Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Uncanny Threat of the Morris

In 1644 Parliament banned Morris dancing. They banned a great deal else at that point as well such as maypoles, Church Ales and the other entertainments mentioned in the 'Book of Sports' reissued by King Charles in 1633. This book listed the pastimes permissible on a Sunday after church and was intended by King James, who first published the book in 1617, to stop everyone piling down to the alehouse as soon as the service was over by giving them something else to do. 

It also berated Catholics yet again for not attending C of E services and rebuked the Puritans for not allowing any pastimes on a Sunday. It did ban the most boisterous of games – bull and bear baiting, putting on comic 'interludes' and bowling – but allowed archery, dancing, leaping and vaulting, and allowed May-games, Morris dancing and maypoles.

But all this was too much like fun for the Puritans, who were later to go on and ban Christmas and all the other traditional church feast days in favour of once monthly 'Thanksgivings' and provoke anti-Parliamentarian riots.

But what is Morris dancing anyway? Why ban it? 

We are told it is English folk dancing performed on May day by middle aged blokes with beer bellies waving white hankies, wearing floral wreaths in their hats and bells on their legs. It is all a bit silly, but being traditional and usually accompanied by lots of strong beer to give the participants the confidence to make utter fools of themselves it is kept up regardless.

The Truth!

  • Morris dancing isn't traditional. The earliest records go back to the 15th century – old but not hoary pre-Christian old.

  • It isn't English. The name 'Morris' is a corruption of 'Moorish', ie North African, and related dances are found all over Europe in the 17th century and 'Moresco' dances are still performed in northern Spain today. Some routines bear a distinct resemblance to West African dances.

  • It isn't a 'folk' dance. It was originally performed by professional troupes for such august personages as King Henry VII and at feasts of the Goldsmith's Company of London. It is still a paid job in the 17th century. Cromwell made a speech in Parliament condemning it as a form of begging, the dancers picking up tips for performing, and the 'blackface' make up worn by some dancers, while it may be reference to the Moorish origins of the dance, may well also be a form of disguise so farm workers could hide the fact they were moonlighting as Morris men from their bosses.

The Inner Secrets of the Morris Revealed!

Any of the following may be true. On the other hand none may be, or perhaps they all are in some form or other.

  • It is a bit of drunken rural fun. The dances are easy enough to do and when it fell out of fashion amongst the wealthy in the 16th century the troupes went on tour round the country fairs and it just caught on.

  • It is a form of actual sorcery which enables a group of low level magicians to combine and magnify their power. Various spells are encoded as dances including Invisibility, Summon, Sacrifice and Protection from Evil. Not every troupe can do this, but those which have been infiltrated by witches covens can. Both men and women can do Morris dancing, though sides which are are male or are all female are more magically effective, especially if they corss dress as the opposite gender.

                                  (Sinister eh? You can see why it was banned...)

  • The Morris was originally brought to Europe when the Reconquista in Spain destroyed the cosmopolitan culture of Granada and the West Africans who performed the dances were forced to move on to pastures new – initially Italy, then the Holy Roman Empire and northern Europe and England. Strange old West African gods are invoked – the blackface isn't mere make-up or a disguise, it is an invocation of African animist spirits that may take control of a 17th century English dancer in a Voodoo possession, and one or two troupes still have the wooden masks used by the original pagan priests. The 'hobbies', the dancers who wear a costume based on a mythical beast can physically transform into that creature of legend and nightmare.

  • The Catholics have always been more relaxed about festivals and celebrations than the miserable Puritans – it is noted that during Elizabeth's reign Catholics sometimes betrayed themselves with the lavishness of their celebrations of Christmas, and while the sober Protestant advisers of Edward VI and Elizabeth advocated bans on Morris dancing and maypoles, those of Queen Mary allowed them. The Morris men are in fact Catholic plotters, a cunning way for Jesuits to travel the country openly. The 'fools' in ragged motley who often accompany the dances giving out farthings and sweets are in fact priests giving out Hosts, and each festival ends in a secret mass.

  • Most of the dances and songs off the Morris are jolly bucolic tales of ploughing and chasing farmer's daughters, but not all. There are sword and 'rapper' dances that have a more martial air. One, the stately Grenoside Sword Dance, is a tamed version of a rite of human sacrifice where the leader of the troupe is decapitated by the other six members to create magic swords. This has only been used once as far as the current holder of the secret, Gilbert Earnshaw, knows, when Alan de Moulton sacrificed himself to create magic blades intended to slay King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

  • The energetic Rapper sword dances use a flexible sword and are in fact a form of martial arts training. The 'Rapper' is a blunted practice form of the Indian Urumi sword and a master of these dances could, if he so chose, mince you in nothing flat. No one in the Royalist armies take these yokels seriously as yet and think they are a bunch of Durham peasants after a bit of the King's silver for nowt. However the Scots Covenanters who occupied the north west of England lost many men to mysterious stealthy attackers in the middle of the night, and though they never made the Morris dance connection (and let's face it, who the hell would?)

  • Morris dancing is more fun than it looks. Even the Undead have been known to participate.

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