The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Sword 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. 577-78

Wallis tells us, that the Saltatio armata of the Roman Militia on their Festival Armilustrium, celebrated on the 19th of October, was in his time still practised by the country people in this neighbourhood, on the annual Festivity of Christmas, the Yule-tide of the Druids. "Young men march from village to village, and from house to house, with music before them, dressed in an antic attire, and before the vestibulum or entrance of every house entertain the family with the Motus incompositus, the antic Dance, or Chorus Armatus, with sword or spears in their hands, erect and shining. This they call the sword dance. For their pains they are presented with a small gratuity in money, more or less, according to every householder’s ability: their gratitude is expressed by firing a gun. One of the company is distinguished from the rest by a more antic dress; a fox’s skin generally serving him for a covering and ornament to his head, the tail hanging down his back. This droll figure is their chief or leader. He does not mingle in the dance." Hist. of Northumb. ii, 28.

Henry, in his "History of Britain," says, "The Germans, and probably the Gauls and Britons, had a kind of martial dance which was exhibited at every entertainment. This was performed by certain young men, who, by long practice, had acquired the art of dancing amongst the sharp points of swords and spears, with such wonderful agility and gracefulness, that they gained great applause to themselves, and gave great delight to the spectators."

I find a curious and very minute description of the Sword Dance in Olaus Magnas. He tells us that the Northern Goths and Swedes have a sport wherein they exercise their youth, consisting of a dance with swords in the following manner: first, with their swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round: then with their drawn swords held erect as before: afterwards, extending them from hand to hand, they lay hold of each other’s hilts and points, and while they are wheeling more moderately round and hanging their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a rose: but, presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, in order to form with them a foursquare rose, that they may rebound over the head of each other. Lastly, they dance rapidly backwards, and vehemently rattling the sides of their swords together, conclude their sport. Pipes or songs (sometimes both) direct the measure, which at first is slow, but increasing afterward, becomes a very quick one towards the conclusion.

Douce had a very old cut representing the Sword Dance, which was still "performed (sixty years ago) by the morris-dancers in the vicinage of Lincoln." T. Park’s note in a copy of Bourne and Brand’s "Popular Antiquities," p. 176. This may have been about 1740.

Moresin (Papatus, 1594, p. 160) speaks of having seen a dance so named without swords, and it is still occasionally so practised.

In a drama played by a set of "Plow-Boys or Morris-Dancers," in their ribbon dresses, with swords. October 20, 1779, at Revesby Abbey. Lincolnshire, the assumed characters of the piece are different from those of the more regular morris, and they were accompanied by two men from Kirtley without any particular dresses, who sang the song of Landlord and Tenant. The Dramatis personæ were; Men, The Fool and his five sons, Pickle Herring, Blue Breeches, Pepper Breeches, Ginger Breeches, and John Allspice: Woman, Cicely: with a fidler or master music man, In the play itself the hobby horse is not omitted:

"We are come over the mire and moss;
We dance an hobby horse;
A dragon you shall see,
And a wild worm for to flee.
Still we are all brave jovial boys,
And take delight in Christmas toys."1

A writer in the "Gentleman’s Magazine " for May 1811, tells us that in the North Riding of Yorkshire the Sword Dance is performed from St. Stephen's Day [Dec. 26] till New Year’s Day. The dancers usually consist of six youths dressed in white with ribbands, attended by a fidler, a youth with the name of ‘Bessey,’ and also by one who personates a doctor. They travel from village to village. One of the six youths acts the part of king in a kind of farce which consists chiefly of singing and dancing, when the Bessey interferes while they are making a hexagon with their swords, and is killed:

Mr. Fallow, in the Antiquary for May, 1895, has a paper, which tends to confirm what has gone before, and to show that the Yorkshire Sword-Dancers, a distinct usage from the Mummers [See: Mumming], were still in vogue at least in 1880. Attention may be especially — drawn to the illustrations derived from photographs taken from a group in the neighbourhood of Leeds at the period mentioned.

Mr. Brand was a frequent spectator of this dance, which in his time was performed with few or no alterations in Northumberland and the adjoining counties: one difference however was observable in the Northern Sword Dancers, that when the swords were formed into a figure, they laid them down upon the ground and danced round them. Comp. Lucas, Studies in Nidderdale, p. 45, and Hobby Horse and Morris Dance suprfl.

We are to conclude that, in some places where the pageant was retained, the dancers ploughed up the soil before any house where they received no reward for their pains. Vocab. Utriusque Juris a Scot. J. C. v. Aratrum.


1. See the play Morrice Dancers at Revesby, 1779, at Folk Play Research Home Page. Both links open in new windows at an exterior site. Return

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