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Finding Morris Dancing in Archives, by Jameson Wooders

Here is a review of the talk about Morris from the Archives, given by Jameson Wooders on 30th January.  It was attended by around 200 online guests from the UK, Netherlands and the USA.

“Jameson Wooders gave the latest in a series of ‘FED’ talks via Zoom to a large audience.  The title was “Morris from the Archives” with a humorous sub-title making reference to his approaching old age, the state of his body in general, and knees in particular.  For the rest of the talk apart from the title, he acknowledged the work of his predecessors in particular Keith Chandler, John Forrest and Mike Heaney and the research done for their publications.

“The archives referred to are those of various organisations, such as the monetary accounts of noble’s estates; special groups, i.e. guilds; church records; private houses with large rural estates; personal and domestic records and paintings, tapestries and artefacts.  What the accounts show is payment for dancers and morris equipment such as bells and clothing as well as mummers, disguising and boy’s teams.  There was payment recorded for a female musician.

“He recounted his inspiration which was a search for records of any type in his local area of Berkshire seeking reference to morris; Jameson also went back and looked at the original sources used by others.  The earliest reference (found by Mike Heaney), goes back to 19th May 1448, slightly earlier than John Forrest wrote about in his “History of Morris 1458-1750”.  The occasions mentioned are various church ales and events; performances at great houses and guilds; holiday pageantry, Midsummer Watch events and calendar events such as Christmas.

Vinckenboom’s Morris dancers by the Thames at Richmond, c. 1620
Vinckenboom’s Morris dancers by the Thames at Richmond, c. 1620

“Shortage of time curtailed the story leaving out more modern times and into the variety of dance styles, but there was one thing Jameson was keen to emphasise.  Morris dancers may do it all day and all night because it is their fertility rite – but it isn’t.  The oft repeated references to morris dancing and pagan rituals have been known to be wrong for some years.  So teams, why not take the opportunity whenever it arises to tell the truth; morris dancing was and is an entertainment which has gone through various levels of society from nobleman to pub landlord.

“One final thought.  It needs emphasising that one of the skills required for this sort of research on original sources is the ability to read and decipher old writing and language and Jameson deserves massive congratulations for acquiring these skills and sharing them with us all.

by Dave Eyre, Sheffield City Morris Men & Sheffield City Giants

Clip from a painting by Vinckenboom shows Morris Dancers beside the Thames at Richmond from a picture now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and dates from around 1620.

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