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Review: The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750

John Forrest's prodigious work has been hailed as a monumental achievement. But JEREMY H KESSLER has sounded a note of caution in The American Morris Newsletter.

Once upon a time there was a simple answer to the question of the origin of morris: it was the degenerate remnant of a long-lost druidic fertility ritual. Then life got a bit more complex as researchers began to look beyond this theory and examine a bit of actual evidence.

Now, at last, we have a book that takes the next step by re-examining the complex theory of the origin of morris and making it ... well, making it even more complicated. Luckily, it also dismisses the question as misguided and pointless, and so allows us to get on with the business of a serious study of the early historical development of morris unencumbered by any burning need for a theory of monolithic origin of the dance. This book is John Forrest's long-awaited The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750.

Although there are plenty of earlier continental references to things with names like "morris," 1458, the date of the earliest known reference to morris in England, is an obvious starting point for the book. As to the end point, the author explains that the forms of the dance from the mid-eighteenth century onward tend to be very similar to those of the modern form, whereas earlier sources suggested a wide variety of forms and contexts, resulting in a natural stopping point for a work that simply could not manage to contain the entirety of the history of the dance up to the present day.

Annals of Early Morris (Heaney and Forrest, 1991) put into print the fruit of the "Early Morris Archive and Database," a major project designed to collect all pre-1750 references to morris dance and to classify them for study. The stated goal of the present work is to build on that database to create a developmental history of morris dance. Forrest writes (pp. xvii-xviii):

...there was never a time when one could speak of the morris dance (nor is this true today). Under the rubric "morris" have been included solo jigs, country dances for couples, maypole dances, sword fighting dances, and mimes, to name a few. Thus a simple analysis of the geographical spread of "morris" would not be appropriate. Rather, what is needed is a detailed investigation of the evolution of each dance idea and how these strands affected one another. Furthermore, a simple spatial diffusion model would miss the critical importance of the social contexts of the dances, which varied from royal courts to village streets, but not in absolute correlation with dance types.

But this book is quite obviously much more to Forrest than just a morris history. From introduction to appendices, Forrest, a professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Purchase, is only too happy to digress into a detailed discussion of research methodology. At times, in fact, he seems as interested in discussing methodology as in discussing morris dance. For a reader interested solely in learning about early morris history this can be distracting, but Forrest would doubtless argue (and not without merit) that an understanding of his method is extremely important, not just in advancing the cause of accurate and meaningful research in general, but in understanding his current topic in particular.

In the process of his arguments, he tosses about terms such as "schismogenesis," "syncretic," and "seriation," but does a good job of explaining them to the extent that one unfamiliar with such jargon (such as this reviewer) can still follow the argument. This is important, in that it allows the book to appeal to a wider range of audience, which is crucial in a book such as this.

At the end of the first chapter (Theories of Origin), following a long discussion on the history of the history of morris, Forrest outlines his project. As a basic structure he chooses to divide the topic by dance venues, those critical social contexts he mentioned.

Forrest makes it clear that he does not expect instances of morris from different venues to be the same, and he makes the good point that, in fact, identical dances in different contexts could make for completely different "dance events"-dance form plus context.

Forrest's outline therefore begins with generating a list of these venues (Chapter 2, The Contexts), proceeds to describing the dances within each of those contexts (Chapters 3 through 11: Earliest References; Royal Court; Urban Street; Church Property; Church Proscription and Prosecution; Public Stage; Rural Locations; Assemblies and the Country Dance Hall; and Private Premises), and concludes by looking for patterns and the means by which evolution of the dance forms occurred (Chapter 12, Endings). There are also four appendices: Methodological Issues: The Early Morris Database and Archive; Visitation Articles Banning Morris; Mr Isaac's Morris 1716, Transcription from Feuillet Notation by Allan Terry; and Extant Churchwardens' Accounts.

As mentioned above, Forrest provides a detailed history of morris origin theories, but he is not particularly interested in adding to the list. If forced into a scheme of linear development, his evolutionary model would essentially track morris from courtly entertainment to a church-supported spectacle sometimes parodying that court entertainment, to a tool for parish fundraising, to a church-opposed symbol of disorder and pre-reformation values, to a puritan-opposed and cavalier-supported symbol of the ills/good of society, and onward.

But Forrest portrays a developmental picture far too complex and diverse ever to fit into something as simple as a straight line out of a single point of origin, so he focuses instead on examining the various forms of the dance in their respective contexts. This is a part of the methodology that he espouses repeatedly throughout the book. It seems to work well in general, but can sometimes make it hard to step back from any given paragraph and see an overall picture, as seemingly related items are spread wide across the book by dint of having appeared at different venues.

Forrest begins with a fascinating discussion of the courtly morris as an evolution out of the knightly tournament of earlier centuries. He compares both skeletal structures and contexts of the two and argues convincingly the strong similarities. He then extends the comparison to bring church-sponsored ales into the picture. He discusses the "summer lords" of such events as parodies of true nobles, and concludes that their entertainments should therefore parody those of the real nobles. It is here that Forrest sees the merger of Robin Hood with morris, for as morris became a fitting spectacle dance for such occasions, Robin was adopted as the summer lord.

In the remainder of the book Forrest covers the complex forces that acted upon English society in general and morris in particular over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Central to this discussion is the drastically changing role of the church, which held a prime position of influence in the development of morris throughout the period, but which completely reversed its stance from supporter to opponent.

Annals of Early Morris, important as it was, was simply a catalogue of early references; in The History of Morris Dancing Forrest has undertaken a much more ambitious project. Work of this sort about morris is direly needed and to be applauded, but given the great limits of extant sources Forrest is often reduced to building upon a foundation of unproven hypotheses. While this does not in itself invalidate anything in his work (the hypotheses mostly seem reasonable), and indeed it is probably quite a necessity given the state of hard evidence, it is important to bear in mind when attempting to follow his arguments.

What Forrest writes on page 55 about some of the earliest references would be well applied to much of the book: "None of the above conjectures based on these earliest of sources is meant to be definitive or exhaustive. The inquiries are merely to point the way and indicate trends to be explored in more depth as the data grow richer."

Speculation and hypotheses are very important in advancing knowledge in a field, so a careful study of this book should be a wonderful jumping point for future studies. There is danger, however, in potential confusion between what Forrest is putting forward as solidly based on extant sources and what he speculates. At times he seems quite aware of this danger and writes accordingly, but at others he apparently feels on firm enough ground to present his views as solid argument.

A misguided example of this latter case is how Forrest deals with relations of morris to other dance forms, specifically late sixteenth century Italian courtly dance and English country dance of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Comparisons to country dance occur frequently as Forrest attempts to describe the interconnectedness of the two forms. While I believe Forrest is correct in ascribing some sort of link, he insists on speaking repeatedly of sixteenth and early seventeenth century country dance as if there is solid information on the topic.

To mention just a few instances of this: in a discussion of early sixteenth century dance he describes country dance "of the period" as being characteristically figured (p. 167); in a discussion of stage morris around the turn of the seventeenth century he mentions the relative popularity of circular versus longways formations in country dance of the time (p. 224); and in an attempt to present the meaning of country dance in the late Elizabethan era, he remarks on the ease with which ideas from the Italian contrapassi of the late sixteenth century could have been blended with English country dance of the time due to similarities in "overall style, form, and comportment" (pp. 277-81).

In all of the above cases (as in others), Forrest writes as if English country dance of the period were a known quantity, but it most definitely is not. In the last example above, he does choose (rightly) to insert a "perhaps" into the sentence when mentioning Italian rustic dances, but the overall appearance is merely to reinforce the authority that he inappropriately assumes when speaking of the English country forms.

In fact very little is known of country dance before Playford published in 1651; like morris there are numerous references to its existence from at least the late Elizabethan era, but there is precious little upon which to base conclusions of "style, form, and comportment." Certainly hypotheses can (and should) be proposed, but there is as yet no pudding in which to find their proof.

It is telling that the closest Forrest comes to producing support for what he presents as the picture of this early country dance is a reference to a 1937 article by Melusine Wood. Wood is due some respect as a pioneer in the field, but she has generally been superceded and is most definitely not a dependable source. I would be most happy to hear that Forrest has a more reliable source upon which to base what he presents repeatedly as known evidence, but sadly he has declined to offer any such support within this present work.

Additionally, when Forrest does invoke Wood specifically, it is to present the argument that circular couple dances of circa 1580 were, by 1600, evolving to integrate Italian contrapassi, resulting in the evolution of both the longways set and formal figured sequences. Forrest (perhaps still passing on Wood's argument, it is hard to tell) describes the contrapassi as "Italian figured couple dances predominantly in longways formation," but most contrapassi are actually circular dances. There is even a lovely diagram in Caroso's 1581 Il Ballarino (a source noted by Forrest), showing the circular pattern of the dance.

Forrest also appears to be slightly confused on the topic himself. On page 224 he writes of an emphasis on partners as characteristic of a country dance, but on page 278 he claims that the "hallmark" of country dances was that "everyone danced together rather than in the isolated solitude deux couples of the courtly dances." There are, in fact, courtly dances for both individual couples and for longways sets going back to the fifteenth century dance treatises, the earliest such documents known to current scholars, and convincingly putting forth anything as the hallmark of country dances would require a substantial supportive argument which is here completely absent.

What, then, is the effect on the overall picture painted by Forrest, if a close connection between rural morris and a well understood country dance for most of the period covered by the book remains unproven? On page 281 he suggests, essentially, that both dance forms adopted figures over the course of the sixteenth century, and that this common feature facilitated an exchange of ideas between the two forms. But with the existence of figures in both the rural morris and the country dance of the time mere speculation (one that seems quite reasonable, at least in the case of morris, but speculation all the same) where are we left?

The importance of the link would seem to emerge on pages 317-318, wherein Forrest argues for the adoption of the longways for six or eight set as having occurred in the late seventeenth century. His argument goes along the following lines:

1) "Formal principles of choreography passed from elite to rural dance in the seventeenth century."
2) "...rural morris picked up ideas from (all manner of) country dances in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."
3) "...it is possible to argue that particular ideas made the transition, and it is possible to give rough dates when the transition might have taken place."
4) "...longways dances for six and eight reached their peak of popularity in the mid-seventeenth century and began to wane by the 1680s."
5) "Thus, it is a fair assumption that rural morrises around the late seventeenth century were adopting the general style of the longways for six or eight that was so popular in Playford's first edition."

Although an unproven point 2 certainly calls this argument into question, its true weakness lies in points 4 and 5. In point 4 Forrest reverts to his habit of stating as fact mere speculations concerning the nature of country dance. Upon what does he base this assertion? Certainly there are many dances of the longways for six or eight style in the first edition of Playford and certainly those numbers decrease rapidly in subsequent editions, but a statement that the style peaked in mid-century presumes definite knowledge of its popularity in the earlier part of the century, and this is missing.

Perhaps (and while this seems more reasonable it is still speculation) the style peaked much earlier and was already in decline by the time Playford published.

If there was an exchange of ideas between country dance and rural morris then it is certainly possible that the longways for six or eight style was adopted by rural morris sometime before this style declined in popularity in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

But Forrest, with no other explanation, goes way beyond this to assert not only that this possibility is a "fair assumption," but also that the adoption occurred precisely during the twilight of that style's popularity, rather than earlier in the century (or late in the previous one).

Would it not be more reasonable to suggest that the transfer occurred as the style was gaining (or peaking) in popularity?

So it remains an unproven but fair hypothesis that the two forms interacted with each other and that sometime prior to the end of the seventeenth century morris adopted the longways for six or eight set. But there are still two very important ramifications to be considered.

First, it should be noted that many of the speculations Forrest presents are quite reasonable theories. That of Italian courtly dance having influenced English dance of the period, for example, is a fascinating theory worthy of detailed study. The fact remains, however, that Forrest neglects to label many of these theories as the unsupported assertions that they are.

This is likely to mislead those who will attempt to build upon his research in the same way that Forrest describes (p. 4) the old theory of pagan origins to morris becoming "entrenched" following unsubstantiated comments being presented as fact in John Brand's Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain.

Second, one could argue that if there are mistakes in this area of the book, then there are likely to be mistakes in other areas as well. The fascinating argument relating the early courtly morris to remnants of the knightly tournament, for example, lies in an area in which I personally have far less knowledge than that of dance, so errors similar to those in the discussions of country dance might escape undetected in this review. This is said not to suggest that there necessarily are hidden errors in that or any other section of the book, but instead to point out that a given level of scholarship in one area warns of the potential for the same elsewhere.

One final point to be mentioned is the proper audience for this book. Make no mistake: this book will be of no use at all to anyone who wishes nothing more than to dance morris with his or her team. It is a book concerned solely with the early historical development of the dance form and its associated contexts, so the proper audience for it consists mainly of dance historians.

It will also be of no use to historical re-enactors who wish nothing more than to be told how to perform morris in a given historical style, although it does contain much information that will be of value to re-enactors interested in further research in the field.

In conclusion, the book Forrest presents has its faults and is certainly not definitive. It is, however, a good step in an area that has previously lacked even a single book. While there are books documenting later development, there have previously been only periodical articles and a chapter here and there covering the first two documented centuries of morris history in England. Now, for all its flaws, there is a complete book devoted to this early period.

In his concluding chapter Forrest seems far more concerned with general theories of analysis than with a specific analysis of morris, and he concludes with the following (p. 362):

What we can say instead is that all these vexations to draw boundaries around the field are made irrelevant by a processual and dialectical approach to performance forms. There is no part or level of the dialectical model - culture, class, community, cohort, individual - that can be usefully isolated as a discrete entity capable of analysis without reference to other parts of the model....This work is, therefore, dedicated to a new vision of a 'folk' in the hope that by not drawing boundaries around them, they may one day cease to exist as a marginal (or any other kind of) category defined by Western elites.

Given Forrest's obvious desire to provide not just a morris history but also a template for future folk-related research, it is more that a bit ironic to be able to criticize the work on points of basic scholarship such as the proper labeling of speculation.

Still, the book does provide large amounts of good information and interesting speculation in a very readable presentation, so keeping these caveats firmly in mind it is a worthwhile addition to the library of anyone seriously interested in the early history of morris.

Jeremy H. Kessler cannot remember a time when he was not involved in some form of dance. He has been studying, performing, and teaching both renaissance dance and early English country dance for nearly twenty years. Jeremy began learning morris by joining Ravenswood Morris (Chicago, IL) in 1995, and has been torturing that team as foreman for the past two years. He pays the rent by maintaining computer networks.

2000 Jeremy H Kessler, The American Morris Newsletter, Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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