Morris, Merrymaking and Mayhem,

Brackley 'old hat' 😉

I’m posting this today, instead of tomorrow, the first of May, as I won’t be around…read on to see why….

I, Sue Newstead have been involved in Morris Dancing for over 30 years (Just like Alcoholics Anonymous -I‘ve said it- ) either as a dancer or as a musician and in that time I have seen this very ancient tradition, this strange phenomenon, this oddity amongst many English oddities, be derided, be deprecated, decline, be defended, dust itself off and dance again and then decline once more. WHY?

Brackley Morris men in 1913.. hasn’t changed much

Perhaps the fashion of the moment is not for the past…for the old, the tried and tested, but for the New and the unknown. We no longer buy the lovingly cared for antique but whizz off to Ikea in our 4 by 4’s to buy – well…… the same things everyone else has in their houses. We no longer buy “ The best we can afford” but the cheapest and most ‘dispensable with’ – to be discarded when we are tired of it ( or it wears out…which of course it will…sooner rather than later.)

How sad. How temporary. All this in a Green tinted and Pleasant land where we are supposed to be conscious of recycling and waste, landfill and leftovers. Morris belongs to this Old World.

Dancing at Sulgrave...a local landmark

I am proud to belong to one of the oldest sides in Morris. The Brackley Morris Men ( We have two female musicians ) from South Northamptonshire.

Below: The Brackley Paten, with its inscribed names.

We think that there was side in this little town as far back as 1623 as it is recorded on a dated silver paten given to the church, probably by the men of the Morris. It must have been active before then. Perhaps,long before then.

Brackley Morris today

Musician and all round entertainer Richard York.

Dancing and playing music are as old as the hills. The urge to do both is very strong in human beings of all continents, colours and creeds, and Morris, it is said by some, may have started life as a pre-historic dance to appease the ‘Gods’…whoever they were, and to have a jolly good time while you were doing it. It may also have been a pairing fertility dance in the days when Christianity had not yet frowned upon the ‘free love’ society of pagan Britain, though we must say we have no direct evidence for either of these theories. Like the smile of the Sphinx – we simply cannot say what it’s all about. And perhaps that is part of its charm.

It was certainly originally home grown in one of the most charming and beautiful parts of the British Isles- The Cotswolds and although the basic Morris is the same to all Cotswold sides, in many cases each tiny place involved has its own particular way of performing it, its own tunes, some of which we can almost trace back to the centuries before music was written down and notated. Brackley is one of these. We do know that in London on 19 May 1448, performing Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services. 🙂 Doesn’t cost much more than that now! 😉

Why MORRIS? There are many schools of thought about the name. Perhaps, as many of our folk tunes and folk instruments did, the tradition came from the land of the Moors with the returning crusaders in the 11th century. Maybe the practice of blacking the face ( it is said for anonymity ) gave rise to the idea that the dancers were Moorish. Early records tell us that ‘Morys’ was danced in courtly circles by both men and women. When the Moors were eventually driven from mainland Spain in the 15th century, the dance, The Moresca was invented to celebrate. Danced with swords, perhaps this, over time, morphed into the Morris with its sticks?

The Moresca

It’s all really lost in the Mists of Time. And the bells and hankies? Well, it ‘s said that the Devil doesn’t like the noise or the swishing movements of the nose clouts….keeps him away. Pretty handy for unruly children too…. 😉

The Morris Federation... the logo...bells and hankies

So why should all this harmless tradition, this trifling activity attract such derision and scorn? No one complains about football supporters wearing rosettes or waving scarves, singing inane ditties ( well maybe they do…). 🙂 There is very little demur when people dress outlandishly to run in a Marathon or race around the streets on bicycles. No one thinks it odd when the young traipse into a field and jump up and down a la Dervish, on the spot in the mud to tribal rhythms till the early hours of the morning

Morris men may go to bed late….but they are up betimes on MayDay morn with the lark! It shows you Morris takes a certain amount of stamina. And in Processional dances where the side will progress for miles, stepping and jumping, arms waving, feet tapping and bodies weaving in and out of the line, A LOT of stamina. The best Morris dancers can leap into the air with grace and balletic ease…not the simplest of things to do…over and over again. It takes a good sense of rhythm…like rubbing the tummy and patting the head, to maintain a Morris. It’s a very special skill to be able to know where your feet should take you, at the same time know what your hankies are doing and be aware of your place in the line. And the manoeuvre you are about to make….Line Dancing…eat your heart out! 😉

In this homogenised era, when all nations are gradually evening out and losing their peculiar identity, what is wrong with celebrating the coming of Spring with colour, movement and music in a special and very Ancient English way?

No..No more. No more morrish ... p l e a s e !

So next time you are out and about as Spring turns to Summer and you hear the tinkling of bells and the air – rush of massed hankies, don’t run like the clappers after the hastily departing Beelzebub… be BRAVE and stand your ground. It’s very lucky to be hit by the Fool’s bladder, you know ( it’s a pig’s…dunno his name and it doesn’t hurt!) and I don’t know about you, but just at the moment I could do with a bit of Good Luck!

Brackley celebrated last year, fifty years from the re-formation of the side.We had a whale of a time. It was all good clean – well almost 😉 harmless, fun. Go to the website. for more information.

Here’s to the next fifty years!

Don’t worry….. you can’t keep a good Morriser down! 🙂

Our Squire...John...Putting the boot in ( don't worry it's a dance. ) with his bladder. Not HIS you understand, just some pig's.. 😉

And the connection with dummy boards?

Wearing white, holding bells, sports a hanky, got a silly hat... hmmmmm?

Is this do you think…a very early young Morrysh dauncer…. with his bells and hankies? ( Yes it’s male… young boys, remember, were dressed as girls till they were about 6 or so.).

I’ll leave you to decide.



5 Responses to “Morris, Merrymaking and Mayhem,”

  1. Angelique Miniatures Says:

    I never knew you were a Morris dancer. Good for you. Having been born and brought up in Cornwall, I saw a lot of Morris dancing and it was always fun to watch.

    There was a thing on Radio 2 a while ago where something was said about it dying out and loads of people phoned in to tell the DJ that it definately wasn’t….if anything, it was growing in popularity!

    And long may it continue to in my opinion. Morris dancing is one of our oldest traditions here in Britain, and in particular England and, some say, is one of the few surviving links to our valuable pagan past.
    Many of the oldest Morris dances have evolved from anciant pagan rituals honouring the Gods and Goddesses of nature.

    One of the oldest surviving Cornish traditions that is often accompanied by Morris dancing is the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Os’. Nobody is quite sure exactly how this strange ‘creature’ came about but it is accepted that it probably comes from the old Celtic Spriing and early Summer fertility celebrations. Legend has it that if a maid is caught by the Obby Os as he dances by, she will become pregnant………and I have known it to be true many times!!!

  2. pastmastery Says:

    I’ve been to Padstow and been caught by the ‘Oss but nothing happened…thanks Heavens… I’m obviously one of the failures!
    As you can see by this post I am passionate about the Morris tradition…no it isn’t going to die out!


  3. A question of belonging? « Pastmastery's Blog Says:

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  4. Come What May. « BoxCleva – clever little boxes. Says:

    […] ( Those who are uncertain what Morris men are or who would like to know a bit more.. go HERE ). […]

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