History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

24 November 2006

The 12th Century Twist

The 12th Century Twist: Medieval Dance Music

What’s most frustrating about medieval dance? We have recovered 37 works of dance music from the Middle Ages, but not one clue about the dance steps! While hints on execution are found in paintings, illuminations, and medieval texts, not until 1450, the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy, was there a detailed description of early dances in Europe. (Which may be why movies mistakenly film 12th century couples dancing a 15th century pavane.)

What dances were danced? People danced in castle and countryside, at feasts, ceremonies, after supper, at fairs, etc. Dances include the carol and the estampie. Carols are chain or circle dances using simple walking steps, often done holding hands or with arms linked. I was taught one circle dance in a medieval dance workshop, described as a “greeting” or “re-bonding” ritual to welcome either a newcomer or a long-absent friend or family member. It was especially popular during the Crusades.
Two concentric circles of dances face each other and move in opposite directions in slow steps, looking directly into the eyes of the person opposite. Sounds simple, but it was profoundly moving.

Estampies are more complex, as indicated by the music (different melodies with the same refrains, repeated many times). The estampie comprises a sequence of steps for the “first” melody played and another set of steps for the musical refrain. A slightly different step sequence for the “second” melody, same steps for the repeated refrain. And etc.

Later (14th-15th C) we have the bransle (pronounced “brawl”), pavane, galliard, saltarello, basse-dance, and many more.

Who/what played the music? Music for medieval dance was played by an ensemble of various “mixed” instruments: bagpipe, pipe & tabor (drum), rebec, vielle, lute, drum, tambourine.
By the 16th C “families” of instruments were preferred, to give a
more blended sound: recorders and viols for a “soft” band; for a “loud band,” sackbut (early trombone), cornetto (curved horn, sounds like an oboe), and crumhorns (curved up at the end; sounds like a squawking duck).

What was the music like? A monophonic melody was played (by ear, not from notation), and other instruments would improvise an accompaniment over or under that melody. The melody would be played many times over, each time adding variety by more inventive ornamentation, which would increase in virtuosity. Some dances were quite long; an estampie, for example, could last 12-14 minutes. To avoid player fatigue, instruments were changed at the repeats Note: the larger the ensemble, the more intonation (playing in tune with each other) problems.

Dances were played in sets, often changing meter (duple to triple) or rhythm and coupling a slow dance with a faster one: a slow carol with a faster estampie, for instance. An instrumental prelude would signal the start (and end) of the dance and was used to set the mode (key), tonality, and rhythm for the other players.

Source: Timothy J. McGee, Medieval and Renaissance Music/A Performer's Guide
--Lynna Banning


Anonymous Judy T said...

Thank you, Lynna. I've actually been wondering about the dancing lately. It's such a basic part of romance novels, and the only one I'm familiar with is the waltz! I get a little frustrated with myself that I can't picture what is happening when they are doing a country dance... well, anything that isn't a waltz! At least now I know a little more than I used to know.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Ditto, Lynna. I love this stuff! I think the dance scene in the Zef 1968 movie is one of the sexiest, a lot of direct eye contact and very slow steps. Wonderful!


8:23 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Judy, what historical era are you writing in? (excuse bad grammar)
The waltz was fairly "late."

10:41 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Which Zef 1968 movie... title?
I'm intrigued.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Judy T said...

Lynna, I'm actually writing modern romance novels. (Just starting. I've been writing Lord of the Rings FanFic for several years now, but that's the sum total of my historical abilities.) It's a bit of a struggle knowing that I love reading Regency but for the life of me can't begin to figure out how to write it.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Kathrynn means the Zef version of Romeo and Juliet. So fab *SIGH*

5:46 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...


Yep, I meant Romeo and Juliet, 1968...sorry I forgot to mention the title! How could I? ;-)

Thanks, Kalen.

Red faced Kathrynn.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Judy, I highly recommend "How To Write and Sell Historical Fiction" by Persia Woolley (Writers Digest books).
Woolley is a superb historical novelist, so she knows what she's talking about. I loved her Arthurian trilogy, "Child of the Northern Spring," "Queen of the Summer Stars," and "Guinevere in Autumn." Beautiful writing.

11:01 AM  

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