History of the Morris Dance

Morris Dance

Morris Dance

A Morris is a sort of pageant, accompanied with dance, called Morris dance. It was probably derived from the Morisco, a Moorish dance formerly popular in Spain and France. Although the name points to this derivation, there is some doubt whether the Morris Dance owes its origins to the Matacins.

In accounts of the Morisco, no mention is made of any sword dance, which was a distinguishing feature of the Maticins, and survived in the English Morris Dance (in a somewhat different form) so late as the 19th century.

Jehan Tabourot, in the ‘Orchesographic (Langes, 1588), says that when he was young the Morisco used to be frequently danced by boys who had their faces blacked, and wore bells on their legs. The dance contained much stamping and knocking of heels, and on this account Tabourot says that it was discontinued, as it was found to give the dancers gout.

The English Morris Dance is said to have been introduced from Spain by John of Gaunt in the reign of Edward III., but this is extremely doubtful, as there are scarcely any traces of it before the time of Henry VII., when it first began to be popular.

Its performance was not confined to any particular time of the year, although it generally formed part of the May games. When this was the case, the characters who took part in it consisted of a Lady of the May, a Fool, a Piper, and two or more dancers.

From its association with the May games, the Morris Dance became incorporated with some pageant commemorating Robin Hood, and characters representing that renowned outlaw, Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marian (performed by a boy), were often found taking part in it.

A hobby horse, four whifflers, or marshals, a dragon, and other characters were also frequently added to the above.

The dresses of the dancers were ornamented round the ankles, knees, and wrists with different sized bells, which were distinguished as the fore bells, second bells, treble, mean, tenor, bass, and double bells.

In a note to Sir Walter Scotts’ Fair Maid of Perth there is an interesting account of one of these dresses, which was preserved by the Glover Incorporation of Perth. This dress was ornamented with 250 bells, fastened on pieces of leather in twenty one sets of twelve, and tuned in regular musical intervals.

The Morris Dance attained its greatest popularity in the reign of Henry VIII.; and then degenerated into a disorderly revel, until, together with the May games and other ‘enticements unto naughtiness,’ is was suppressed by the Puritans.

It was revived at the Restoration, but the pageant seems never to have attained its former popularity, although the dance continued to be an ordinary feature of village entertainments.

In Yorkshire the dancers wore peculiar head dresses made of laths covered with ribbons, and were remarkable for their skill in dancing the sword dance, over two swords placed crosswise on the ground.

A country dance that goes by the name of the Morris Dance was frequently danced in the north of England. It was danced by an indefinite number of couples, standing opposite to one another, as in ‘Sir Roger de Coverley.’ Each couple held a ribbon between them, under which the dancers passed in the course of the dance.