The founding National Association of Morris and Sword Dance Clubs

Fool's Dance

  Strutt's Sports and Pastimes

Book III, Chapter V

Mr Strutt's "Sports and Pastimes of the People of England" first appeared in 1801, a second unchanged edition appeared in 1810, the year wherein the author died. William Hone then produced an edited edition with an index in 1830. This has been reprinted many times. Apart from Morris Dancing - considered a sport at the time - Strutt's book has fascinating descriptions of early versions of foot-ball (camp-ball), cricket, tennis, and shuttle-cock (badminton), quite apart from archery, jousting, bear baiting and cock fighting! In the copy below, the text footnote references have been removed.


The fool's dance, or a dance performed by persons equipped in the dresses appropriated to the fools, is very ancient, and originally, I apprehend, formed a part of the pageant belonging to the festival of fools. This festival was a religious mummery, usually held at Christmas time; and consisted of various ceremonials and mockeries. A vestige of the fool's dance, preserved in a MS. in the Bodleian Library, written and illuminated in the reign of king Edward III. and completed in 1344, is copied below.

In this representation of the dance, it seems conducted with some degree of regularity; and is assisted by the music of the regals and the bagpipes. The dress of the musicians resembles that of the dancers, and corresponds exactly with the habit of the court fool at that period. I make no doubt, the morris-dance, which afterwards became exceedingly popular in this country, originated from the fool's dance; and thence we trace the bells which characterised the morris-dancers. Antiquaries are agreed that the word is derived from Morisco, which in the Spanish language signifies a Moor,as if the dance had been taken from the Moors; but I cannot help considering this as a mistake, for it appears to me that the Morisco or Moor dance is exceedingly different from the morris-dance formerly practised in this country; it being performed by the castanets or rattles, at the ends of the fingers, and not with bells attached to various parts of the dress. In a comedy called Variety, printed in 1649, we meet with this passage: “like a Bacchanalian, dancing the Spanish Morisco, with knackers at his fingers.” This dance was usually, I believe, preformed by a single person, which by no means agrees with the morris-dance. Sir John Hawkins (History of Music), observes that, with the memory of persons living, a saraband danced by a Moor constantly formed part of the entertainment at a puppet show; and this dance was always performed with the castanets. I shall not pretend to investigate the derivation of the word morris; though probably it might be found at home: it seems, however, to have been applied to the dance in modern times, and, I trust, long after the festival to which it originally belonged was done away and had sunk into oblivion.


The garments of the morris-dancers, as we observed before, were adorned with bells, which were not placed there merely for the sake of ornament, but were to be sounded as they danced. These bells were of unequal sizes, and differently denominated, as the fore bell, the second bell, the treble, the tenor or great bell, and mention is also made of double bells. In the third year of queen Elizabeth, two dozen of morris-bells were estimated at one shilling. The principal dancer in the morris was more superbly habited than his companions, as appears from a passage in an old play, The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green, by John Day, 1659, wherein it is said of one of the characters, "He wants no cloths, for he hath a cloak laid on with gold lace, and an embroidered jerkin; and thus he is marching hither like the foreman of a morris."

I do not find that the morris-dancers were confined to any particular number: in the ancient representation of this dance given by the engraving No 61 {above Fools Dance}, there are five exclusive of the two musicians. A modern writer speaks of a set of morris-dancers who went about the country, consisting of ten men who danced, besides the maid Marian, and one who played upon the pipe and tabor.

The hobby-horse, which seems latterly to have been almost inseparable from the morris-dance, was a compound figure; the resemblance of the head and tail of a horse, with a light wooden frame for the body, was attached to the person who was to perform the double character, covered with trappings reaching to the ground, so as to conceal the feet of the actor, and prevent its being seen that the supposed horse had none. Thus equipped, he was to prance about, imitating the curvetings and motions of a horse, as we may gather from the following speech in an old tragedy called the Vow-breaker, or Fair Maid of Clifton, by William Sampson, 1636. “Have I not practised my reines, my carreeres, my prankers, my ambles, my false trotts, my smooth ambles, and Canterbury paces–and shall the mayor put me, besides, the hobby-horse? I have borrowed the fore-horse bells, his plumes, and braveries; nay, I have had the mane new shorn and frizelled.#150;Am I not going to buy ribbons and toys of sweet Ursula for the Marian#150;and shall I not play the hobby-horse? Provide thou the dragon, and let me alone for the hobby-horse.” And afterwards: “Alas, Sir! I come only to borrow a few ribbandes, bracelets, ear-rings, wyertyers, and silk girdles, and handkerchers, for a morris and a show before the queen--I come to furnish the hobby-horse.”