Carols and capering: medieval dance
edited: Thursday, April 08, 2010
By Lindsay Townsend
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2010
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Popular dancing in the Middle Ages.
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. 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.
Lindsay's third medieval romance, A Knight's Enchantment, is published on June 1, 2010.