Being a fan of the classic Edward Woodward film The Wicker Man, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Morris Dancing that goes on outside village pubs in the summer months, and recently I was handed an old copy The Countryman Quarterly from Autumn 1983, which had a great article concerning the Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers, a local folk tradition which takes place on Wakes Monday in the Staffordshire village. The dancers consist of twelve men; six dancers with reindeer antlers, a hobby horse, Maid Marion, a Fool, a musician playing an accordion, a youngster carrying a bow and arrow and another youngster carrying a triangle. They congregate at St. Nicholas’ Church in the morning, then dance around the village, the festivities ending in the evening. Unlike the Wicker Man however, there is no sacrifice at the end, but the folk dance itself certainly gives us a glimpse of the past. It is indeed a centuries old tradition, being mentioned in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire in 1686, and like most village folk dances it was discontinued during the Commonwealth years under Oliver Cromwell. Debate continues on the origins of the Horn Dance; a pagan folk festival performing sympathetic magic before the hunting season or a fertility rite are two theories. One of the horns was carbon dated to the 11th century.
The Mummers folk plays occur up and down the country; some Mummers have disguises, masks or blackened faces, others dress up in various costumes and perform plays that normally entail a fight, whereby the fallen participant gets revived or resurrected by a Doctor, such as with St. George and the Dragon. Some perform a play on Bonfire Night, mid-winter or around Christmas, and Pace-Egging around Easter. Sometimes the Mummers pay house-to-house visits, other Mummers perform their plays outside Pubs. Different variations can be found around the UK, the Mummers dating back to the medieval period when they appeared in the court of various monarchs during festivities, though in its current format of the ‘Doctor’ play, it can be traced to the 18th century.
Morris Dancers are a common site in various villages in England, the folk-dance appearing in England around the 15th century, with the working peasantry recorded as taking part in the dances by the 17th century, especially at Whitsun. The style of dancing varies from village to village, but is always choreographed, commonly the dancers having bells on their shins, and using sticks, handkerchiefs, or even swords. An example of the tradition today is the Leominster Morris Dancers, who celebrate the ancient custom of Wassailing, and at Christmas they parade into the orchards near Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, to bless the trees by placing a cider-soaked piece of Christmas cake on the branches and sprinkling cider around the roots, dancing and singing the Wassail song. This it is believed will ensure a bumper apple crop in the coming year. The communal wassail cup was filled with mulled ale and passed around as part of the celebrations.
It is always satisfying to see these traditional folk events still taking place, and many of these events can still be seen throughout the year and welcome visitors. Below are various links for further information:
Some Morris Dancers perform Mummers plays, and information on this can be found here on theMorrisring.org