Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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From Pulpit to Parish: Preaching Dance and Parish Dances in England and Scandinavia, 1300–1700

Lynneth Miller Renberg


[1]  In English parishes, the people danced. Whether at parish lights or ales, in liturgical processions, as a part of liturgical dramas and plays, or at social gatherings like weddings, dance played a significant part in the play of the parish (See French 2001; Douglass 1994; Duffy 2005). These were not the courtly or ordered dances of the aristocracy, or the ecclesiastical religious dances of the clergy. The dancers left behind no elaborate descriptions of their steps or of the details of the dance, posing a stark contrast to the dance manuals that act as the focus of many studies of Renaissance dance, focused on southern Europe and on formal court dances (Nevile 2017; Nevile 2008; Dickason 2021). Yet, traces of the dancing appear throughout ecclesiastical and civic records: in records of payments made to women and children who participated in Whitsuntide processions, in debates between guilds and mayors about traditional festive dances, and in charges against couples or groups of dancers who danced at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Suggestions about the nature and timing of the dancing appear in the sermons preached from parish pulpits, sermons that often presented dance as a sacrilegious action, in contrast to the danced religious practices that happened near and around the sermon.

[2]  In Scandinavia, the people of the parishes also danced, although scholars know even less about how, when, and where these premodern dances occurred. Only a few church inventories for fourteenth-century Norway survive, obscuring the material culture of the parish (Bø, 2019: 2, 12–13). The earliest Norwegian kirkebøk, or parish record book, is from 1623, and there are similar lacunae across the Nordic region. Vernacular Nordic legal texts focused on church and religious affairs (kyrkobalker, Christenretter, and other similar texts) from the years before 1500 are likewise scarcer than their English counterparts. Although some early medieval vernacular sermons have survived, such as the twelfth-century Gammelnorsk homiliebok, few Norwegian or Icelandic sermons from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries have survived. Denmark and Sweden have slightly thicker documentary records, with far more surviving Danish sermons than Norwegian, and yet, especially in comparison to the British Isles, the record remains fragmented and vague. Records from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, indicate that dancing (problematic as it was in the Reformation context of the Nordic countries) was a key part of traditional rhythms of parish life.

[3]  Considering the British Isles and Scandinavia together as a single cultural unit is not a new practice; the regions shared common didactic materials and practices, and there has been a relatively robust study of the exchanges between the British Isles and the Nordic regions (particularly the western regions of Iceland and Norway) between 700 and 1200 (Thomas 2018; Antonsson 2014). But as the archival evidence thins, with fewer surviving sources between the conversion of Scandinavia and its reformations, this comparative perspective also disappears, with scholarship pivoting to focus on parish piety in the British Isles and largely overlooking parish piety in Scandinavia. In early modern studies, Norway and Iceland, so significant in the early medieval Christianization of Scandinavia, become footnotes in the study of the Reformations in the more religiously and politically powerful kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark (Christopherson 1979: 280; Lund 2008: 411–16). This article proposes a new path forward, one that uses the wealth of sources about parish preaching and festivity in the British Isles to help illuminate parish life in western Scandinavia, especially in Norway and Iceland. Ragnhild M. Bø’s study of domestic piety and crucifix arm rings in Norway demonstrates the potential payoff of such an approach (Bø, 2019: 2). Here, however, I turn from material to performed culture: from artifacts to sermons and festivities, exploring dance — as both preached and practiced — in the North Sea parishes of the Northern Renaissance.

[4]  Using the British Isles as a point of comparison for late medieval Scandinavian parishes has many merits: the early medieval connections between the regions did not simply disappear overnight, and the British Isles have far more abundant records of parish dance and practice than in other parts of continental Europe. But it would be remiss to forget that the parishes of Scandinavia were not influenced solely by the British Isles but also by the cities of the Hanseatic League and by French and German ecclesiastical culture. This influence is strongest in eastern Scandinavia but is also significant in western Scandinavia, particularly as several late medieval Norwegian bishops trained in continental universities (Bagge 2014: 179–83). I am not dismissing these continental influences, although I am choosing not to consider them in this article for two main reasons. First, western Scandinavia was simply less influenced by these continental centers of theology and learning than eastern Scandinavia, as shown through the numbers of students at continental universities; Sverre Bagge points out that “Danes and Swedes were far more numerous at the European universities than Norwegians,” and reports that there were “2,146 Danes, 821 Swedes and Finns, and 219 Norwegians” at German universities in the late Middle Ages and specific Swedish and Danish (but not Norwegian) houses for students in Paris (Bagge 2014: 183). Second, continental sources for parish dance are less available than for England, allowing for less fruitful exploration of dance in parish life. While acknowledging these limitations in comparing Norway and Iceland primarily to the British Isles rather than to continental sermons or practices, it should also be noted that late medieval England was not without influence from these same continental cultures, particularly through the circulation of French religious texts and through engagement with continental universities and scholars. To see the British Isles as less connected to these same influences is to portray England as more isolated than the historical record indicates, and there is merit to assuming that the earlier and long-standing ties between the British Isles and Scandinavia were not erased or fully replaced by newer fourteenth-century continental influences.

[5]  A similar methodological consideration involves the very different cultural and political contexts of 1300 and 1700, particularly given the differing goals, courses, and figures involved in the English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish Reformations. The differing weight given to the teachings of Luther and Calvin in Scandinavia and in the British Isles clearly shows that these Reformations were not precisely parallel movements; the Scandinavian Reformations were, by and large, more influenced by German figures while the English Reformations were more influenced by French reformers. However, for the laity of these northern parishes, the theological and political nuances of their country’s reformation made surprisingly little difference in their lived experience of religion. As work like Muriel McClendon’s The Quiet Reformation shows, the experience of political and theological change on the parish level was often slow, gradual, and far less dramatic than on the national level (McClendon 1999). And while much changed between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries in terms of political and cultural context, these changes followed a constant trajectory, with religion (and religious perceptions of dance and dance practices) changing far more slowly than one might expect. A more localized view of parish dance certainly shows instances of dramatic conflict or shifts in perception on a parish level, as demonstrated in studies like Emily Winerock’s analysis of dance and festive controversies (Winerock 2012). However, a broader framework for analysis shows that the seismic political and religious changes that occurred between 1300 and 1700 little affected parish practice, or at least did not do so in rapid or dramatic changes. The enduring practice of morris dancing and the ongoing emphasis on country dance and folk dance in the 1700s and 1800s helps show this: the religious significance of danced medieval processionals disappeared, as did those specific dance practices, but localized communal dance practices remained (Forrest 2016). Thus, despite the cultural and political shifts that take place across this broadly defined Northern Renaissance, I contend that there is more continuity than disjunction in parish practice, and that considering parish dance in particular requires a wide lens in order to not overstate the localized impacts of political shifts.

[6]  In what follows, I consider English and Scandinavian sermon tales from 1300–1700 alongside accounts of parish practice in both regions, focusing on perceptions and practices of dance among the laity. I argue that the strongly negative perspective of Scandinavian Protestants towards dance was partially a result of the medieval North Sea networks that brought England’s approach to dance to western Nordic parishes, impacting the approach to lay dance and parish culture. The circulation of medieval English sermon tales like Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne in Scandinavian contexts meant that this particularly English view of dance spread in early modern Scandinavian parishes and sermon tales. Sources like Mannyng’s show how the English vernacular approach, unlike the one found in Latinate or French sources, aggressively connected dance to female transgression and sacrilege. As the medieval period gave way to the early modern Reformations, the connections between gender, dance, and sin deepened in English sources. This sharing of sermon literature between England and Scandinavia helps to explain the emphasis on gendered transgression in Scandinavian accounts of dance, an emphasis with important ramifications for parish discipline and oversight.[i]

From the Pulpit: Preaching Dance in Northern Parishes

[7]  While parish dance practices may have had a greater impact on the laity of northern European parishes, parish preaching and vernacular sermons, didactic texts that aimed at shaping lay practices and perceptions of actions like dance, left a more extensive documentary trail. Furthermore, evidence from both the British Isles and western Scandinavia indicates that these sermons were, if nothing else, frequently delivered. In the late twelfth century, Bishop Pall Jönsson of Skälholt complained that there were too many sermons preached in Iceland. He encouraged those under his charge to limit their preaching to major feasts, with the rationale that sermons would be considered more valuable if they were rarer (Paasche 1935: 11; Hall 2000: 689). The Norwegian archbishops’ statutes from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as Archbishop Eiliy’s third statute of 1320, ordered parish priests to preach the gospel each Sunday (Thomas 2018: 45). Brigid of Sweden (1303–1373), meanwhile, admonished parish priests to preach in a manner that laity could understand: “thi hvad den enfoldige almue ej forstar, plejer den mere at studse over end opbygges ved” [if simple folk do not understand something, they are startled more often than they are edified] (Johansen 2001: 297–98). These, and similar admonitions from other bishops, imply that sermons were often preached, if not well attended. In England, the situation appears to have been similar. As Arnold Hunt notes, “parishioners, if unsatisfied with their own parish preacher, would go to nearby parishes to hear preachers whose sermons they preferred, in a practice known as “sermon-gadding” (Hunt 2010: 14–15, 187–228). Sermons were intended to shape lay practice and thus, what sermons said about dance and gender mattered for those who heard them.

[8]  Particularly in England, a number of vernacular sermon manuscripts (both in prose and poetic form) have survived, indicating a robust culture of preaching in the centuries leading up to the sixteenth-century Reformations and undercutting early modern claims that medieval preaching was lacking or nonexistent (Carlson 2001: 249–50; O’Mara and Paul, 2007; Fletcher 2009; Owst 2010). These surviving vernacular sermons indicate that preaching was a staple in the lives of those in the parishes, whether delivered by their parish priest in the setting of the mass or by mendicant friars in outdoor settings like the marketplace (Carlson 2001: 252–53). Correlating sermon manuscripts with sermon reception is a difficult task, but there is at least some evidence that the more pious of the laity sought out and took these sermons to heart. For example, Margery Kempe recorded in her Book multiple occasions on which she was in church listening to (and subsequently weeping to) the sermon; furthermore, her work is laced through with scriptural allusions that indicate a deep familiarity with scripture, likely acquired through sermon attendance (Barr 2015; Barr 2021: 78–79). The extensive records of vernacular sermon texts, correlated with what can be pieced together about sermon delivery and reception, certainly indicate that parish preaching influenced parish practice, at least to some degree (Hunt 2010; Steenbrugge 2017).

[9]  While sermons in Scandinavia left a less extensive documentary trail, around one hundred and fifty sermons in Old Norse survive in thirty-three manuscripts. These sermons, dated between the mid-twelfth and the mid-sixteenth century, were composed in either Norway or Iceland, primarily during the earlier part of this period (Hall 2000: 661). This number excludes sermons from Denmark and Sweden, for surviving eastern sermons are both slightly later in origin (dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries) and draw from different source bases; while the eastern Nordic sermons draw more from French sources composed by the mendicant orders, the western Old Norse sermons draw primarily from Latin or Old English texts (Hall 2000: 663; Mitchell 2017: 39). Regarding the western Old Norse sermons, Milton McC. Gatch proposes that “in both Norway and Iceland there was direct English influence on the development of the vernacular literary tradition,” and that “the first preaching in Scandinavian dialects may have taken place in the Danelaw area of the archdiocese of York in the tenth and eleventh centuries” (Gatch 1978: 55). Thus, when considering shared religious ideologies, the links between the British Isles and western Scandinavia stand out as long established and distinctive from eastern Nordic traditions. And because of what seems to be a lull in the production of sermon and devotional literature in Norway in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, these early English-influenced texts continued to influence preaching well into the sixteenth century, when Lutheran texts passed from Germany into Denmark and then westward into Norway and Iceland, by then effectively subsumed as provinces under Danish rule (Sawyer 1993: 126; Hall 2000: 665).

[10]  Careful attention to the details of extant Scandinavian texts, including saints’ tales and cults, supports a common preached approach to dance in the North Sea. A significant cult of St Olaf existed not only in Norway, but also in England, in East Anglia as well as in London and in York; English monastic litanies of the saints from 1100 onwards include not just St Olaf but also Brigid of Sweden (Morgan 2012, 2013, 2018). Princely cults were most prominent in England and Scandinavia, indicating a shared cultural and religious approach (Antonsson 2014: 204). One princely saint, Magnús of Orkney, tangibly demonstrates this bridging of the two regions, gaining prominence first in Iceland and Norway and then in the British Isles. An early Scandinavian account of Saint Magnús linking Magnús and the British Isles appears in the Rannveigarleiäsla (the Vision of Rannveig), a unique surviving vision from medieval Iceland, dated to 1198 but recorded in a saga about Bishop Guðmundr Arason from the fourteenth century (Antonsson 2014: 209). In the Rannveigarleiäsla, demons escorted Rannveig, an adulterous woman, through a desert and towards a boiling cauldron, as punishment for her sins. In desperation, Rannveig called upon three Scandinavian saints: St Olaf, St Magnús, and St Hallvard. As she does so, a shining light makes the demons flee, and the saints, descending in the light, take Rannveig into a magnificent palace, where St Olaf delivers the following speech to the repentant woman:

. . . sér þú herbergi þetta, svá signat ok sæmiligt, er jafnan stendr án flekk ok fölnan ok með sama ríkdómi ok úlíðandi gleði? Sjá er eignarjörð ok óðal Guðmundar Arasonar, er fá mun um síðir eigi lægra sess en Thomas í Kantia, ok svo sem vér fullting veitum Noregi ok Orkneyjum, svó mun hann hjálpa Ísland með sínum bænum.

[. . . see you this room, blessed and honourable, that always stands without fading or being tarnished and with the same authority and everlasting joy? This is the ancestral land and patrimony of Guðmundr Arason, who will soon not be placed lower than Thomas of Canterbury, and as we aid Norway and Orkney, thus he will help Iceland with his prayers.] (Quotation and translation from Antonsson 2014: 209)

Magnús, in this vision, is tied not only to Scandinavia, but through the second part of the vision, to Thomas of Canterbury, one of the English bishop-saints. Magnús’s status as a liminal saint, whose primary geographic association is with one of the small islands between the northern British Isles and western Scandinavia, thus allows him to act as a holy figure within both cultures. This status makes his role in one of the most popular sermon tales about dance, the tale of the cursed carolers, particularly notable. In citing Magnús as the saint dishonored by the dancers, versions of the tale thus align the sacrilegious dancers with the regions in which Magnús was most venerated: western Scandinavia and the British Isles.

[11]  The tale of the cursed dancing carolers is one of the ways that preachers taught dance from their pulpits: this medieval tale was incredibly popular, widely circulated, and extremely condemnatory of dance (Miller Renberg and Phillis 2021). In most versions of the tale, a group of dancers gathers in a churchyard (of a church dedicated to Magnús, at least in some versions of the tale) on Christmas eve. When asked to come into the service and to stop dancing, the dancers refuse; the priest, frustrated by their refusal, prays that God would make them into an object lesson for his congregation and make their dancing continue without ceasing for a full year. God hears the priest’s prayer and grants it, punishing the dancers for their disrespect towards the saint, the church, and the priest. As Shaun F.D. Hughes’ and Dag Strömbäck’s work shows, this tale of cursed carolers circulated throughout Scandinavia, resonating widely and at length with parish audiences. But while the Swedish and Danish accounts likely entered vernacular texts through the German Der grosse Seelentrost, other possible sources for the Swedish and Icelandic versions of the tale seem to be English texts: Robert Mannyng of Brunne’s Handlyng Synne and Goscelin’s Life of Saint Edith (Hughes 2021: 126–31). An addendum to a late thirteenth-century Swedish text, the Fornsvenska Legendariet, adds a section on the Scandinavian Royal Saints to its version of the popular Legenda Aurea; in this section, the discussion of Magnús presents an account of the “marvelous year-long dance” that clearly draws from Goscelin’s version, carried perhaps by Benedictine monks into the monastery at Uppsala around 1100 (Hughes 2021: 131–34). The Icelandic version, meanwhile, parallels an English textual source less directly; however, a number of English clerics served as Bishops of Hólar between 1425 and 1440 and seem to have brought their own sermon literature with them when they entered into their posts. Thirty-four Icelandic exempla were translated from English sources during this period, and twelve of these come from Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (Hughes 2021: 140).

[12]  Mannyng’s presentation of the cursed dancing carolers places the narrative within a discussion of sacrilege, one of the deadly sins treated in his text. Sacrilege, defined as “mysdedë to holynes” [misdeed to holiness], encompasses a wide array of offenses in Handlyng Synne, including stealing from the church, burying unholy bodies in sacred ground, hitting a clerk, misbehaving clerics, committing sexual acts, or, most pertinently to this article, performing “karolles, wrastlyngs, or somour games” [caroles, wrestlings, or summer games] within the space of the churchyard or during the mass (Mannyng 1901: 271–83). To illustrate this final point, Mannyng includes a lengthy version of the tale of the cursed dancing carolers, moving the dancers to England in the time of King Edward, yet noting specifically that they performed in a church dedicated to “seynet Magne þat suffred maryrdome” [saint Magnus that suffered martyrdom] (Mannyng 1901: 284, line 9020).[ii] The next thousand lines walk through the narrative in great detail, naming several of the female dancers, graphically describing their obliviousness to weather or bodily description, emphasizing the tragic death of the priest’s daughter, and then concluding with the following moral:

Þys tale y tolde ȝow, to make ȝow aferde,
Yn cherche to karolle, or yn cherche ȝerde,
Namely aȝens þe prestys wylle;
leueþ, whan he byddeþ ȝow be style

[This tale I told you, to make you afraid
In church to carole, or in church yard
Namely against the priest’s will;
Leave, when he bids you be still.] (Mannyng 1901: 290, lines 9247–52)

Despite the numerous fantastical elements and sinful failures of the tale, the moral, in Mannyng’s text, boils down to the simple admonition to avoid dancing in church, lest one commit sacrilege and receive the appropriate punishment. Elsewhere in Handlyng Synne, in a discussion of the ten commandments, Mannyng similarly connects dance and sacrilege, adding in a clearer emphasis on the sins of women: after a broad admonition that “Ȝyf þou make karol or play, / Þou halewyst nat þyn halyday” [if you make carol or play, you hallow not the holy day], Mannyng warns specifically against gatherings of women, “To se which þat feyrer were; / Þys ys aȝens þe commaundëment, / And þe holyday for þe ys shent” [to see which that fairer were / this is against the commandment / and the holy day for you is destroyed] (Mannyng 1901: 36, lines 985–86, 1000–02). For the lay audiences listening to Mannyng’s text and version of the tale, two clear messages about dance came through: it could be a form of sacrilege when performed in the wrong space or time, and it was deadly to women in particular.

[13]  Several of the versions of this tale transmitted in Icelandic texts present variations on the same themes: Christmas eve dancing and the neglect of services, supernatural vengeance (inflicted by God or the devil), and the eventual destruction of the dancers. In the version associated with the location of Hruni, one of the best-known versions of the Icelandic tale, the priest is culpable in leading the dancing despite his mother’s admonitions; ultimately, the entire church and churchyard (filled with dancers who had neglected the mass) sank into the earth, with the dancers buried alive (Simpson 1979: 211–13). Jón Ólafsson of Grunnavik (1705–1770) provides the first written version of this tale, noting the outline of the tale in his Dictionary and dating it to before the Reformation. While the tale does not directly parallel Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne, likely its inspiration, the punishment of the dancers through sinking into the earth echoes Mannyng’s emphasis on the dancers’ living burial. This detail connects both the Middle English and Icelandic versions of the tale to sacrilege, aligning the fate of the dancers with the fate of other sacrilegious figures in narratives like the account of Korah found in Numbers 16, in which a group sought to usurp priestly authority and was swallowed alive by the earth for this sacrilege.

[14]  Shaun F.D. Hughes posits that the unity of Denmark and Norway from the 1340s onwards makes the Danish version of Der grosse Seelentrost the most likely source for the Norwegian adaptations of the tale. However, given the previously noted networks of circulation and the acute lack of sources upon which to make clearly substantiated claims, I argue that the Norwegian version may, like its Icelandic counterpart, also be an adaptation of Mannyng’s text. No medieval versions of the tale of the cursed carolers survive in Norwegian manuscripts, but a variation of the tale published in the nineteenth century hints at a medieval version of the tale. In this 1885 version of the tale, the events are referred to as happening “a long time ago,” prior to modernity. The dancers are relocated to the western Norwegian parish of Graven, and their dance transformed into a wedding dance performed in a churchyard. When the parson calls upon the dancers to cease this grievous sin of dancing in the churchyard, they disregard his warning; the parson accordingly calls on God to punish the dancers who are violating the sacred space of the churchyard. The dancers then danced for seven years in punishment (Strömbäck 1956–1978, IX: 697–98; Hughes 2021: 134). While not an exact reproduction of Mannyng’s version of the tale of the cursed dancers, this Norwegian adaptation does highlight the same key events as the English medieval texts. Furthermore, and most relevantly for this article, its emphasis on sacrilege and dance violating sacred space parallels closely with Mannyng’s narrow focus on dance as sacrilege.

[15]  These versions of the tale of the cursed dancing carolers highlight the fact that parishioners in northern Europe broadly and in the western North Sea specifically heard much the same message about dance, regardless of their exact geographic abode. The tale of the cursed dancing carolers was far more prominent in Nordic, English, German, and Flemish texts than in French or Italian ones (Miller Renberg and Phillis, 2021: 6–7). Its framing of dance as sacrilege, clearest in the tale’s English and Scandinavian settings, would have thus encouraged perceptions of dance as religiously dangerous, in contrast to other French or Italian sermon tales about dance that emphasized other categories of danger such as sexual sin. Preaching dance in northern parishes, then, at least in the case of the tale of the cursed dancing carolers, meant that laity regularly heard dance defined as sacrilegious and dangerous, a definition with theological and practical ramifications.

[16]  Another common narrative preached about dance between 1300 and 1700 highlights a second element of preaching dance in northern parishes: the connection between dance, sacrilege, and gender. An exemplum about a devil taking notes on the conversation between two women during a sermon appears in both Handlyng Synne and Icelandic manuscripts, again connecting improper behavior during mass to sacrilege and gender (Mannyng 1901: 290–93; Simpson 1979: 209–11). In both Mannyng’s version of the tale and its Icelandic iteration, a priest is conducting mass and preaching a sermon when, all of a sudden, one of his male parishioners bursts out laughing. After the service, the priest confronts the man about his behavior, asking for an explanation. The man explains that while the priest was preaching, he noticed a small devil in the rafters of the church. This devil was frantically recording every word exchanged by a pair of women sitting in the service, gossiping (in the English version) and insulting each other and fighting (in the Icelandic version). Eventually, the devil ran out of room on his parchment roll (in the English version) or his leather boot (in the Icelandic version) and tried to use his teeth to stretch out the available writing space. This failed, as the writing material split, flinging the devil off the beam and provoking the man’s laughter. This exemplum appears immediately after the tale of the cursed carolers in Mannyng’s text, indicating that Mannyng saw a close connection between the forms of sacrilege represented in each tale. The tale perhaps entered into Icelandic texts such as the Maríu saga through Jacques de Vitry’s work in the thirteenth century (Simpson 1979: 211). However, given that Mannyng’s work circulated throughout Iceland as well, it also seems likely that later versions of the tale drew from Handlyng Synne. Jón Árnason’s nineteenth-century collection of Icelandic folklore and tales places the tale of the cursed dancing carolers and this tale of the “disappointed devil,” as he terms it, in subsequent positions in his book; this perhaps indicates similar textual proximity in the Icelandic sources from which Árnason collected his tales (Árnason 1862–64).Regardless, this particular tale was especially popular in northern Europe, particularly the British Isles, Sweden, Germany, and Lithuania (Tubach 1969: no. 1630); its prevalence in Middle English and Icelandic narratives indicates that this religious perception of connections between sacrilege and gender carried particular weight in northern regions. The subtle connections between women and sacrilege formed in the cursed carolers narrative were reinforced by the more blatant ties in the tale of the disappointed devil.

[17]  Through sermons on Salome, the dancer from the gospel accounts of the death of John the Baptist, presented in Matthew 14 and Mark 6, vernacular preachers solidified the ideological connections between dance, sacrilege, and gender. While no records indicate how frequently the tale of the cursed dancing carolers appeared in parish sermons (although the tale’s broad manuscript witness and afterlife in Nordic parish records suggests that it must have been relatively frequently), scholars are more certain about how often the dance of Salome might have been preached. As a part of an important saint’s vita and as part of the gospel texts, the narrative of Salome’s dance appeared frequently in late medieval sermon cycles based upon the liturgical calendar. The third Sunday of Advent, the Decollation of St John the Baptist (August 29th), and the Nativity of St John the Baptist (June 24th) were the most common occasions on which this narrative was preached. Since both Middle English and Nordic sermon cycles contained sermons on John the Baptist, and since his saint’s day played an important role in the liturgical calendar, we can say with some certainty that parish audiences in both regions heard the narrative of his condemnation of Herod’s adultery, of the birthday party and the dancing girl’s performance, of the king’s rash oath, and then of the girl’s request for the head of the saint and John’s subsequent death.

[18]  Some of the earliest surviving sermons from western Scandinavia contain versions of the dance of Salome. For example, the Gammelnorsk homiliebok,a collection of homiletic texts in Old Norse from the early thirteenth century, contains Salome’s dance in its sermon on St John the Baptist (Flom 1929: 11–14, 156–58; Salveson and Gunnes 1971: 109–11).After discussing the conception, birth, and ministry of John the Baptist, the sermon author turns to the saint’s martyrdom: “And Herod solemnly observed his birthday and invited many men to come to him and make a great feast. And a young girl entertained the men with song and fiddle; it was the stepdaughter of the king. The men were very pleased with her entertainment.”[iii] As in other twelfth- and thirteenth- century sermons, in this Old Norse version the dancing of the daughter is obscured, with fiddle-playing replacing the dance performance referenced in the Vulgate. This aligns with the broader early medieval trend to portray the dancing girl as less problematic (and maybe even not as a dancer) that dominated early sermon literature (Jordan 2012). A century later, however, this trend had begun to shift, with a greater emphasis on the girl’s dance in vernacular texts. Handlyng Synne, for instance, presents the same passage as follows:

Eroud swore
To here þat tymbled yn þe flore,
Þat what-aseuer she wuld aske to mede,
he wuld fulfyl hyt here yn dede;
halfe hys kyndom, ȝyf she wuld craue,
haluyndele she shuld hyt haue.
Eueyl he vowed, and swore hys otħ,
Þer-for with hym ys now god wrotħ.

[Herod swore
To her that tumbled on the floor
That whatsoever she would ask as reward
He would fulfil it here indeed
Half his kingdom
If she would crave
A half portion she should have
Evil he vowed and swore his oath
Therefore with him is now God angry.] (Mannyng 1901: 100, lines 2819–26)

While early Scandinavian preaching may not have connected the death of John the Baptist to dance, the entrance of homiletic texts like Handlyng Synne into circulation in the 1400s would have introduced the idea of the transgressive tumbler to parish audiences.

[19]  For English audiences, Salome’s transformation did not stop with the addition of tumbling; later medieval and especially early modern sermons move from simply mentioning a performance by a young girl to expounding at great length upon the dangers of women who danced. A sermon dated around 1400, for example, concludes its discussion of spiritual adultery and the narrative of John the Baptist by stating, “thus was heroude overcome and for a foly ooth assented to the wicked will of the curched woman that he susteynede this encuberaunce of this woman with the apostasie and avowtrie that suem thereof that has not cesse I to the tyme that the erthe opene his mouth and swolow up this flood. And so helpe this woman” (BL MS Egerton 2820, fols. 121r–122v). A much later sermon, a 1615 commentary upon the book of Judges, invokes Salome’s dance as part of a commentary on Samson and Delilah: “So the whorish daughter of an whorish mother, Herodias I meane, being so farre admitted as to dance before Herod the King, and being permitted to demand what recompence she listed, euen to the halfe of his kingdome, shamed not to aske the head of Iohn Baptist: whom not onely all the people, but euen Herod himself reuerenced and stood in feare of. . .” (Rogers 1615: 739). Over three hundred vernacular English sermons present similar portrayals of Salome between 1300 and 1700: as a sacrilegious, sexually promiscuous, and scheming dancer. The sheer number of these texts would have shaped lay perceptions of the women dancing in their communities, even if the circumstances were not exactly similar.[iv]

[20]  The dearth of Icelandic and Norwegian texts from this period makes it difficult to track the transformation of Salome in a similar manner, but the circulation of other English homiletic materials makes it seem likely that the Scandinavian Salome evolved along a similar trajectory in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The influence of the Legenda Aurea in both England and Scandinavia supports this: as Johansen notes, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea was used extensively in Scandinavian sermon composition during this period (Johansen 2001: 300) and was likewise important in English sermons (Carlson 2001: 252). In the Legenda Aurea’s presentation of the life of John the Baptist, the dancing girl Salome meets a particularly brutal end: “She was walking over an icy pond when the ice gave way under her and she was drowned, though one chronicle says that the earth swallowed her alive. This is understandable, since it is said of the Egyptians who were drowned in the Red Sea ‘The earth swallowed them’” (de Voragine 2012: 524–25). A similar fate appears in vernacular sermons: “And in the sight of alle the peple the erthe swalowyd the wenche that hadde dawnsed and sche sonke in to a evol feste” (BL Add MS 36791, fol. 111r). Salome’s demise in the Legenda Aurea, and likely in Scandinavian sermons given the prominence of the Legenda Aurea in Scandinavia, thus connects the punishment for her dance to sacrilege, for the swallowing up of her body in the earth hearkens back to the motif of the cursed dancing carolers, swallowed by the earth for their sacrilege. While French or Italian Renaissance audiences would have likely associated Salome’s dance primarily with sexual sin and the wickedness of women (Long 2013), for parish audiences in the western North Sea, Salome’s dance would have been a biblical illustration of the same moral as presented by the tale of the cursed dancing carolers. Dancers, particularly female dancers, aligned themselves with evil and sacrilege and thus received living burials as punishment. From the pulpit, at least, lay audiences received uniform messaging that condemned dance and dancers as damned and demonically associated, messaging that was both more consistently negative and more closely aligned with sacrilege than in other regions.

In the Parish: Performing and Prohibiting Dance

[21]  The Legenda Aurea provides not only vernacular sermon material but also a glimpse of dance in parish practice in its opening statement on the beheading of John the Baptist: “The feast of the beheading of John the Baptist, as we find in the book De mitrali officio,was instituted in celebration of four events” (de Voragine 2012: 518). An overview of the four events and their significance follows this statement. But for our purposes, it is this opening statement about a feast that leads us into our consideration of parish dance practices, for many of these parish dances were indeed tied to religious festivals, fundraisers, and saints’ days. The feast mentioned here, the feast of John the Baptist’s birth, falling as it did near Midsummer’s Eve, represented one of the peaks of parish festivity in northern Europe. In most English parishes, for example, June 24th was surrounded with around ten days of bonfires, dances, and other parish festivities. The visual reminder of the saint’s martyrdom continued in these festivities, as processional banners for the midsummer celebrations often featured images of John’s head on a platter similar to the St John’s heads of the domestic sphere (French 2021: 203–04). As one example from the records of the Guild of St John Baptist in Baston, Lincolnshire shows, this celebration was not considered optional. Records from 1388–89 indicate that “(it was decided) that all the sisters of the said brotherhood, or someone in their name, shall come on St John the Baptist’s Day to dance with their sisters under pain of one measure of barley,” and that “all the sisters of the aforesaid guild shall be present at vespers and at matins on St John the Baptist’s Eve carrying the light in their hands and also dancing on (St John the Baptist’s) Day, unless they are so old or in ill health or on pilgrimage or have been excused by the brotherhood for business of some kind, on pain of one measure of barley” (Stokes 2009: 24–25, 619). The 1443 Tailors’ Guild Assembly Minute Book from Salisbury likewise provides a lengthy list of instructions for observing St John’s Day, with a procession, several masses, a procession, lights, a feast, and specified roles for men and women of the parish, with fines for non-participation.[v] In English parishes, John the Baptist’s association with light, the burning of his bones, and the role of dance in his vita all played a role in parish observation of his saint’s day (Hampson 1841: 1. 299–305). The death of a saint through dance was celebrated with religious dancing within the parish.

[22]  Such religious dancing by laity was not restricted solely to midsummer, or to the feast of John the Baptist. Salisbury’s records contain payments to groups of wives, daughters, servants, and boy scholars who danced in a Whitsunday processional: entries noting the payment of “6s 8d in coin paid in reward made to the wives according to ancient custom. And 3s 4d in coin paid to the servants this year. And 20d in coin paid to the daughters this year. And 12d in coin paid to the scholars who danced at the same time” appear regularly in the receipts from the masters of the fabric of St Thomas Parish from 1477 to 1523.[vi] The churchwardens’ accounts for St Edmund’s, meanwhile, note “money paid to dyu{er}s Children & Men for beryng of baners aswell in the Rogacion Weke as at Whitsontyde & corpus chr{ist}i day xvj d. Also in mony paid for ij dos{en} poynt{es} occupied abought paiant{es} in the feste of corpus Ch{risti} iij d”, with entries for similar expenses in other Salisbury parishes as late as 1620.”[vii] These parish-sanctioned (and indeed, parish-sponsored) events, along with other events like maidens’ lights (French 1998), provide a counterpoint to the cursed and sinful dancing preached from the pulpit, nuancing the lay experience and understanding of dance. At least in the years between 1400 and 1600, laity would have been familiar with two different and competing models of dance: one that represented parish ritual and practice of piety, and one that rhetorically connected dance to sin and sacrilege. And in a contrast to religious dance practices elsewhere, such as those discussed by Kathryn Dickason in her recent book (Dickason 2021), these parish dances were performed primarily by ordinary men and women: not by saints, or nobility, or clergy, but by the good men and women of the parish. Whereas French and Italian religious dances often centered on bodies made holy through exceptional piety, ordination, or wealth, English dance practices by and large centered the moving bodies of the laity.

[23]  As an action that was certainly not a criminal offense, dance does not appear in secular law codes, nor do those brought before secular courts face charges that mention dance; thus, many of the sources through which we encounter transgressive dancing are ecclesiastical court records, while records of parish finances and activities provide glimpses of less problematic parish dance practices. All of these records provide mere glimpses of parish dance; although there are moments and areas with more sources on parish dance than others, in general, the archival evidence for parish dance, even in parishes with relatively full documentary records, is challenging. Even at its most extensive, documentary evidence for the dance practices of the ordinary people of the parish is much thinner than evidence for courtly dance practices. But this absence of sources does not indicate an absence of impact; the sermon references and visitation records discussed earlier show that dance was enough of an ever-present concern to merit constant ecclesiastical attention. Dance’s appearance in conflicts and controversies implies that the dances were a constant part of parish life, even if not always in the records.

[24]  Turning to Scandinavian parishes only exacerbates this methodological challenge for dance scholars. While ecclesiastical court records and parish records are in relatively abundant supply for England, such sources are almost nonexistent for Norway and Iceland. Letters, diplomas, saga texts, law codes like the Gulathing and Frostating laws, and didactic texts like the previously discussed Old Norwegian Homily Book all survive, but these sources, focused on nobility and broader ecclesiastical affairs, shed little light on religious life in the parish (Alvestad 2021: 259). Furthermore, in much of Scandinavia, as Jørgensen notes, “the vast majority of the material from the medieval ecclesiastical courts was destroyed during the Lutheran Reformation” (Jørgesen 2008: 342). But from hints in other sources, it seems that western Scandinavia had similar models of parish festivity and practice. In one example, a liturgical drama related to the Dream of the Rood, the Winchester Regularis Concórdia,was adopted in Norway, as evidenced by two twelfth-century manuscript fragments, Bergen Mi12 and MS 1549, 2. As Bø puts it, this ritual was likely “still current in the early fourteenth century and celebrated in Hålandsdalen and Ylmheim alike, yet in a style more suitable for smaller parish churches” (Bø 2019: 9). This fragmentary evidence for the transmission of English liturgical drama (which often involved dance) into western Nordic practice hints at a potentially broader circulation; the extensive circulation of the Legenda Aurea in the region, with its discussion of the feast of John the Baptist, provides another glimpse of possible parallels to English practice, for if other liturgical dramas shaped fourteenth-century Nordic parish life, it seems reasonable that traditions like the St John the Baptist feasts and processionals might have also crossed the North Sea.[viii]

[25]  Material evidence read alongside law codes likewise provide support for a Nordic parish culture that centered on feasts and processions, both possibly involving dance like their English counterparts. Primstav, traditional Norwegian wooden calendars that track agricultural and religious dates of significance, provide one support for this hypothesis. These calendars, of which over 300 survive, spanning the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, indicate that Norwegian liturgical celebration included careful observance of religious feasts, classified under the Frostating Law as of the highest liturgical importance (Alvestad 2021: 267–68; Dybdahl 2011). On these feast days, under the Gulathing law stipulations, men of the parish were ordered to process from farm to farm carrying a cross, in a ritual known as kross-skurðr. Such processions played a significant role in Norwegian parish life, with at least one cross designed to fit on top of a pole surviving from the late Middle Ages (Thomas 2018: 32). These parish processionals seem similar in nature and timing to other parochial processions in English settings, such as the previously discussed danced Whitsunday processions in Salisbury. Iconographic evidence also provides insight into the prevalence of carols in Scandinavia: the Ørslev Fresco, from Denmark and dated to around 1350, shows a group of nine dancers, linked arm in arm, performing what seems to be a carole (Torp and Giurchescu 1993: 126). Parish dances thus seem to have taken the same stylistic form and timing as their English counterparts: they were ring dances or processionals, group performances that occurred throughout the parish and on significant feast days.

[26]  Sermon admonitions provide another glimpse into western Nordic parish festivities. In a sermon on the story of Job in the Old Icelandic Homily Book, the sermon author notes that “it is more common in other countries than it is with us here [in Iceland] that people take the eucharist at several of the great feasts.” This brief aside alludes to a festive culture of feasts and parish gatherings within Iceland. In another sermon in the Old Icelandic Homily Book,the author compares Iceland and Norway, noting what the author considers to be the sins of each group: “carnal lust is promoted in this country through the praises of people at popular gatherings the same way drunkenness is in Norway” (as quoted and translated in Hall 2000: 688). As in the case of England, very few specific details about what the practice of parish festivity looked like can be derived from these sources, and without the extensive records like those in England, it is difficult to assert that these must have involved dance. However, given the transmission of other practices like liturgical drama and sermon literature and references to processions and feasts, it seems possible that parish dances, performed by laity, occurred in these western Nordic parishes. The Icelandic homily author’s condemnation of the lust and drunkenness of each group would certainly support this hypothesis as well, for lust and drunkenness were sins commonly associated with dancing, as shown in versions of the Salome narrative.

[27]  In these northern parishes, the changes of the Reformations played out particularly slowly; in England, traditional parish festivities continued almost until the English Civil Wars, and in Iceland and Norway, changes to religious practice occurred only slowly, with little lasting impact on parish practice until late in the sixteenth century (Lund 2008: 416; Duffy 2005). The Norwegian Reformation, like its English counterpart, played out in several stages between the 1530s and 1640s (Wisløff 1966: 407, 454–55). With doctrine so slow to shift, it makes sense that parish festivities shifted only gradually as well. The medieval ecclesiastical push against dance in sacred space or during sacred time, represented in sermon tales like the tale of the cursed dancing carolers, continued in Protestant protest against parish festivities and increased restrictions on dance in the parish. Sixteenth-century visitations made dancing a focus of their reform, as shown through injunctions like those of Bishop Richard Cox for the diocese of Ely:

Item bicause the Saboth day is so fondly abuseed in going vnto Fayers and visiting of frendes, and acquaintances, and in feasting and making of good chere, in wanton dawnsing, in lwed maygames sometyme continuing riotously with Piping all whole nightes in barnes and such odde places, boh younge men and women out of their fathers and masters howses, I charge all my parishes, within my Dioces, and charge the Churchwardens, Sidemen, and ministers to see that no such disorders be kept vpon the Sabaoth day, commonly called the sundayes, as they will aunswere vppon their othe.[ix]

[28]  Parishioners who violated these injunctions and danced in the churchyard or during Sunday services found themselves called upon to give public confessions under threat of ecclesiastical punishment, as in the case of Thomas Oliver of Parson Drove, who had to publicly confess to his sins: “I did Dawnce in prayers time vpon the Saboth day w{i}th mens servau{n}t{es} & children at vnlawful times and beinge admonished thereof by the Officers made a tushe at the same in scorninge manne for w{hi}ch I am most harteley sory and I aske god & you all moste hartely forgivenes for the same p{ro}miseinge by gods helpe never to offend hereafter in the like againe.”[x] Even the parish processionals came under fire, eventually presented not as communal religious practice but as problematic and disruptive.[xi] In Scandinavia, meanwhile, medieval pushes against dance in churchyards (such as what took place in Iceland, with its extensive record of dance-related prohibitions) continued into early modern stories of the punishments and condemnations that awaited those who danced in sacred space (Hughes 2021: 136, 134–39). The preached view of dance as problematic survived the changes of the Reformations and eventually filtered into parish practice, perhaps quickened by shifts in reformed morality but certainly not changed from its medieval roots.


[29]  In the sixteenth century, as political and religious circumstances shifted across Scandinavia, networks of communication and circulation of religious ideologies changed. Denmark’s and Sweden’s growing rivalry, along with Denmark’s subsummation of Norway and Iceland as provinces rather than co-equal kingdoms, meant that the western Nordic nations would no longer be tied as closely to their western neighbor, England. And in the latter years of the Northern Renaissance and Reformation, it would be German theologians and customs that would exert the greatest influence on Scandinavian preachers and parishes (Johansen 2001: 304). But the usual bifurcation of medieval and Reformation studies into separate fields obscures just how gradual this change in influence was, particularly in Norway and Iceland, areas that showed little popular fervor for reformation (Lund 2008: 416). Perhaps the long-standing connections to England formed during the Christianization of western Scandinavia, continued through the exchange of late medieval sermon materials in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and, reinforced by the relative religious conservatism of both regions in the years following the Black Death, helped shape parallel, lengthy, and gradual reformations in both regions (Lund 2008: 416; Christopherson 1979: 289; Wisløff 1966: 407, 454–55).

[30]  While these late medieval connections and networks of circulation remain hazy, focusing on dance as preached and practiced in these parishes highlights a distinctly northern approach to dance and religion that seems to also bind the two regions together. Scandinavian and Middle English texts might have drawn from some of the same Latin source texts that vernacular French and Italian texts consulted. However, the passing of these Latinate texts through distinctively northern contexts shaped their presentations of dance, with more emphasis on the potential perils of lay parish practices than on the religious potentiality of clerical or courtly dance. As Ann Thayer notes, “the ideas taught in regular preaching provided the religious and mental equipment with which people made sense of their lives and evaluated, and sometimes adopted, new understandings” (Thayer 2001: 361). Accordingly, the ideas about dance developed in late medieval texts helped shape gradual opposition to traditional parish practice, opposition that mirrored debates in southern Europe but maintained a focus on sacrilege and gender unique to these northern settings. Evaluating English religious discourses about dance alongside southern European dialogues situates England as an outlier in broader Renaissance dance traditions. While connected to continental conversations about religious dance, vernacular English sermons presented ordinary men and women with an almost uniformly negative perspective on dance. Yet, reconsidering these sermons alongside Scandinavian sources reveals a different picture, one in which England is no longer an outlier but instead a potential source of a different set of northern parish norms. The practice of dance and of faith in the North truly did involve different steps—or at least a different rhythm.



[i] The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has delayed a planned archival trip to Norway and Denmark, as well as a follow-up trip to the UK; thus, much of the evidence for this article comes from printed facsimiles or from edited primary source editions such as the Records of Early English Drama (henceforth REED). While not ideal, this does have the advantage of allowing readers to likewise access and work with many of the sources used in this article. My thanks to the MARCO Institute at the University of Tennessee Knoxville for the grant of a Lindsay Young Visiting Fellowship, which enabled work with some of the Scandinavian sources cited throughout.

[ii] All translations from the Middle English are my own.

[iii] Translation my own. Original text: “En herodes let halda burðar dag ſín ſem hotið. oc bouð þa mo[r]gum lyð til ſín oc let gera fagnað mykin. En mǽr æin ung ſcemti m[ao]nnum [y]æl ſu [y]ar ſtiupdotter konongſs ens í ſong oc I fiðluſslætte. Oc licaðe m[ao]nnum [y]ael ſcemtan hennar.” (Codex AM 619 Quarto, ff. 53b as transcribed in Flom 1929: 158). Modern Norwegian translation: “Og Herodes lot høytideligholde fødselsdagen sin, og innbød mye folk til seg og stelte i stand til stor fest. Og en ung pike underholdt mennene med sang og felespill; det var stedatter til kongen. Mennene var godt fornøyd med underholdningen hennes.” (Salveson and Gunnes 1971:110–11)

[iv] I talk at length about English transformations of Salome and their implications in my book, Women, Dance and Parish Religion: Negotiating the Steps of Faith (Boydell Press, 2022).

[v] Sarum 1443 Tailors’ Guild Assembly Minute Book, WSA: G23/1/251, 10 July Rules, Ordinances, and Constitutions, ff.3–4v; see also REED Salisbury Sarum 1477 Tailors’ Guild Act and Memoranda Book WSA: G32/1/250, ff. 0v–10*, 15 August. As transcribed in Records of Early English Drama: Salisbury,edited by Audrey Douglass. Forthcoming with REED: Wiltshire, ed. Roslyn Hays and C.E. McGee, REED Online.

[vi] For this specific quote, see Sarum 1489–90, Accounts of the Masters of the Fabric on Receipts from St Thomas; DCA: Press II Sheet 1. As transcribed in REED Salisbury, ed. Douglas; forthcoming with REED Wiltshire, ed. Hays and McGee.

[vii] Sarum 1489, St Edmund’s Churchwardens’ Accounts, WSA 1901/67 roll 6, sheet 2. As transcribed in REED Salisbury, ed. Douglas; forthcoming with REED Wiltshire, ed. Hays and McGee.

[viii] Further support for this comes from the ongoing traditions of St John’s day bonfires in Scandinavia, known as sankthansaften or jonsok in Norwegian and sankthansaften in Denmark. In Norway and Denmark, the giant bonfires lit for these events are often topped with effigies of witches, pointing to a long-standing association between midsummer and witches that then became connected to the saint. Celebrations in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden also often involved maypoles. Until 1771, St John’s Eve was a national religious holiday in Norway. For discussion of contemporary practices and a brief overview, see:;;

[ix] Diocese of Ely 1579; Bishop Richard Cox’s Injunctions, STC 10194.7 p. CII. As transcribed in Records of Early English Drama: Cambridgeshire, edited by John Geck with Anne Brannen, REED Online (forthcoming 2022).

[x] Parson Drove 1595, Dean’s Papers; CUL Add 6605, f. 207. As transcribed in REED Cambridgeshire, ed. Geck with Brannen.

[xi] I discuss this at greater length in my recent book, Women, Dance and Parish Religion.

Unpublished Sources

BL Add MS 36791 ~ London, British Library, Additional MS 36791

BL MS Egerton 2820 ~ London, British Library, MS Egerton 2820

REED Cambridgeshire  ~ Toronto, Records of Early English Drama Archives, Cambridgeshire

REED Salisbury ~ Toronto, Records of Early English Drama Archives, Salisbury


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