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The Fool and his Dancers: Tales of Dark Morris from the Wild Welsh Border

af Robert Elliott

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When I bought this book, I thought I was buying an entertaining history of Silurian Morris dancers.
Turned out that the first couple of chapters were largely a rant tying to prove pagan origins for blacking up. Which rather put me off reading the rest of it.

I would have far more respect if the writer had just said "A lot of historical Border teams blacked up. We took inspiration from that. It was bags of fun: audiences loved the scary aspect, women found it fascinating, we found it really liberating to be hidden behind a mask."

I get that part of it. Black face dancers can be highly entertaining; full cover face paint can make dancers appear 'edgy'. Appearing in disguise can help people overcome all kinds of inhibitions.

It's fun!

Unfortunate, I have an real dislike of people who do poor research and cherry pick stuff that suits their view. Especially when they dismiss those who mention Minstrel Shows as purveying 'fake news'. (I don't regard Dommett as a fake news man - Roy probably forgot more morris history than most of us ever knew.)

To take just one example: Elliott waffles on happily about the mystical significance of the number 9, the game 'nine mens morris', the mystical meanings of the shape of the board for the game, the ancient sites where symbols resembling the game board have been found, etc. Unfortunately, the name of the game is a corruption of an earlier word, 'merrills' which derives from the Latin word merellus, 'gamepiece'. Nothing to do with dancers.

In other words, the word morris in this context has no connection with any earlier pagan usage of the game board. Merrills is the older name. (I learnt the game in Germany where they call it 'muhle' meaning 'mill', but the name 'mill' - which has been recorded in England as well - is just another corruption of 'merrill'.)

Not to mention that morris dances rarely use 9 dancers - except when they're a dance inspired by the name of the board game...

Let's face it - none of morris has pagan origins. We'd love it to; it makes a great story and audiences and newspapers thrive on it. It still accounts for a lot of the popularity of morris.

Morris is fun in its own right. We do it because it has a long and fascinating history even if it doesn't go back to prehistoric times. We do it because it's a great way of going dancing, dressing up in crazy costumes, painting our faces, making friends, visiting new places, hearing great music, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

It's shame really, dipping into the rest of the book, it looks pretty much what I'd hoped it would be: an entertaining biography full of alcohol, dancing and women. But the early parts put me off reading the rest of it.

I'm not in the 'ban blackface' camp, but I am a morris history buff. If you tell me North West has pagan origins, I'll say it probably goes no further back than the 1800s. If you tell me Cotswold has pagan origins, I will bore you with early history and maps and all sorts, but it won't prove a pagan origin - rather the opposite.

Even my beloved longsword, beheadings and all isn't Pagan. Showmanship is showmanship and has been for all of history. ( )
  JudithProctor | Aug 11, 2018 |
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