Sacred and Symbolic Dance

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Sacred and Symbolic Dance

Liturgical Dance.

There is ample evidence from as early as the fourth century that dance was a frequent occurrence in church, serving as a component of liturgical services on special occasions, especially Easter and Christmas. That the tradition continued throughout the Middle Ages is attested to by a twelfth-century description of girls dancing during the Easter celebrations in London and references to thirteenth-century clerics in Gournay (near Rouen, France) dancing as a part of the feasts of the Innocents and of St. Madeline. The troubadour Pierre de Corbiac wrote in his Tesaur around the year 1250 that he knew how "to dance the Sanctus and the Agnus and the Cunctipotens," which refers to three prayers chanted during the celebration of the Mass. In 1313, members of the congregation of St. Bartholomew in Tauste, Spain, were taught by Rabbi Hacén ben Salomo to perform choral dances around the altar. All of this is clear evidence that throughout the period, dancing continued to be associated with sacred occasions, including the celebration of the Mass, and that laymen as well as clerics took part.


At the same time, there are also frequent warnings throughout the period against dance, beginning as early as the late sixth century, when the rather austere English monk, St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604), wrote that "it is better to dig and plough on festival days than to dance," a sentiment echoed a century later by the theologian and English historian the Venerable Bede (673–735). A number of church writings indicate that dancing was frowned upon because it was considered to have pagan as well as erotic overtones. In the first decade of the thirteenth century both the bishop of Paris and the Council of Avignon forbade dancing the carol in processions or during the vigil ceremonies on saints' days, and in 1325 the General Chapter of the Church in Paris threatened excommunication for clerics who danced on any occasion, with the exception of sacred dancing on Christmas and the feasts of St. Nicholas and St. Catherine. An extremely negative view of dancing is found in the fourteenth-century preacher's handbook Fasciculus morum, which describes a scene in which the devil gathers up his followers by sending one of his daughters to lead a round dance. The same source also connects dancing to gluttony and lechery in the midst of a discussion of the sin of Sloth:

Notice that it is absurd to say that such worldly joy as is generated by dancing and singing and the like on holy day—activities which rouse people rather to gluttony, lechery, and similar wretched deeds than to the praise of God and his saints—can possibly please God; and yet they think they please him the more they devote themselves to such unwarranted activities.

A legend circulating in England and western France, found in a collection of stories known as Marvels of the East (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 614), told the story of seven women dancing in a circle on a Sunday. As a punishment, they were cursed by the priest and turned into stones. A number of megalithic stone circles in Brittany and England have been identified as these women, including the stone circle in Cornwall known as the "Merry Maidens." In spite of such prohibitions, however, there is ample evidence that dancing on sacred occasions continued throughout the late Middle Ages and beyond. Documents recording the presence of dance at sacred ceremonies, as well as those forbidding it, can be found into the seventeenth century. The objections to dancing were mostly aimed at clerics taking part in secular dances. The reasons for this strong prohibition included the lascivious nature of the texts of some of the secular dance songs. Also, secular dancing usually involved the participation of women, a temptation seen as best avoided by the celibate clergy.

Sacred Dance Songs.

Although there are no detailed descriptions of what steps may have been danced on these occasions, the music that has survived provides a few clues, which, when matched with the iconography (mostly images from manuscript illuminations), establishes a fairly reliable picture. The largest repertory of sacred dance songs with music can be found at the very end of a copy of the Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organum), a book that contains music for the liturgy that originated in Paris in the twelfth century, located today in Florence, Italy. The section containing the dance songs has an illumination depicting five men standing in a semicircle. From their garb and the fact that all have been tonsured (that is, they have a shaved patch on the crowns of their heads), it is obvious that they are clerics. Their mouths are open, indicating that they are singing, and they appear to be holding hands, a standard way of symbolizing dance. There are sixty short dance songs in this collection, nearly all of them in a verse and refrain format known as rondeau, meaning round (see Round, below). Some of the texts specifically mention dance: "Let the joyful company this day resound in a joyful dance," and "With a vocal dance this assembly sings."

The Danse Macabre.

In sharp contrast to the joyful celebration of church feasts is the dance that was often associated with hysteria of various kinds, a type dating back to ancient times. Stories of wild dancing, often ending in complete exhaustion or even death, are a standard part of the tales and myths of the Middle Ages. The Dance of Death (Danse Macabre), one of the more bizarre preoccupations of late medieval literature and iconography, always involves humans and skeletons, and was frequently referred to in sermons as a reminder of mortality. Literary origins of the tradition have been traced back before 1280 in the Dit des trois morts et des trois vifs (Story of Three Dead and Three Living) by Baudouin de Condé. Another account, dating from late fourteenth-century Spain, is a poem of 79 stanzas, the Dança general de la Muerte (Common Dance of Death), in which Death summons two maidens, Beauty and Pride, and then invites clergy and laymen to dance with them, using their excuses as a forum for social criticism.

St. Vitus 's Dance.

The literary versions of hysterical dancing are nearly all symbolic, but there are also accounts of actual events taking place, sometimes called "St. Vitus's dance," described as happening in a church graveyard and associated with a desire to communicate with the dead. These events usually involved large numbers of people and went on for hours or even days. The narratives of such dances usually describe them as spontaneous and uncontrollable, provoked by something akin to mass hysteria. In the mid-fourteenth century in particular, mass hysterical dancing was recorded as a reaction to the Black Death, the plague that resulted in the deaths of nearly one-third of the population of Europe. In modern times St. Vitus's dance has been identified as Sydenham's Chorea, a tremor of the nerves and body caused by eating rotten grain containing ergot, a parasitic fungus.


introduction: Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis), a twelfth-century writer from Cambria (in Wales), has provided the most detailed surviving account of a medieval hysterical event in his Journey Through Wales, which was completed around 1189. As a writer who specialized in "eyewitness" narrations, Gerald, who himself had both Welsh and Norman ancestors, was fascinated not only with the details of nature and geography in the places he visited, but also with unusual variations in manners and customs, as this passage illustrates.

You can see young men or maidens, some in the church itself, some in the churchyard and others in the dance which threads its way round the graves. They sing traditional songs, all of a sudden they collapse on the ground, and then those who, until now, have followed their leader peacefully, as if in a trance, leap in the air as if seized by frenzy. In full view of the crowds they mime with their hands and feet whatever work they have done contrary to the commandment on sabbath days. You can see one man putting his hand to an [imaginary] plough, another, goading on the oxen with a stick, and all as they go singing country airs, to lighten the tedium of their labour. This man is imitating a cobbler at his bench, that man over there is miming a tanner at his work. Here you see a girl pretending that she has a distaff in her hand, drawing out the thread with her hands, stretching it at arm's length, and then winding it back onto the spindle; another, as she trips along, fits the woof to the warp; a third tosses her shuttle, now this way, now that, from one hand to the other, and with jerky gestures of her tiny tool seems for all the world to be weaving cloth from the thread which she has prepared. When all is over, they enter the church. They are led up to the altar and there, as they make their oblation, you will be surprised to see them awakened from their trance and recover their normal composures.

source: Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales/The Description of Wales. Trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1978): 92–93.


Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of the British Isles (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976).

James Midgley Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow: Jackson, 1950).

Fasciculus Morum: A Fourteenth-Century Preacher's Handbook. Ed. and trans. Siegfried Wenzel (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989).

M. R. James, ed., The Marvels of the East (Oxford: Roxburgh Club, 1929).

Yvonne Rokseth, "Danses cléricales du XIIIe siècle," in Mélanges 1945 des publications de la Faculté des lettres de Strasbourg (Strasbourg, France: Faculté des lettres, 1947).

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

Norton, 1963).

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Sacred and Symbolic Dance

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Sacred and Symbolic Dance