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What is 'The Morris'
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Ross Holland as Sabra in St George & the Dragon Morris dancing is an ancient seasonal pagan ritual male custom associated with the bringing of luck, the fertility and regeneration of the soil, and the promotion of the cycle of the seasons. The form of the dance varies with geographical location and each village has its own distinctive tradition or style of dances. The Mayflower Morris Men perform mainly the Cotswold Morris with its characteristic white handkerchiefs, sticks and bells.

The dances have been passed down through the generations and even today cannot be learned from books. In days gone by, competition was keen among the village youths to join the Morris and it was a great honour to be selected to dance.

In the dances there'll be much jingling of bells and stick-clashing to frighten away the evil spirits, and high capers will encourage Mother Earth to ensure the crops grow tall in the coming harvest. There'll be much primæval energy and magic in the air - so be sure to partake of the good luck generated and contribute to the Bag to help keep a quintessential part of English rural tradition alive.

The History of Morris Dancing

Morris is not an antiquarian revival or an attempt to resuscitate something dead and buried. It is as much alive and a normal part of contemporary existence as football or cricket.

Although you might not guess it from watching Morris, it has a very ancient history, so ancient that its origins are lost in the distant past. Early British scholars of folklore were influenced by James Frazer's The Golden Bough, which viewed Morris dancing as a survival - albeit debased - of a pre-Christian male fertility ritual. Some contemporary 'revisionist' folklorists suggest a late mediæval, non-'survivalist' origin for it but have so far provided no supporting evidence. There is no written evidence for the 'survivalist' theory either although there is a multitude of persuasive social anthropological, historical, literary and linguistic paradigms from across northern Europe where there are precedents in, and parallels with, secular north European folk-dances. Their abundance would certainly appear to undermine 'revisionist' writers' theories.

Each English region has its own particular form of the Morris, peculiar to it and it alone. Until about 150 years ago each region's villages had their own Morris sides, each with its own variant of the dance and traditional dancing times. For Cotswold Morris it was Whitsuntide & May Day, for North-West Morris it was Rushbearing at the end of harvest-time in September, for North-East Morris Sword Dancers it was Yuletide, for Molly Dancing (East Anglia & Essex) it was Twelfth Night & Plough Monday.

The first recorded written usage of the word 'Morris' was in 1448 but pictorially it can be taken back further. Morris's heyday was 1750-1850 but changes in 19th-century social conditions resulting from rural depopulation and urban industrialization affected it badly and many village sides disbanded. In some villages the Morris persisted through these upheavals, generally due to the determination of one man. Such a man was William Kimber (1872-1961) of Headington Quarry Morris Men, Oxfordshire. By chance he met the musician and composer Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) in 1899. On Boxing Day Kimber's side happened to perform outside a house where Sharp was visiting. Sharp came out to see what the 'noise' was, and became hooked. He had 'discovered' the Morris and spent the rest of his life tracking down surviving Morris sides, recording and learning the dances and tunes, teaching them to others, and attempting revivals where possible. He found just four Cotswold villages where sides had existed continuously from time immemorial (Headington, Bampton, Abingdon, and Chipping Campden). Elsewhere he found just one or two dancers still alive to act as his informants. Sharp missed some sides who perished wholesale on the battlefields of the First World War. Even so, he was able to preserve a canon of over 350 dances and by means of the English Folk Dance Society, which he founded in 1911, was able to spread knowledge and practice of them. Without Sharp's persistence and enthusiasm, most of the Morris might be lost for ever. Yet it was from these fragile beginnings that the Morris gradually grew and flourished such that today there are over 250 sides nationally.

Julian Whybra, Squire
The Mayflower Morris Men of Billericay

For further information, visit The Morris Ring Website.