Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, the prevailing approach to the study of such historic dance types as morris dances and sword dances in Britain and similar forms on the European continent was that they represented surviving elements of ancient, pagan religious rites. This led to the common practice of describing these as "ritual" or "ceremonial" dances. From at least the 1890s, this approach prevailed among practically everyone interested in the field. It has finally come to be rejected by scholars, although it can still be found among some enthusiastic "revivalists."
There has been great progress in the past couple of decades in English-language scholarly literature in the field of ritual or ceremonial dance. Scholarly analysis has, at last, begun to make serious progress. A quick list of book-length research monographs, which have appeared since the mid-1990s, includes John Forrest's analytical study The History of Morris Dancing, 1458-1750 (1999), Keith Chandler's Ribbons, Bells and Squeaking Fiddles: The Social History of Morris Dancing in the English South Midlands, 1660-1900 (1993), Georgina Boyes's The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (1993), and my own Sword Dancing in Europe: A History (Corrsin 1997). One should also mention work in closely related areas, such as Roy Judge's gracefully written The Jack-in-the-Green: A May Day Custom (1979) and Eddie Cass's The Lancashire Pace-Egg Play: A Social History (2001).
In this article, I will discuss themes of specifically sacrificial ritual survivals that were alleged to be present in English traditional dances and performances. The point of focus will be the influence of a report by an English colonial investigator in India, from the mid-nineteenth century, and its astonishing survival in the literature of morris dancing and sword dancing, following its use by several founders of the ritual dance field in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century.
At the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century, the ideas and terminology of rites, rituals, and pagan religious ceremonies pervaded English writing on performance practices such as morris dances and sword dances, and mumming and pace-egging. The specific terms "ritual" and "ceremonial" dance became widespread in the inter-war years. (I will hereafter use the term "ritual dance" exclusively.) The standard English classification of types of dances came to consist of a categorical triad: morris dances, sword dances, and country dances, the first two being ritual and the third social dancing. The mummers' plays, and unique performances such as the Abbots Bromley horn dance, were also fitted into the ritual side (Buckland 1994, 45-6).
The extent to which the key English founding documents of the field of ritual dance from the turn of the twentieth century--I am discussing the writings of Percy Manning, E. K. Chambers, and Cecil Sharp--are permeated with an emphasis on religious practice is striking. Yet this was an increasingly secular age in which the domination of Christianity in intellectual life ended. Of course, these were also the years when J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough had its greatest impact. The outstanding social scientists on whom Manning, Chambers, Sharp and others drew, including E. B. Tylor, William Robertson Smith, Frazer, and, through Frazer's mediation, the German ethnologist Wilhelm Mannhardt--were intensely interested in the origins and development of primitive religion. This was among the great social science questions of the age. It is as though a kind of nostalgia for what had been lost in the transition to secularity and modernity--purported certainty of belief, and organic totality of community--applied in this matter.
What is ritual, and what are rites, as understood at the turn of the twentieth century? Emile Durkheim, in his classic The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, published at about this time, draws a basic distinction that has been generally accepted:
Religious phenomena fall into two basic categories: beliefs
and rites. …