The founding National Association of Morris and Sword Dance Clubs

European and other Origins for Morris?

The figure on the right is one of Erasmus Grasser's figures “Die Moriskentänzer” dating from 1450, and now kept at the Münchner Stadtmuseum. So, there was almost certainly a German connection. The figures bear resemblances to some of those in the Betley window, but have little similarity with present day morris apart from the bells attached to various parts of the dancers costumes. The figurines have been used as the basis for a modern dance group - Münchner Moriskentänzer Another group in a neighbouring town are Neuburger Morisken, and in Schmidmühlen there is a statue commemorating Erasmus Grasser.

Speculations that morris dancing originated (or at least was brought from) continental Europe or further afield has existed in writing for several hundred years. See for example Francis Douce's Illustrations of Shakspeare and of Ancient Manners: with Dissertations on the Clowns and Fools of Shakspeare; on the Collection of Popular Tales Entitled Gesta Romanorum; and on the English Morris Dance {London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme), 1807}.

Douce comments on the Spanish Moriscos, but also a Greek military dances:

"Some have sought the origin of the morris in the Pyrrhica saltatio of the ancients, a military dance which seems to have been invented by the Greeks, and was afterwards adopted by the Salii or priests of Mars. This continued to be practised for many ages, till it became corrupted by figures and gesticulations foreign to its original purpose. Such a dance was that well known in France and Italy by the name of the dance of fools or Matachins, who were habited in short jackets with gilt-paper helmets, long streamers tied to their shoulders, and bells to their legs. They carried in their hands a sword and buckler, with which they made a clashing noise, and performed various quick and sprightly evolutionse."

And adds an interesting passage from Tabouret about the "uncorrupted morris dance", as practised in France about the beginning of the sixteenth century.

... "that in his (Tabouret's) youthful days it was the custom in good societies for a boy to come into the ball, when supper was finished, with his face blackened, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and bells tied to his legs. He then proceeded to dance the Morisco, the whole length of the hall, backwards and forwards, to the great amusement of the companyi. He hints that the bells might have been borrowed from the crotali of the ancients in the Pyrrhic dance. He then describes the more modern morris dance, which was performed by striking the ground with the forepart of the feet; but, as this was found to be too fatiguing, the motion was afterwards confined to the heel, the toes being kept firm, by which means the dancer contrived to rattle his bells with more effect. He adds that this mode of dancing fell into disuse, as it was found to bring on gouty complaints."

Jean Tabourot, Canon and official of the Cathedral of Lengres, published his Orchesographie et traictè en forme de dialogue par lequel toutes personnes peuvent facilement apprendre et practiquer l'honneste exercice des dances, 1589, under the anagrammatized name of Thoinot Arbeau. He died in 1595, at the age of 66.

Douce also found some very early French (and Swiss!) references to morris:

... "the French morris can be traced to a much earlier period. Among other instances of the prodigality of Messire Gilles de Raiz, in 1440, morris dancers are specified. Lobineau, Hist. de Bretagne, ii. 1069. In the accounts of Olivier le Roux, treasurer to Arther III. Duke of Bretagne in 1457, is this article : "à certains compaignons qui avoient fait plusieurs esbatemens de morisques et autres jeux devant le duc à Tours, vi. escus." Id. 1205. At a splendid feast given by Gaston de Foix at Vendôme in 1458, " foure yong laddes and a damosell attired like savages daunced (by good direction) an excellent Morisco, before the assembly. "Favines Theater of honour, p. 345, and see Carpentier, Suppl. ad glossar. Ducangian. v. Morikinus. Coquillart, a French poet, who wrote about 1470, says the Swiss danced the Morisco to the beat of the drum. OEuvres, p. 127.""

The Moriscos

Spain was first invaded from Arab North Africa in the early part of the eigth century, in the following centuries Arab influnce and conquest spread across the whole peninsular south of the Pyrenees. The history is complex, but slowly Christain influnce and conquest spread back again, until by 1250 the greater part of the Iberian peninsular was ruled by the kings of Aragon, Castile and Portugal. The wiley emirates of Granada managed to hang on for another two and a half centuries, but wars started (again) at the beginning of the 15th century. Finally, in 1492, Isabella, Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Aragon, defeated the last Moorish rulers at Granada and reclaimed the last piece of Spain for Christianity. Castilian troops took over the Alahambra on the 1st January 1492. The Catholic sovereigns were determined to have a united country, and they did not believe this ambition could be achieved unless all their subjects accepted one religion. This they were determined to bring about through persuasion, if possible, and if not, by force. Spain under Isabella and Ferdinand was ripe for the Inquisition; that was why the cruel institution was embraced so heartily and continued to survive until the nineteenth centuryIn Spain, the term "Morisco" refers to a group of Arabs who came from Granada, an unassimilated and aliented minority created when Isabella took control.

Moriscos were Muslims who remained in Spain after the Christian conquest and were compelled to become converts to Christianity. This situation lasted in Albuñuelas until 1659 when by royal decree all people with a trace of Arabic blood were expelled far inland (mainly Extremadura) to prevent any possible contact with Africa. These mixed races were permitted to remain until the law of 1609 finally outlawed them and they were totally eradicated (ethnically cleansed) from the peninsular by 1615.

From the start of the inquision in 1498 in excess of 350,000 people, considered not of pure blood, were executed. This practice was to continue until 1808 but by that time the victims were of pure blood but Protestants.

A series of Edicts of Expulsion 1609-1615 required all Moors to leave Spain. The effect of the final expulsion in 1609-15 of the Moriscos, is described by Buckle.{4}

The effects upon the material prosperity of Spain may be stated in a few words. From nearly every part of the country, large bodies of industrious agriculturists and expert artificers were suddenly withdrawn. The Moriscos, who tilled with indefatigable labour, practiced the best systems of husbandry then known. The cultivation of rice, cotton and sugar, and the manufacture of silk and paper were almost confined to them. By their expulsion, all this was destroyed at a blow, and most of it was destroyed forever, since the Spanish Christians considered such pursuits beneath their dignity. In their judgment, war and religion were the only two vocations worthy of being followed. When, therefore, the Moriscos were thrust out of Spain, there was no one to fill their place; arts and manufactures either degenerated, or were entirely lost, and immense areas of arable land were left uncultivated. Some of the richest parts of Valencia and Granada were so neglected, that means were wanting to feed even the scanty population which remained there. Whole districts were suddenly deserted, and down to the present day have never been re-peopled.


A Moresca is also an Italian dance, and from Islands in the Mediterranean. Bianca Galanti describes some of these.{5}

"There are also fighting sword dances, famous amongst which is the Moresca of lagosta, in the Adriatic, where the parties are not Moors and Christians but Moors and Turks who fight for a lovely slave. In Corsica it shows Moors versus Christians as in the great Morecsas of Spain, and probably springs from an actual crusade against invading Moslems. To the same category belong the Morescas of Curzola (Korcula) and Genoa and the Parata of Malta with its little 'Bride'. The Moresca has an historical and literary aspect as well as a popular one, appearing in Court in the Middle Ages, and up to the sixteenth century in masques as a forerunner of the ballet."

In Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo, this is still an active tradition.

Moreska is a romantic war dance with swords that spread originally from the Mediterranean countries in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is supposed that Moreska first came to Korcula from Spain in the 16th century across the South Italy and Dubrovnik. Later, through centuries, Moreska disappeared from the Mediterranean and today the traces are discerned only in some parts, while it is still deeply rooted in Korcula, where its today's pattern of an attractive war dance with real swords is unique in the whole world. MORESKA the chivalric dance from Korcula


  1. Richard Fletcher, "Moorish Spain", Phoenix Press, 2004
  2. J. Plaidy, "The Spanish Inquisition, 1967
  3. Buckle "History of Civilization in England", 1861
  4. Dances of Italy. Handbooks of European National Dances. Ed. Violet Alford, Max Parrish & Co., London, 1950