Morris Dancing and Mummer's Plays

Morris dancing has seen a rise in popularity recently. Image by VisitBritain/Britain on View/Getty Images

Morris dancing was part of many social events in rural English towns. Although the dancing was for entertainment purposes, it was also quite theatrical, and dancers often worked for months preparing for a single event. Morris dancing is symbolic, and the dance tells a story, with each dancer playing the part of a specific character. Unlike traditional country dances, in which anyone could participate, a Morris dance was a spectator event.

It was used to celebrate special occasions and holidays - events like Whitsun, Beltane, Michaelmas, or even a wake or funeral.

Morris dancers in the past were part of an elite guild - membership as a dancer was by invitation only. Once a Morris-man became part of a team, he was obligated to some degree of secrecy, because the complex dances could not be taught to anyone who wasn't part of the group.

What we know today as Morris dancing is actually connected to Christian holidays and events. However, some scholars believe that the Morris tradition evolved from early Pagan rites, in which dancers stomped and shouted upon the earth, waking it from winter's sleep, or to call up fertility deities during the planting season.

Also popular in rural England was the Mummer's Play. These seasonal folk-plays emerged as part of every village's agricultural community celebrations, and were usually performed indoors as part of an evening's entertainment.

The mummer, or guiser (from the word disguise), first appeared in the Middle Ages. Going mumming involved elaborate costumes, overly comic performances, and allegorical plays and speeches, nearly always performed in rhyme.

The medieval form of the Mummer's play eventually died out, and was replaced by a slightly more formal version in the seventeenth century.

The central theme is nearly always the death of a character, followed by his resurrection and subsequent spiritual redemption. Typically, a play features three major parts - the Hero, the Fool, and the Doctor that restores the fallen hero to life. Popular heroes in Mummer's plays include St. George and Robin Hood.

For a while, Morris dancing was a bit of a dying art, thanks in no small part to the Industrial Revolution. As England became more industrial, people left the small rural villages where Morris dancing was once popular, and headed for the big cities to find work. Naturally, much of the tradition was lost. Lately, however, the Morris dance has seen a resurgence in the British Isles. New Morris teams and groups are evolving regularly, and what was once the exclusive domain of male dancers is now open to both men and women.

Mummer's plays and dances seem to have died out in England around the first World War. Nowadays, mumming is still done around the Christmas holidays as a way to raise money, mostly by local folk dance troupes. Like Morris dancing, there has been a rise in popularity recently for Mummer's plays, and in some areas of England, local village groups and dance enthusiasts are reviving this ancient tradition.

For many modern Pagans of British ancestry, a Morris dance or Mummer's play is part of the Beltane celebration, as an homage to both the fertility season and their English heritage.