There are claims that English records of the morris dance dating back to 1448 exist, but these are open to dispute. There is no mention of "morris" dancing earlier than the late 15th century, although early records such as Bishops' "Visitation Articles" mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities as well as mumming plays. Furthermore, the earliest records invariably mention "Morys" in a court setting, and both men and women are mentioned as dancing, and a little later in the Lord Mayors' Processions in London. It is only later that it begins to be mentioned as something performed in the parishes. There is certainly no evidence that it is a pre-Christian ritual, as is often claimed.
In the modern day, it is commonly thought of as a uniquely English activity, although there are around 150 morris sides (or teams) in the United States. British expatriates form a larger part of the morris tradition in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Hong Kong, and there are isolated groups in other countries, for example that in Utrecht, Netherlands, and Alsace, France.
Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in morris dances, especially at Whitsun. In 1600 the Shakespearean actor William Kempe morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Days Wonder (1600). The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, however, suppressed Whitsun Ales and other such festivities. When the crown was restored by Charles II, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday, as the date coincided with the birthday of Charles II.
Morris dancing continued in popularity until the industrial revolution and its accompanying social changes. Four teams claim a continuous lineage of tradition within their village or town: Abingdon (their morris team was kept going by the Hemmings Family), Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. Other villages have revived their own traditions, and hundreds of other teams across the globe have adopted (and adapted) these traditions, or have created their own styles from the basic building blocks of morris stepping and figures.
Several English folklorists were responsible for recording and reviving the tradition in the early 20th century, often from a bare handful of surviving members of mid-19th-century village sides. Among these, the most notable are Cecil Sharp, Maud Karpeles, and Mary Neal. Boxing Day 1899 is widely regarded as the starting point for the morris revival. Cecil Sharp was visiting at a friend's house in Headington, near Oxford, when the Headington Quarry morris side arrived to perform. Sharp was intrigued by the music and collected several tunes from the side's musician, William Kimber; not until about a decade later, however, did he begin collecting the dances, spurred and at first assisted by Mary Neal, a founder of the Espérance Club (a dressmaking cooperative and club for young working women in London), and Herbert MacIlwaine, musical director of the Esperance Club. Neal was looking for dances for her girls to perform, and so the first revival performance was by young women in London.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, several men's sides were formed, and in 1934 the Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides. In the 1960s and especially the 1970s, 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. There are now male, female and mixed sides to be found.
Partly because women's and mixed sides are not eligible for full membership of the Morris Ring, two other national (and international) bodies were formed, the Morris Federation and Open Morris. All three bodies provide communication, advice, insurance, instructionals (teaching sessions) and social and dancing opportunities to their members. The three bodies cooperate on some issues, while maintaining their distinct identities.
Bacon also lists the tradition from Lichfield, which is Cotswold-like despite that city's distance from the Cotswold morris area; the authenticity of this tradition has been questioned. In 2006 a small number of dances from a previously-unknown tradition was discovered by Barry Care of Moulton Morris Men (Ravensthorpe, Northants) - two of them danceable.
Other dances listed by Bacon include border morris dances from Brimfield, Bromsberrow Heath, Evesham, Leominster, Much Wenlock, Pershore, Upton-upon-Severn, Upton Snodsbury, White Ladies Aston, and miscellaneous non-Cotswold, non-Border dances from Steeple Claydon and Winster. There are a number of traditions which have been invented since the mid twentieth century, though few have been widely adopted. Examples are Broadwood, Duns Tew, and Ousington-under-Wash in the Cotswold style, and Upper and Lower Penn in the Border style. In fact, for many of the "collected" traditions in Bacon, only sketchy information is available about the way they were danced in the nineteenth century, and they have been reconstructed to a degree that makes them largely twentieth century inventions as well. Some traditions have been reconstructed in several strikingly disparate ways; an example would be Adderbury, danced very differently by the Adderbury Morris Men and the Adderbury Village Morris.
The North West tradition is named after the North West region of England and has always featured mixed and female sides - at least as far back as the eighteenth century. There is a picture of Eccles Wakes (painted in the 1820s, judging by the style of dress of some of the participants and spectators) that shows both male and female dancers.
Historically most sides danced in various styles of shoes or boots, though dancing in clogs was also very common. Modern revivalist sides have tended more towards the wearing of clogs. The dances were often associated with rushcarts at the local wakes or holidays. The dances themselves were often called 'maze' or 'garland dances' as they involved a very intricate set of movements in which the dances wove in and out of each other. Some dances were performed with a wicker hoop (decorated with garlands of flowers) held above the dancer's head. Some dancers were also associated with a tradition of mumming, holding a pace egging play in their area.
The Britannia Coco-nut Dancers, named after a mill not far from Bacup, are unique in the tradition, in that they used sawn bobbins to make a noise, and perform to the accompaniment of a brass ensemble. They are one of the few North West morris groups that still black up their faces. It is said that the dance found its way to the area through Cornishmen who migrated to work in the Rossendale quarries.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into 'jazz dancers.' (A Bolton troupe can be seen in a pre-war documentary by Humphrey Jennings) The dances have evolved stylistically and intheir dress with the use of pom poms and elements of dress from other styles of dance such as cheerleaders. However, they refer to themselves as 'morris dancers' and are still mainly based in the Northwest of England . During the folk revival in the 1960s, many of the old steps to dances such as 'Stubbins Lane Garland' were often passed on by old people.
Many dances were collected, by Cecil Sharp and later collectors, and several were included in Bacon's book, but border morris was largely neglected by revival morris sides until late in the twentieth century. The Silurian Morris Men of Ledbury, Herefordshire changed over from Cotswold to Border morris in 1979, and the Shropshire Bedlams were founded in 1975; both became pioneers of a resurgence of border morris among revival sides in the following decades.
Usually regarded as a type of morris, although many of the performers themselves consider it as a traditional dance form in its own right, is the sword dance tradition, which includes both rapper sword and longsword traditions. In both styles the "swords" are not actual swords, but implements specifically made for the dance. The dancers are usually linked one to another via the swords, with one end of each held by one dancer and the other end by another. Rapper sides usually consist of five dancers, who are permanently linked-up during the dance. The rapper sword is a very flexible strip of spring-steel, with a fixed handle at one end, and a rotating handle at the other. The longsword is about 0.8 metres long, with a wooden handle at one end, a rounded tip, and no edge. Longsword sides consist usually of either six or eight dancers. In both rapper and longsword there is often with a supernumerary, who dances around, outside, and inside the set.
Another expression of the morris tradition is Vessel Cupping. This was practised in the East Riding of Yorkshire until the 1920s. It was a form danced by itinerant ploughboys in sets of three or four, about the time of Candlemas.
Music was traditionally provided by either a pipe and tabor or a fiddle. These are still used today, but the most common instrument is the melodeon. Accordions and concertinas are also common, and other instruments are sometimes used. Often drums are employed.
Cotswold and sword dancers are most often accompanied by a single player, but Northwest and Border sides often have a band, usually including a drum.
For Cotswold and (to a degree) Border dances, the tunes are traditional and specific: the name of the dance is often actually the name of the tune, and dances of the same name from different traditions will have slightly different tunes. For Northwest and sword dancing there is less often a specific tune for a dance: the players may use several tunes, and will often change tunes during a dance.
Many participants will refer to the world of morris dancing as a whole as the morris.
A morris troupe is usually referred to as a side or a team. The two terms are interchangeable. Despite the terminology, morris dancing is hardly ever competitive.
A set (which can also be referred to as a side) is a number of dancers in a particular arrangement for a dance. Most Cotswold morris dances are danced in a rectangular set of six dancers, and most Northwest dances in a rectangular set of eight; but there are many exceptions.
A jig is a dance performed by one (or sometimes two) dancers, rather than by a set. Its music does not usually have the rhythm implied by the word jig in other contexts.
The titles of officers will vary from side to side, but most sides have at least the following:
Many sides have one or more fools. A fool will usually be extravagantly dressed, and communicate directly with the audience in speech or mime. The fool will often dance around and even through a dance without appearing really to be a part of it, but it takes a talented dancer to pull off such fooling while actually adding to and not distracting from the main dance set.
Many sides also have a beast: a dancer in a costume made to look like a real or mythical animal. Beasts mainly interact with the audience, particularly children. In some groups this dancer is called the hobby.
Most Cotswold dances alternate common figures (or just figures) with a distinctive figure (or chorus). The common figures are common to all (or some) dances in the tradition; the distinctive figure distinguishes that dance from others in the same tradition. Sometimes (particularly in corner dances) the choruses are not identical, but have their own sequence specific to the tradition. Nevertheless, something about the way the chorus is danced will distinguish that dance from others. Several traditions will often have essentially the same dance, where the name, tune, and distinctive figure are the same or similar, but each tradition employs its common figures and style.
In England, an ale is a private party where a number of morris sides get together and perform dances for their own enjoyment rather than for an audience. Food is usually supplied, and sometimes this is a formal meal known as a feast or ale-feast. Occasionally an evening ale will be combined with a day or weekend of dance, where all the invited sides will tour the area and perform in public. In North America the term is widely used to describe a full weekend of dancing involving public performances and sometimes workshops. In the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, the term "ale" referred to a church- or village-sponsored event where ale or beer was sold to raise funds. Morris dancers were often employed at such events.
The "soul" of morris dancing exists within the many individual sides, which are for the most part constituted as clubs or sides, each with its own constitution and procedures. These clubs act in a general harmony of good-will, each acknowledging the geographic rights of others. While there is nothing to stop one side performing in the heartland of another, this is rarely done without permission and agreement. In many cases sides partner each other by invitation at Morris Dancing venues.
The continuance of the morris is as much in the hands of independent groups of enthusiasts as it is in the nationwide groupings such as the The Morris Ring or the The Morris Federation So while for some sides there is a feeling that the music and dance recorded in the 19th century should be maintained, there are others who freely reinterpret the music and dance to suit their abilities.
The sides, however, do not exist in isolation. Instead they will meet regularly, not just at Ring Meetings, but also at the annual Feast that many sides organise. Apart from copious amounts of drinking and eating, the Feast (which can run over two days) is also an occasion for large numbers of morris dancers and musicians from across the country to come together in massed ensembles, performing throughout the area covered by the host side.
Most morris clubs now have their own websites (www.morrismen.org.uk is a typical example) recording their exploits and listing their forthcoming performances.
Morris dancing is a an art and recreation enjoyed by men and women across the world. In England there are many Mixed Morris sides that enable people to dance and have roles irrespective of gender. A typcal Mixed Morris side is Rampant Rooster Morris based in Dorking, UK. Rampant Rooster Morris
Erasmus Grasser, a German sculptor, created 16 realistic animated wood figures in the late 15th century called the morris dancers.
New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh's novel Off With His Head (1957) is a detective story based around a morris dance.