“Sword or Morisco Dance”
Thomas Bell's description
Thomas Bell's description of the sword dance is undated, but believed to be some time between 1800 and 1820. His original manuscripts are held by the Beamish Museum.
The practice, which is followed in most of the Northern Towns, during the Christmas Holidays, and principally by the Colliers of the District, is an extremely ancient custom:– Young Men dressed in Shirts and Trousers, ornamented with various coloured ribbons, folded into rosettes, and affixed around his arms, his hat &c. and having a sword, something resembling the ‘foil’ of the fencer, proceed from place to place exhibiting various feats of ...., attended by a Fiddler, a “Bessy” in grotesque female habit, (she supposed to be an old Woman) and the “Fool” or Gatherer, who is dressed in a ludicrous manner, most frequently with .... a hairy cap on his head, and the tail of a Fox, or something resembling the tail of that Animal, hanging from his back;– These Three lead the party and direct the crowd, which accompany them, with their drollery, whilst either “Bessy” or “Tommy” (the individual last described) go about rattling a Tobacco Box of no trifling dimension, soliciting money, which is generally spent in a feast or for ‘drink’ towards the end of the Day:– This mode of Dancing is ingenious, and cannot be better described than by Olaus Magnus, in his History of the Northern Nations, which passage has often been quoted, in reference to this Custom:– “First, with their swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple round, then with their swords drawn and erect as before, afterwards extending them from hand to hand, they lay hold of each others hilt and point, while they are wheeling more moderately around; and changing their order, throw themselves into the figure of a hexagon, which they call a Rose; but presently raising and drawing back their swords, they undo that figure, to form with them a four square Rose, that may rebound over the head of each; and after various evolutions of this Nature, they dance rapidly backwards, and loudly setting the sides of the swords together, conclude the sport.” – Many of the Young Men do this in an extremely graceful manner, and the dance, which is done with considerable rapidity frequently occupies twenty minutes and sometimes longer:– previous to the commencement, the “Bessy” or leader, calls his followers by a long string of uncouth words, and the dance commences, The Bessy and Tommy, .... around amongst the crowd with the crassest of buffoonery, in the midst of which, a kind of drama is performed, in which “Tommy” or the fool is supposed to have his head cut off, and he falling down, the Song is again commenced and soon afterwards a Doctor is introduced and the Dead is [?brought] to life again;– the “Tommy” and “Bessy” are plainly taken from the ancient “Festival of Fools”, formerly held on New Year's day, when all sorts of absurdities and indecencies were indulged in:– Of late Year much of this has fallen into disuse; and it is now very rare, you find a party acting the dance, or the drama of the dance as it used to be, at the latter end of the eighteenth century:– the following are Copies of some of the dances used on these occasions.