Medieval manuscripts blog

03 July 2018

Dance moves from medieval manuscripts

It is quiet in the office this week. The team working on the The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200 will be in Leeds, at the International Medieval Congress. Don’t miss their presentations in sessions 938 (Tuesday at 19.00), 545 (Tuesday at 9.00 AM), 638 (Tuesday at 11.15 AM), and 712 (Tuesday at 14.15). 

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a young woman and a man, in the guise of a satyr, dancing together, from the Queen Mary Psalter, made in England (London or Westminster), c. 1310–1320: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 166r

You might also see them at the conference disco, demonstrating some impressive dance choreography inspired by medieval manuscripts. If you’d like to try some medieval moves yourself, we’ve created this handy guide, divided into ‘easy’, ‘medium’ and ‘difficult’ techniques. Note: these tips also work for balls, weddings, school dances, and any other terpsichorean events you might be attending this summer.

Easy: The Luxuria/Psychomachia

Hold one hand in the air like a highland dancer, while kicking one foot in front of the other. Keep the other arm bent. To make it even easier, you can even keep your hand open.

Detail of Luxuria and companions dancing, from a copy of Prudentius's Psychomachia, England, 11th century: Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f. 19v 

The same scene from another copy of
Prudentius, Psychomachia, England, c. 980–1010: Add MS 24199, f. 18r


Medium: the Saint-Étienne Shimmy

Put one hand on your hips and sway your whole body, including your head, while your other hand is up in the air: think distant ancestor of Beyoncé's 'Single Ladies' music video. This works best if you are wearing a long headdress that can move around as you dance.

Detail of a dancing figure from a Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, made in Toulouse in the late 11th or early 12th century: Harley MS 4951, f. 300v

Difficult: the Salomé

Salomé’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ is frequently represented in medieval iconography as a form of extreme limbo or a handstand. Remember, however: if you are wearing a long skirt, keep your knees bent!

Detail of Salomé’s dance from a Psalter made in Oxford, c. 1200–1210: Arundel MS 157, f. 7r 

Same scene from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, England, c. 1327–1335: Add MS 47682, f. 21v 

Whether you’ve got twinkle toes or two left feet, medieval manuscripts have some dance tips for you!


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