Dancing in Medieval Life

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Dancing in Medieval Life

Court and Countryside.

Throughout the Carolingian era (eighth to tenth centuries) and the later Middle Ages, dancing was a part of all types of celebrations, both formal and informal. It could involve a solo dancer, couples, or groups of any size, and was accompanied by music that was either sung or played on instruments of all types. The dances themselves could be simple or complex, sedate or energetic, and contributed to the social life of every level of society. Dancing filled a variety of needs: it could be a way of expressing happiness, a casual relief from the toils of daily labors, an occasion for amorous flirtation, or a vehicle for displaying elegance and wealth. It took place in castles and manor houses, in town streets and squares, and in neighboring fields. Typical instances of dancing—on joyous occasions outside of churches or churchyards—occurred in a variety of private and public locations and involved a number of different formations and steps, most of which we know from images and descriptions recorded after 1300.

Conventional Versus Choreographed Dance.

Broadly speaking, there are two basic divisions that can be applied to a discussion of medieval dance: conventional dances, in which a single set of steps is repeated over and over until the music stops; and choreographed dances, in which each dance has a unique sequence of steps. The two types are quite different in terms of their origins and purpose, although there are many similarities in steps, social function, and level of importance in the cultural lives of the people of the period. The story of conventional dances begins long before recorded history, continuing to the present day, and although it is not documented in full detail, there is sufficient evidence to provide a clear outline of the various forms it took and the functions it filled between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. Choreographed dance, on the other hand, was an invention of the late Middle Ages, and a number of treatises have survived that provide a fairly accurate picture of how it was performed and what it was intended to achieve.

Occasions for Dancing.

Most circumstances in which dancing takes place have not changed much over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, as now, people danced at weddings, on holidays, and at political or cultural gatherings, as well as for simple evening entertainment. There are two occasions in the Middle Ages, however, that would seem to be unusual, both of which involve the church and the clergy: sacred dance, in which life is celebrated, and its opposite, the dance of death. These examples, in particular, demonstrate how widespread dance was as a means of expression in medieval society.


Jonathan Alexander, "Dancing in the Streets," in The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 54 (1996): 147–162.

B. Fassbinder, Gotische Tanzdarstellungen (Frankfort: Europäische Hochschuleschriften, 1994).

Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance (New York: W. W.

Norton, 1963).