In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Treatises and Related Scholarship
  • Social, Symbolic, and Gender Considerations
  • Choreomania
  • Iconography
  • Literary Contexts
  • Studies of Dance Forms

Medieval Studies Dance
Timothy J. McGee, Mary Channen Caldwell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0121


Dance was a major pastime during the European Middle Ages. It was a favorite leisure activity for men and women, from lower social classes to aristocrats, and was integral to most celebrations and rites of passage. Dance also played a role in sacred contexts, accompanied in some cases by devotional dance songs, although not all dancing was approved by religious authorities in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, the three major religions in medieval Europe. Alongside accounts that speak of sacred dance in positive ways, condemnations of dance were also plentiful; some were aimed at specific performers or audiences (e.g., clerics or young people), others at specific occasions or locations (feast days and sacred spaces), and others condemn wholesale the entire activity. Infdormation about dance in the late Middle Ages emerges from a number of sources, although few contain sufficient details to allow modern scholars to reconstruct a clear picture of the activity. Literary accounts are very helpful in placing dancing in a social context, as is iconography. To these can be added several types of documentary evidence, including treatises on poetry, since much dancing was done to dance songs whose forms and subject matter are discussed along with those of other kinds of poems. Music treatises also provide some details when they include dance music among the descriptions of musical forms. And additionally, dance music itself, songs and instrumental pieces that are identified as intended for dancing, contributes more information that aids in our understanding of what dance might have been like during the centuries prior to the writing of the first treatises devoted to dance in Europe in the 15th century. The subject of medieval dance has been studied from several different and partially overlapping viewpoints by musicologists, dance scholars, literary scholars, and art historians, which has dictated to a degree the organization of some sections of the bibliographic material in this article. The subject has been considered in terms of its social aspects, and the dances themselves have been studied in terms of their forms (carol and estampie), their performance intentions (vocal or instrumental), and their national origins (England, France, etc.) Further, while the earlier dances all consisted of a set pattern of steps that were repeated over and over, at the end of the 14th century a new tradition of individually choreographed dances arose. That repertory is treated separately at the end of the article.

General Overviews

There are few books devoted to medieval dance, but general overviews of the subject are presented as part of several larger studies of the subject. Salmen 1999 includes references to earlier dance in a large study that is focused on the Renaissance. Salmen 2001 is a shorter version of much the same material. McGee 2005 concentrates on medieval dance as part of a five-volume general history of the arts. Nevile 2008a provides a general overview that begins with medieval dance as part of an essay that extends through the Baroque era, while Nevile 2008b provides a shorter overview of dance performance and attitudes toward dance c. 1200–1500. Sachs 1937 includes medieval dance within the very large context of dance throughout history. Stevens 1986 is interested in dance texts and music as part of a larger study of the relationship between words and music.

  • McGee, Timothy J. “Dance.” In Art & Humanities Through the Eras. Vol. 3, Medieval Europe 814–1450. Edited by Kristen M. Figg and John B. Friedman, 62–91. Detroit: Thomson-Gale, 2005.

    A general overview of dance in the Middle Ages, including descriptions of the dance forms and repertory, and some biographical notes about important individuals.

  • Nevile, Jennifer. “Dance in Europe 1250–1750.” In Dance, Spectacle, and the Body Politick, 1250–1750. Edited by Jennifer Nevile, 7–64. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008a.

    Valuable for a general view of the connection between medieval and Renaissance dance.

  • Nevile, Jennifer. “Dance Performance in the Late Middle Ages: A Contested Space.” In Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts. Edited by Elina Gertsman, 295–310. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008b.

    An overview of dance performance, performance contexts, and attitudes toward dance c. 1200–1500. Includes discussion of dance and elite social classes, dance and religion, dance and ideas of victory following from the Roman custom of tripudium, and the role of inscription on dance culture through treatises and other writings.

  • Sachs, Curt. World History of the Dance. New York: W. W. Norton, 1937.

    A very broad history of dance beginning in antiquity. Sachs’s starting point is to look at dance as movement, and then trace its various developments throughout history. Dances of the late Middle Ages and 15th century are considered on pp. 251–343. This book has been the starting place for all subsequent dance research, and it is still of value.

  • Salmen, Walter. Tanz und Tanzen vom Mittelalter bis zur Renaissance. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1999.

    One of the few book-length studies of early dance (see Dickason 2021 under Dance: Christianity). Mostly concentrates on the late 15th and 16th centuries, but there is some coverage of the earlier centuries as background for the central focus on the Renaissance. In German.

  • Salmen, Walter. “Dances and Dance Music, c. 1300–1530.” In Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. New ed. Edited by Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J. Blackburn, 162–190. New Oxford History of Music 3.1. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A very good overview and general discussion in English, much of it abstracted from the more complete Tanz und Tanzen by the same author.

  • Stevens, John. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050–1350. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

    This is a broad study of the relationship between words and music, using literary sources for much of the evidence. Dance songs and their texts are discussed in chapter 5, which includes a selection of music examples of possible dance songs from Latin and vernacular song repertories.

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