A brief history of Morris dancing
The first mentions of Morris are from the 15th century as a courtly entertainment. One of the earliest references comes from Norfolk in the ‘Paston letters’ written by the family who owned Caister Castle near Great Yarmouth.
By the 16th century parish churches and town guilds were supporting Morris dancers to help raise money.
The Reformation dissolved the guilds, after which Morris is danced divorced from its old context and purely as a form of busking or begging. Church accounts suggest that immediately after the Reformation, the Morris kit (painted coats seem to have been popular) and ancillaries like hobby horses were kept in the church, but as these decayed they were not replaced.
In the eighteenth century Morris was incredibly popular in the Cotswolds, with many villages having a ‘side’ and occasionally rich landowners too!
In the 19th century Morris dancing was performed by labourers in need of money when work was short.
On Boxing Day 1899, Cecil Sharp saw the Headington Quarry men dancing and was inspired to embark on a major campaign of collecting all the surviving Morris dances and tunes. He published the dances and tunes he had recorded in the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) journal.
Since then, lots of Morris sides have been formed, especially during the 1970s, extinct traditions have been revived and lots of new dances written.
Today there are more people dancing the Morris than at any time in its history!