'Lords of Mysrule'
Description of Shrewsbury Morris Dancers, 1584
These wild, high tempo Morris Dances come from the Welsh Border Country where they were traditionally performed at Christmas by men with blackened faces and outlandish costumes.
In this tradition men dance in groups or "sides" of four, six or eight, wearing distinctive 'rag coats' and decorated hats. The dancing is vigorous and often incorporates stick clashing.
The Bedford men's repertoire includes dances from Bromsberrow Heath (Gloucestershire), Brimfield (Herefordshire), Much Wenlock (Shropshire) and White Ladies Aston (Worcestershire).
The blacking of faces was intended to disguise the dancers from gentry who might disapprove of their ribaldry or view the collection of money from the audience as a form of begging.
It was also common for outlaws (such as poachers and machine breakers) to cover their faces in this way and Morris Dancers are often associated with trouble making in the historical record.
The blackened faces of the Morris, therefore, could be symbolic, suggesting that normal social rules were being suspended for the duration of a performance - or be a real effort to hide identity while trouble was being caused.
The practice is an important reminder of the way class war was fought in our early modern history.
The fast and furious Border dances and the rituals that surround them, show how ordinary working people sought to find freedom and exercise a kind of power within a tightly controlled society.