The history of Morris dancing has always been clouded in mystery and theories have been formed and refuted in equal measure. Morris dancing has often been associated with Moorish dancing, with some people theorizing that its name could have been adopted from Moors.
It does make a bit of sense, considering that Morris dancers often cover up their faces in black and tie their legs with bells while performing. This theory fitted in quite well as it was being associated to Northern Africa. However, this has never been proven and there has never been any evidence supporting the claim that the word Morris came from Moorish.
It has also been similarly considered that Morris dancing is connected to pagan festivals that were a common trend all around the world. Again, no evidence supports this claim as well but it has often been considered that its roots can be traced back to the year 1448 (its earliest reference). During the 15th century, there existed a type of dance known as “Moreys dance” that was a common form of court entertainment. Its dancers usually performed solo or in groups of 5-8 dancers with one dancer being dressed up as a female. The other dancers would dance around the “female”in a manner that indicated that they were competing for her attention.
In the early 16th century, “moreys dancing” had become a common dance in England and church festivities always included it. During this time, ales were brewed and sold by churches as well and any church festival was associated with ales and morris dancing. Later on it became widespread in villages and any fete that was being held involved some form of the dance. Shakespeare as well gave morris dancing some form of publicity in his plays.
However, this form of dance was not favoured by the Puritans (as well as brewing of ales by churches) during Cromwell’s time. As a result, the 17th century saw suppression of the dance by the Puritan authorities, as well as ale brewing by churches. This in a way aligned ales to morris dancing and whenever there were ales, morris dancing was bound to be there.
In the 18th century, morris dancing became a feature of the Whitsun ales in the south midlands region. This region was inhabited by the common folk who hardly had enough to buy the fancy dressing that went with morris dancing. They therefore resorted to using their own dressing but endowed with colourful ribbons and flowers and employed the exclusive use of sticks. This form of morris came to be known as border (bedlam) morris.
The 19th century saw the rapid decline of the morris tradition with the onset of new, more fashionable forms of entertainment. As a result, activists came up to try and revive the lost dance as a form of English heritage. This therefore led to the slow uptake of morris dancing and spread across the US and Australia, all colonies of England at some point. However, its rise in the 20th century was more in the UK and festivities held have always featured some form of morris dancing in them.