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Women, Dance and Parish Religion in England, 1300-1640 by Lynneth Miller Renberg

03 March 2023

By the 17th century, a joy had become a sin, says Katherine Harvey

IN 1617, in the Somerset town of Glastonbury, a young couple were sentenced to be whipped through the streets until their bodies were bloody. Nicholas Ruddock and Katheren Chauker were being punished for fornication, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate child. But their offence was aggravated by the circumstances of their baby’s conception: the court record noted “their lewdnes in begetting the said base childe vppon the sabboth day coming from danceing”.

The experiences of this unfortunate pair encapsulate many of the concerns about dancing and its potential consequences which Lynneth Miller Renberg uncovers in this fascinating study of ecclesiastical attitudes to dance in pre-modern England.

The Church had not always taken such a hard line: according to some medieval preachers, dance was a fitting way to praise God, in imitation of the angels. For most of the Middle Ages, nuns danced to the Psalms, mystics danced in praise of God, and clergymen danced in church. At Auxerre Cathedral, the Easter procession culminated in singing, dancing, and ball-tossing on the maze-patterned floor. Dance also played an important part in pre-Reformation parish life, being seen as an appropriate way to celebrate saints’ days, unite communities, and raise funds for the parish.

There was, however, a growing desire to keep dance (along with other unsuitable activities such as sleep and swearing) out of sacred spaces, and, from the 13th century onwards, synodal statutes prohibit dancing in churchyards. One popular story, in which a group of carollers congregated in a churchyard on Christmas Eve, provided a warning to those who ignored the rules. When it was time for mass, the priest asked them to be quiet; when they ignored him, he asked God to punish them for their sacrilege. Consequently, these cursed carollers were unable to stop dancing for the whole of the following year.

Post-Reformation, the rise of Sabbatarianism meant that people were also (as Ruddock and Chauker discovered) punished for dancing at inappropriate times, even if they were nowhere near a church. The hotter sort of Protestant associated dancing with the devil, and feared that it would both distract Christians from their spiritual duties and lead to more serious sins. Female dancers were especially condemned, and the example of Salome was frequently invoked as proof that such unseemly behaviour would lead susceptible men astray.

In this atmosphere of religious fervour, the rhetoric became increasingly hysterical, and an activity that had once united communities now drove them apart. Preachers compared male dancers to hermaphrodites, and railed against women who “dance impudently after the manner of camels”. Parishioners complained about ministers who danced at weddings. In late-16th-century Berkshire, a court case was derailed when the accused claimed that his accusers had gone to a dance on the sabbath — and the judge interrupted the trial to fine them for their offence.

Dancing of any kind now put both one’s social position and one’s mortal soul in peril; for, as one 17th-century pamphlet put it, “who say to God depart from us, but those who dance?”

Dr Katherine Harvey is Research Fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.


Women, Dance and Parish Religion in England, 1300-1640
Lynneth Miller Renberg
The Boydell Press £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

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