Thoinot Arbeau was born Jehan Thauburot in 1520 in Dijon, once a center of fifteenth-century Burgundian court life. He received his schooling in Dijon and Poitiers and may have also attended the University of Paris. He took a degree in law before entering holy orders. By 1542, he became treasurer of the chapter house at Langres, and five years later was named a cathedral canon. He held a number of important church positions throughout his life, rising to the post of vicar-general, an important diocesan office. Late in life he wrote his dance treatise, Orchesography, a work that provides a vital glimpse of the styles of dance practiced in late sixteenth-century France, and which subscribes to the prevalent Neoplatonic notion about the importance of dance as a reflection of the cosmos.
Arbeau's dance manual was the only such work to appear in France in the late sixteenth century, although works of this kind were relatively common in Italy. It is a text comparable to the works of Fabrizio Caroso and Cesare Negri, and it records a similar number of dances. Arbeau, though, writes for an urban clientele, in contrast to the "courtly" tone of Caroso and Negri, and his dances are simpler and more direct. At the same time he includes even more important information about musical accompaniments to the dances. Arbeau developed, for example, a precise system for mapping out the steps to the accompanying musical passages he includes. Thus there can be no doubt about how he wanted the dance steps to follow the music, and for this reason, his work has been an invaluable tool to modern scholars wishing to recreate sixteenth-century dances. Among the many dances he relates, Arbeau includes 25 different branles, perhaps the most popular dance of the time in France. The branle, known as the brawl in English, had originally developed out of one of the steps of the Burgundian bassedance of the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century, though, ingenuous dance masters and dancers had added a number of choreographed movements and innovations to the dance, which Arbeau carefully catalogues. One of the colorful branles he relates is the washerwomen's branle, in which dancers clap their hands like washerwomen beating clothes on the banks of the Seine. Another is the hermit's branle, in which participants mime the hand gestures that religious hermits made in greeting. Fancy footwork was a hallmark of such dances, and Arbeau recounts these with care as well. Beyond his numerous branle variations, he includes choreographies for the pavan, 15 different galliards, the volta, allemande, canary, as well as many others. The entire tone of the book is good-natured and charming; it is written, for instance, in the form of a dialogue between the teacher Arbeau and his disciple Capriol (meaning "step" or "caper"). As a cleric, Arbeau was one of an increasingly rare breed that actively pursued secular pursuits like the dance, and he recommended it in a strikingly modern way as good exercise. The changing spirit in the church, fueled by the severe tastes of the Counter-Reformation, took an increasingly dim view of priests like Arbeau who danced. The Jesuits and other religious orders of the time included dance instruction into their school curricula for children destined for marriage and secular careers, but dance was quickly becoming a pursuit too worldly for the rectory and the chapter house.
Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography. Trans. M. S. Evans (New York: Dover, 1967).
—, "Arbeau, Thoinot," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2001).
K. H. Taubert, Höfische Tänze, Ihre Geschichte und Choreographie (Mainz: B. Schott, 1968).