Search This Blog

Monday, April 26, 2021

Carols and Capering. Medieval Dance by Lindsay Townsend

Four husbands into her career, Chaucer's Wife of Bath was still young and a lively soul, 'yong and ful of ragerie,/Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pie [magpie]./How koulde I daunce to a harpe smale,/And singe, ywis, as any nightingale,/Whan I had dronke a draughte of sweete wyn!' So how would she have danced? 

 Dancing in circles has gone on for who knows how long, and the medieval carol - a circular dance and the songs that went with it - was popular with everybody but the church. The songs, involving a leader who sang the verse, music from harp, pipe and tabor or the vielle (a predecessor to the violin) and the dancers providing the chorus, could get distinctly rowdy, and clerics could impose sanctions against those who moved in an unseemly fashion or sang colourful lyrics in churchyards. The lyrics from early carols are hard to come by, but one popular carol from the thirteenth century, Angelus ad virginem, whose English version begins 'Gabriel fram Heven-king/Sent to the maide swete', has a bouncy tune ideal both for accompaniment with pipe and tabor and for the circular carol-dance. The music can be heard here, and possible steps have been suggested here

Many dances thought of as medieval - such as the basse danse, branle and pavane - really belong to the Renaissance, when the first collections of dance music were made, but we can trace some formal dances like the saltarello, with its triple time and extravagant hop, back to the thirteenth-century. 

If a solo dancer or tumbler took part in social dancing, there could be some seriously gymnastic capering. The sight of women dancing on their hands may have led to an emphasis on modesty in later instruction books such as Guglielmo Ebreo's fifteenth century Art of Dance, but in earlier times things were more freewheeling, as can be seen by this image. of a woman 'dancing' on knife points.

Early 14th-century picture of a jongleresse balancing on swords. British Library, MS Royal 10 E iv, f. 58. Sourced online, copyright unidentified.

 A poem from the Benediktbeuren Manuscript of c.1230 ('Obmittamus studia') has a young student longing to abandon his lessons and go down into the street to watch the maidens dancing, 'white limbs moving/Light in wantonness,' as Helen Waddell translated it. Now that would have appealed to Chaucer.

I touch on medieval carol dancing in my novel, "Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure," as can be read from this excerpt:

Conrad stamped his boots again, for good measure, and looked about for a mulled wine seller in the bustling press of traders gathered by the church. A cup for him and Maggie would do nicely, and he would tempt his wife to dance a carol with one of the great circling groups capering slowly
over the green. 
It had snowed again, never truly stopped, and the mud tracks and cart skids on the common were
blanketed in fresh white, sparkling in the torches that people were beginning to light. It was not yet dark, but traders had set them and small fires near to their stalls, to draw folk. A scent of roasting chestnuts and pork made his stomach growl and he bought a fistful of peeled chestnuts for Maggie, with
a tiny twist of salt.
There! He spotted her white furry mittens first, darting like geese as she expressed a point to David. Next, he saw the bundles of parchment rolled up in a battered quiver tied about her narrow waist, a different way of carrying her drawings, for sure, but one that kept her hands free. He
smiled at her and she sped forward, her hood down to show her pretty face, one mitten already off and her bare fingers reaching out to him.

Happy capering!


  1. Fascinating. It never occurred to me that medieval dances could be so energetic, but given how much the pious often disapproved, they must have been a lot of fun for the young. Great excerpt.

  2. Nice article. I've actually seen a photo, taken in the 1960s, where a male dancer was upside down between two female dancers in Brittany during a circle dance. It must have been awkward for women to do the same in those long skirts! However, harps and vièles are very soft instruments and not really suited to popular dancing (the vièle isn't an early violin. The violin developed separately and was created by combining a rebec, a lira, and a vièle.) Actually, these circle dances are still very popular — they always have been in areas like Brittany in France.In the picture at the top of your article the musicians are playing the bombarde (which became a shawm then, eventually, an oboe) and the cornemuse, which is a small bagpipe. These were the traditional instruments for circle dancing, mainly because they are VERY VERY LOUD and can be heard outside where most dances took place (I play the bombarde and have to use earplugs much of the time). These ancient instruments are still being used as you can see in this circle dance in modern Brittany:

  3. Thanks, Christine! I agree, they must have been a lot of fun.
    Thanks for the comment, J. Arlene Culiner, and the links to the modern circle dances. Interesting, too - I never knew the bombarde was so loud.

  4. Very well done, Lindsay! Medieval dances have long been misunderstood and misrepresented--you bring not only clarification but appreciation.

  5. Very thought-provoking. The idea that today's social dancing may have it's roots in the Medieval circle dances is something I hadn't considered before. Your posts are always so interesting.

  6. Many thanks, Lynna!
    Thanks, Ann!
    I agree that exploring the roots of social customs is very interesting

  7. I imagine the Scottish Sword Dance has great historical meaning. Don't think I would want to dance on the points of swords in that image for sure.

    I haven't read Sir Conrad and the Christmas Treasure yet, but you know I will.

    A delightful blog as always. All the best to your corner of the universe, Lindsay.

  8. Thanks, Sarah! Happy Spring-time to you and yours!
    Agree with you about dancing on swrod points!

  9. This was a fun and intriguing post. I still rememeber reading Chaucer, but hadn't really thought of what dancing would have been like. Thank you. May your year be a good one. Doris