Somer is icumen in
And as a result I have children at home for the summer holidays and no time for writing. I had meant to fill this time with research on the early Anglo-Norman period in Britain, for my planned Herewardish m/m historical novel, Dragon of the Fen. But I find myself researching the history of Morris Dancing instead.
Did you know that women have always morrissed? Right from the earliest records, where we find a gloriously entertaining condemnation of the dance by one Christopher Fetherston in 1582:
I myself have seene in a may gaime a troupe, the greater part wherof have been men, and yet have they been attyred so like unto women, that theyr faces being hidde (as they were indeede) a man coulde not discerne them from women. What an horrible abuse was this? What abhominable sinnes might have hereupon ensued?
The second abuse, which of all other is the greatest, is this, that it hath been toulde that your morice dauncers have daunced naked in nettes: what greater entisement unto naughtines could have been devised?
Sorry, I included that second paragraph not because it had anything to do with women dancing morris but just because it made my mind boggle. There are some traditions I find I’m happy to allow to gently lapse 😯
It’s relatively well known that in 1600, William Kemp, (a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men along with one William Shakespeare) morris danced from London to Norwich as a sort of early publicity stunt. It’s less well known that he was joined by a different female dancer at two separate points along the way.
And in 1769 Thomas Blount published an account of some village customs which included the following:
At Kidlington in Oxfordshire, the custom is that on Monday after Whitson Week, there is a fat live Lamb provided, and the Maids of the Town, having their Thumbs tied behind them, run after it, and she that with her Mouth takes and holds the Lamb is declared ‘Lady of the Lamb’, which being dressed with the Skin hanging on, is carried on a long Pole before the Lady and her Companions to the Green, attended with Music, and a Morisco Dance of Men, and another of Women,
John Cutting, from whose book ‘History and the Morris Dance’ I have lifted these quotes, thinks that the village in question was actually Kirtlington – which had a Lamb Ale up until 1858 – rather than Kidlington, which didn’t.
But that aside, given that our earliest piece of evidence for the existence of Morris dancing in the UK at all is in 1448, and our evidence for women dancing comes only a century later, I think it’s pretty conclusive that this Victorian insistence that women shouldn’t morris is in truth something made up by the Victorians, in the same way they made up the idea of horns on Viking helmets and many other modern myths.
There is also zero evidence that Morris is a survival of ancient pagan ritual dance, other than the fact that the first collector of the dances, Cecil Sharp, was a bit of a fan of The Golden Bough, and inclined to see survivals of ancient pagan traditions all over the place. From what I have seen so far, morris is inconveniently silly, and serious minded people have a tendency to try and turn it into something more important and more folklory than it is. Witness this:
The Abbot’s Bromley Horn dance is a dance that can claim to be older than morris, and to have been danced in Abbot’s Bromley for over 1000 years. Surely if any dance is a pagan survival, this is it. Now this is a modern reinvention of the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance:
and it is eerie and unsettling and easy to believe that it’s a survival of something mystical. But in fact, this is a version specially slowed down and folked-up for the popular imagination. This is the real thing:
I read an article just yesterday in The Times Online, AA Gill meets the morris dancers that seemed to reflect this. After exercising his wit in order to prove just how much he is above all of this, for one brief moment he finds himself enjoying himself. Oh noes! How could a man so sophisticated as himself possibly enjoy such a stupid pastime exercised by such lumpen, ugly, beer-drinking proles? It can’t possibly be because ordinary people dancing and having a drink or two is an entertaining thing to do. It must be because he was feeling from afar the influence of the deeply hidden ancient spiritual meaning of the thing! Well, thank goodness for that!
To prove where I stand on the whole thing, here I am dancing Padnall with the Ely and Littleport Riot women’s Border morris side. Not naked in a net, you’ll be glad to hear.