Ditchling Morris2017

Morris History

A Potted History of the Morris

Morris dancing is widely recognised as an essentially English tradition. Its origins are vague & theorists believe that some forms of Morris may derive from the French Moresque or the Spanish Morisca dances of the 15th & 16th centuries as they share some characteristics, while others speculate that the Morris dance is the remains of seasonal pre Christian agricultural fertility rites. The earliest documentary reference to Morris dancing is in the 1400’s and by the 16th & 17th century many of the towns Guilds had adopted it, mainly as a stage performance at festivals, and for public enjoyment. Morris became an integral part of church festivals and Ales and it is recorded that some churches kept the elaborate costumes and hired them to other sides to allow them to perform - much to the disgust of the Puritans, particularly Philip Stubbs who were vehemently opposed to public displays of music, dance and merry-making. By the end of the 16th century, Morris had become established as a form of entertainment, often accompanying the seasonal celebration of the coming of spring and the autumn harvests. There are some references in the 16th & 18th century to men, women & children performing.

At the end of the 1800’s, Morris was dying out in many communities, possibly due to the ‘Industrial revolution’ which resulted in a huge shift of population away from the land to the new industrial centres. The revival of interest in Morris dance was almost entirely due to two people in the early 1900’s, Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal. Cecil Sharp was music tutor to the young ‘royals’ with an interest in collecting folk songs. As a result of a chance meeting on Boxing Day 1899 with William Kimber from Headington Quarry Morris near his home in Oxford he became intensely interested in the Morris and from 1906 Cecil Sharp devoted much of his life to collecting and notating the Morris dance, eventually writing a series of five books on the subject.

Mary Neal was a social reformer in the East End of London who established the Esperance Club for working girls & was keen for them to learn traditional dance. Sharp introduced her to the Headington Quarry Morris side who sent two members to instruct the girls and they then gave Morris dance displays. This alliance was to ‘spear-head’ the national revival of interest in Morris dancing and Cecil Sharp, together with Mary Neal and her ‘Esperance Club’ dancers gave conferences, lectures, and demonstrations throughout England and later, America. Sadly there was eventually a rift between Sharp and Neal but it is thanks to the efforts of these two people that Morris dancing survived.

Regional styles of Morris dance

‘Morris’ has become the collective term to describe the traditional dances of England. Although, historically, the dances may have shared the same root each geographical region demonstrates its own distinctive, characteristic style of dance.

A number of variations may exist in each region but briefly; the four main regional dance forms can be illustrated as follows. The ‘Cotswold Morris,’ which Sharp first collected, is the style of the area extending from the Cotswold’s to the S. & S.E England and is typified by the use of handkerchiefs & wearing bell-pads below the knees to emphasize the movement, dancing in ‘sets’ of 6 or 8 dancers. North West Morris dances are often ‘processional’ in form, in multiples of 4 dancers, often as many as 24 dancers, wearing clogs and using ‘slings’ and imitation shuttles, tools of their trade, to emphasize the beat, reflecting their mill town origins. The blackened faces and ‘tatter jackets’ and use of sticks in the exuberant dances of the Welsh Border villages are a reminder of their need to dance in disguise or face the wrath of their employers in those agricultural areas. The robust, heavily booted, high stepping ‘Molly dances’ of East Anglia reflect both the terrain, geography and folklore of their area. Renewed interest in the Morris today has led to the styles being ‘borrowed’ from their native areas to be performed by groups all over the country and thus kept ‘alive’.


One of the oldest tunes is La Morisque, which was used in the 16th century for court Morris and still used by many sides today. Musical records of the 16th century largely represent the tunes used for the stately Pavans and Galliards, whereas the popular dance music of the common folk went unrecorded until collected and published by John Playford in 1650. Some Morris tunes, Bobbing Joe, Staines Morris, Greensleeves, Country Gardens, were in the first edition. Other tunes may have been developed from court music to suit the instruments of the common folk, such as the pipe and tabor, and the Morris was danced singularly to this instrument until the fiddle was introduced in the 1850's and later reed instruments such as the concertina, melodeon and accordion.

John & Ann Bacon