John Brand’s description
This was published in 1777 and is the earliest detailed description of linked sword dancing in England. It should be noted that the dance described was local to the Tyne Valley, around 10 miles west from Newcastle, and so is outside the area where rapper is known to have been distributed. From Brand's description, which refers to Olaus Magnus earlier description, the dance would appear to have been performed with rigid swords, and so was probably much more like modern longsword than rapper.
In the North there is another Custom used at or about this Time, which, if I mistake not, was anciently observed at the beginning of Lent : the Fool Plough goes about, a Pageant that consists of a Number of Sword Dancers, dragging a Plough, with Music, and one, sometimes two, in very antic Dress : the Bessy in the grotesque Habit of an old Woman, and the Fool almost covered with Skins, a hairy Cap on, and the Tail of some Animal hanging from his Back ; the Office of one of these Creatures is to go about rattling a Box amongst the Spectators of the Dance, in which he collects their little Donations.
The Pageant or Dance as used at present seems a Composition made up of the Gleanings of several obsolete Customs followed anciently here and elsewhere, on this and the like festive Occasions.
I find a very curious and minute Description of the Sword Dance, Olaus Magnus’ History of the Northern Nations. He tells us that the northern Goths and Swedes, have a Sport wherein they exercise their Youth, consisting of a Dance with Swords in the following manner, first with their Swords sheathed and erect in their hands, they dance in a triple Round. Then with their drawn Swords held erect as before ; afterwards extending them from Hand to Hand, they lay hold of each other’s Hilt and Point, while they are wheeling more moderately round and changing their Order, throw themselves into the Figure of a Hexagon, which they call a Rose. But presently raising and drawing back their Swords, they undo the Figure, to form (with them) a four-square Rose, that may rebound over the Head of each. At last they dance rapidly backwards, and vehemently rattling the sides of the Swords together, conclude the Sport. Pipes or Songs (sometimes both) direct the Measure, which at first is slow, but increasing afterwards, becomes a very quick one towards the Conclusion.
He calls this a Kind of Gymnastick Rite, in which the Ignorant were successively instructed by those who were skilled in it : And thus it must have been preserved and handed down to us. - I have been a frequent Spectator of this Dance, which is now performed with few or no Alterations ; only they lay their Swords, when formed into a Figure, upon the Ground and dance around them.
With regard to the Plough drawn about on this Occasion ; I find the Monday after Twelfth Day, called antiently (as Coles tells us) Plough Monday, “when our northern Plough Men, beg Plough Money to drink” (it is very probable they would draw a Plough on the Occasion.
The White Plough, so called because the gallant young Men that compose it, appear to be dressed in their Shirts, (without Coat or Waistcoat) upon which great Numbers of Ribbands folded into Roses, are loosely stitched on. It appears to be a very airy Habit at this cold Season, but they have warm waistcoats under it.
John Brand, Observations on the popular antiquities. Newcastle upon Tyne, 1777, p. 175-178.