Date: Unknown start date, though it went out of fashion c. 1400
Where was it from?:
Thought to be French
As we have no comprehensive or specific accounts of the Carole as a dance type, it is very difficult to understand. We must rely on varied statements in scattered literary sources to draw our conclusions as there are no surviving dance manuals or treatises. We have so many different interpretations that it is difficult to define the dance. Then again, there are some things we do know...
The carole came in two forms:
Date: Unknown start date, though it went out of fashion c. 1400
Where was it from?:
Unknown, but thought to be French
There is no other surviving evidence of other types of carole.
Carole itself is a French word. However, we are unsure what the term carole means. It is largely considered a French dance or a dance of regions under a strong French cultural influence, as the sources, iconography and music we know of are largely in French. However, it is a dance that is also mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy, as a carola, which could suggest it was also in vogue in Italy, though the Italians also use the term to describe an elegant dance.
The carole seems to have been an early form of dance popular amongst all. Some have suggested that it may have been a couple dance. However, it has been generally agreed that it was a social group dance and that people took hands when performing it. Notably, it was a circular dance. This was its defining feature.
“COME LET US MAKE A ROUND IN THE CAROLE”
The Romance of the Rose, Guillaume de Lorris
In medieval sources, dancers were encouraged to dance around objects, and move towards the left. These dances constantly flowed around the dance space, with fluid improvised dance changes. However, this circular leftwards-moving dance did not find favour everywhere...
“The dance is a circle whose centre is the devil, and in it all turn to the left, because all are heading towards everlasting death. When foot is pressed to foot or the hand of the woman is touched by the hand of a man, there the fire of the Devil is kindled”
Jacques de Vitry, a thirteenth-century French theologian
Dancing shepherds, from the Hours of Charles d’Angoulême, 1475-1500
The carole was usually danced by women only or a combination of men and women. It was likely that in the mixed dances, both sexes would have been evenly spaced (man, woman, man, woman…). Other types of layout have been more readily documented suggesting these strange scenarios were out of place. Even though it is common in medieval romance literature to see knights and ladies carolling together, it was a thing considered evil by medieval moralists.
“...because all those men and women who carol sin with every member of their bodies by turning elegantly and by moving and shaking their arms, by singing, and by speaking dishonourably”
Le Miroir du Monde
Lancelot at the Carole Magique, Lancelot du Lac, c. 1470
For such a ‘terrible’ dance, how was the carole actually performed? It has been suggested that it was not a set choreographed dance, but one that could be performed in many different ways. Significantly, the carole was a dance that was also performed whilst singing. For example, Chaucer writes how King Henry IV of England’s mother, Lady Lancaster, used to “dance so comely, carol and sing so sweetly . . . that never has Heaven seen so blissful a treasure”. Amongst categories of song, there was a song type called a ‘carole’, which was one intended to accompany the dance. Dancing and singing together was seen as one activity.
The carole continued to be popular into the fifteenth century.
Dancing peasants in a wall painting by Albertus Pictor in Härkeberga church, Uppland, Sweden, c. 1480
The Circle Dance
The branle was also known as a round. It stems from the French ‘branler’, which means ‘to sway’. This refers to (amongst other things) the dances’ alternate steps made to the left and then the right.
It is believed that the earliest forms of this circle dance were developed from early rainmaking rituals or fertility rites. Either way, we are unsure where this outdoor dance developed from. But by the fourteenth century these were regularly being depicted in French miniatures, with musical evidence suggesting it remained a French favourite for several hundred years. Later medieval versions grew similar to branles coupés, which had an uneven phrasing of music and more exaggerated gestures (such as stamping, clapping and finger wagging). These later branle styles are thought to have influenced the basse dance. Despite all of this, there is no written description of the medieval branle. The first writer to actually describe the dance was Thoinot Arbeau, in Orchésographie (1588). He describes how it existed through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but by this point was not always a joined circle.
To the left...
An ivory box depicting the tale of the Châtelaine de Vergy, which was about a romance between a castellan's wife and a knight. This is estimated to be from the second quarter of the fourteenth century.
Branles are the circular dances you often see depicted in medieval pictures. However, these circles were not necessarily joined and did not necessarily have a central point. It was a communal dance which any number of people could join. Although it is often depicted as a circle alternating between men and women, there was no need for partners. It was all about the shared experience.
Whilst in a circle the dancers travelled clockwise taking sideways steps to the left and the right. Arbeau describes how, in later branles, even if there were an equal number of steps to the left as there were to the right, the dance still moved clockwise. Steps to the left were to be longer and firmer than those to the right, which allowed for such movement. This back and forth motion almost looks like the ebbing and flowing of the tides. Although this idea of motion comes from a later source, it is a characteristic rooted in tradition.
Bible of Borso d'Este, by Taddeo Crivelli from between 1455 and 1461
Other than stepping from side to side, it remains difficult to guess what the branle may have really looked like, due to the absence of written instruction from the medieval period. We only know that this dance had a focus on repeating step sequences that followed musical phrasings. However, historian Melusine Wood makes some recommendations, based on music patterns, for how to dance the branle. She suggests…
- Holding hands as a group in a relaxed low hand-hold
- Starting the first step on the left foot
- Using a combination of simple and double steps moving clockwise and anticlockwise in the circle
- Using ordinary walking steps of heel-toe, making sure these aren’t heavy but roll across the foot
- Slightly turning the lower half of the body in the direction of travel (more so on the left), ensuring the head and shoulder stay facing into the centre
- Closing the other foot to the one that has just stepped in, after every single or double step, but no stamping
Disloyal lovers performing a carole, Dit du lion, c. 1372-1377
Why not try making up a dance sequence with a friend using simple and double steps? If you need a reminder, feel free to check out the Dance Steps page.
The Line/Broken Line Dance
The farandole follows ancient dance styles, performed in many varieties across the world. Although there is no evidence of it in medieval sources nor is it a medieval term, it has often been claimed to have had its roots in this period or even earlier.
The ‘farandole’ is still the national dance of Provence, though it is not the same dance we might expect to find in the medieval period. Today’s dancers use fancier steps which are a modern invention. Whilst some historians, such as Robert Mullally, think the modern farandole is descended from a tresque (another dance type) and not the medieval carole, there is no overall consensus on this.
From a Calendar from 1325-1340
The farandole has often been considered the line dance version of the carole, however it is now suggested that it should be thought of more as a broken circle dance, as though the circle had been snipped and opened up to form flowing snake-like movements. The term ‘farandole’ has been used to describe a line of dancers with linked hands following their leader wherever he or she chose. As it is thought to have been an outdoor dance, it could have been led through the town or just the town square.
The farandole was danced for pleasure. It could perhaps be seen as much a game as a dance. It was a spontaneous ‘follow your leader’ and could be run, walked or skipped, with any number of people joining in. It is also often depicted with dancers singing or playing musical instruments, which, of course, would have been more suitable if walking the dance rather than running! Importantly, it was forward-flowing and had a focus on making interesting floor-patterns.
These floor patterns have been given the term ‘farandole figures’, and were so often danced that they picked up nicknames themselves.
Scroll through the examples below to find out more...
The Meander River
Leading the group of dancers around the room in serpentine patterns.
Unknown Dance Group performing a Farandole
In this video the leader has her right hand free, this is not typical of the period and likely stems from later training in folk dance tradition. However, it illustrates the ‘Farandole figures’ well.