For specific detail, we are reliant upon written records and therefore on accounts left by the educated classes. Performances mounted for court entertainment in fifteenth-century Italy regularly included dancing and eye witness accounts from the French, English, Scottish and Spanish courts show that dancing was common there too.
The best-documented dance style of the fifteenth century is the basse dance (Italian bassadanze; Spanish baixa). This was a measured and stately dance for the nobility and gentry, intended to display their magnificence. For the most part, they performed this as couples, one or more at a time, but in northern Italy more ambitious configurations were devised for varied numbers of dancers – who parted, came together, circled and executed other movements to make patterns that expressed different relationships between dancers.
Music in the fifteenth century was freely exchanged and adapted, with the same tunes being used for secular songs, dances and even for masses. Several song melodies were re-used as basse dance tunes and at least one basse dance tune was used as the basis for a mass. There are remarkably few CDs of basse dances played as they might have been played in the 15th century. While plenty of recordings are based on the most popular basse danse tenor (La Spagna) these do not give a realistic idea of how the tenors were used as accompaniment to the basse dance itself. However, Les Haulz et les Bas has recorded some excellent CDs (in particular Gothic Winds which features several Burgundian/French basse danses played by the alta capella wind band).
There are a great number of French basse dances for which we know the sequences, although rather fewer for which we also have music. The earliest choreography that we have for a basse dance is 1445 and the latest 1589 (in the memoirs of an elderly cleric who reminisces about dancing it when he was young). The basse dance probably pre-dates the first written source and was certainly still in use in the 1550’s (if the dance music collections are any guide), and over the century or more in which it was danced it evolved. By the late fifteenth century the French style had evolved a set of rules governing the composition of basse dances, that cannot be applied to the older dances and somewhere between about 1510 and 1538 the basse dance was simplified and standardised to make it more like the pavan (which eventually replaced it).
The basse dance itself was usually paired with one or sometimes two companion dances (in France the basse dance mineure with pas de Brabant, in Italy the saltarello and in Spain the alta and ioyos). However we have rather less information about these companion dances than we do about the basse dance itself.
A basse dance at the Early Dance Festival 2011
There were other dance styles too. In Italy a new style of dance was invented in the second quarter of the fifteenth century that combined bassadanza with elements of popular dance. Modern dancers refer to this style as the Italian ballo. These dances are for up to 10 dancers. The invention of this style is generally attributed to Domenico of Piacenza, a dancing master at the court of Ferrara, who was the first to describe these dances in a manuscript written circa 1455. More of these dances are described by another dancing master Guglielmo Ebreo (who later changed his name to Giovanni Ambrosio on converting to Christianity) and by the courtier Antonio Cornazano. The surviving copies of the manuscripts by these three authors provide choreographies for 56 balli (including music for 27 of these), together with 45 bassadanza.
In Italian court entertainment, one of the most important dances seems to have been the moresca, which, like later masque dances, was usually composed specifically for the occasion. However, as with the later masque dances, surviving descriptions are not adequate to define its character.
A couple of dances described in one of the Italian manuscripts in combination with an English source (dated to 1500 plus or minus 20 years) suggest that there was a similar sort of dance style in northern Europe at the same time, but we know far less about these than we do about their Italian counterparts.
In all these countries, it is more than likely that there were traditional vernacular dances, like the round dance shown in the picture below, which everybody knew so well that nobody bothered to write them down. That picture is not alone in showing that such dances were enjoyed by the well-to-do, as well as the peasants.
Dancers & musicians from Borso’s Bible (mid 15th century)
If you want to create your own reconstructions of these dances then conveniently almost all of the surviving evidence for fifteenth century dance has been pulled together into the first two books below. Other studies follow.
W. Smith, Fifteenth-Century Dance and Music: twelve transcribed Italian treatises and collections in the tradition of Domenico da Piacenza (Dance & Music Series, no 4, 1995). This contains (not always adequate) English translations.
D. Wilson, The Basse Dance Handbook (Wendy Hilton Dance and Music Series 16; Pendragon, 2012).
F. Crane, Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse (Musicological Studies, vol 16, 1968).
D. Fallows’ collection of English dances of c.1485, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 29 (1996), 1-20.
M. Inglehearn & P. Forsyth, The Book on The Art of Dancing: Antonio Cornazano (London, 1981) [translation].
R. Mullally, The Brussels Basse Dance Book (Dance Books, 2015).
B. Sparti, Guglielmo Ebreo of Pesaro: On the Practice or Art of Dancing (Oxford, 1993; 2nd ed. 1995) [edition incl. translation and introduction].
D. R. Wilson, 101 Italian Dances (c. 1450 – c. 1510) (Early Dance Circle, 1999).
D. R. Wilson, The Basse Dance Handbook (Wendy Hilton Dance and Music Series 16; Pendragon, 2012).
Selected Secondary Sources
D. Cruickshank, Danzare et Ballare 1 & 2 (2 booklets, Salisbury, 1988, 1989).
D. Cruickshank, Danzare et Sonare (booklet, Salisbury, 1992).
J. Dillon, The Language of Space in Court Performance, 1400 – 1625 (Cambridge, 2010).
S. Howard, The Politics of Courtly Dancing in Early Modern England (Amhurst, 1998).
A & P Kent, Cherwell Thy Wyne: Dances of fifteenth-century England from the Gresley Manuscript (DHDS, 2013).
J. Nevile, The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Indiana University, 2004).
E, Tribble, “Dancing Music and Song” in Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre (London, 2017).
D. R. Wilson, Domenico of Piacenza (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS ital. 972) (Early Dance Circle, 1988). [transcript].
D. R. Wilson, The Steps used in Court Dancing in Fifteenth-Century Italy (3rd ed., Cambridge, 2003).
See Learning the Dances for details of instruction-books and recorded music produced by the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society (now HDS Historical Dance Society), Gaita and by Nonsuch Productions and others. These give interpretations of how to dance many of these dances, along with their music.
General Books on Historical or Early Dance
M. Dolmetsch, Dances of England and France from 1450 to 1600 (London, 1949; reprinted, New York, 1976)
M. Dolmetsch, Dances of Spain and Italy from 1400 to 1600 (London, 1954; reprinted, New York, 1975)
B. Quirey, May I have the Pleasure? The story of popular dancing (London, 1976; reprinted, 1987)
B. Quirey & M. Holmes, Apology for History (London, 1993)
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted, 1963)
J. Wildeblood, The Polite World (London, 1965; revised ed., 1973)
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, 1982)
M. Wood, More Historical Dances (London, 1956)
M. Wood, Advanced Historical Dances (London, 1960)