The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Morris Dance

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 2, pp. 422-23

The Morris Dance, in which bells are gingled, or staves or swords clashed, was learned, says Dr. Johnson, by the Moors, and was probably a kind of Pyrrhick or military dance. " Morisco," says Blount, "(Span.) a Moor; also a dance so called, wherein there were usually live men, and a boy dressed in a girl’s habit, whom they called the Maid Marian, or perhaps, Morian, from the Italian Morione, a head-piece, because her head was wont to be gaily trimmed up. Common people call it a Morris Dance." See the last edit., of Nares’ ‘‘Glossary,’’ and Halliwell’s ‘Archaic Dictionary," ad vocem. The derivation of Morris from Morisco quasi Moor is very doubtful, but no better etymology has yet been proposed.

In the Privy Purse Expenses of Henry VII., under 1494, is an entry under January 2, " For playing of the Mourice daunce, £2" ; and under February 4, 1502, occurs a second payment for a similar purpose of £1 13s. 4d., which appears to be significant of its performance irrespectively of the season. But of course these exhibitions were before the King. In the third volume of the Shakespear Society’s Papers, are some very interesting extracts from the papers of Richard Gibson, supposed to have been yeoman tailor to Henry VIII., relating to dramatic and other entertainments at Court in the very commencement of that prince’s reign. Under the date of 1510-11, Gibson gives an account of a "Morryshe Dance,’’ by the King’s henchmen, who came out of an artificial hill, on the top of which was " a goldyn stoke, branchyd with roses and pomgarnats crowned." This was devised by Sir Henry Guildford. In Coates’s ‘‘ History of Reading," we have: —

"A.D. 1557, Item. payd to the mynstrels and the hobby horse uppon May Day, 3s.— Item. payed to the Morrys Daunsers and the Mynstrelles, mete and drink at Whitsontide, 3s. 4d. Payed to them the Sonday after May Day, 20d.— Pd to the Painter for painting of their cotes, 2s. 8d.— Pd to the Painter for 2 dz. of Lyvereyes, 20d."

In the Churchwardens’ and Chamberlain’s books of Kingston-on-Thames. are several particulars illustrative of this part of the subject. They are printed entire in ]Lysons’ "Environs," vol. i. p. 226. The bells for the dancers are also charged in the accounts of St. Mary-at-Hill, London, (34 Eliz.) and St. Helen’s in Abingdon, Berks. Morrice-dancing, with bells on the legs continued to be common in and after Brand’s time, in Oxfordshire and the adjacent counties, on May Day, Holy Thursday, and Whitsun Ales, attended by the fool (? Tom the Piper), or, as he is generally called, the Squire, and also a lord and lady. As to the Fool and Bessy, they have probably been derived to us from the ancient festival of Fools, held on New Year’s Day. Bess was a common generic term for a female Tom-a-Bedlam. Waldron mentions seeing a company of Morris-dancers from Abington at Richmond in Surrey, in the summer of 1783. They appeared to be making a kind of annual circuit.

In "Plaine Percivall the Peace-maker of England," mention is made of a "stranger, which seeing a quintessence (beside the Foole and the Maid Marian) of all the picked youth, strained out of a whole endship, footing the Morris about a Maypole, and he not hearing the minstrelsie for the fidling, the tune for the sound, nor the pipe for the noise of the tabor, bluntly demaunded if they were not all beside themselves, that they so lip’d and skip’d without an occasion." In Pasquil and Marforius, 1589, the same author turns to his own account the May-games and the morris-dance, and applies them figuratively to some of the incidents and actors in the Martin-Marprelate controversy. Shakespear makes mention of an English Whitson Morrice Dance, in the following speech. of the Dauphin in Hen. V.:

"No, with no more, than if we heard that England
Were busied with a Whitson Morrice Dance."

"The English were famed," says Grey, in his ‘‘ Notes on Shakespear, "for these and such like diversions; and even the old, as well as young persons, formerly followed them; a remarkable instance of which is given by Sir William Temple." Among the Huth ballads is one entitled "Good Fellowes must go learne to Dance." It is of some merit, and has a share of that sparkling style, which distinguishes the versification of Suckling. The guests at an approaching wedding are the supposed speakers in the following passage

"A bande of belles, in bauderycke wise,
    Would decke vs in our kynde a;
A shurte after the Moryce guyse,
    To flounce it in the wynde a.
A wyffler for to make the waye,
    And Maye brought in withall a,
Is brauor then the sunne, I saye,
    And passeth round or brall a."

Nash, who wrote nothing probably after 1600, describes in his "Summers Last Will and Testament," printed in that year, the fool as going round and collecting the money from the crowd. At an earlier date we hear of a ladle suspended from the beast’s mouth, as a receptacle for public contributions. In Nash’s play three clowns and three maids, while they dance, sing the following lines in chorus:

"Trip and goe, heave and hoe,
Tip and downe, to and fro,
From the towne, to the grove,
Two and two, let us rove,
A Maying, a playing:
Love bath no gainsaying:
So merrily trip and goe."

The anthor of Friar Bacons Prophesie, 1604, recalling better times, says in his poem:

"The Taber and the Pipe,
The Bagpipe and the Crowde,
When oates and rye were ripe,
Began to be alowde.
But till the harvest all was in,
The Moris Dance did not begin."

But now, he adds further on:

"-———Moris dances doe begin
Before the harvest halfe be in."

The following description of a Morrice Dance occurs in Rablet’s "Cobbes Prophecies," 1614:

‘It was my hap of late, by chance,
To meet a country morris dance,
When, cheefest of them all, the foole
Plaied with a ladle and a toole;
When every younger shak’t his bells
Till sweating feet gave fohing smells;
And fine Maide Marian, with her smoile,
Shew’d how a rascall plaid the roile:
But, when the hobby-horse did wihy,
Then all the wenches gave a tihy:
But when they gan to shake their boxe,
And not a goose could catch a foxe,
The piper then put up his pipes,
And all the woodcocks look’t like snipes,
And therewith fell a show’ry streame,"
                            &c., &c.

There is another in Cotgrave’s "English Treasury of Wit and Language," 1655:

"How they become the morris, with whose bells
They ring all in to Whitson ales, and sweat
Through twenty scarfs and napkins till the hobby horse
Tire, and the Maid Marian, resolv’d tojelly,
Be kept for spoon meat."

We have an allusion to the morris dancer in the preface to the Candid and Ingenious Reader prefixed to "Mythomistes," circa 1625, by Henry Reynolds:

"Yet such helpes, as if nature have not beforehand in his byrth, given a poet, all such forced art will come behind as lame to the businesse, and deficient, as the best taught countrey morris dauncer, with all his bells and napkins, will ill deserve to be, in an Inne of Courte at Christmas, tearmed the thing they call a fine reveller."

In his "London and the countrey Carbonadoed," 1632, Lupton says, relative to the landlady at an ale-house: "Shee is merry and half-made (mad) upon Shrove-tuesday, May-daies, Feast-dayes, and Morris-dances." Stevenson, in "The Twelve Moneths," 1661, p. 17, speaking of April, tells us: "The youth of the country make ready for the Morris-dance, and the merry milk-maid supplies them with ribbands her true love had given her." The abhorrence of the Puritans to this diversion in toto is depicted in Beaumont and Fletcher’s "Women pleased."

Walpole, or rather Vertue, in his "Catalogue of Engravers," under Peter Stent, has described two paintings at Lord Fitzwilliam’s (rather coarsely and poorly executed) by Vinckenboom, about the end of the reign of James I. in one of which a morris-dance is introduced, consisting of seven figures, viz., a fool, a hobby horse, a piper, a Maid Marian, and three dancers. A reduced copy is given by Douce from a tracing by Grose.

In Old Change, according to the "History of Sign-Boards," 1867, there was a sign called "The Three Morris Dancers," in the time of Charles II. See, for fuller particulars of this  subject, Douce’s " Dissertation on the ancient English Morris Dance," at the end of his "Illustrations of Shakespear," 1807.

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