A new look at an old painting


Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a Flemish painter who was influenced by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and whose early works are reflective of the subject matter and style of Bosch.  This particular painting, referred to as The Cripples or The Beggars, was painted by Bruegel in 1568.  Evident by the missing limbs, the painting depicts five men who once had ergot poisoning.  That they are begging is deduced from the person carrying the alms bowl in the background.  People analyzing this painting give great significance to the hats the beggars wear as representing soldiers, clergy, etc, people from all walks of life, none safe from the ravages of life and the exacting of God.  Many art analysts have a proclivity to seek strong political and religious statements or overly dramatic narrative in paintings like this.  I look for other things.  In their favor, no one has a clue to the meaning of the fox tails pinned to their vests, but I do know this.  They are not all fox tails, for they are too small.  Some are the tails of the red squirrel native to northern Europe.


European Red Squirrel by Albrecht Durer, a Bosch contemporary.

Upon close examination of the painting I observed that one of the beggars wears boots, and, given the crutches, he may be wearing them over his wooden prostheses.  What make the boots remarkable are the bell pads under the knees.  This is a Morris Dancer, or as they would have been known in Belgium where Bruegel lived, Mooriske Danseur.


Detail showing bells

As a former Morris dancer it was easy to spot them but not enough was known of their history to be sure if the dance form existed at the time of the painting.  Sure enough, Morris dancing was hugely popular and widely practiced in Europe as well as Britain in the middle 16th century, and well before.  It is thought to have originated with the Moorish (hence, Morris) culture in Spain and merged with ancient Celtic dances when the Moors, or Muslims, slowly began to be expelled and set adrift from the Iberian Peninsula.   Beginning in the early 13th century, and through various events thereafter, the Moors came to be evicted completely by 1609.  While a video of North African folk dancing that might have reference to Morris dancing could not be found, it can definitely be seen in the Danza del Cascabeles from Central and South America.  The dance seems to have been introduced there in the first conquests of that country in the early 16th century, perhaps by Moors who were freed from jail in Spain with the condition they sign on to the voyage.  This same dance in Mexico has costumes reflective of the Aztec with their bell pads made of shells.  Witness this side of six from Ecuador complete with bells, wooden swords, pipe and drum.  While Morris dancing has been revitalized in various parts of the globe, this side appears to be carrying out a traditional dance that never died.  The similarities to Serbian sword dancing and British bell pads are amazing. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS9yzbEUH2U).  Another Ecuadorian side uses the swords later in their dance, but also have their faces painted.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPcxFw5ttw4

The photo below is of miniature reproductions of ten of the sixteen carved wood Morris Dancers (Moriskentanzer) made for the ballroom of the old City Hall in Munich in 1480 by Erasmus Grasser.  The original sculptures are in the Munich State Museum today and considered to be some of their most valued assets.  Their costumes are representative of various occupations and nationalities, and the bells, a single strand, are clearly seen on their calves.  Notice the Burgunder (Burgundian) and his red hat similar to one of the beggars.   Likewise, the hat of the Zaddelrock looks much like the pointed paper hat in the painting.  There is also a dark Mohr (Moor), giving reference to the root of the troupe.   The others are:

Zaddelrock, Zaddel skirt;  Bauer, Farmer;   Jungling, Youth;   Orientale, Oriental;  Schneider, Cutter;  Damenhut, Women’s hat;  Prophet;  Zauberer,  Wizard.


The significance of these particular characters and their relationship to Morris dancing was not determined at the time of this writing.  The German Morisken Tanzers are not well-known in the English-speaking world.  They appear to use the Grasser sculptures in costume and mimic their poses at the onset of a dance.  Their bells are a single strand about the calf just below the knee.  The dances are a little more refined than the English, coming, perhaps, from a later age, and they tell a story of a woman and her lover.  The Moriska dance is a popular folk dance in Italy and other countries around the Adriatic.  The island of Korkulu in Croatia has had a Moriska festival for centuries where the sword dances tell a story of the Muslim/Christian conflict.  Similarities to English Morris are keen, with the swords used much like sticks. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lg2fMyUbqXg).

English Morris troupes, or sides, traveled with musicians, usually a drum and a reed pipe.  If no musicians were available then they would use singers, or sing themselves.  While the drum and the concertina are the instruments of choice today, singing is still used for accompaniment and yelling is good, too.  Another member of the Morris troupe is the Bagman.  He is in charge of the finances of the side.  During performances he may act as a fool, or foil, to the dancers and their memorized routines, and often dresses as a woman or other character, passing the plate for money like the person in the painting.  In Wales Morris dancers wear blackface and call their sides Border Morris.  The blackface may be a remnant of the Moorish (hence the name, Morris) influence, or merely as a disguise so as not to be recognized while practicing the illegal act of begging.  Morris dancers are the predecessors of Mummers.

There are several types of English Morris dancers besides Border, the most popular being the Cotswolds who dance with scarves and sticks and wear bells.  Dances are the same prescribed steps, and there are dances designed for five, six and eight dancers, with six being the most common.  One scarf dance, The Motley Cap, begins with five dancers in a ring with their backs to the center, much like the five motley-capped beggars and their arrangement in the painting.  Another dance, Twiglet, is also for five dancers with a principal dancer at the center.  It is danced with sticks, ironically enough, like the crutches of the beggars.

When I first saw this painting I could not understand the odd positions of the beggars.  Two have their backs turned to no one, and two are doing some acrobatics on crutches.  Two are shouting or singing.  But now, even without legs, I think that they are performing a Twiglet or Motley Cap and that this is what caught Bruegel’s eye.  Dancing was often a subject of his genre paintings, and there is another painting of his with a very similar group, The Sad Fight between Carnival and Lent.  The painting, completed in 1559, nine years earlier than our subject, is important to this hypothesis because it puts the dancers in a dance appropriate context, something the 1568 painting does not—a festival.  And if one looks closely it could be suggested that they are in fact the same people.  In 1559 Bruegel was in Antwerp, just returned from a trip to Italy.  In 1568 he was in Brussels, so perhaps the 1568 painting was done from an old sketch while Bruegel was in Brussels.  Could both paintings have come from sketches on his trip to Italy?  Could the side have been dancing at a festival somewhere and eaten poisoned bread?  Had this Morris side once been larger and the five were all that remained, left to beg for the monastic Antonines who probably cured them and then housed them?  Of course, these are questions that can never be answered, though there is evidence of an Antonine house in Antwerp.


Detail from “The Sad Fight Between Carnival and Lent”

My first impression of the painting was of profound pity.  We are not accustomed to seeing afflictions like this today, sights that were quite common in the 16th century with the raging effects of St. Anthony’s Fire and other now-treatable diseases.  The painting is probably not a mockery or derision of the handicapped for almost everyone had a family member who had been reduced in some similar way.  And the fact that this troupe of dancers is still together, still dancing and still begging gives a glimpse into a spirit that renders their plight less pitiable.  The glass is half full.  Approaching the painting with the idea that this is a working troupe of street performers gives the inscription on the back of the painting some meaning.  Cripples, take heart, and may your affairs prosper.  It is unfortunate that the painting was never titled.   It is referred to as The Cripples or The Beggars when The Dancers would seem far more appropriate.

This still begs the question, why squirrel tails?  I don’t know.  For sure they ate the squirrels.  Perhaps they baited and trapped them for food and sold the pelts, which were sewn as furs in those times.  The tails would have been a byproduct for use in their costumes.  And I can just imagine how the tails jumped up and down and swirled nicely like scarves with the movement of the dancers, their hands now employed by crutches.


Engraving of William Kemp on his Morris Dancing publicity stunt from London to Norwich, 1600.

Kathleen Kelly, 2016


Wytchwood, a Border Morris, dancing Twiglet, a five man dance.  Check out all of the “tails” on their costumes.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55fQQyB567Y

The Motley Cap aka The Five Man Dance, a Cotswold Morris with scarves.  Why is no one wearing a cap? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpjJejiGO4o)

This is a modern German Morisken Tanze performed by children.  The costumes resemble the sculptures of Erasmus Grasser and those in the painting, but the bells on our cripples are more English.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEo_Hn9KRTY

I had never heard of Molly Morris, but I do like it.  No bells or scarves, but lots of color. This is a very good side, Gog Magog Molly, doing a five man dance.  Makes me want to paint them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vutCUWvtwSw


5 thoughts on “A new look at an old painting

  1. “The Motley Cap”, danced by Redbornstoke Morris is a 5 man dance created by the side in the 1980’s. I do not think there is any traditional 5 man dance. It may be that the beggars in the painting are dancing a “Morris” since the idea of a 6 person set all doing the same steps etc seems to have developed later. As a dance style it most probably developed from 15th/16th century court dances and entertainments or masques. A good book on the origins of Morris dancing, at least in England (Border Morris comes mainly from the English side of the English/Welsh Border) is “The History of Morris Dancing 1458-1750” by John Forrest (1999).


    1. Charles, thanks for your comment and email. I’m so glad I contacted you and got the heads up on “The Motley Cap”. I was looking for five-man dances and your video was listed. I assumed, incorrectly, that it was a traditional dance and I will make note of this. Based on the Peruvian dances I included in the article, it would appear that the dances could have generated from Moorish influences while preserving indigenous routines. Oddly enough, I found an article on ceviche (the food) that seems to share the same source disputations as Morris dancing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceviche


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s