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The earliest reference to the morris dance?

The author rehearses fifteenth-century forms of the words for 'morris' as a dance or performance and adduces a new antedating of the earliest occurrence of the word in English, from 1448.

In 2002 John Forrest and I announced in Notes & Queries the discovery of a new example of the use of the phrase 'morris dance' from 1448, antedating the earliest entry known to the OED by a decade. (1) This was in one of a series of inventories from Sir John Fastolf's Caistor Castle in Norfolk. The inventories (for details of which see our previous article) described the contents of the castle, including a tapestry in the Winter Hall which depicted a morris dance. One of the other inventories was from 1462, the third--possibly preceding our 1448 list--was undated. The undated list called it a 'morysch daunce', the 1448 text a 'morysk Daunce', and the 1462 one a 'Morys daunse'.

In the article we noted that using a phrase such as 'morris dance' to identify a tapestry implied that people reading the list would understand the phrase, and, therefore, that the dance was known in England at the time. This is despite the fact that all the earliest references allude to fine objects produced by craftsmen--to this tapestry, and two references to silverware from 1458. (2) But were these all examples of works of art imported from the continent? Perhaps the dance itself was not known in England until later. The first references indicating a performance of any kind are from 1466/67, when a 'moruske' was apparently performed at the household of Sir John Arundell at Lanherne in Cornwall, (3) and from 1477, when the Drapers' Company paid for a morris dance that was part of the Midsummer Watch in London on St Peter's Eve (28 June). (4)

It was therefore with great interest that I encountered a note in Anne Lancashire's recent book, London Civic Theatre, that 'a harper, piper and morris dancers' were paid by the Goldsmith's Company in 1448. (5) Her source was unpublished research by Professor David Parkinson of the University of Saskatchewan, and I am enormously grateful to both of them for sharing further details of the reference with me.

The reference occurs in the Wardens' Accounts and Court Minutes and is part of a set of payments made to entertainers, and for food and drink, by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths at their annual feast on St Dunstan's Day, 19 May: (6)
Soluciones & Expensa
In ffesto Sancti Dunstani

Item In primis paid vn to the v. marces
Item for xij, hattes for the Ministrelles x.. s.
Item for their drynk xx d
Item to Careawey harper xij. d
Item to Iohan Pyper ij. d
Item to the Moryssh. daunsers vij. s.

The amount is comparable with the payment made to the one of the musicians (the harper), once the 7s. is divided among several dancers, but nowhere near the amount spent on the minstrels, who also had their hats and drink paid for. Our only other early reference to a guild performance for a guild's own enjoyment (as opposed to the public spectacle of the Midsummer Watch) is from the Carpenters almost sixty years later, when morris dancers were paid 8d. on 11 November 1507. (7) More important, however, is that this is explicit evidence for morris dancers performing in England almost thirty years before the next 'definite' reference (the Drapers) in 1477, and almost twenty before the more enigmatic household 'moruske' in Lanherne in 1466/67.

The Goldsmiths' reference is very probably also the earliest occurrence of the phrase in English. I write 'probably' because the Goldsmiths' account book is a little ambiguous. The wardens were appointed at the Feast on 19 May each year, and the retiring wardens rendered their account at the same feast. It is not explicit whether the St Dunstan's Day payment each financial year relates to the first event of the wardens' year or the last. Currently the earliest reference--as described in Forrest's and my Notes & Queries article--is in the Caistor inventory dated 31 October 1448. If the St Dunstan's day payment relates to the year in which the account opens then this performance is datable to 19 May 1448; if not, then the date is 19 May 1449. Professors Parkinson and Lancashire concur that this entry should be attributed to 1448; after inspection of the manuscript I agree. It is much more likely that payments were made after the event, after the goods and services had been delivered. This entry should therefore record the payment for the feast on the day of the wardens' accession, 'from the ffest of Seint Dunston the xxvj yeer of Kyng H. the vjth, (p. 15), i.e. 19 May 1448.

This isolated reference is indicative of how little we know of the history of the dance. No more references have been traced within the records of the Goldsmith's Company. We may infer, however, that there must have been regular, if not annual, activity in England in the intervening period before the Drapers' reference in 1477, and the more frequent references extant from the beginning of the fifteenth century. (8) With luck, more references may emerge to throw light on the early history of the morris dance in this country.

The form of the word may give a hint of its history. The complete list of known fifteenth-century forms is now:
1448 moryssh daunseres (Goldsmiths)
1448 morysk Daunce (Caistor)
c.1448 morysch daunce (Caistor)
1458 moreys daunce (Wetenhale)
1458 Moresk (Chaworth)
1462 morys daunse (Caistor)
1466 moruske (Lanherne)
1477 morisse daunce (Drapers)
1494 mourice dance (Westminster Palace)

Even within these nine references three threads are discernable: three apparently end in the sound /s/, three in the sounds /sk/, and three (moryssh, morysch and morisse) in /sS/, where the capital /S/ represents some additional fricative or sibilant. This last triad suggests a form not found after the fifteenth century (though perhaps the Drapers' Company 1512 reference to a 'morish daunce' should be noted), (9) and may indicate an attempt to transcribe the Flemish form/morisx/(i.e. 's' followed by the sound of 'ch' as in 'loch'). The Flemish territories of the Duchy of Burgundy were the locus of an efflorescence of European culture in the fifteenth century, and it would not be surprising to find Flemish cultural influences reaching England at that time. The Flemish ending /sx/ has simplified to /s/ in modern Flemish and it would not be surprising if English speakers simplified the unfamiliar sound-group similarly.

The words themselves do occur earlier in English in contexts suggesting the meaning 'Moorish', i.e. relating to Moorish culture. A will of 1414 (misprinted 1394) refers to a vessel 'sculptum cum litteris de moreske' ('sculpted with Moorish letters') (10) and a 1434 text refers to a 'hullyng of black, red and green, with morys letters'. (11) Neither of these suggests the depiction of a performance of any kind, nor does an even more enigmatic form from 1341, 'Moricz', again apparently indicating a Moorish design on a vessel. (12) Our first indications of a dance or performance, however, remain firmly in the middle of the fifteenth century--at least until the next early reference is unearthed.


(1) Michael Heaney and John Forrest, 'An Antedating for the "Morris Dance"', Notes & Queries, 247.2 (June 2002), 190-93.

(2) Alice Wetenhale, [Will]. PRO Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Stokton 24-25 ('iij ciphos argenti sculptos cum moreys daunce'); Sir Thomas Chaworth, [Will], in Testamenta Eboracensia, Part II, Publications of the Surtees Society, 30 (Durham: Surtees Society, 1885), no. CLXXIX, pp. 220-29 (p. 226) ('iij peces of silver ... with a Moresk yeron').

(3) Records of Early English Drama: Dorset, edited by Rosalind Conklin Hays and C.E. McGee; Cornwall, edited by Sally L. Joyce and Evelyn S. Newlyn (Turnhout: Brepols; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), p. 529.

(4) A.H. Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1915), ii, 273.

(5) Anne Lancashire, London Civic Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 278 (note 54).

(6) 'Goldsmith's Company A. 1444. 22 Hen. VI 1516. 7 Hen. VIII. [Wardens' Accounts and Court Minutes]', London, Goldsmith's Library, MS 1520, p. 18.

(7) Records of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, transcribed and edited by Bower Marsh, 7 vols (Oxford: University Press, 1913-68), ii, 170.

(8) See the listings in Michael Heaney and John Forrest, Annals of Early Morris, CECTAL bibliographical and special series, no. 6. (Sheffield: Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language in association with the Morris Ring, 1991).

(9) J. Robertson, and D.J. Gordon, Calendar of Dramatic Records in the Books of the Livery Companies of London, 1485-1640, Malone Society Collections, 3 (Oxford: Malone Society, 1954), p. 2.

(10) Lady Margaret Vavasour, [Will], in Testamenta Eboracensia, Part I, Publications of the Surtees Society, 4 (London: J.B. Nichols, 1836), no. 264, pp. 362-64 (p. 362). I am very grateful to Christopher Cawte for drawing my attention to the misdating of this will; the printed text gives the date as 'MCCCXCIIII' in mistake for 'MCCCCXIIII', but Dr Cawte points out that the lady is the widow of the testator whose will precedes hers, and who died in 1413. (Personal communication, 26 January 2003.) The Middle English Dictionary cites the will (s.v. 'moreske') but wrongly corrects it to 1494.

(11) OED s.v. moorish.

(12) Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, edited by A.H. Thomas. 6 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926-61), i (1926), 203; cited in the Middle English Dictionary (s.v. 'moreske').
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Author:Heaney, Michael
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Previous Article:Sowing the Seeds: Cecil Sharp and Charles Marson in Somerset in 1903.
Next Article:Correspondence on 'Lomax in London', in Journal 8.3 (2003), 362-65.

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