Morris: A short history

The term ‘morris’ probably developed from the French word morisque (meaning a dance, the dance), which became morisch in Flemish, and then the English moryssh, moris and finally morris. Flanders in the fifteenth century was an innovative cultural centre, and strongly influenced European culture in general.

Will Kemp and the 'Nine Daies Wonder', 1599
The ‘Nine Daies Wonder’, 1599

The earliest known and surviving English written mention of a morris dance is dated to 1448, and records the payment of seven shillings to morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. By Elizabethan times it was already considered to be an ancient dance, and references appear to it in a number of early plays whilst audiences would call for a dance or jig to be performed by the leading actor. One of the most popular actors of the time was Will Kemp and for a wager during Lent in 1599 he danced from London to Norwich in what was known as the ‘Nine Daies Wonder’.

While the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting, and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had adopted the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid 17th century. It survived more or less unchanged until the Industrial Revolution, but the loss of patronage from the gentry, changing attitudes, migration, and the growth of other leisure pursuits contributed to the decline of morris dancing during the nineteenth century and by the turn of the century the tradition had largely died out.

Heading Quarry Morris Men 1985
Heading Quarry Morris Men, 1895

However, in 1899 a London music teacher by the name of Cecil Sharp spent Christmas with family at Headington in Oxfordshire. There, on Boxing Day, he witnessed a performance by the Headington Quarry Morris Men and finding the tunes interested, noted them down from the team’s leader and musician William Kimber. This chance meeting started a morris revival, with Sharp and a small group of English folklorists travelling the country to record and revive traditional English folk songs and dances, often from a bare handful of surviving members of mid-19th-century village morris sides. In 1911 Sharp formed and became Director of The English Folk Dance Society; this amalgamated with the Folk Song Society in 1932 to become The English Folk Dance and Song Society. The London headquarters of the EFDSS is named Cecil Sharp House in his honour.

Sharp published the Morris Book Part One in 1907, followed by Part Two in 1909. These books are still regarded as the authoritative source on all things Morris by many teams.

Morris in Brighton
Morris in Brighton, 1970s

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, morris and sword clubs were being formed throughout England. In 1934 six of these sides came together to form the Morris Ring, the oldest morris organisation in England. It was in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, however, when there was an explosion of new dance teams, some of them women’s or mixed sides. At the time, there was often heated debate over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the morris, even though there is evidence as far back as the 16th century that there were female morris dancers. This controversy led to the initially womens-only Morris Federation being formed in 1975 and Open Morris, for mixed sides, being formed in 1979. In 2005 the dedicated Sword Dance Union was formed to promote and preserve longsword and rapper dancing.

Today the different organisations all work together to further morris, whilst maintaining their distinct identities, and provide their members with communication, advice, insurance, instructionals and social and dancing opportunities to their members.

Today there are probably more people taking part in morris dancing than ever before. The 2014 Morris Census, carried out to give a picture of the state of morris, found that there are now almost 13,000 dancers in the UK, turning out for over 750 sides. The slight worry for the tradition is that 66% of dancers are over 50, with only 13% under 30 and an overall average age of 52. This means that there is work to be done to encourage the next generation of dancers to keep the tradition alive.

Morris is now also an international phenomenon. 102 sides from around the world took part in the census, including 66 in the US, 14 in Australia, 9 in New Zealand and 8 in Canada.