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 and Symbolic Considerations
  • Dance and Ritual
  • Studies of Dance Forms

Medieval Studies Dance
Timothy J. McGee, Mary Channen Caldwell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0121


Dance was one of the major pastimes during the late Middle Ages. It was a favorite leisure activity of all levels of society, from the peasants to the aristocrats, and was a part of most celebrations, just as it is in modern times. Unusual to the Middle Ages, however, is that dance could also be found in sacred settings as a part of the many church feasts, and there is an entire repertory of sacred dance songs that celebrate these events. This is not to say that all dancing was approved by the church. Alongside accounts that speak of sacred dance in a positive way, proclamations can also be found that forbid dance: some aimed at a specific audience (e.g. clerics), others at specific occasions or locations (holy days, church), and others are a wholesale condemnation of the entire activity as immoral. Information about dance in the late Middle Ages is found in an number of sources, although few of them contain sufficient details to allow us to reconstruct a clear picture of the activity. Literary accounts are very helpful in placing dancing in a social context, as are iconographic images, such as paintings and drawings. To these we can add 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 finally, the dance music itself, the songs and instrumental pieces that are identified as intended for dancing, add other kinds of information that aid us in our understanding of what dance must have been like during those centuries. The subject of medieval dance has been studied from several different and partially overlapping viewpoints, which has dictated the organization of some sections of the bibliographic material below. 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 no books devoted exclusively to medieval dance, but a general view of the subject is 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 2008 is a general overview that begins with medieval dance as part of an essay that extends through the Baroque era, and 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. More concentrated views are presented in Silen 2008, which describes the variety of dance scenes in Paris during the 13th century, and Busch 1982 looks at solo dance as represented in iconography.

  • Busch, Gabriele Christiane. Ikonographische Studien zum Solotanz im Mittelalter, Innsbruker Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft. Vol. 7. Edited by W. Salmen. Innsbruck, Austria: Musikverlag Helbling, 1982.

    A study of solo-dance images in medieval iconography with a discussion of the social implications of the various settings and dance poses. Text is in German.

  • 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, 2008.

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

  • 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 for its large overview of the subject.

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

    This is the only book-length study of early dance. Most of it concentrates 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 III.1. Oxford: 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.

  • Silen, Karen. “Dance in Late Thirteenth-Century Paris.” In Dance, Spectacle, and the Body Politick, 1250–1750. Edited by Jennifer Nevile, 67–79. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    Silen concentrates on 13th-century Paris and gives a general picture of dancing at court, in public, at the university, and in the church.

  • 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 few music examples of possible dance songs from the troubadour repertory.

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