Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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A unique calendar custom which takes place in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, on the Monday following the first Sunday after 4 September, the day of the village wakes. The team is made up of six dancers, each carrying a pair of antler horns, a Fool, a man-woman called Maid Marian, a hobby horse, a Bow-man, a triangle player, and a musician, each wearing a pseudo-medieval costume designed in the late 19th century. The horns which the dancers carry are reindeer antlers, mounted on a wooden head, with a short wooden handle for carrying. Three are painted white with brown tips, and three are brown with golden tips. The horns have naturally caused much speculation, and a radiocarbon dating test carried out on one of them in 1976 gave a mean date of ad 1065 ± 80 years. Reindeer have been extinct in Britain since before the Norman Conquest, but these particular horns could have been imported at any point in the custom's history. The performers spend all day perambulating the parish, sometimes progressing in single file, sometimes following the leader in a serpentine hey-type movement, but every now and then they form up in lines of three (the hobby horse and bowman join in to make it four and sometimes Jester and Maid Marian) facing each other. They go forward and back towards each other a few times and then cross over. It is thought to be unlucky if they do not visit your house or neighbourhood. After the dance, the horns are deposited back in the church, where they will remain until next September. The earliest mention of the custom so far found is in Robert Plot's Natural History of Staffordshire (1686), where he mentions the ‘Hobby-horse dance’ being performed at Christmas, New Year, and Twelfth Night, and Sir Simon Degge (1612–1704) annotated his copy of Plot's book with the comment that he had often seen the dance before the Civil War. An even earlier reference, in 1532, confirms the existence of a hobby horse but does not mention the horns (see Heaney).

Kightly, 1986: 41–3;Hole, 1975: 95–6;Stone, 1906: 16–18;Michael Heaney, FMJ 5:3 (1987), 359–60;Theresa Buckland, L&L 3:2 (1980), 1–8 (also 3:7 (1982), 87, and 4:1 (1985), 86–7).

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