Medieval Dance

Medieval Dancers

As I was getting ready for my tap class this week (yes, I know), I was thinking about dancing in the Middle Ages.

Most villages didn’t have a space large enough for everyone to get together, except the churchyard, so that’s where they danced. There’s not a huge amount of information about these dances, since they were danced by people who, for the most part, couldn’t write. Besides, why would they describe something that everyone knew how to do?

One of the things that is known is that there was a carolling dance where everyone held hands in a circle around one person in the middle. You can see people holding hands to dance in the picture at the top of the post. The person in the middle sang the verses of the song and everyone in the circle sang the choruses while they stepped to the right or the left. Dances weren’t probably much more complicated than that, although there was probably stamping as well. Speed probably made it more exciting and amusing, when dancers bumped into one another.

The carols did not have the kind of lyrics that we’re familiar with these days. They tended to be very bawdy, which was one of the reasons why priests complained about the dances taking place in the churchyard.

Another reason why priests weren’t keen on dancing was because St Jerome said that women dancing were the swords of the devil.  They were thought to tempt men to fornication.

For the upper classes, dancing was something that they watched as well as did themselves. Dancers were professionals who could be retained by a lord for his household’s entertainment. Usually they had their own musicians and sometimes they were also jugglers and singers.

Some entertainers were not attached to a household, preferring to travel and take up casual employment, but this could be rather dangerous. There was always the chance that they could be arrested. Men without a lord were viewed with suspicion. For all the constables of the towns they passed through knew these men could be outlaws.

The upper classes danced a bit and it was one of their favourite occupations during tournaments. Sometimes they would dance in fancy dress, just as they would fight in the tournament dressed as cardinals or aldermen.

A few dance tunes have survived from the fourteenth century. Here are two Italian tunes which were paired together – a slow dance followed by a fast dance. They’re the Lamento di Tristano and La Rotta.

Sources:

The Medieval World Complete – edited by Robert Bartlett

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

The Senses in Late Medieval England – C.M. Woolgar

Tournaments: Jousts, Chivalry and Pageants in the Middle Ages – Richard Barber and Juliet Barker

31 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

31 responses to “Medieval Dance

  1. rachaelstray

    Really interesting. Excellent point why would people document something so normal for them? It’s a shame for us as we want to learn more about the past.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The theatre pieces played on the church steps are documented in the histories of the artisans guilds, since the members of the guilds played the amature roles, ie the bakers delivered the unlevend bread, or the butchers threw innards in the battle scenes of Biblical reenactments. Maybe there is something there.

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  3. Great post…I wonder how much we’ve lost to time because there was no need to describe them in writing…it would be nice to know how they did it because I dont think I have ever encouraged a man to fornicate with my dancing 😀

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    • I’m not ignoring you, but your comment went to the spam folder. Obviously the filter is very fussy.

      I suspect that dancing has always been considered as something sexual when men and women do it together, or women alone.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I used to go to circle dances in the Wiltshire village where a freind lived some years ago. We never had anyone singing in the middle but there was a great deal of bumping into each other!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi, I found you via Shelley Wilson’s five minutes with and #SundayBlogShare. Interesting post. Have tweeted. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love the pictures and it’s cool to hear the tunes, lovely post.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. lydiaschoch

    I’d never thought about what kinds of dancing might exist in the middle ages. How interesting. If only we knew more about the lyrics to their songs! They sound pretty funny.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hmmm….learn something new every day! Thank you! I absolutely love history so when I saw this on the Sunday share, I knew I had to read it.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Shaunn Munn

    I was a member of a madrigal choir for a few years, then played dulcimer for an American historic dance troupe. We went to Rochester one year & performed at the Dickens Festival.

    Medieval dances were not all lost. Many evolved into early renaissance dances, such as galliards. You can find music & steps on YouTube for these fast & furious hops! Jigs traveled to the American colonies, where they blended with traditional African dances from the enslaved people.

    While original Medieval dances may be difficult to research, watching & participating in their descendants’ dances will at lease offer you a idea of what they may have been like. North American folk dances are especially good indicators. Appalachian settlers hung onto many that today’s English and American scholars have been researching. Nothing impedes change like isolation! Much of the research is available online.

    Throughout the British Islands there are enclaves where fragments of medieval dances evolved into local ones. These managed to escape the Cromwellian crackdowns & the industrial diaspora. Some are thriving & used to promote tourism. Others to preserve fast-disappearing cultures. Think of Morris, clogs, flings, jigs, & longsword dances as examples.

    Thankfully, a great deal of research was done prior to the introduction of mass media, which levels cultures & loses their uniqueness.

    As my kindergarten teacher used to say, “Put on your thinking caps, close your eyes, & IMAGINE ………” Wonder if tapping evolved from medieval dances?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wonderful, April! I don’t know whether to be more impressed with your post, or the fact that you take tap-dancing classes! Enjoyed the music, despite it not being in 4:4 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  15. This has been really helpful for a story I’m writing, thank you so much! Quick addition that you might find interesting: we also have some evidence of couple’s dances in the Middle Ages! I’ve written about that on my blog, in case you’d like to know more: https://lisettemarshall.com/fun-facts/medieval-dances/

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