If Morris Dancing isn’t English, what is?

Research is dangerous if you want to keep your  illusions.

I put Morris Dancers alongside Beefeaters as quintessentially English and therefore faintly ridiculous. But looking into the marathon Elizabethan morrissman, Will Kemp, for an article about David Walliams, suddenly threw their Englishness into question (though not their ridiculousness).

Go to any morris website, ask any Morris Dancer, and you’ll find acceptance that the name might be a corruption of ‘Moorish’. Alongside a denial that the present dance originated anywhere but England.

One thing is clear. it’s not a dance the Moors ever did. Very probably, it’s a dance intended to poke fun at the Moors.

Morris dancing

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, fear was the incentive for doing this (no change there, then). It wasn’t until 2 January, 1492, that Isabella I, Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand V, King of Aragon, finally drove the Moors (non-White Muslims) out of Europe. The surrender of Granada was the first time in 770 years that the White Goths had managed to reclaim all of Spain. In celebration, a pageant known as a Moresca was devised and performed. It caught on because hostilities continued for most of the next century until the Battle of Lepanto permanently weakened Turkish maritime power.

So the Moors were a significant threat to all of Europe during the time ‘morris dancing’ became popular in England. Of course, England wasn’t in Europe then (any more than it seems to want to be now). Other than in an ideological sense, the English weren’t threatened by the Moors. We had less reason to ridicule them than the French (who danced morisques), Germans (who had the Moriskentanz) , Croats (known for their moreška) and Italians or Spaniards (who leapt about in a moresco, moresca or morisca ). The likelihood of any of them borrowing our ‘moreys daunce’, rather than the other way round, is therefore remote.

The term ‘Morris-dance’ only appeared in English in the 17th century. In Shakespeare’s day, we weren’t  anal about spelling and referred to it variously as a morisk, moreys , moresque, morisce, morys or morisse dance/daunce. Will Kemp preferred to call it simply a Morrice, which he danced continually for nine days on his way to Norwich from London (he was as mad as Walliams).

The morrice began as an entertainment for the court not the peasantry. In view of the close relationships between the nobles of the two countries, the dance probably came to England by way of France where it was an upper class custom for a dancer to come into the hall, when supper was finished, his face blackened with soot to represent a Moor, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and bells tied to his legs. He then jigged around a lot.

This jokey tableau was almost certainly based on a Spanish sword dance, or moresco, performed around, or for the benefit of, a beautiful or important woman. It may have come to the English court directly from Spain since’ The Great London Chronicle’ records spangled Spanish dancers performing energetically before Henry VII at Christmas in 1494.

The confusion about whether the morrice is a form of wooing or a demonstration of dexterity with a  weapon is seen in the different English styles of the dance.

Border morris dancer

English Morris Dancers dress according to the part of the country in which they dance. Most commonly, they dance in white with coloured baldrics across their chests. In the Welsh Borders,  they wear ‘tatter jackets’ and black their faces. Local folklore explains this as a form of disguise in spite of its remarkable resemblance to the original pantomime dance of the French court.

In most English forms, the dancers wave white handkerchiefs or bang short sticks against each other.  The sticks are a residual of the swords in the moresca.  Many have bell-pads tied at their knees to create loud and infectious rhythm as they dance. Occasionally a female figure, usually in the form of a hobby horse, is included just as they were in the sixteenth century painting. None of this seems other than derivative.

Morris dancing on the Thames at Richmond

It also goes to prove that history is a tricky bugger. As I contended in a previous blog, a lot of history is fiction, and fiction can become history.

Whatever the true origins of English morrismen, my sense of Engiishness is undermined.

I have very little to fall back on. Even the Beefeater nickname for the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London is claimed by the French who point out that they are no more than glorified buffetiers (waiters).

Beefeaters or buffetiers?

That leaves me with tea. From China. Roses. Introduced from Greece or Egypt. And…well, there’s not a lot else.

Please don’t tell me that Frederick Gibson Garton didn’t actually name his quintessentially English and utterly ridiculous dark brown sauce after the Houses of Parliament.


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