The practice of darkening the face is associated with many British folk customs, including mummers, pace-egging, Plough Monday celebrations, May Day festivities, chimney sweep festivals, guising, bonfire night, and the Sussex celebrations attendant to St Crispin’s Day. The tradition of blacking the face seems particularly associated with those calendrical customs associated with the long dark nights of winter.
The blackening of the face for Morris dancing is found amongst some the earliest references to the tradition, for example, Henry VII made financial contributions ‘towards the making of a disguise for Morris, and at Henry VIII’s Shrovetide banquet in 1509, there were dancers ‘apparelled in crimson satin and green like Moreskoes [Morris dancers], their faces black.’
The original reasons for blackening the face are lost in the mists of time, but most border dancers nowadays do it for disguise. Indeed, one of the earliest accounts of Border Morris refers to ‘disguised persons, as Morris dancers, maskers, or mummers’ at the parish church of St Mary’s (Shrewsbury) in 1584, and in 1911 Cecil Sharp was told by a Morris dancer that their side darkened their face for the purposes of disguise.
In times past, Border Morris, like many other folk customs, was carried out as a form of begging by out-of-work labourers and farmworkers, who sought to supplement their income when work was scarce. However, as this was frowned upon by the authorities, the dancers would blacken their faces to ensure anonymity and thus avoid courting the attention of the law.
There are also references to people darkening their faces with soot when involved in social disturbances, protesting, performing customs condemned by the police, or carrying out illegal activities, such as poaching and thievery. For example, in October 1450, a group of male poachers carried off deer from the Duke of Buckingham’s estate wearing a disguise consisting of charcoal blackened faces and long false beards, and they referred to themselves as the servants of the Queen of the Fairies.
Besides being a nod to disguise and things hidden, black is perhaps the most evocative of all colours, conjuring up notions of our ancient pagan past and the strange and mysterious things haunting the borderlands of night. It also evokes the night-time world of dream, within which realm the archetypal characters of our mythic past live on, periodically re-emerging into our waking world through story and song.