An overview of medieval dance
How much do we really know about medieval dance?
From what we know, there is no documentary source written about dance instruction from dancing masters earlier than the fifteenth century, and very little about dance at all before the thirteenth century. The little we do know has been extrapolated from the earlier sources, often in the form of artwork, literature and music, where the original medieval steps have not been recorded. Furthermore, we have no idea of body movement, dancer interaction and dramatic expression, forcing dance historians to rely heavily on approximation. Dance has a rich history that we sadly cannot fully access.
We must therefore accept that what we know is simply what the writers thought was important at that time, more focussed on pleasing their patrons rather than attention to accuracy. They were not writing for our benefit. Why record what was expected to have been common knowledge? At a time when many people were illiterate, it would have made more sense to have noted what was out of the ordinary.
Dance was not a thing that people wrote about in diaries, letters or chronicles. When it is mentioned, it is to simply tell us that it took place, who danced and maybe how long it lasted. For historians and dancers today, the vital information has been left out. We do not always know how these dances were performed.
Although these sources lack much of the 'essential' information, they do spark our imagination, as can be seen in the following pictures...
A dancing man and a performing dog from The Maastricht Hours (first quarter of the fourteenth century)
These images conjure up wondrous images of the medieval period.
Where there was music, there was also dancing. Troupes of minstrels would have travelled together with dancers and musicians, performing extraordinary tricks and exotic dances accompanied to the pipes or drum. If you were lucky, you may have even seen a dancing bear or performing dog!
In England, we see purpose-built dance chambers in the royal castles from the fourteenth century. In most instances, the aristocratic dance took place indoors, with the peasantry dancing more often outside; this led to slightly different dance styles. Popular folk dances were often consisted of springing and hopping steps in a circle, whilst nobler dancers barely left the ground! Dancers of these finer styles would have been required to make measured and moderate movements in a processional manner, as anything too excessive or even too limited could be seen as unnatural or ugly. They may have even recruited a dancing master to teach them. Moderation in movement was seen as a sign of a virtuous soul and in the highly pious medieval period you would not want to be seen as sinful!
Jewish couples dancing together at a wedding to the accompaniment of musical instruments, Rothschild Miscellany (fifteenth century)
Dancing was one of the most regular parts of court celebrations and was almost essential at weddings and tournaments. It almost always took place after supper or feasting, and could often continue until late in the night. In 1430, at the wedding of Philip of Burgundy to Isabel of Portugal, the dances were said to have lasted almost until dawn, and so “ladies and knights changed their dress two or three times”.
This must have been an enjoyable pastime! This was clearly the case at the court of Savoy in 1368...
“When the minstrels ceased playing, the ladies did not stop, but danced and sang hand in hand all the evening and into the next day. And when one stopped singing, as soon as she finished, another lady or girl took up the song.”
So we know that the people of the medieval period enjoyed dancing, but what kind of dancing did they do? Whilst we assume there were many different dance types, this website focuses on four major styles, spanning several centuries.
Mummers (amateur actors) in the Romance of Alexander
These dances are all of a different style, but why did dance styles change? Here are two possible reasons...
Changes in the size and shape of dancing spaces
In the Middle Ages, most social gatherings took place outside as houses, and even castles, had small windows leaving their rooms dark and often smokey.
When dancing inside, the people of England, Germany and northern regions of France used the hall, either of a castle, manor house or even the houses of more wealthy merchants. These halls were roughly built in the same layout, with a gallery for musicians, a hearth in the centre of the room and a vent in the roof to get rid of as much smoke as possible.
From the fourteenth century onwards, it became increasingly common to have a hooded fireplace with a chimney at the side of the room instead. In this new layout there was a raised dai at the far end of the hall, which was a platform for the master of the house and his esteemed guests. These changes created plenty of dancing space in the room. People were no longer forced to dance around the hearth, but could perform processional dances up and down the length of the room. By processing up the hall when dancing, respect could be paid to those of a higher social rank. Although the family of the house may have been seated apart from everyone else, the whole household would have met for dinner and all would have joined in the dancing that followed. The most noble may have danced a few dances alone, but the carole seems to have been danced by all. It is likely that this shared culture was how dances were preserved.
In southern Europe, especially in Italy, domestic architecture was not based around a great hall, but a Roman villa built around a central court and limited indoor social space. Dancing in these regions was a more intimate affair. To be able to fit into their rooms, sophisticated figure dancing was developed, as this required less space, and the upper ranks of society were less likely to mix with their household.
Changes in clothing worn by dancers
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, outfits worn to dance were seemingly more comfortable to move in. For special occasions, men and women might wear flower wreaths of violets, roses and jasmine. Clothes were made from less heavy material, meaning that ladies could tuck their dresses into their girdles when they needed, and shoes were made of soft leather that followed the foot shape.
“Upon her well-shaped feet I ween,
Most carefully-made boots she’ll set,
Whereof the joints so well are met,
That, not a plait or crease will show,
But on her legs they’d seem to grow.”
Soft footwear worn by the Lady in The Romance of the Rose
By the fourteenth century, French fashion had become progressively more voluminous and heavy, and not just for women but for men also. Headdresses had also become increasingly grand, sometimes towering to great heights. This was a style that was soon to be followed by the English too. With these bulky garments, women could no longer tuck their skirts up, and so these had to be either carried over an arm or left to trail behind them. This made active movement and quick turns difficult. As a result, extravagant processional dance, which had fewer turns, was developed. Although Italian costume grew increasingly weighty, it never reached French length. This allowed Italian dances a greater potential for vivacity.
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