John Price's Pages 9

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Conclusions? And why these characters?

So where does all this get us? How old is the Betley Window, where did it come from, and why was it made?

If you've read through the material elsewhere on this web site, you'll know that factual answers to these questions are hard to come by - as with most questions about early morris. If you're fascinated by history, or interested in reading the arguments for yourself, this material (including the quoted references) may be helpful as a starting point. There is certainly more stuff to read than could sensibly be put on this web site.

If you just want very simple answers, you might be happy with:

If not, you will need to follow up by reading the references I have used, and the ones quoted in those, and so forth. If you start down that path, make sure you have lots of spare time! It will help if you have an intimate knowledge of history, customs, glazing, costume, literature, language - and perhaps human nature too!

A big outstanding question is "What does the Window represent?" - i.e. "Why does it contain those particular characters?"

Tollet himself had little doubt, though this may have been no more than personal preference: "The celebration of May-day which is represented upon my window of painted glass, is a very ancient custom, that has been observed by noble and royal personages, as well as by the vulgar." (He quotes Chaucer, historic records of Henry VIII, Stowe's 'Survey of London', Shakespeare and an entry under Spelman's Glossary regarding observance by the court of James I and by the populace.)

He goes on: "Better judges may decide, that the institution of this festivity originated from the Roman Floralia, or from the Celtic la Beltine, while I conceive it derived to us from our Gothic ancestors. Olaus Magnus de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, lib. xv, c. 8, says ' that after their long winter, from the beginning of October to the end of April, the northern nations have a custom to welcome the returning splendour of the sun with dancing, and mutually to feast each other, rejoicing that a better season for fishing and hunting was approached'. ... It appears from Holinshed's Chronicle, vol. iii, p. 314, or in the year 1306, that, before that time, in country towns the young folks chose a summer king and queen for sport to dance about Maypoles. There can be no doubt but their Majesties had proper attendants, or such as would best divert the spectators ; and we may presume, that some of the characters varied, as fashions and customs altered."

"About half a century afterwards, a great addition seems to have been made to the diversion by the introduction of the Morris or Moorish dance into it, which, as Mr. Peck in his 'Memoirs of Milton' with great probability conjectures, was first brought into England in the time of Edw. III, when John of Gaunt returned from Spain, where he had been to assist Peter, King of Castile, against Henry the Bastard. '
This dance,' says Mr. Peck, 'was usually performed abroad by an equal number of young men, who danced in their shirts, with ribbands, and little bells about their legs. But here, in England, they have always an odd person besides, being a boy dressed in a girl's habit, whom they call Maid Marian, an old favourite character in the sport'." (In 'Barthomley', Hinchliffe adds: "It is evident from several authors, that Maid Marian's part was frequently performed by a young woman, and often by one, as I think, of unsullied reputation. Our Marian's deportment is decent and graceful.")

Perhaps Tollet's principal reservation was about the "morris content" of the Window: "We are authorized by the poets, Ben Jonson and Drayton to call some of the representations on my window Morris Dancers, though I am uncertain whether it exhibits one Moorish personage, as none of them have black or tawny faces, nor do they brandish swords or staves in their hands, nor are they in their shirts adorned with ribbons. We find in Olaus Magnus, that the northern nations danced with bells about their knees, and such we have upon several of these figures who may perhaps be the original English performers in a May-game before the introduction of the real Morris dance. However this may be, the window exhibits a favourite diversion of our ancestors in all its principal parts.

Commenting on Tollet's descriptions of the characters, E. Hinchliffe wrote: "From what you read, you perceive that this stained glass tells no common tale, but like the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrates past time, and serves to give reality to customs, manners, and amusements, known to us chiefly from books, or theatrical representations; yet, once, those of our ancestors, as much as any in which we ourselves engage." (Barthomley. 1856)

Finny's assertion that they represent characters in the King Game was neat and convenient, but isn't supported by much evidence. Also, I am advised by John Forrest that the King Game was confined to the Thames Valley, and there is no evidence to connect the original Betley Window with the Thames Valley.

A more precise date for the window would assist assessment of its content. Unfortunately the "best estimate" of the date of the enamelling work varies enormously depending upon which expert one asks, and when one asks. If the date of the Window really is in the mid sixteenth century, it is possibly a depiction of church ale morris. This frequently involved a piper, fool, friar, lady (sometimes called Maid Marian) and 4-6 dancers. However, the hobby-horse is not found at church ale morris and is much more common in general representations of rural morris.

All this uncertainty leads the ever-cautious John Forrest to suggest three very general interpretations that could be argued for:

He also points out that, whilst he is happy to accept that the window is some sort of attempt to depict English morris, there is no definite proof that it is.

Whatever the overall collection is meant to be, the differences between the Window figures and the van Meckenem ones are interesting in themselves. They are certainly telling us something about medieval dancing - if only we knew what!!


Arrow Guided Tour: Why not look now at a couple of extracts about morris dancing from 19th Century magazines?