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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

The Bampton Morris, Oxfordshire

Morris dancing is yet another of those English customs which claim to have their roots in pagan fertility rites - and who is to say definitively that there is no truth in that? We know that this is an ancient custom - Shakespeare mentions it, and his colleague the actor Will Kemp was famed for his Morris dancing, and it was referred to as an old custom even then rather than as some novelty.
An enduring mystery is the word Morris, sometimes spelled Morrice. It seems likely that this is a corruption of Moorish, but whether we learned the dance from some fabled North African root, or via Spain with its Moorish southern part, or at some point it was fashionable to use the word to describe such prancing and music it may never be known.
The village of Bampton in Oxfordshire has one of the longest established traditions of Morris dancing in the country, perhaps the oldest, as most of the 'sides' now performing were the creations of the Cecil Sharp revival of the first half of the 20th century, or the folk music boom of the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest documentary proof of the Morris in Bampton is dated 1847, a rather disparaging mention by a local cleric, but again he wrote of the custom as a long established one.
For those who have never seen the Morris, it is a set dance performed to music (fiddle or squeeze box usually) by a varying number of (usually but not these days exclusively) men, generally clad in white, or a white shirt and darker trousers, with hats often rose-bedecked, and vitally important, bells attached to the ankles. They carry handkerchiefs, waved in some dances, held to form lines or pairs in others. At its best the Morris is rather stately and graceful, and it is easy to link courtly dances with that style rather than the tomfoolery some sides enjoy. The Bampton side is made up of six dancers, Cotswold style; in the North of England far larger numbers tend to be involved.
Bampton's dance has a fool at the side - often the fool's role is to ensure the audience makes donations to the beer fund that is a vital part of the tradition - when the Bampton cleric criticised the Morris in 1847 it was for this aspect that he frowned on the thing. At Bampton there is a rather odd variation, a cake-bearer who exchanges morsels of fruit-cake for - yes, donations.
In the early- and mid-20th century there were various splits and arguments among leading lights of the Morris in Bampton, a history of which is slightly reminiscent of Monty Python's People's Front of Judea scene from Life of Brian. The outcome is that today three Morris sides exist in the village, all dancing these days on Spring Bank Holiday (the traditional day used to be Whit Monday), all carefully avoiding one another's route around the village (where there are still plenty of pubs to dance outside, though not the 14 the settlement once boasted).

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