Evidence for 13th-14thC Dance

Crispin Sexi, March 2006


In the SCA we do dances from the 17th, 16th and 15th centuries, but none earlier. Except for the Salterello, but that is made-up, so doesn't count. The reasons for this are pretty straightforward; there is a lack of good solid documentation of the choreography of earlier dances, and scant evidence even for individual steps or figures that might be used.

But we do know that they danced in the 13th and 14th centuries. There are many indications, including literature, illuminations, decrees by clergymen against dancing in the churchyards, and of course dance music. Here I have collected together the evidence I have found, with the hope of inspiring myself, and others, to experiment and invent.

Note: At this stage I have not included the musical or pictorial examples. I'll try to get to them soon. I'm also interested in finding out more, so please contact me if you have further information on this topic, or would like to discuss it.

Troubadour Dances

The Doctrina de compondre dictats, written in the late 13thC, tells about how to write different types of Troubadour songs; most dealing with love, or with complaining, or with complaining about love. There are two varieties of dance written by Troubadours - the Dansa and the Estampida.

The Dansa

The lyrics of the dansa speak of love. The form has three stanzas, one or two tornadas (half stanzas), and an optional internal refrain. Says the Doctrina; "A dansa is so called, naturally, because one dances or leaps to it, so it must have a pleasant melody; and one performs it on instruments, and it delights everyone who hears it." (Aubrey p123-127)

There are four troubadour songs identified as dansas, probably copied down late 13thC or early 14thC. They have an ABA melodic structure. It is likely that the dansa was somewhat moderate in tempo, the words sung, and accompanied by an instrument or two.

Example: Ben volgra, s'esser poges, Guiraut d'Espanha (1245-1265), mid 13thC.

The Estampida

According to the Doctrina; "An estampida is so called because it is taken vigorously in counting or in singing, more than any other song." And "If you want to compose an estampida, you can speak of whatever you wish, blaming or praising or supplicating; and it must have four stanzas and a refrain and one or two tornadas, and a new melody." (Aubrey p121-127)

The current Spanish meaning of estampida is "stampede". So an estampida could be a raucous dance song, of fast tempo. The Doctrina author does not associate the estampida with instruments, but also does not forbid it. The bit about having a new melody is probably because standard troubadour melodies are too sedate, or otherwise not rhythmically suited to dancing.

Although it is likely that both dansas and estampidas were accompanied by musical instruments, there is no evidence of what music might have played. Possibly the instrumental accompaniment was a drone, or something along the same lines as the melody. Pictorial evidence suggests the fiddle or maybe the bagpipes. It is unlikely that troubadour accompaniments were terribly complicated polyphony, since they would then have made the effort to write them down (Aubrey p261). Not that the troubadours went in for writing down music much.

The earliest estampida with an extant melody is Kalenda Maia (Aubrey p121-122).

Example: Kalenda maya, Raimbault de Vaqueiras (d, 1207), early 13thC.

Dances from Northern France and England

A text by the music theorist Johannes de Grocheio, written c.1300, describes two classes of dance, being vocal and instrumental. The estampie (or stantipes) and the ductia could be instrumental or vocal; the round was vocal and the nota was instrumental.

The Estampie

Despite the similar name to the estampida, I'm addressing the estampie separately here, on the off-chance that it is a completely different dance. Grocheio describes "stantipes" as instrumental, contrasting with the troubadour practice of the Estampida. He indicates that the estampie is designed for listening to rather than dancing to, and says that listening to estampies 'turns aside the souls of the wealthy from depraved thinking.' (Rochefort p46)

According to rather generalised statements in the HAoM, all the dances of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are types of estampie. This dance style is thought to have been derived from sacred music of the time (i.e. sequences). The estampie consists of four to seven sections, called punctus, each of which is repeated, with a different ending for the repetition. In some cases the same two endings are used for all the sections (HAoM p219-200). The examples in HAoM are instrumental only.

"The estampie is said to be a dance that is difficult, but with less movement than the ductia, its name meaning 'standing/stationary feet'." (Choi)

Example: Estampie (HAoM)

The Ductia

There are no surviving manuscripts containing pieces labelled as ductias. Grochieo describes the ductia as like the estampie but more regular; perhaps this refers to an estampie with verses all of the same length. Musically speaking, it might be that an instrumental estampie with only three or four two-part verses (puncti) is a ductia (HAoM p220).

Grocheio also says (presumably about the vocal ductia): "The ductia is a melody that is light and brisk in its ascents and descents, and which is sung in carole by young men and girls, like the French song Chi encore querez amoretes. It influences the hearts of young girls and men and draws them from vanity, and is said to have power against that passion which is called love or 'eros'." (Rochefort p46)

The Nota

The Nota may have been an English specialty, though I've not found any descriptions of it so far (Early Medieval Dance Music, by Ellisif Flakkari). We do have a few surviving pieces of music which could be Notas, though they are sometimes titled as Ductias in some modern collections.

The example here can be deconstructed into the same format as described for the estampie, with short puncti and an accompanying line of counterpoint.

Example: Nota(?), 13thC.

The Round

According to Grocheio, the vocal round has one melody used for the verse and the refrain (Choi). I'm a bit confused whether in fact the rondeau (a poem with a refrain) is meant by this, because some of the French romances (Roman de la Rose, Le Roman de la Violette) apparently contain rondeaus being sung and have hints by way of the accompanying illuminations that these might be done as caroles (ORB).

More on the Carole

The most frequently mentioned term for a dance in literature from the 13th and 14thC is the carole (TMD). According to Christopher Page, a carole is a dance song, usually sung (or played) by a soloist (sometimes one of the dancers) with everyone joining in the refrain (O&N). Grochieo mentions caroles as a way of performing a ductia.

A biography of William Marshall tells of a late 12thC tournament where "Someone said: 'Let us dance a carole while we wait here, that we shall not be so bored', Then they took one another by the hand and someone said: 'Who will be so courtly as to sing for us?' Then William Marshall, who sang very well and who never boasted of his accomplishments, began a song in his pure and sweet voice. It greatly pleased all those who were there with him and they graciously sang with him." (Rochefort p8)

Giovanni Boccaccio, in the Decameron (c1350), writes that after breakfast, "the tables were removed, and the Queen (or elected story-leader) bade fetch instruments of music; for all, ladies and young men alike, knew how to tread a measure, and some of them played and sang with great skill; so, at her command Dioneo, (that is, Boccaccio himself) having taken a lute, and Fiammetta a viol, they struck up a dance in sweet concert; and the servants being dismissed to their repast, the queen, attended by the other ladies and the two young men, led off a stately carole" (TMD).

Dante (Italian, d. 1320ish), in his Paradiso (canto xxiv., v.17) used the word 'Carola' as meaning a singing-dance:

'And as the wheels in works of horologes
Revolve so that the first to the beholder
Motionless seems, and the last one to fly,
So in like manner did these carols, dancing
In different measure, of their affluence
Give me the gauge, as they were swift or slow'
(cosi quelle carole differente-mente danzando , della sua richezza)
(Longfellow's translation).

Some of the songs carolled are mentioned by name, but we don't know whether these were songs created for the purpose of dancing, or simply songs with a refrain that happened to be used for dancing. The troubadour song, A l'entrada del tens clar, is probably a carole song, but with others it is harder to pin down whether they were expressly used for dance songs or not (Rochefort p29).

Adam de la Halle was author of 46 rondets de carole, none of which I have found so far.

Example: A l'entrada del temps clar.

It's thought that originally the carole was a troubadour dance-song particular to May. As the music was spread by the travelling minstrels (possibly escaping the Albigensian crusade), it generally came to be sung and danced the whole year through at fairs, on Saints' Days, at midnight vigils at Montserrat, and at Christmas. Carolling was so popular as a recreation that preachers felt compelled to spend a good deal of time condemning it. You can see pictures of carolling from the middle of the twelfth century, from Spain to Norway. In Sweden it is first mentioned in 1260 as having been performed at a princely wedding, and there is a fresco of dancing in the Danish Cathedral of Orselev from about the year 1380.


The word Farandole is from the Provencal Farandoulo (Collins Dictionary), however I have not found the word used within our period. This is a snaking chain dance, with a leader up front and all of the dancers holding hands, following behind each other. Farandoles are described in 18thC literature and still performed today as quite fast skipping dances. The farandole style of dancing appears to trace back to ancient Greek dancing, and was apparently popular in south Europe during the medieval period. (The Farandole website).

One of the figures you can do in a farandole is for the first two people to make a bridge and let the rest pass through, before joining the end of the line. This is also possible to do without the first two people dropping hands. In the Town Hall at Siena, Pietro Lorenzetti pictures what appears to be this dance, and this very figure. Women clad in parti-colored, heraldic, embroidered 14thC gowns, with hands linked, pass under the arms of the couple at the head of the line. (TMD)

I'm not sure what music was meant for farandoles, but the above example shows a singer with tambourine. Modern farandoles are often fast, skipping dances, however in this example the dancers might be moving more sedately.

It might be that the Farandole form is the same dance as the Carole, as a variation in a line rather than a circle. Or possibly the circular dance is not really a Carole, but one of the other dances mentioned above. This is merely my own speculation.

Performance of Dance Music

Some illuminations I have of dancers show no musicians, one has a drummer, one has lute and harp, one has bells, and two have wind instruments that must be shawms or crumhorns or the like. Bagpipes are also featured. From descriptions of caroles and of the troubadour dansa and estampida, it appears that dances were often sung:

"Maiden, you should dance after me so piously, as my chosen ones once danced before me."
"I do not wish to dance, Lord, unless You lead me. If you wish that I should spring about, so you yourself must strike up a song, then I will spring in courtly fashion... There will I stay and even so continue to circle (or possibly 'move about')."
(translation of Mechthild von Magdeburg 1207-1271-ish, Einsiedler Handschrift, book 1, ch 44)

Grocheio states that the three types of composition a good minstrel needs to master are the High Style trouvere song, the ductia, and the troubadour songbook estampie. (TMD/Aubrey) He also says that the ductia should have 'appropriate percussion' (Choi).

Minstrels often had musicians to accompany their singing for dance tunes, with viels, bagpipes, and tambourines. One example of a mixture of instruments and singing is found in Roman de la Rose, the English version by Chaucer.

Roman de la Rose

Geoffrey Chaucer translated the Roman de la Rose into English. The original author was Guillaume de Loris, writing about 1237, and in it Sir Mirth, Gladness, Courtesy, Cupid, Frankness, and other personifications are dancing the Carole in a garden of love. (TMD)

Then mightest thou caroles seen,
And folk ther daunce and mery been,
And make many a fair tourning
Upon the grene gras springing.
Ther mightest thou see these floutours,
Minstrales, and eek jogelours,
That wel to singe did her peyne
Somme songe songes of Loreyne.
For in Loreyen his notes be
Ful swelter than in this contree.
Ther was many a timbestere
And saylours: that I dar well sweare
Couthe hir craft ful parfitly.
The timbres up ful stilly
They caste, and hente ful ofte
Upon a finger faire and softe,
That they ne fayled never-mo.
Ful fetis damiselles two,
Right yonge, and fulle of semlihede,
In Kirtles, and non other wede,
And faire tressed every tresse,
Hadde Mirthe doon, for his noblesse,
Amidde the carole for to daunce;
But her-of lyth no remembraunce,
How that they daunced queyntly.
That oon wolde come al privily
Agayn that other, and whan they were
Togidre almost, they threwe y-fare
Hir mouthes so, that through hir play
It semed as they kiste alway;
To dauncen wel coude they the gyse;
What shulde I more to you devyse?
No bede I never thennes go,
Whyles that I saw hem daunce so.

So this carole includes turning, springing, flutes, singing, women casting their tambourines into the air an catching them again and pretend kissing. While watching the dance, the poet is addressed by Courtesy:

"What do ye there, beau Sire?" quod she
Come her, and if it lyke you
To dauncen, daunceth with us now."
And I, withoute tarying,
Wente into the caroling.

Form and Steps

The earliest dances that we have choreographies for are the basse danses from Burgundy, c 1445. Since there appears to be a marked change in dance music right at the end of the 14thC, with Salterellos and other styles appearing, it may well be too much of a stretch to apply 15thC dance steps to 13thC and 14thC pieces of music. We certainly have other evidence of remarkable changes that dances have undergone, such as the gavotte of the late 16th century, in comparison to the gavotte of the late 17thC.

It would appear 13th and 14thC people enjoyed snaking line dances, circles dances with alternating lords and ladies, and in the late 14thC we have processionals. Processionals could be viewed as precursors to later pavans and almaines.

"...the queen, attended by the other ladies and the two young men, led off a stately carole." (TMD/Decameron)

"Danes who were studying at the University of Paris saw carolling in the square before the Church of Our-Lady-of-the-Carole, and joined the dancers. The dance itself was a kind of processional. The dancers turned from right to left, in marching steps, beating one foot against the other. The choral-leader, or first-dancer, sported a glove, a nosegay or a flowery chaplet, a cup or a May-branch (the Dionysian Thyrsos), or at night a torch, and led his company in a rapid advance." (TMD)

"In Germany, the Minnesingers knew the carole as Springtanz or Espringale, and danced it with small leaps and hops. The leader would sing of nature, and other carollers took up a refrain. The choruses were full of roulades and sounds made with the tongue and lips, a vocalized yodelling, or onomatopoetic imitation of instrumental accompaniment: bagpipe, flute, drum, rebec or psaltery." (TMD)

In a tradition starting in the second half of the 14thC, as part of the pre-Lent celebrations, The Butchers of Nuremburg had the privilege of doing the Zaemertanz, a presentation dance, involving men moving in a long chain, and accompanied by two riders of pretend horses. Also part of the festivities was a sword dance by the knifemakers, that started in 1350, and a ring dance by the Tuchknappen (a profession of some sort). All of the dances featured an item (sword, ring, leather sausage or a wooden or floral arch) serving as a link between each man. (Wager)

"M. de Montaiglon, in Doctrinal des Filles, urges the young ladies to dance the carole modestly: "Fille, quant serez en Karolle / Dansez gentiment par mesure / Car, quant fille se demesure / Tel la voit la tient pour folle." (Lass, when you dance Karolle, dance it neatly, measured tread, for when lassie leaps too wild such that see her hold her mad.)" (TMD).

There are also 13thC descriptions of dances done with one man holding two women by the hands in Germany. (Wernher der Gartenaere: Helmbrecht (Z 97ff)) I've seen postulations that the Estampie may have been performed in this way.

One other interesting step is shown; a picture of a dance by fools shows them doing a hay, while another fool plays the bagpipes. This picture is from Strutt; I've not found the original manuscript (so far).

Example: Page of illuminations for examples of dance forms.

Late 14th C Italian Dance

In late 14thC Italy we come across traces of a variety of dances, including the istanpita (possibly a more complicated descendant of the estampie), and In the series of sonnets "Il Solazzo", by Simon Prudenzani we get snippets of descriptions of dances, dance steps and dance tunes (di Estera):

"We come now to the second evening,
I say, indeed, that in torchlight
They danced a rigoletto very sprightly,
Leaping forward and backward and side-to-side.

Whoever would have seen each of them in the circle
Rise to dance the bicchieri,
No acrobat was ever seen
To make such wonderful moves and to go about to the ghironda

With slavonic dips and whirling about and leaping
Backwards and forwards; others were performing different moves,
Still others on tiptoe to do their dance steps.

Others bend their heads to their backs
So that they may walk on their hands with feet in the air,
As sailors do, or Greek folk.
On the third evening they danced two by two,
First the ranfo and then in horse style;
Then came the dance of the pertusata [button hole?]
And after a while came the palandra [sailing ship?]
This last one was performed for women in love.
To this melody they danced Roman style,
A prolonged dance with pauses face-to-face,
Which is much nicer for the women than Tuscan style.

Then they cut that one short and did a rigoletto"

And finally, from Italy near the end of the 14thC we have a set of dance music that is named after types of steps. Included in this lot is the Salterello (14th-century Italian music manuscript (BL addl. ms. 29987)). We have 15thC steps and dance timings called Salterello, and it may be that the late 14thC dance or dance steps are closely related. Saltarello is derived from the italian word "salto" or "to jump" - the step might involve jumping or leaping. Geffrie Lourn de Kaermeriadec's Salterello 'la regina' is an example of making up a possible dance for the late 14thC Italian music.


Aubrey, Elizabeth, The Music of the Troubadours, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, USA, 1996.

Burgess, Anthony, The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.

Choi, David H, Medieval Dances: Grocheio versus McGee, 2002 (unpublished university assignment, found on the internet).

Elson, D., Del's Dance Book, (6th Ed), Sydney, 2003.

Davison, Archibald T. and Apel, Willi, Historical Anthology of Music (HAoM), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1949.

de Kaermeriadec, Geffrie Louarn, Saltarello `La Regina', Letter of the Dance, Vol 1.

di Estera, Leah, Medieval Dance in Poetry, Letter of the Dance, Vol 10.

Rochefort, Deborah, The Trouveres, Compleat Anachronist #62, Society for Creative Anachonism, Milpitas, USA, 1992.

__, The Medieval Dance (TMD), an article originally published in 1935, no author listed.
Accessed: 6/7/2004

Stefan's Florelegium, dance-msg
Accessed: 26/5/2005

Wager, Wulf, Musik und Tanz in der Fasnacht, .

Sources for Medieval Dance Reconstructions

Elson, D., Del's Dance Book, (6th Ed), Sydney, 2003.

Webb, Cait, Eschewynge of Ydlenesse - Steps for Dancing, Edinburgh EH7 4AF, Scotland, 2003

Copyright Jaysen Ollerenshaw 2006. Free use for non-profit.

Joan & Crispin's Homepage: http://aelflaed.homemail.com.au/