A CARVED MORRIS-DANCE PANEL FROM LANCASTER CASTLE

by Anne G. Gilchrist

Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society  (1:2 1932)

The oak panel reproduced in the photograph and measuring about 14 inches long was removed from Lancaster Castle when certain rooms were dismantled at an unspecified date, and is now in private hands.[1]

[1]    The castle, which is still used for civil purposes, assizes being held there, has undergone many vicissitudes since its foundation in Norman times, and has been at some periods a royal residence. A Royal Court was held in it shortly before 1409, at which date Henry V, while Prince of Wales, was created Duke of Lancaster. The castle was restored by Queen Elizabeth, a few years before the date of the Spanish Armada. Another restoration after “ the late unhappie warres “ took place in 1663, and other alterations and re-buildings have followed since.

It appears to represent a Morris-dance, though it possesses unusual features. From the close resemblance of some of the figures, particularly the fool or dysard, to those in the painted window representing the May Games at Betley, Staffordshire, which has been dated c. 1500, i.e. temp. Henry VII, and from the form of the musician’s tabor and pipe, one may guess it to be of not much later date in execution.

Though there are a few Continental examples, the Betley window (first engraved in Johnson and Steevens’s Shakespeare, 1778) is as far as I know the earliest English representation of a Morris. Few, if any, vestiges of the Morris-dance, says Burton (Rush-Bearing, p. 104) can be traced in England beyond the reign of Henry VII, but about that time and during the reign of Henry VIII the churchwardens’ accounts in several parishes [from 1508 onwards] throw much light on the subject, allowing by the monies expended on the dancers’ clothes that (like the miracle plays) the Morris-dance made a considerable figure in the parish festivals and pageants.

So the invasion of the church on Sundays by the troop of revellers which was denounced by the Puritans in later times may at first have been countenanced, especially as from what Baxter recalls of the custom in his boyhood the dancers in their “antic” dresses and jingling bells seem to have remained during the reading of common prayer before hastening back to their play.

But to come to our panel. The figures from left to right are

1. The Maid-Marion  -  a grotesque figure of a man dressed as a woman and holding a ladle for contributions.

2. The taborer, with his pipe and drum.

3. A nude girl dancer (or a curly-headed boy personating a girl, with the aid of artificial feminine characteristics).

 

4, 5, and 6. Morris-men in short coats (which might be of white fustian, spangled), the middle one with bells at his knees.

7. The fool, with cap, bells, and bauble or bladder.

The taborer, who wears a cloak and feathered cap, like the one at Betley, plays his long pipe, expanded at its end, with his right hand, beating the long tabor with his left, which is unusual.  It is not clear how the drum is suspended—it was hung in various ways.

The shape and length of the two instruments are of fifteenth-century type, and may be compared with those of the taborer in the Beverley Minster pillar group of minstrels, temp. Henry VI, as well as those of the Betley taborer, c. 1500, and the one in Israel Van Mecheln's Flemish engraving, 1470. But the long pipe and long drum seem to have continued a long time in use, as they are shown in the book of Will Kemp's Morris Dance, 1600[2], and Vinckenboom's picture temp. James I.

[2]    A passage in Kemp's second tract, published in 1609, Old Meg of Herefordshire for a Mayd Marian and Hereford Town for a Morris Daunce runs thus : "The wood of this old Hall's tabor should have been made a pail to carry water in at the beginning of Edward the sixth's reign, but Hall . . . saved it from going to the water and converted it in those days to a tabor." Which rather suggests that the primitive country tabor - longer than broad - was really a " converted " wooden water-pail, cylindrical in form, with a skin stretched over the open end.

Under the first figure on the left, the " maid " or " mawd "-marion[3],  in high cap with a strap under the chin and a distended skirt, I seem to be able to trace in the original photograph the remains of lettering on the bottom border of the panel  -  mawd to the left of the man-woman and marion to the right, also some letters beneath the three dancers nearest the nude figure.

[3]   The head-dress led Blount (Glossographia. 1656) to suggest that the "boy dressed in a girl's habit" called the "Maid Marrion" should perhaps be "Morian from the Italian Morione, a headpiece, because her head was wont to be gaily trimmed up." Though one may ignore this fanciful notion it shows that the name was a puzzle to him. We know at least that Maid Marian does not properly belong to the Robin Hood legend (see Chambers' Mediaeval Stage, i, 170) and the grotesque figure so called would seem to have existed before his entry into the May Games in the sixteenth century. Is there any possibility of an early confusion of name and character between the man-woman and the " Mouren " (Morian, Murrian=Moor) who has dropped out of the English morris but figures in early churchwarden's accounts ?

I sent the photograph to Sir E. K. Chambers for his opinion on it, and he replied in the course of his interesting letter that he, too, seemed to make out marion under the left-hand figure, and possibly something like demi between the fourth and fifth to the right. " I tried," he says, " to get DOMINUS, which might indicate the leading dancer, but there are no curves for an 0.  What comes still more to the right looks like mere ornament, and possibly the appearance of lettering is illusory and the whole is ornament." He suggests that a full-size photograph of the original panel (which I have not seen) might disclose more.

As regards the unique and puzzling nude figure (which he thinks the artist means for a girl even if actually personated by a boy[4]  -  the Morris being performed by men and boys only) he remarks that it would not surprise him to find such in a mediaeval folk-dance or procession, there being presumably one at the bottom of the Godiva story, or to find that most traces of it had been expunged before the records of Morris-dances begin.

[4]   It seems to me that by the boyish head with its short curls the carver meant to show that it really was a boy.

Two characters called Adam and Eve  -  " covered with finery " as described by Fanny Kemble, a spectator  -  walked after the dancers in the rush-bearing procession at Heaton near Manchester, in 1830. They may have been so jocularly described by "Lord W——," her companion, instead of being styled the Lord and Lady of the May, but if they really represented Adam and Eve then Sir E. K. Chambers thinks they might have strayed out of a miracle-play.

Lady Gomme, who has also seen the photograph, thinks the panel may represent a pageant or show rather than a Morris-dance. She also states her belief that evidence exists of emblems being in past times worn by men to indicate personation of women.

As regards nude dancers, several Puritan writers, including John Stockwood in a Paul's Cross Sermon, 1578, and Fetherston in his Dialogue against light, lewde, and lascivious dancing, 1582, speak of the " greatest abuse " of all as " dancers dancing naked in nets " (which Sir E. K. Chambers takes to mean some kind of semi-transparent fleshing). As these Morris dancers "shamed not" to come and dance about the church during divine service, and "without to have men dancing in nets, which is most filthy" (to quote Stockwood) it seems possible that these practically nude performers may originally have been allegorical figures in a pageant, and thus the "abuse" of the Puritans might once have had a moral "use" whose serious significance had been lost by time.

It may be pertinent to point out that on misericords at Worcester, Beverley St. Mary, Norwich, York, and Stratford-on-Avon, ranging in date from the end of the fourteenth to the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, nude figures of men and women  -  or draped or dressed only in nets, in one case with wide meshes  -  are carved, riding goat, stag, or goose. These are believed by Francis Bond (see his Woodcarvings in English Churches. I, Misericords) to be symbolical figures representing lechery.  The subjects of mediaeval misericords seem frequently to be derived from what the artist has seen in miracle-plays and pageants. Possibly by the date of the Lancaster panel some sort of fleshings  -  as in the case of modern Lady Godivas  -  were worn, below which the apparently nude dancer of the panel could be made up to the figure of a girl. But it is not easy to decide what is intended.

Wishing to have the panel dated authoritatively, if possible, I also sent a photograph to Mr. Oliver Brackett, Keeper of the Woodwork Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum ; but he found it difficult to assign a date, the execution not being good enough to be dated from its style, and the Morris costumes traditional over a considerable period. As a reasonable though still "speculative" date he suggested the sixteenth century. But as regards the strange figure of the nude dancer, it would seem that so far not even the expert can hazard more than a guess as to its identity or significance. The publication of the photograph may perhaps lead to further elucidation.

ANNE G. GILCHRIST.

Note

Since the above notes were written the following facts have come to my notice: The Betley window is now in the possession of Lord Bridgeman, at Minsterley, Shropshire. Dr. W. E. St. L. Finny, F.S.A.. who presented a modern reproduction of it to the Town Hall of Kingston-upon-Thames with the addition of names below the various characters, states that the Betley glass is actually of early seventeenth-century date, though the figures are fifteenth-century in costume and possibly from fifteenth-century paintings. He is of opinion that the set of figures in the window represent the King Game of Kingston-upon-Thames. mentioned in the churchwardens' accounts between 1504 and 1533. and incidentally makes the same suggestion as myself that there has been confusion between Morion [a Moor] and Marian. [Possibly the nude figure in the Lancaster panel is meant for a 'blackamoor.']. See his Mediaeval Games and Gaderings at Kingston-upon-Thames, reprinted from the South-Eastern Naturalist and Antiquary, 1932.  -  A.G.G.