Who were the sword dancers, and why did they do it?

Review of the online talk given by Andrew Kennedy on 2nd May 2021.  If you’d like to read more about this and other aspects of sword dancing that have interested Andrew, please look at his website About Sword Dancing at www.sworddance.info 

Bob Wilson writes:

“On Sunday the 2nd May over 60 of us were treated to a ‘Zoom’ talk by Andrew Kennedy who attempted to answer the questions ‘Who were the Sword dancers and why did they do it?’.   Andrew of course is well known to us as past editor of the Sword Dance journal ‘Rattle up My Boys’ and an expert on all things long sword with a bit of rapper thrown in for good measure.

what is sword dance andrew kennedy slideFour photographs started the talk, emphasizing the wide range of sword dancing currently found in the UK. Rapper (Whip the Cat), long sword, (Isle of Man White boys), wooden peg sword dancing (Flamborough) and controversially, a garland dance (Minden Rose Garland Dancers), the latter being included as in Andrew’s opinion, it is hard to explain a sword dance while at the same time excluding garland dancing.

“Andrew attempted to answer the question ‘Why did they do it?’ by showing two 16th century paintings, Dance of the Nuremberg Cutlers Guild (1600) and The Kermesse of the Feast of St George (Bruegel, c. 1560). The former suggesting that the dance was performed by apprentices and journeymen of a guild in the presence of the elders, and the latter that the dance was part of village feast day celebrations.” Theories as to why sword dancing exists at all were suggested and these included religious or cultic, men’s adult fraternities, military exercises and industrial (mining). All of these were expanded upon with citing various historical texts.

Nürnberg_Schwerttanz_der_Messerer_1600
Nürnberg Schwerttanz der Messerer 1600

“Andrew quoted from Tacitus in 98AD who wrote: ‘Naked youths whose sport is fling themselves about in a dance between swords and spears levelled at them.’ Disappointingly, Andrew’s accompanying photograph of the Dithmarscher Sword Dancers taken 2011 seemed to be of a much tamer event.   Tacitus does however go on to suggest that: ‘However daring their abandon, their sole reword is the spectators’ pleasure.’

“Andrew introduced the idea that it might have religious significance by quoting Schuster (1870) linking the dance to the god Fro (Norse Freyr, brother of Freyja) associated with fertility, sexuality, virility and fine weather and Frazer (1890) in ‘The Golden Bough’ linking it to the death and rebirth of a sacred king.

“Initiation of young men into fraternities was explored with some disturbing evidence linking it to German National Socialism.

“The evidence that the sword dance might be linked to military exercise was discussed and it was even suggested that the dance used real swords which the men jumped over and ducked under. Woe betide anyone whose timing was less than perfect!

“Andrew noted that areas where coal or metal ore was mined have a robust sword dance history, iron ore in Cleveland, Sheffield steel, coal from Durham and Northumberland and wolfram (tungsten) in Austria.Andrew Kennedy on zoom

“Andrew also noted that Cecil Sharp in the early 20th Century had a theory that as he observed most English Sword dancing to be east of the Pennines that the dance probably has Viking origins.   Not strictly true as Sharp’s research later revealed dances as far away as Workington on the west coast.

“As to ‘Who were the sword dancers?’, Andrew produced three case studies. The first from the diary of a Nicholas Blundell of Little Crosby in Lancashire of whom Andrew said wrote, produced, directed and funded his own dance for ‘when his Marl-pit is flower’d’ and again on Twelfth night. Blundell went on to name all 14 men in his company.   The second was from the town of Bilk near Düsseldorf where the last three lead dancers (vortänzer) are known by name. In the nearby town of Haddorf the last known vortänzer, Schräder died in the winter of 1919-20 aged 91.   There was a fascinating third case from the town of Elgin in Scotland where in 1623 all the dancers as young men were fined 40/- for taking part in the sword dance.   Among other crimes the individual dancers were accused of were ‘running profanely through the high street’, a ‘blasphemous pledge of friendship at the market cross’, ‘riding the grey mare’ and ‘clinking of basins’.  The dancers were truly a law breaking band of young men who, Andrew says, eventually grew up to become respected elders of the town.

“In conclusion, sword dancers it was suggested came from a wide social range, not usually from the nobility and were all male (before the 20th century). As for why they did it, Andrew’s evidence points to many theories with each theory having notable exceptions.

“Andrew was happy to answer questions after the talk.

“Congratulations to Andrew for a well researched and thought provoking talk on the people of the sword dance throughout Britain and Europe.

Review by Bob Wilson, Captain of High Spen Blue Diamonds Traditional Rapper Sword Dancers

Andrew Kennedy & Rattle Up My Boys magazineParticipants were encouraged to support the sword dancing newsletter Rattle Up, My Boys or, better still, subscribe – a very reasonable £8 for one year (4 issues).  Email: rattleupmyboys@gmail.com

 

Andrew Kennedy edited the sword dancing newsletter Rattle Up, My Boys for a while and organised the overseas teams for the 2004 and 2008 International Sword Spectacular festivals.  Andrew has danced/played with teams including Clydeside Rapper, Carlisle Sword and Morris Dancers, Sallyport Sword Dancers, East Saxon Swords, White Star Sword Dancers, Thrales RapperSouthport Swords, and the North British Sword Dancers.

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