The Morris Dance is one of the oldest continuing traditions of rural England, and in its origins, was thought by some to welcome the spring and to ensure the fertility of the year's crops. Few dancers in the 21st century would seriously ascribe such reasons to their performance of the morris - they do it because they enjoy it , rather than for some mystical or pseudo-religious purpose.
Morris Dancing is distinguished from the English country dance by its movements based upon circles and processions and, traditionally, exclusively male performers. No-one knows where it came from there are probably as many theories as dancers! All that can be said is that it is ancient and has had many influences over the centuries.
References to the dance extend back six hundred years, and by the time of Elizabeth I it was performed throughout the country. Agricultural change and the drift to the cities led to a decline in Morris Dancing in the nineteenth century, by the end of which few village teams or "sides" survived with an unbroken dancing history.
Some of these sides still flourish today but much of our knowledge of the dance is attributable to Cecil Sharp and other folk lore collectors who, in 1899, started to retrieve details of the dance from the oral tradition. Their work has been continued by many others, and distinct variants of the dance have been preserved from the Cotswolds, the Welsh borders, East Anglia, and the North West and North East of England, together with new dances, often in the style of those collected a century ago.
No Hampshire dances have survived, although there are records of 4d being paid to Morys Players at Crondall, near Fleet, in 1555 and 3s 4d paid to morris dannsers at Southampton in 1562. But in 1585 Bishop Cooper of Winchester instructed his clergy to suffer not any Church Ales, Moris dances or Riflings within theire parishes, a reference to the pre-reformation practice of morris dancing often being an element of church fund raising activities.
However, times have changed and the current Winchester Morris Men are noted for their decorum and sobriety and the clergy may watch them without apprehension; bookings for church fκtes and the like may be arranged with the Bagman.
Winchester Morris Men, formed on the 11th March 1953 in the Eclipse Inn, the Square, Winchester, are members of the Morris Ring, which was founded in 1934 by six revival sides. It is a confederation of morris sides, the aims of which are to encourage Morris dancing and to preserve its traditions. It maintains an archive of photographs and dance related documents, and also sponsors historical research.
Winchester Morris Men are fortunate in having provided two Squires of the Morris Ring, Lionel Bacon (1962-64) and Geoff Jerram (1986-88) from amongst their members.
The Morris Ring is now an international organisation with a membership of several hundred full member and associate sides.
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