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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

a) Medieval movement and attire. Getting it right (and wrong)

1) Medieval dancing in modern movies

Kristina Hildebrand

Texte intégral

1Medieval and Renaissance people danced—as their ancestors and their descendants did and do. Then as now, dancing was a combination of vigorous exercise, social interaction, and class identity: dance is never uncomplicated.

2For much medieval dancing, we must rely on images and the occasional, not detailed description. However, starting in the fifeenth century, we find dance choreographies written down; manuscripts exist from France, Italy, England, and Spain, which give more or less detailed instructions on how to dance and on polite behaviour in connection with dancing.

3The dances manifest power, dignity, and courtly behaviour; despite the vigorously athletic steps in many dances, the dancer had to maintain decorum. The dances are generally for a set number of people of different gender and largely egalitarian, in that men and women have the same steps and often—especially in fifteenth-century Italian dance—take turns leading. The dances are low on touch, with generally no more physical contact than hands being held. There are both set choreographies and those that allow for improvisation, but all are intended to showcase the social and cultural capital of the dancers.

4In modern TV series and movies depicting the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this function of dancing is in most cases entirely abandoned, in favour of some of the social functions of traditional styles of dancing today: physical contact and distinct gender roles. I have looked here particularly at the dance scenes in The Borgias (2011-2013) and The Tudors (2007-2010) but also at some scenes in Elizabeth (2007).

5There was undoubtedly a sexual component to medieval dancing, as this was an opportunity for young people to talk to each other without a great risk of being overheard and to display their athletic skills and their grace and elegance to each other and the audience. Still, in medieval and Renaissance dancing, that sexual component is not constructed through physical touch or even closeness: the dancers maintain at least arm’s length distance throughout the dances. In modern depictions, however, there is much more physical contact, including a modern ballroom hold with hand on waist, and chests touching. Medieval dance is presented as involving physical contact, with more explicitly sexual connotations, and with a leading male partner and a passively led, but often overtly seductive, female partner.

6The modern portrayal of dancing is also characterised by a lot of display of legs. This display was part of the point of medieval and Renaissance dancing for the male dancers—the short tunics and jumped steps combined to show off their legs. However, it was not expected of a woman to display her body on the dance floor, even when jumping. For the most part, the bodies of women were of course covered, and the skill level of their dancing could often only be deduced by the movements of the swaying skirt. However, a large part of the attraction of dancing today is the display of the female body moving in ways we construct as sexually appealing. The portrayal of attractive women depends on display of naked skin and on a pattern of movement that represents sexual availability and submission.

7Women dancing in these TV series lift their skirts to show off their legs. This might seem a natural result of dancing in full-length skirts, but it has a number of interesting connotations. We might note that while this lifting of skirts is present in dance scenes in the movie Elizabeth, it is not performed by Cate Blanchett once she becomes queen. The hands holding up the skirts draw attention to the hampering effect of the long skirt and at the same time emphasise the sexual interest signified by the lifting of the skirt. This presents a woman both incapacitated by her clothing and willing to shed it, catering to fantasies of desirable and desiring women who are still under control.

8The dancing is also gendered. As mentioned above, medieval and Renaissance dancing tends towards gender-neutral choreographies. This neutrality, however, does not combine well with our modern understanding of “traditional dancing” as clearly gendered. Modern portrayals of medieval and Renaissance dancing thus become gendered, by introducing choreographies that require the male partner leading.

9These choreographies largely lack the gender-neutral style of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and instead give the dancers different steps. Many of them emphasise the differing sizes of the dancers. The women circle the men, gazing up at them, lean back on them, or are lifted by them. One of the more popular dance moves is the turning under the arm, a move that is rare or non-existent in medieval dancing, and which emphasises the different heights of the dancers. The Borgias, despite its closer adherence to something resembling medieval dance, has, for example, a highly sexualised flamenco scene where the woman’s gazes doe-eyed at her male partner—even though they are siblings—and the physical closeness of the dance emphasises the height difference between the dancers (which is 33 cm, incidentally). The male dancers, on the other hand, are no longer showing off their strong legs and ability to leap and jump, but, perhaps in keeping with the modern focus on chest, abdomen, and upper arms, show off their strength by lifting their partners. They are also, particularly in the case of Henry VIII, allowed much less dancing: cool guys don’t dance.

10Medieval and Renaissance dance allowed the dancers to display their power, dignity, and courtly behaviour. Modern movies and TV series introduce a gender coding to dancing of those eras that is distinctly lacking in the original choreographies and which, together with the sexualisation of dancing, particularly of the women’s movements, serves to portray the dancing as foreplay. We should note that this seemingly harmless lack of authentic portrayal in fact deprives the female dancers of the power, dignity, social graces, and aristocratic identity medieval and Renaissance dancing was intended to show off and instead portrays them as sexual beings only, inviting the audience to judge their attractiveness.


11The Borgias
The Tudors


Halmstad University

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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