that medieval churchwarden's accounts show that accessories were provided by parish funds. St Lawrence Church Reading, accounts show "Moreys Dawncers" perfomed on Dedication Day 1513 and were given 3d for ale.  In 1509 "six peyre of shone for Mors daunsers". In 1530 12d was paid for "a grosse of bells for the Morece dawnsers" . At St Thomas Sarum 1557, they decorated "the endes of the banners with bells" the Church procession jingled forth like the Morris. William Shakespeare includes Morris in both Midsummer Nights Dream and Henry VI .

 

In 1599 an out of work actor William Kemp, for a wager danced from London to Norwich. After completing the task, Kemp wrote an account of his marathon dance "The Nine Daies Wonder".  The picture on the left shows a bearded Kemp dancing on his way to Norwich, from the title page of 'Kemps Nine Daies Wonder' of 1600 (Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC).
The picture on the right is a drawing dated 1808 showing Morris dancers with a Hob Horse.   Through the 17th and 18th centuries under Puritan influence Morris declined. With the rise of industrial England came the increasing drift of country population into towns. Thankfully it still was maintained in certain parts of the countryside. 

The picture left show Morris Men from Bucknell in Oxfordshire in 1875.   

By chance Boxing Day 1899, Cecil Sharp whilst visiting relations in Oxford saw and heard, for the first time Morris dancing as performed by Headingtom Quarry Morris Men. It inspired Sharp to set about collecting dances and songs from all over England in the following years.

Cecil Sharp is pictured right with his Morris Dancers.

 

           

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