If you've always enjoyed the tradition of Morris dancing, you may have at times wondered exactly where the roots of it lay in the annals of history. You don't have to go far to locate a huge selection of Morris Dance groups here in 2014, but if you go back a few centuries you will find that information about the exact origins of Morris Dancing are in fact shrouded in quite a bit of mystery. In fact, before the 17th century, information about the origin, formation, and development of what we recognise today as Morris dancing is almost non-existent. The information available makes it possible that its origins lay in courtly dances for the upper classes and that it trickled down to be adopted by the lower classes as a tradition that was enjoyed at gatherings, though there are theories that also state the likelihood of the bells and instruments in particular being used to scare away harmful spirits that would otherwise attempt to spoil the harvests of each year. Though the precise origin and direction of Morris dancing is laden with the unknown and the unknowable, its past is interesting nonetheless, with the earliest reference being found as far back as 1448.
It seems likely that Morris Dancing's origins could very well have been in 15th-century European Courts. These were referred to with terms such as 'moreys daunce' and was simply a form of court-based entertainment where dancers would wear pendant sleeves and bells as well as vibrantly-coloured garments. The entertainment could take the form of a group dance where a single person in the middle of a circle acted as the focal point, or indeed a solo dance depending on the preference of those in attendance at the court or the person responsible for organising the event.
Moving away from being strictly in a court setting and more towards what we would recognise as the Morris Dancing we see today, the tradition was adopted by Churches and became a feature at Church-organised events. This is perhaps where the association of Morris dancing displays with the sale of brewed alcohol, particularly ales, came from, As a means of raising funds, the church would produce and sell ales for various occasions which would be sold at festivals where Morris dancers would be performing.
It wasn't uncommon later in the 16th century to see Morris dancing at village occasions such as fetes and other gatherings, with dances commemorating different dates including Whitsun. There is also the documented case of William Kemp deciding to dance to Norwich from London in 1600, based purely on a wager. Cromwell's England and puritans in general were hostile towards the Morris dance ritual however: this saw Morris dancing falling out of favour and even disappearing from many communities altogether.
It is in the resurgence of Morris dancing from around 1750 onwards that we see poorer and common folk as the main performers of the tradition. Morris dancing was still strongly tied to the tradition of selling ales and would feature at most public events where ales were sold. Fiscal considerations, i.e. the poor nature of the common folk meant that they couldn't afford the costumes and materials that were traditionally associated with Morris dancing and so makeshift costumes were created by attaching ribbons and various decorative items to the clothes of the dancers. Sadly, with the surge of new forms of entertainment in the 19th century as well as the widespread social change brought about by socio-economic factors such as industrial revolution, Morris dancing went into serious decline and was seen by many as unfashionable and an old tradition that didn't necessarily need to be clung on to.
Thankfully, the Morris dancing tradition is still adhered to in many areas of the UK and many Morris groups still practice and perform on a regular basis. Morris dancing groups can be seen performing at some festivals such as the Cambridge Folk Festival as well as being available for hire where they can perform in a variety of contexts such as private parties and corporate events. Though the origins of Morris dancing are certainly ambiguous and cannot be traced back with certainty, it remains a popular folk tradition to this very day and serves as a reminder that community spirit and tradition can prevail throughout the centuries and survive in the hearts of people no matter what the external pressures on it may be.
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