28 October 2023


Michael Heaney. The Ancient English Morris Dance, Archaeopress, 2023.

The title raises a question straight away, doesn't it? Just how ancient is the 'ancient' morris dance? It was certainly the view of many people that morris dancing was very ancient indeed, with roots stretching back to pre-Christian times. 
One writer in 1935 claimed “In the Morris . . . one may see the survival of a primitive festival of the spring, which may at various times in its career, have included both human and animal sacrifice”. As late as 1978 a writer to a morris dancing magazine opposed including women in morris teams on the grounds that it was “an integral part of a pre-Christian region” and allowing women to take part would somehow be disrespectful.

Michael Heaney makes it clear from the start that this idea is itself virtually an ancient myth, dating all the way back to, well, about 1890, when Cecil Sharp started visiting the southern counties of England, collecting details of surviving folk songs and dances.

Rather than having pre-Christian origins, the earliest recorded date to which morris dancing can be traced in England, is remarkably precise: 19th May, 1448. On that day the City of London's Worshipful Company of Goldsmith paid a team of 'Moryssh Dauncers' the sum of 17 shillings (85p) to perform at their annual St Dunstan's Day feast. The patrons of the dance in this instance were fairly typical of the elite status of the practice at the time, it was seen as an entertainment for the wealthy, the aristocratic and even for royalty. Costumes were lavish and the dancers themselves were oftenof the same rank as the audience.

But the practice was not confined to the upper echelons of society for very long; in fact they soon began to drop it for masques and more sophisticated and theatrical forms of entertainment. The dance was now more often seen at local municipal events and trade guild celebrations or at May Day and Midsummer events. It became associated with 'Whitson-ales', church fund-raising events and feasts for saints' days.

These became an area of contention, with complaints of dancers interrupting church services and behaving in a rowdy manner, claiming they 'abused and profaned' church premises. By the end of Elizabeth I's reign parish officers were being prosecuted for allowing dances to take place on church property, and attitudes to the morris were dividing between those who saw it as an innocent entertainment and evocation of 'Merry England', and the growing puritan attacks on the practice as a source of rowdiness and debauchery, and even as a remnant of 'Papist' practices. This came to a climax with the outbreak of the English Civil War, when being pro- or anti-Morris was virtually a badge of your allegiance to King or Parliament. By the end of the Cromwellian era the dance was close to disappearing.

The Restoration brought a revival in morris dancing and other public entertainments, King Charles was greeted by morris dancers at Blackheath, on his triumphal return to London in 1660. The Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish explicitly advised him to encourage the dance as “the devertisments will amuse the people's thoughts & keepe them in harmles action which will free your Majesty from faction & rebellion”. But as with many such reactions to oppression some observers noted that the initial enthusiasm soon died away. An writer in Oxford noting “But no opposition appearing afterwards, the rabble flagged in their zeal”

In the seventeenth century morris dancing began to move away from being part of an organized festive celebration to being a public entertainment. It began to appear on the stage, and as entertainment at pleasure gardens, or even featuring in the action of a play. Its links to a locality were being loosened, dancers were traveling long distances around the country to perform and were being judged by the quality of the entertainment they provided. But as Heaney notes “there could be a distinct odour of low life intruding into the more refined sensitivities of the upper and middle classes”.

Ar the same time scholars and antiquarians were beginning to take an interest, looking at the origins of the dance, and stripping away some of the polemical attitudes which saw it as a savage survival or an element of Papist revival. The dance was now more likely to be performed as an event consciously representing 'Merrie England', although this itself drew criticism. A reporter commenting on a performance in 1757 remarked that it was “a highly exciting reminiscence of the 'days that are no more'. Thank heaven!”

As the dance became more of a 'performance' rather than a folk celebration, the Morris as danced in the villages of the Midlands and Eastern England was in decline throughout the nineteenth century. The one exception was in the north-western counties, where the tradition of 'rush-bearing', which had long been connected with Morris, survived longer. 'Rush bearing' originated at a time when rushes were used to cover bare-earth church floors, and were renewed annually. The process became part of a celebration which often included morris dancing, and a decorated rush-cart.


It was largely the villages and small town to the north and east of Manchester, which were beginning to become more urbanised and industrialized that the traditional rush-cart, whose original purpose was now almost totally redundant, faded from the scene and the celebrations were now almost entirely devoted to the parade and the morris dancing. Morris teams – or 'sides' – began to form part of a wider recreational and entertainment scene, and rivalry between towns was intense, often falling over into rowdiness, much to the disgust of local newspaper reporters, whose often amusing comments are quoited at length, showing a great deal of genteel outrage.

By the end of the nineteenth century North West morris dancers were “players in a fluid, vibrant and popular suite of customs and festivals” alongside civic pageants and theatrical performances. Unlike the morris in other areas, the North West version had managed to adapt to the changing social conditions, finding a new base in an increasingly industrialized and urban society. It was now almost a semi-professional branch of the entertainment industry, and women and children were increasingly involved.
However, elsewhere in England, with a few exceptions morris dancing seemed to be continuing its decline, and it was more likely to be seen in the theatres than in the streets. The ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica claimed that morris dancing was “now wholly discontinued”, but at the time that was written in 1891 a revival was already underway, led by figures such as Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal. Sharp was a music teacher and collector of folk song and dance; Neal worked at an educational charity for working-class girls in London's East-End.

Together they published a series of books and pamphlets encouraging the promotion of morris in schools and through festivals, and recording the music and dance steps. But their association soon faltered as their views on how to proceed with the 'revival' diverged. Dance historian Matt Simons, writing in 2019 described their different approaches: “[Sharp] assumed morris was an artifact of English culture, which required careful and exacting arbitration. By contrast Neal's morris was an intuitive dance, transmitted through imitative learning.” This split defined morris dancing throughout the twentieth century, with controversies over women's morris, and the creation of separate societies and 'rings' of dancers.

The North-Western morris continued on its own path largely ignored by the revivalists, becoming more professional, and moving decisively into the field of public entertainment The teams, or 'sides' became major features at civic events, galas and May Day processions, where they would often be accompanied by accordion bands, 'jazz' bands and comical 'mock morris' troupes. Mixed, women's and girls' morris were more of a feature, to the extent that by the late 1930s male involvement in the dance had almost disappeared from the North-West morris.


One development of this was the growth of 'carnival-morris' almost exclusively performed by women and girls. This is now a very lively and very competitive scene, mostly in Lancashire and North Wales. It was often dismissed as 'fluffy morris' by those who felt that the principle of morris dancing was to protect and preserve the traditional dances of, predominantly, the South Midlands, which were the dances recorded in Cecil Sharp's series of Morris Books and their later updates which specifically excluded all “newly composed dances and variants”.

The legacy of the split between Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal continued through the inter-war years and into the second half of the twentieth century, but with what Heaney describes as the 'second revival' in the 1970s, which saw a popular folk dance and song revival around popular groups such as the Albion Band and Fairport Convention. This eventually led to a more inclusive and open-minded approach to morris dancing, taking it closer to May Neal's view of the dance as a means of personal expression and development.

There was still opposition to women's involvement in morris even into the 1970s, but with the example of North West morris and changing social attitudes this began to fall away. Dancers were still referring to the books of Sharp and other to perform the traditional dances, but were no longer seeing them as the only form of 'authentic' morris, and were rediscovering the dance as a living tradition. By the 1980s even 'fluffy-morris' was being recognized as a “worthy descendant” of North-Western Morris, although whether the dancers saw themselves as such is unlikely.

In recent years the morris dancing world has to come to terms with issues such as 'cultural appropriation, and the practice of 'black-face' in some teams, with heated debate about whether it was adopted from nineteenth century minstrel acts, or was part of an older indigenous tradition.

This is a massive book, over 500 pages including a 50 page bibliography, and it is probably not a book for the mythical 'general reader', but it is clearly and accessibly written, and does not assume any specialist knowledge on the part of the reader. It presents a lively, at times humorous and very entertaining account of an often misunderstood activity, rooted in the deep history of England, but which has always developed and evolved in response to the changes in the society in which it is practiced. The book is well illustrated with prints and photographs, many in colour, and I am sure will be the authoritative history of morris-dancing for the foreseeable future.
  • Richard Samuels

No comments: