What we know of dance in the Middle Ages is tantalisingly little. It comes mainly from rare illustrations in art and literature, and from music.
Paintings show dancers moving in lines or circles. Poetry speaks of singing and dancing in the same breath; so do the chronicles, which record its incidence at court events and festivals.
Music brings us several exciting rhythms and frequently unusual phrasing.
We know the names of many dances: carole (circle or line dances, later perhaps to be called a farandole (though this may not have followed the same pattern) which utilised a verse and chorus sequence; estampie, parts of which are thought to have been the earliest solo couple dance; branle – the prime examples of which can be found in the late 16th century source by Arbeau; saltarello, trotto, istampitta, ductia – of which little is known apart from the lively rhythms of the music. Of the steps, possible body movement, dramatic expression, and partner interaction – the stuff of today’s dancing – we know nothing.
If we must dance – and, compelled by the music, some of us must – we have to invent all these, but not without first trying to think ourselves into the period. Filling in the background with what we can learn of manners, dress and customs, and utilising what we know of later innovations and their inherent characteristics, we hope to arrive at an approximation close to the essence of mediaeval dancing.
Relying only on what we know of mediaeval courtesy and deportment, together with a feeling for spatial pattern, and a real awareness of the music, such invented dances can be satisfying in unexpected ways: as therapy, as theatre and above all as training in the very fundamentals of dance. Reassuringly, we find these turn out to be just such qualities as the dancing masters of the Italian Renaissance, the first serious Western writers about dance, strove to identify.
Reading on Medieval Dance
P. Dixon, Dances from the Courts of Europe, vol. 1 (Nonsuch Productions, 1999).
A. H. Franks, Social Dance, A Short History (London, 1963)
R. Mullally, The Carole: a Study of a Medieval Dance, (Ashgate; 2011).
C. Sachs, World History of the Dance (English version, New York, 1937; reprinted,
M. Wood, Historical Dances (Twelfth to Nineteenth Century) (London, 1952; reprinted, London, 1982).
G. G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama (Cambridge, 1938).
J. Evans, Life in Medieval France (Oxford, 1925; 3rd ed., London, 1969).
A. Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Middle Ages (Routledge, 1951, 1999).
G. Holmes (ed.), The Oxford History of Medieval Europe (OUP, 1992, 2001).
R. Horrox & W. M. Ormrod, ed., A Social History of England, 1200-1500 (CUP, 2006).
J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (English version, Harmondsworth, 1976).
E. Power (ed.), The Goodman of Paris (London, 1928).
E. Power, Medieval People (London, 1924; 10th ed., 1963).
G. B. Shaw, Preface to Saint Joan (London, 1924).