WIDDERSHINS

Don Herbison-Evans
10 September 2014

The high murder rate in USA (nearly 5 times that of UK and Australia) and the anticlockwise progression around the dance floor are probably both the result of the drowning of Prince William, son of the English King Henry I, in medieval times in 1120 AD.

This left Henry with only one surviving child: Princess Matilda, whom he then nominated to succeed him. This infuriated the Church and the court Nobles who wanted a male King, and who supported Matilda's cousin Stephen for the succession. A civil war followed in England between the supporters of Matilda and those of Stephen, the "Anarchy", which lasted 19 years (1135 to 1154). It was bloody and devastating, brother fighting brother. Everyone feared everyone else, and it became common for every man in public to wear a sword, from lowly peasant to the high nobles. From then on, England was involved in nearly continuous sporadic wars, including the "Deheubarth Revolt" (1155 to 1158), the "Revolt against Henry II" (1173 to 1174), the "Third Crusade" (1189 to 1192), the "Reconquest of Normandy" (1196 to 1199), the "First Barons' War" (1215 to 1217), the "Marshal's Revolt" (1233 to 1234), the "Edwardian Conquest of Wales" (1277 to 1283), the "100 Years War" (1337 to 1453), the "Wars of the Roses" (1455 to 1487), and the "English Civil War" (1642 to 1651). The final result was the Common Law "Right to Bear Arms" in public, which was formalised in law in UK with the "Bill of Rights Act" in 1689.

This right was subsequently embedded in the USA constitution, but was curtailed in UK by the "Prevention of Crime Act" of 1953, and in Australia there is no right even to own firearms. As many people are of the opinion that the widespread carrying of firearms in USA, compared with their minor availability in UK and Australia, is responsible for the higher murder rate in the USA, there is a reasonable case for suggesting that the 1120 AD drowning of Prince William has led to the higher murder rate in the USA.

Most men are right handed, and it is easier to draw a sword with the right hand from its scabbard if the scabbard is worn on the left side of the hips. So most men in medieval times wore a scabbard for their sword on the left hip. If a man wearing a scabbard this way takes a lady for a walk, she will naturally walk on his right side to avoid tripping over the scabbard. Promenading around a ballroom, the man would naturally walk on the inside to avoid his scabbard hitting against the legs of the surrounding audience. With the lady on the right of the man, and the man on the inside of the couple, couples would have to promenade anticlockwise around the room. Many dances developed from the simple promenade, so there is a reasonable case for suggesting that from the drowning of Prince William we have inherited the tradition of dances progressing anticlockwise around the room.

However, other considerations may have caused this.

Another possibility is that, in Ballroom Dancing, circling anti-clockwise around the floor is typically performed paradoxically by the couples doing figures that turn clockwise. Doing these, it is easy to negotiate turning 1/4 of a turn to the left at a corner of the room by underturning one of the figures. To turn to the left while doing figures that turn to the left requires the dancers to overturn a figure, and this requires much greater skill. Figures turning to the right are called 'natural' in Ballroom Dancing, whereas turns to the left are called 'reverse' (Moore, 1951, 48).

Perhaps doing 'natural turns' was considered 'natural', because the turning direction was the same as that of the shadow of a sundial gnomon (in the Northern Hemisphere), and the anticlockwise progression around the floor was a consequence of inexperienced dancers doing these turns.

Or perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps figures turning to the right were called 'natural' because they enabled inexperienced dancers to progress around the floor Widdershins. Either way, for most of the 19th century, it was considered a 'faux pas' (false step) to do a reverse turn on the ballroom floor because it interfered with the progression of the rest of the couples anti-clockwise around the room.

In Scottish Country Dancing, circling clockwise, (to the left) is considered normal ('Deasil). Circling anti-clockwise (to the right) is called 'Widdershins', a word derived originally from the old German for "contrary direction". The early church determined that the motion of the sundial shadow was God's way, so the early church condemmed anticlockwise movement as the "Witches Way" or the "Devil's Way". It has been suggested that this aversion is is perhaps a hangover from clockwise progression used in Sun-Worship (Milligan, 1976, 11). Perhaps the Witches who danced Widdershins were actually part of a pre-Christian rebellian against Sun-Worship.

Anyway, the anticlockwise progression of dancers around the dance floor has caused friction with the Church. Thus for many years in times past, dancing was considered sinful.

Possibly in Australia, where the sundial shadow moves anti-clockwise, the Church will bless ballroom dancing.