Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is an English folk dance dating back to the Middle Ages. The dance takes place each year in Abbots Bromley, a village in Staffordshire, England. The modern version of the dance involves reindeer antlers, a hobby horse, Maid Marian, and a Fool.

 

There are no recorded references to the horn dance prior to Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686. However, there is a record of the hobby horse being used in Abbots Bromley as early as 1532, and it is possible that the horn dance component of the custom was also present at that time but not commented upon by the writer. A carbon analysis discovered that the antlers used in the dance date to the 11th century. 

 

According to some, the use of antlers suggests an Anglo-Saxon origin along with other native Anglo-Saxon traditions that have survived into modern times in various forms. It has been speculated, for example, that the dance originated in the pagan period and was connected with the ruling dynasty of Mercia, based some 15 miles away at Tamworth, who owned extensive hunting lands in Needwood Forest and Cannock Chase surrounding Abbots Bromley. On this theory, the royal forester would have organised sympathetic magic rituals to ensure a plentiful catch each year, a tradition that survived into Christian times and gradually came to be seen as affirming the villagers' hunting rights. Even when the lands were granted to Burton Abbey in 1004 a forester would still need to have been employed. By the 16th century, when the abbey was dissolved, this was a hereditary position with the title "Forester of Bentylee" (Bentylee being the wooded area of the parish). From then until the 19th century the dance remained the traditional prerogative of the Bentley family, eventually passing to the Fowell family in 1914. The Fowells continue to run it to this day.

 

Such an ancient origin for the dance has been doubted by some folklorists, who point out that while the reindeer antlers date to the 11th century, reindeer were long since extinct in England and Wales (and probably Scotland), and there is no evidence that any domestic reindeer herds remained at that time. Therefore, even more confusingly, the antlers must have been imported from Scandinavia at some point between the 11th and 17th centuries. This analysis may lend weight to the theory that the custom originally began with only a hobby horse, and the horn dance component was added later, explaining why only the former was mentioned by 16th century sources.

 

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