What is Morris Dancing?

Morris Dancing is a living English tradition of performance dance and music which has survived for well over 500 years. Villagers in Bampton, Oxfordshire, say that Morris Dancing has been performed at Whitsuntide (a.k.a. Pentecost) every year, except for in times of war, for over eight hundred years. The truth is, we don't know how old Morris dancing is. It's origins have been lost in the mists of time with the dances being passed down from generation to generation.

Morris Dancing is a very old style of dance from England.  This picture just looks old.

Morris dances are usually performed by a set of six dancers. The dancers clash sticks or wave handkerchiefs as they perform the figures of the dance. Bells on their legs jingle as they move. The dances are often accompanied by traditional folk characters. The Fool romps around the set, harassing the dancers and amusing the audience. The Hobby Horse prances about, sometimes carrying a hat used to solicit money from the observers. The Betty, a man in women's clothing, is thought by some to be an ancient fertility symbol.

Music is an integral part of Morris dancing and is always performed live. The traditional Morris instrument is the pipe and tabor: a single musician simultaneously plays a three-holed pipe with the left hand and a small drum with the right hand. During the twentieth century other instruments have come into use, including (but certainly not limited to, the accordion, the melodion and the concertina.
- Taken in part from a summary written by Steve Winograd for the Maroon Bells 20th Anniversary Ale

Historic References to Morris Dancing

  • From the Free Library there is research that points to a payment in 1448 by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for 7 shillings for the Moryssh daunsers.
                        Soluciones & Expensa
                        In ffesto Sancti Dunstani
                        Item In primis paid vn to the               v. marces
                        Item for xij, hattes for the Ministrelles   x.. s.
                        Item for their drynk                        xx d
                        Item to Careawey harper                     xij. d
                        Item to Iohan Pyper                         ij. d
                        Item to the Moryssh. daunsers               vij. s.
  • As compiled by Robin Aitken: In 1507 the Churchwardens' Accounts for Kingston Parish Church authorized the payment of funds for the morris dancers.

  • From the Diary of Henry Machyn there are the following accounts:

    A 1552 account of an event in January of that year: - "... The iiij day of Januarii was mad a grett skaffold [in Ch]epe hard by the crosse, agaynst the kynges lord of myss[rule] cumyng from Grenwyche; and landyd at Towre warff, [and with] hym yonge knyghts and gentyllmen a gret nombur on [horseb] ake sum in gownes and cotes and chynes abowt ther nekes, every man havyng a balderyke of yelow and grene abowt ther nekes, and on the Towre hyll ther they [went in] order, furst a standard of yelow and grene sylke with Sant Gorge, and then gonnes and skuybes, and trompets and bagespypes, and drousselars and flutes, and then a gret compeny all in yelow and gren, and docturs declaryng my lord grett, and then the mores danse dansyng with a tabret, ...

    A 1557 account of a May Day celabration: - "... The xxx day of May was a goly May-gam in Fanch-chyrchestrett with drumes and gunes and pykes, and ix wordes dyd ryd; and thay had speches evere man, and the morris dansse and the sauden, and a elevant with the castyll, and the sauden and yonge morens with targattes and darttes, and the lord and the lade of the Maye.

    Morris dancing was quite common in Henry Machyn's time as can be seen by his many accounts of morris dancing during several celebrations. Just search the Diary of Henry Machyn for the words " morris" or " mores dansse" or " mores danse".

  • William Shakespeare references morris dancing in several of his plays.

  • As early as 1583 Morris Dancing was introduced to the Americas. Probably much to the amusement of the local populace.

  • We would be amiss were we not to mention the 1600 publication Kemps Nine Daies Wonder Performed in a Daunce from London to Norwich.
    Project Gutenberg, by the way, is a wonderful resource.

  • In 1613, Queen Anne, wife of James I, visited Somerset, England. The visit was documented by Nicholas Arnold . What makes this account interesting is that the morris dances are performed by indiviual trade guilds. Here are some excerpts:

    "The Hammer-men, which were the carpenters, joyners,. cowpers, masons, tylers and blackesmthes. And they presented a streamer with their armes; and Noath building the arke; Vulcan workinge at the iforge; Venus carried in a char- riot, and Cupid sittinge in her lapp with his bowe bent; a Morrice daunce; the Dragon which devoured the virgins.

    "The Cordyners, who presented St. Crispian and ??? both of them sonnes to a kinge, and the youngest a shoemaker,, who married his master's daughter. They allsoe presented a morris daunce, and a streamer with their arms.

    "The Mercers, who presented a streamer; a morris daunce of young children; "

  • In 1652 what sounds like a very large crowd " very disorderly daunced the Morrice daunce" on the 17th of May in Wiltshire, England.

    WILTSHIER. The Testimony and Examinacon of William Farmoe and Joan his wife of Woodburrough at Pewsey before me John Ashe Esqre one of the Justices of the Peace the twentieth day of May in the yeare of our Lord God 1652.

    Who say the Edward Smyth and Edward Hawking of Woodburrow did upon the last Lords Day being the 16th of the Instat May after diner time Travaile and goe to a place called Allcannings and there did invite severall people of Cannings aforesayd to the number of twelve persons neer there aboute who upon the Munday morning following came armed with musketts powder match and bandaleares which they brought with them to Woodburroughe and that Robert Golfe alsoe of Woodburroughe went unto Marlburroughe upon the said Lords Day to gett a drummer to head the sd leude company and aboute one a clocke that same Sunday night came away out of Marlburghe with the sd drummer to Woodburrough. And they further say that Thomas Beasant of Woodburroughe labourer did upon the sayd Lords day goe into a place called Ram Ally in the pishe of Easton and there invited and procured a fidler who came to Woodburroughe upon Munday morning following and by the instigacon of the before named partie three hundred persons or there aboutes were assembled and gathered together in a Riotous Routous Warlicke and very disorderly manner with Musketts pistolls bills swords drawne and other unlawful weapons, who upon Munday the said 17th of May did march together to the pishe of Pewsey and there very disorderly daunced the Morrice daunce and committing severall other misdemeanors there as drinkeing and Tipling in the Inn and Alehouse till many of them were drunke.

    (Signed) JOHN ASHE.

    Collected by the wife of a colleague of Peter Contrastano from Wiltshire, UK, county records (court records from 1652)

  • From the Diary of Samuel Pepys there is the following passing reference to Morris Dancing:
    Friday 1 May 1663 - "... By and by, about seven or eight o'clock, homeward; and changing my horse again, I rode home, coaches going in great crowds to the further end of the town almost. In my way, in Leadenhall Street, there was morris-dancing which I have not seen a great while."

Picture by Cherry Netter