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A hand-painted postcard of Lymm Morris Dancers, 1904.

Merrie England: charting the history of morris dancing

We chat to author Michael Heaney about his new book tracing the history of morris dancing from its earliest emergence to the present day.

While English folk music has been explored and written about on many occasions, our folk dances have had less academic attention. Aside from John Forrest’s The History of Morris Dancing 1458-1750 (2000) and Dr John Cutting’s History and the Morris Dance: A Look at Morris Dancing from Its Earliest Days Until 1850 (2006), there has been little attempt to chart the history and development of morris dancing. And with these works ending their analyses in the mid-18th and -19th Centuries respectively, there is even less written about morris up to the present day.

As these volumes are now rather expensive to get hold of (I’ll admit, neither adorn my bookcase), it was with some excitement I learned of a new history of morris in the making. I had a chat with author Michael Heaney about his morris career, what we can expect from his new book, The Ancient English Morris Dance, and thoughts on the future of morris. 

What I like is the return of a perception of morris as a performance art rather than just a hobby – something that is worth watching as well as worth doing.

Michael Heaney

Thanks for speaking to us, Michael. Firstly, let’s establish your morris credentials. I understand you are a dancer yourself? Where and when did your morris career begin?

It began in Oxford in 1976 – quite late; I was already nearly 30. I had seen Oxford City Morris at the annual fair in Oxford a few times, and driving through Bampton one Bank Holiday I happened to see Gloucestershire Old Spot dancing and thought they looked impressive and so sought out Oxford City and joined them.

At the beginning of the 1980s, I moved to Eynsham where the Eynsham Morris was just starting up again, and joined them, and have been a member ever since. I picked up concertina and melodeon in pub sessions and when arthritis curtailed my dancing I became one of the musicians for the team.

I love Eynsham’s dancing, it’s a brilliant, lively tradition. I did a workshop with you at Sidmouth a few years ago and found it really challenging. Did your academic interest in morris history stem from being a dancer?

Yes, but rather by accident. After I’d been with the Oxford City Morris Men for a couple of years, the bagman produced a battered old photograph album and said, “This is our history from 1937 to the early 60s – can you bring it up to date?” So I started digging and never stopped. In the end, I produced 11 volumes for Oxford City, bringing the history up to 1982. They’re now in the Oxfordshire History Centre, together with the six continuation volumes to 1996.

By then I’d begun to research more widely into morris. I was fortunate to be working in the Bodleian Library where I had available to me the resources to pursue the research; among other things, it holds the manuscripts of Percy Manning, who collected a lot of background material on morris in the 1890s, and revived the Headington Quarry team. I’ve always been one for digging down to the roots of things, and by then I’d got the bug.

What about your non-morris life; what’s your professional background?

I have degrees in the Slavonic languages and started work at the Bodleian Library (Oxford University’s main library) in 1970, cataloguing their Eastern European material. I remained there for all my professional career until I retired in 2012, in a variety of different roles from library automation to systems and data analysis, statistics, digitisation, copyright, and general management. I ended up as its Executive Secretary, basically a catch-all title to allow me to do whatever the chief librarian decided to push my way.

It sounds like the book brings together both your personal and professional interests. My copy of your hefty tome only arrived as we started organising this interview, so while I haven’t yet got through the whole thing, the 50+ pages of bibliography speak to the amount of painstaking work that must have gone into it. How long has it been in development?

Yes, I began thinking about this back in the 1980s, when very little had been published for several decades. There were articles here and there, but nothing had looked seriously at the early history since Barbara Lowe’s article in 1957, and Christopher Cawte and co’s Geographical Index in 1960 – that gave a list of references but no analysis. Then I met Keith Chandler who was just beginning his research into Cotswold morris (South Midlands, as he prefers to call it), and his example showed me there was a lot to dig out in record offices, old newspapers and the like, so I started doing a lot of that. It helped that I was used to finding my way around libraries and archives.

We set our cut-off date at 1750, on the presumption that after that morris was much closer to what we see today. I was wrong!

Michael Heaney

I began to look at the early records and then found out that John Forrest in the USA was doing the same. We agreed to collaborate and that produced our Annals of Early Morris listing of early morris-dance references in 1991, and a joint article discussing the material. Annals was comprehensive enough to give us a much fuller perspective on the early history, instead of the fragmentary and only half-understood sources available before then. We set our cut-off date at 1750, partly, from my perspective at least, on the presumption that after that morris was much closer to what we see today. I was wrong!

I originally thought it would be nice to publish something on the centenary, in 1999, of Sharp’s meeting with William Kimber, and started writing, based on the material we’d gathered for Annals. Then, as my work life got more intense, I found I had less time to devote to it. At the same time, I began to realise just how much more work I would need to do in order to make the history more comprehensive. I decided to put it on the back burner until retirement, and until then just did smaller further forays into research and writing. 

Five years into retirement I realised that I had still been busy doing other activities. I decided it was now or never, so I started refusing all new invitations to do stuff and divesting myself of most of the other things I’d undertaken to do, so as to concentrate on it. I spent a couple of years chasing new primary sources – both for the early period, where so much more is now available digitally, and following up the later period more comprehensively. Then, four years ago, I began writing in earnest, starting with a thorough revision of the early material I’d begun years before. I then just kept writing until it was finished.

It’s been brewing for a little while then. You mention you were wrong to assume that 1750 was when ‘modern’ morris emerged. Is the finished product different from what you envisaged when you began your research and writing? 

Cover art for the Ancient English Morris Dance, a book by Michael Heaney
Release Date
30 March 2023
The Ancient English Morris Dance by Michael Heaney will be available in bookshops from 30th March 2023 for £29.99, but is available to buy now direct from Archaeopress (link below). Enter the discount code 2285-22 on ordering for a 20% discount (valid till 31st May).
If I had written the book when I first intended to, nearly 30 years ago, it would have been much more focused on Cotswold morris, and would have been much the poorer for it. Because Sharp found and then pursued the Cotswold dances, the story of the revival has been seen very much through a Cotswold lens for most of the 20th century. I was trying not to be influenced by my prejudices, and took the view (very much as John Forrest and I had done in Annals) that the criterion by which to judge whether something counted as ‘morris’ and should be included was what people at the time called it. If it was called ‘morris’, then it was ‘morris’ (with one or two caveats). That led me into lots of new areas.

Only three out of 27 chapters in the book are primarily focused on the Cotswold morris. The primary beneficiary of this wider focus is the North-West morris. There are two reasons for this. The first is that, whereas Cotswold morris has an admirable published history in Keith Chandler’s books, there is no such equivalent for North-West morris, so I felt obliged to go into its history in more detail. The second is that, looked at dispassionately, the North-West is where morris remained consistently strong and embedded in its communities when it was in decline elsewhere.

So this hasn’t just been about revisiting and updating work that’s gone before; you’ve covered a lot of new ground and uncovered new history?

I uncovered lots. I had no idea of the existence of morris dances and pieces of music called ‘morris dances’ in the higher echelons of Victorian society, for example. I knew nothing about the existence of ‘mock morris dancers’.

New sources for existing knowledge also enrich our understanding, although they may not change the overall pattern of what we know. They also often offer fascinating anecdotal glimpses into the lived experience of dancers and audience. For example, there are the Liverpool boys who were still dancing (North-West style) at an event in 1907 when the band came to the end of its music and stopped. The boys were then asked to bring their performance to an abrupt close too. The resourceful boys came back the next evening with their own school band playing alongside the supplied band. When the supplied band stopped, the school band carried on until the end of the dance, thwarting the jobsworth official who had wanted them to stop!

A painting of the Rush-Bearers, Lymm, Cheshire; unknown artist; York Museums Trust
The Rush-Bearers, Lymm, Cheshire; unknown artist; York Museums Trust

I love anecdotes like this. I think they show that these dances were not performed for the sake of ‘tradition’ or set in stone, but because people enjoyed dancing them and would adapt them to suit the situation.

Has morris evolved in other ways through its almost 600-year history?

Immensely. There are three main ways in which this has happened. The first is in the choreography of the dance itself. You only have to look at the different styles of Cotswold, Border and North-West to see that they are very different. The second is costumes and costume elements, which have continued to evolve; for example in the predominantly black costumes of many modern Border sides.

On a more detailed level, we can see the evolution from shoulder streamers (early morris) to handkerchiefs (Cotswold morris) to knotted handkerchiefs then slings (North-West Rushcart morris) to beribboned sticks (‘wands’) of the later North-West morris, to the shakers (pom-poms) of carnival morris.

The third aspect of the evolution is the social environment in which morris is performed, and the reasons for performing. In its earliest incarnation, it was a spectacular court entertainment, then it became an expression of community cohesion (especially in the Cotswolds and the North West), and elsewhere a solicitation custom indicative of privation (in the Border morris and the East of England). At the same time, it was seen as an expression of ancient Englishness, carefree and merry (hence the title of the book).

Given these changes, what common thread keeps morris as identifiably morris through those years?

The name – but that is a consequence of the decision I took to make it my criterion, so that is a circular argument! Particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept became very diffuse, and it becomes difficult – sometimes impossible – to pick through the various threads now and reach an unambiguous conclusion. In the areas where it prospered most strongly – the Cotswolds and the North-West – what keeps it cohesive is its role in binding communities together.

A modern dancer would probably find the dance 500 years ago very different then.

In the earliest period, when it came into this country from Europe, it would have looked very different and people today might have difficulty seeing the connection with modern morris. Possibly the other period which people would find strange is the Reformation and the period leading up to the Civil War, when morris dancing and maypoles became potent and contentious symbols of people’s adherence to the Royalist, traditionalist side in opposition to Parliamentarian Puritan voices.

That’s interesting because I think those outside of the morris world tend to view it as small-c conservative and very traditional, so probably wouldn’t be surprised by its alignment with the Royalists. Whereas most of us involved in morris, and the folk world more generally, would view it as a counterculture and anti-establishment. 

What else might those already involved in, or with a passing knowledge of morris, find most surprising about the history you lay out?

Lots, I hope! I think that the majority of the sources have not been cited in a published history before. If asked to single out one thing, I think it is that in the later periods I have shifted the main focus of the narrative from Cotswold to the North West, and the logical conclusion to which that leads is contemporary carnival morris.

What about someone with no knowledge of morris at all?

I have tried very hard to make this a narrative history which is understandable to, and interesting for, anyone with no previous knowledge of morris dancing. My wife was very helpful in this – as a non-dancer she read through several drafts and pointed out where I needed to explain things better to a lay readership. I have also tried to convey not just what was done, but what people – both practitioners and audience – thought about it, so it is as much a history of the ideas as it is about the practice.

What if we brought a dancer from the past to watch us in a pub car park on a Thursday night? What would they think about modern morris? (apart from what everyone thinks; why are they dancing in this pub car park and not on a village green somewhere…)

Probably, WTF!? I think that one new element that has emerged in the revival is the idea of morris as a hobby for its own sake. It is of course done for a variety of reasons, and always has been. Another thing that might strike an older dancer is the variety of styles of dancing visible at the same time. Morris dancing was much more regionally focused before the revival, so most people would only know of one style for much of the historical period.

I’m always interested in the interaction between the different traditions we often label ‘morris’. In Sheffield today we have nearly every style represented, but obviously in the past there would have been much less travelling and therefore traditions were presumably regional? Were they even aware of each other?

Recreation for Ingenious Head-peeces (1650); the first depiction to show a dancer holding handkerchiefs

The different styles that we see today only emerged at different periods. When stick dances first appeared at the end of the 17th century, they were called ‘bedlam morris’ in apparent contrast to ‘ordinary’ morris, so there must have been an awareness of the two styles. In the North-West, at the end of the 19th century, different styles were jostling for attention – the Rushcart style and newer style used at festivals, which eventually developed into carnival morris – and the differences were often commented on.

More often people were aware of historical changes over their lifetimes. This first emerges in the 16th Century when one text talks of a morris ‘in the ancient manner’, and Will Kemp, in 1600, pinned streamers to his shoulders which he described as ‘the olde fashion’, rather than holding napkins in his hands.

Is there anything from the history of morris to suggest that interest comes in cycles, and that we might be on the cusp of another revival? Boss Morris’ appearance at the Brits and interest in folklore generally suggests that we might already be in the middle of another one…

I think it’s only natural. It tends to cycle with the generations. There was a boom with Sharp’s revival in the early 1900s, another with the Morris Ring post-World-War-II, another with folk rock in the 1970s-80s. That generation is now reaching the end of its natural lifespan and the current generation is putting its own stamp on it. A bit like Planck’s principle that scientific change does not occur because individual scientists change their minds, but because they eventually die and the successive generations of scientists have different views. That fresh approach sparks new interest. There’s less evidence of that before the 20th century, though.

The folk-rock generation of the 1970s-80s is now reaching the end of its natural lifespan and the current generation is putting its own stamp on it.

Michael Heaney

So are you optimistic about the future of morris? Do you think it will evolve further into the 21st Century? 

I think we should always be optimistic, even if developments move in directions we may not be comfortable with as individuals. What I do like is the return of a perception of morris as a performance art rather than just a hobby – something that is worth watching as well as worth doing. Seeing Boss Morris at the Brits, I thought they were evoking not so much a tradition of Englishness as something exotic and spectacular, which must have been the kind of feelings morris evinced when it first burst onto the entertainment scene at the royal court in the 15th century.

I’m not saying everyone will look like Boss Morris (I’d struggle, for a start), but new ideas and new choreographies are constantly emerging. People are less constrained by any focus on historical continuity or precedent. In many ways that’s not new – until the focus that took root in the early 20th century on the revival as a revival of things past, performers had always innovated. That’s what led to the development of complex dances in the Cotswold morris, and to the evolution of the different North-West styles around the turn of the 19th century. 

The Ancient English Morris Dance by Michael Heaney will be available in bookshops from 30th March 2023 for £29.99, but is available to buy now direct from Archaeopress. Enter the discount code 2285-22 on ordering for a 20% discount (valid till 31st May).