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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. Secular Influences on the Early English Drama

§ 9. Sword-dance

Another folk-custom, out of which grew a play of more importance than the Hock-Tuesday play, was the sword-dance. This dance seems to have had its ritual origin in the primitive expulsion of Death or Winter, the death and resurrection of Summer, or in that conflict between Winter and Summer which, on the literary side, was also the origin of many débats and estrifs. It was, moreover, a natural mode of play for warlike peoples. Like all dancing, it became mimetic in character. Its chief personages are the fool, who wears the skin of a fox or some other animal, and the “Bessy,” a man dressed in woman’s clothes—figures in which folk-lore finds the survival of the ritual of agricultural worship. One of its off-shoots in England is held to be the morris-dance, which, however, in Robin Hood (who sometimes appears) and in Maid Marian (who always does) has drawn to itself features of other celebrations to be mentioned later. The points of interest in the sword-dance, for our present purpose, are its use of rimed speeches to introduce the characters, and its development into the mummers’ or St. George play, still to be seen in many rural districts of the British Isles.

Some types of sword-dance still or recently extant, mainly in the north of England, have many more characters than the fool or “Bessy.” In one case at least, that of the Shetland dance, they include the “seven Champions of Christendom.” It is possible that their names only superseded those of earlier national heroes, and that the verses introducing the characters in the dance are, in fact, the remains of the folk cantilenae which have been mentioned before. In several of the extant sword-dances in Britain and on the continent, one of the dancers is, in different manners, attacked or killed, or, perhaps, merely symbolically surrounded or approached, with the swords; and this feature, which enshrines the memory of the sacrifice, becomes the principal point of action in the mummers’ or St. George plays which developed from the sword-dance. In these, the dance has developed into a play. Amid a bewildering variety of nomenclature and detail, the invariable incident of the death and restoration to life of one of the characters is the point upon which has been based the descent of this play from pagan festivals celebrating the death and resurrection of the year. The fact that this play is nowadays usually performed at Christmas-time is largely due to a wellknown shifting of the seasons of festivals, due to the fixing of the Christian ecclesiastical feasts.