Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

All right, Sherman, let's step into the Way-back Machine and take a look at one of the ancient ritual dance processions of England. You may remember in an earlier article, I mentioned Morris dancing being brought to Newfoundland in 1583 on Sir Humphrey Gilbert's second voyage. The captain of one of the ships wrote "Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horses, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people, whom we intended to winne by all faire means possible." England has a number of survivals of these ancient dance customs, probably tracing to pre-Christian origins. One of them is the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which takes place in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire at specified times of the year, including mid-winter, Christmas and Easter. The dancers use six pairs of reindeer horns mounted on ancient wooden heads.

I got information on the Abbots Bromley from an article by Andrew Bullen, a musician and member of the Ravenswood Morris Team of Chicago, who published it in the Journal of the CDSS (Country Dance and Song Society).

Abbots Bromley was settled in 1004 on land given to a Benedictine abbey founded by Wulfric the Black, Earl of Mercia. Wulfric was a soldier and counselor to King Ethelred, and he and his Mercian retainers in the area of Abbots Bromley were called on to fight Norse invaders under the command of Thurkill, in a battle fought on May 18, 1010. He died from wounds sustained in that battle. There's a possible link between this battle and the age of the horns, as they have been radiocarbon dated to around 1065 plus or minus 80 years. When Vikings invaded, they brought their reindeer herds with them, so the Abbots Bromley horns may have been a war trophy or taken from stray herds left by the Norsemen. The horns have been identified as being from domesticated animals and are set in wooden heads shaped like reindeer skulls, these wood pieces estimated to be from the 16th century.

The dance using the horns was created in the 12th century. The horns were possibly given to the village to raise money for the poor. The English pageants and morris dancers, with Robin Hood, Maid Marian figures, and the hobby horses, were used ( and are today) to collect money. There are six dancers with horns, a fool, a hobbyhorse, a Maid Marian who collects money in a ladle, a boy with a bow and arrow, a musician and a boy with a triangle. The horn dance has continued uninterrupted since the mid-fifteenth century, except during times of war. The traditional dancers have always belonged to one family, the Bentleys.

In the past, the dance had no official costume to be worn, and no tune of its own.The musician played whatever he pleased, but past musicians have used tunes such as Pop Goes the Weasel and Yankee Doodle, interspersed with other folk tunes. The oldest tune known to have been used probably dates from around 1700, and was written down in 1857.

That tune is available as sheet music and MIDI in the music page - it's fun to play and has a somewhat spooky sound.