A defiantly English tradition, the origin of Morris dancing is very much open to interpretation. One explanation could be that it is linked back to pre-Christian rites to ensure the fertility of the soil.
Morris Dancing was clearly regarded as an ancient custom in the time of Shakespeare – he mentions it in several plays – and although the first written reference dates to only the 15th Century it seems likely to have roots in Anglo-Saxon or Celtic times. It is believed that the earliest reference to Morris dancing in England is from Caister Castle, Norfolk, in 1448.
The origin of the term Morris is also uncertain but a likely explanation is that it derives from the Moors of Spain. John of Gaunt is believed to have witnessed ‘Moorish’ dancing in Spain in the time of Edward III and brought it back to England, initially as a court dance, which then gradually spread and was taken up by the common people.
In the Basque region of Spain there is a dance for six men in whites with bells. Also seen in Catalonia are mixed sets doing a processional in whites with bells and sticks. This all seems to support an argument in favour of a Moorish origin.
Morris dancing is not confined to England and the first Morris dancing in America was probably in 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert took on his voyage there “entertainment’s for the solace of our people and the allurement of savages”. Apparently the “cavortings of Morris dancers, hobby horse and jack o’greens” went down well with the audiences!
The current interest in Morris dancing can be traced back more than 100 years to Cecil Sharp who witnessed a group dancing at Headington, Oxfordshire on Boxing Day in 1899. He was so taken by the performance that he went on to collect and record the steps, figures and tunes unique to various Cotswold villages. He went on the found the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), whose London headquarters bears his name today.
The “Cotswold” tradition, as witnessed by Sharp, is what most people would regard as the archetypal style of Morris however it is far removed from any origins in pagan fertility rites, having been sanitised by the Church, the Puritans and the Victorians, leaving the handkerchiefs and bells to “chase away the devil”.
Researchers in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire discovered a variant of Morris dancing, often referred to in the archives as Border or Bedlam Morris. The dancers disguised their identity from land owners and the Law mostly by blacking their faces and wearing tattered clothes. As the name implies they also made a great deal of noise, shouting and invariably clashing sticks. Now generally known as Border Morris the style looks and feels closer to a distant pagan origin.