Dance of dissent: the role of folk customs in rural radicalism

Wychwood forest
Traditions such as the Wychwood forest fair were suppressed for drunkenness and fighting

For many people, the image of traditional Cotswold morris dancing, perhaps outside a pub on a summer’s afternoon, is an archetypal image of Englishness. In the 20th century this idiosyncratically English form of folk dance has become embedded in the national psyche as a particularly inflected form of rural heritage, alluding to a traditional and timeless past.

This wider framing of an essential Englishness through the optic of rural tradition is one particularly dear to a conservative worldview that emphasises stasis, deferential social hierarchy and the role of the countryside as the true home of English society.

However, this notion of “cosy” morris – depicted on jigsaws, calendars and postcards – is very different to the reality of the dance tradition in particular, and rural life in the 19th century more generally.

There are a series of differing English dance traditions with origins in clearly defined localities, including north-west morris, northern English longsword and rapper dancing, East Anglian molly dancing and Cotswold morris dance.

It is the latter, with its use of bells, hankies and sticks, which is the most commonly recognised as “morris dance” by the wider general public. The dances are generally performed by groups of six dancers working through a series of movements, often with a clear “verse”/”chorus” structure.

Musical accompaniment was traditionally played on pipe and tabor or fiddle, although today free-reed instruments, fiddles and guitars are most common. Costumes can vary, but a key common feature is the wearing of bell pads on the lower leg.

Although now widely danced across the country, Cotswold morris has its origins in a relatively confined area. In the 19th century its southern edge was the Thames, with a heartland in north Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire but extending into the counties to the west and east.

Throughout the 20th century, despite the wider embedding of morris and other folk traditions as quaint facets of an English rural idyll, there has also been a rich tradition of radical history and historians engaging with ritual and ceremony. Historians such as EP Thompson have long included topics as diverse as rough music and wife selling in their overviews of rural proletarian life.

Surviving from the middle ages, many aspects of social and particularly economic law in the countryside were governed by a range of customary arrangements, covering areas such as access to resources, inheritance, and the policing of a range of social norms.

These arrangements, in contrast to formal statutory laws, were validated through traditional precedent and sanctioned through local repetition and custom. Such customary practices were locally variable and frequently involved a parallel system of written, performative and material expressions of rite – and might involve song, dance, processing, public assembly and deployment of objects and images as part of the wider confirmatory processes.

These non-official practices were of great importance as a means of confirming social solidarity and expressing dissent. The early modern world was one in which customary arrangements are widespread.

‘In 1830 the fences were pulled down and uprooted at night by groups of men wearing the same garb often worn by mummers’

However, in the post-medieval world these locally sanctioned practices became increasingly threatened and usurped by central statutory law administered through the machinery of the burgeoning state.

A good example of the erosion of such customary practices can be seen through one of the meta-narratives of the 17th to 19th century, the slow erosion of the commons – the rights of the rural poor to access and exploit a range of local resources, such as grazing, access to fuel and wild foods.

In the medieval period, access to such resources was embedded in local agreements and a central part of the social contract that governed local rural societies, and was particularly important to the livelihoods of the poorer elements of the small worlds that characterised English villages.

However, from the 17th century, through processes including enclosure, engrossment, the advent of the Game Laws, and the expansion of the cash labour economy, access to these common resources was increasingly privatised.

Resources that had previously been shared by all became removed from the purview of the rural labouring class. A peasant class, working land that they owned or rented themselves, became replaced by a system of rural labourers working on the land of others for cash payments.

Crucially, the corollary of this erosion of the commons was the associated erosion of the customary arrangements that had structured them, in their written, oral and performative dimensions. These customary systems were regularly associated with a range of contexts – church ales, perambulations of the parish boundaries and Whitsun feasts.

These practices could be seen as rituals of social consolidation – opportunities to bring together the corporate body of the village in convivial activities that emphasised rural society as a harmonious and organic whole. However, they also had the scope to incorporate social discontent and dissent.

The close alignment and cyclical nature of the agricultural and ecclesiastical year, as well as the often tight relationship between parish and manor, meant that it was natural that such a relationship should develop.

Eighteen and early 19th-century morris dance was generally embedded in a number of specific contexts including festivities at Whitsun at the end of May, performances for local wealthy families and performing at church ales, which were social events held to raise funds for the church.

However, if this was a context where a customary ceremony appears to have stressed social solidarity and enhanced relations between neighbouring villages, traditional music and performative traditions could also be used in more socially stressful contexts.

At Otmoor, Oxfordshire, the common was shared by eight townships but was enclosed and drained in 1815. This resulted in tensions: in 1830 the fences were pulled down and uprooted at night by groups of men with blackened faces and wearing women’s clothing, the same garb often worn by mummers.

At Headington Quarry, near Oxford, home of an established morris team in the 19th century, an enclosure dispute ran from the 1850s to 1890s; fences were destroyed and animals turned to graze on newly enclosed land, all to the accompaniment of drinking and music from “fiddles, tambourines etc”.

However, by the late 19th century, rural life in the south Midlands was under stress for a number of other reasons and many of these customary rituals were under attack.

The impact of the 1870s recession and of mechanisation was key. In this context, there was an assault on customary rites and traditions. There was also a wider change in response to local traditions by the gentry.

Strained relationships between gentry and farmers and their workers led to occasions of social solidarity becoming contested. Traditions such as the Wychwood forest fair were suppressed for drunkenness and fighting. Harvest feasts in which farmers came together with their workers became appropriated by an assertive and engaged clergy in the form of the harvest festival.

Finally, throughout the 19th century a wider nationalisation of culture brought new sports; elites withdrew support from traditional celebrations and there was increased celebration of national, particularly royal, events such as jubilees and marriages.

One aspect of this reworking of the customary feasts was, however, driven at the level of the agricultural workers – this was the replacement of the church ales with a new social event, the club days of agrarian friendly societies.

Friendly societies were formed to provide financial and social benefits to rural labourers and families. They became common in the second half of the 19th century. They often held club days – these annual social events were often held at Whitsun, the key traditional date for morris dance. There are certainly records of morris sides dancing at club feasts.

There are also cases of similar dancing at related events held by the national rather than local Oddfellow Clubs, such as the Lower Swell and Brackley sides, who danced at Oddfellow Club events.

Friendly societies were encouraged by employers. Other contexts were less socially acceptable: in 1877 the Brackley side danced at the meeting of the Finmere branch of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, formed in the early 1870s by Joseph Arch.

Overall though, over the 19th century, morris dance with its close links to wider customary practices became increasingly attenuated as a rural tradition, as the social currents of rural life became reworked in the face of economic and social ruptures that characterised the Victorian world.

Morris’s central role in a wider tradition of rural performance – including song, music and vernacular drama – in first underpinning customary practice, and then contesting threats to traditionally sanctioned arrangements, ultimately led to its almost complete demise. Once the new, reformed and enclosed structure of rural life was victorious over older practices, the social context for morris eroded, leaving little local enthusiasm for such traditional dances.

Morris dance and music grew up in the context of social embedded practices of rural proletarian labour; this was its strength and its weakness. A similar narrative could also be written about the role of vernacular song, rural dramatic traditions, such as mumming and plough plays, and a host of more localised, highly regionalised performative traditions.

It was only the emergence of a national interest in folk life and folk traditions in the late 19th century that led to a burgeoning number of collectors of such local practices, such as Percy Manning and Cecil Sharp, helping to salvage an almost moribund tradition.

David Petts lectures in archaeology at Durham University and dances with Ebor Morris. Further reading: Bushaway, B 1982. By Rite: Custom, Ceremony And Community In England 1700-1880 London; Chandler, K 1993. Ribbons, Bells And Squeaking Fiddles: The Social History Of Morris Dancing In The English South Midlands, 1660-1900 London: Hisarlik; Manning, P 1897. Some Oxfordshire seasonal festivals: with notes on morris-dancing in Oxfordshire, Folk-Lore 8/4, 307-324. This article appeared in Folk London 313, June-July 2021