Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Shall we dance?

This morning my eye chanced upon an online post with a certain topicality. It is about the periodic manifestation during medieval epidemics, and sometimes in their absence, of manic dancing which went on until the participants collapsed, only to recover and resume, or in some instances, died. I am not at all sure that I agree with the author’s endorsement of the concept of the Black Death as a watershed between the medieval and the modernist, or with some turns of phrase, but on the whole it is interesting and can be viewed at how-medieval-people-tried-to-dance-away-the-plague

Wikipedia has a useful introduction to the whole topic at Dancing mania

There are more academic links about this strange manifestation at Perception and Action in Medieval Europe and at The Medieval European Stage, 500-1550.

These include references to what seems to be the earliest recorded instance of such a dance frenzy in the churchyard at Kolbigk in Germany, starting on Christmas Eve 1021. I had first read about that particular instance many years ago in a book about Christmas carols.

Such manic behaviour appears to be particularly associated with Germany and neighbouring territories, although it also appeared in Italy, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire. That may of course be simply due to the better keeping or survival of records. It might, however, indicate different social and cultural norms. Inevitably it may simply be better recorded for the later rather than the earlier Middle Ages, but it may be something that occurred more frequently then. When and why did dance for celebration or pleasure tip over into compulsion and frenzy? Piety and penance, expiation and sympathetic magic seem to have often been the motivating forces behind such behaviour. Those factors may have made stopping what had become a compulsion all the harder for those afflicted by the urge to dance.

Historians and clinicians have offered various explanations for this behaviour, including ergotism and types of mass hysteria, but no single one or set has gained acceptance as the definitive explanation.

Wikipedia also has a useful general introduction to more conventional and polite forms of social dance in the period at Medieval dance

1 comment:

Pip said...