Morris dancing is an age-old tradition that was almost on the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century. It owes its contemporary revival to Cecil Sharp, who, having witnessed a Boxing Day Morris in Oxfordshire in 1899, went on to tour the country researching the dance. In 1911, he founded the English Folk Dance Society, helping to ensure that the Morris lives on.
There are also repeated references in the royal accounts for the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII of Morris entertainments being staged at Christmas, the feast of the Epiphany on Twelfth Night (6 January) being a particularly favourite date.
As well as being a courtly entertainment, Morris dancing seems to have developed independently after this time as a popular pastime at spring and summer festivals. Different traditions developed in different areas, local differences that are assiduously preserved today. It seems likely that there was a Marian element to many of the dances (in other words, that they were intended to do honour to the Virgin Mary). Although the dancers were all men, the focus of the performance was often on a female figure, who mutated after the Reformation into an allegorical figure of Beauty or Love. By this time, it may be that the dancers were intended to be seen as competing to win her hand.
It could also be that these courtly forms of the Morris melded with older English folk traditions, perhaps pagan ones celebrating springtime and the return of fertility to the earth, to create the form that endured over the centuries. In early dances, the performers blacked their faces, but we don’t know whether this specifically reflected Moorish origins or whether it was simply a way of disguising the dancers’ identities.
Pagan prosecutions and re-legalisation
By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, Morris dancing had spread throughout the southern counties, from the border country with Wales across to Kent. During the ascendancy of Puritanism, it was reviled as "pagan and ungodly", and came to be associated with Royalism and social conservatism. Prosecutions against participants became more numerous, and it was eventually outlawed altogether under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth.
Re-legalised after the Restoration, it ceased to have political implications, and became a matter of local groups maintaining a colourful but little-understood tradition in the villages. Its transformation was from urban to rural, courtly to demotic (or popular), and the resonances of its symbolism faded with changing times.
It was only with the revival of English folk music and dancing in the Edwardian era that Morris dancing began to be studied and taught at all systematically again. By this time, there were very few Morris groups – or "sides", to give them their proper term – that could trace an unbroken lineage back to medieval times. One such was Bampton in Oxfordshire, where – other than in times of national emergency – the Morris has been danced every Whitsun since the 1400s.
Popularity surgeIts present renaissance is very much a product of the past 50 years. Once thought embarrassingly silly by a younger, rebellious, postwar generation, it has once again found favour with young people. A little of its appeal may lie in its perceived relation to paganism, which might well chime with the alternative spiritualities of the New Age. The idea that it constitutes a form of popular recreation outside the prescribed norms of TV, computer gaming and the internet doubtless also exercises some appeal.
Most of all, though, Morris dancing is an ineradicable part of the English pastoral scene. Taking its place among real ale, village greens, the resurgence of cricket and warm summer days, it evokes a merry England far removed from troubled urban reality. An icon of England then, but also unashamedly an icon of fun.