DANCE CRITICISM

Was dance always a good thing?

Whilst dance was seen as an enjoyable, healthy pastime, it seems it was still unable to evade criticism. Dancing would often take place outdoors, however, the use of the churchyard as a social space was strongly opposed by ecclesiastical councils and religious figures. If caught you could expect a strong telling off, and perhaps even to be reminded of this gory story...

Jesus checking in on some dancers...

Missal (Franciscan), 1340–1360

“We were, on the eve of our Lord’s nativity, in a certain town of Saxony, in which was the church of Magnus the martyr, and a priest named Robert had begun the first mass. I was in the churchyard with eighteen companions, fifteen men and three women, dancing, and singing profane songs to such a degree that I interrupted the priest, and our voices resounded amid the sacred solemnity of the mass. Wherefore, having commanded us to be silent, and not being attended to, he cursed us in the following words, ‘May it please God and St. Magnus, that you may remain singing in that manner for a whole year.’ His words had their effect. The son of John the priest seized his sister who was singing with us, by the arm, and immediately tore it from her body; but not a drop of blood flowed out. She also remained a whole year with us, dancing and singing. The rain fell not upon us; nor did cold, nor heat, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor fatigue assail us: we neither wore our clothes nor shoes, but we kept on singing as though we had been insane. First we sank into the ground up to our knees: next to our thighs; a covering was at length, by the permission of God, built over us to keep off the rain. When a year had elapsed, Herbert, bishop of the city of Cologne, released us from the tie wherewith our hands were bound, and reconciled us before the altar of St. Magnus. The daughter of the priest, with the other two women, died immediately; the rest of us slept three whole days and nights: some died afterwards, and are famed for miracles: the remainder betray their punishment by the trembling of their limbs.”

Bishop Peregrine of Cologne recounts a terrible tale from 1013 in the Chronicle of the Kings of England, William of Malmesbury

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Not only was this curse intended to alarm any naughty dancers of the time, this gruesome tale is thought to have been an inspiration for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes.


Dancing in churchyards wasn’t the only thing that was condemned… Moralists also hated dances that moved to the left! Drawing from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, Thomas de Cantimpré points to the Last Judgment, noting that those who were to be damned were placed on the left-hand side of God...


“Most obviously in dances the performers move to the left, on which side on the day of the damned those who are about to lose the kingdom [of Heaven] will be placed, because the Judge will place the blessed on his right.”


This is also made clear in the La Miroir du Monde, which particularly points its finger at the carole.


“It is obvious that caroles are processions to the Devil, because they turn to the left. Of which the Holy Scripture says: ‘God approves the ways that turn to the right; those that turn to the left are perverse and bad, and God hates them.’ 

The Maastricht Hours.png

Unlike modern carols, which tend to be religious, many medieval carolling tunes were bawdy songs. Some manuscript illuminations show us this negative response to secular music, such as this satirical piece from The Maastricht Hours where the friar plays the bellows like a fiddle and a barefooted nun does a silly dance.

Clearly not all religious figures felt the same way about dance…

The Maastricht Hours, British Library, Stowe MS 17, estimated to be from the first quarter of 14th century

Even the idea of men and women dancing close together was too much for some! One German preacher in the fifteenth century went as far as to write an entire sermon on it!

“There are all three things with which the devil seduced men by using women: looking, talking and touching. All three occur in dancing. They look at each other and wink with their eyes, there is indecent talk, gestures and songs. The hands and the entire body are touched, which kindles and increases the fire of unchastity, to which many a virtuous child falls victim.”


What a scandal! However, this ‘terrible’ practice was to receive its comeuppance. At one tournament in Caernarfon held to celebrate the birth of the future Edward II, a chronicle of Wigmore Abbey noted how, whilst many courtiers were dancing “in a shameless fashion” on the first floor of the building, the floor collapsed leaving several casualties! Was this simply a badly-constructed floor or the result of the evil work of dancing? We will never know...

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Caernarfon Castle

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