Adrien Belgrano (EHESS)

Violence against dancers, violence among dancers: the social issues of dance at the beginning and the end of the 14th century

A superficial reading of romance or clerical sources might give an impression that dance is mainly an activity of pure leisure. Whereas a deeper investigation enlightens us to the fact that it seems to be the place of massive symbolic investment, which can explain its increasing presence in romances, but also in pastoral literature throughout the fourteenth century. Dancing, although generally presented as an amusement, thus does not seem devoid of stakes. Can we, therefore, suppose that it could be a source of rivalry?

If the will to control dancing comes from all authorities, it is particularly obvious regarding the clerics. In the numerous exempla devoted to this subject in the collections of the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth centuries, dancers are systematically condemned. If one highlights their foolishness or their lasciviousness, the accusation can be even stronger, when the dance is presented – Jean Gobi being a good example of that – as an insult towards God. Through these stories, the preachers constructed the figure of the dancer as a harmful character or even more as a true rival: their leader, the dance leader, is sometimes paralleled to a devil’s priest.

Such violence on the part of the clerics implies that dance allowed some dancers to acquire significant social capital, especially the dance leaders who were particularly subjected to these condemnations. In fact, this valorization of the dancers can be found in numerous romances, even if dance, in these stories, often remained a very marginal activity, at least until the end of the fourteenth century. By considering a few incidents that occurred during the course of a dance mentioned in the letters of remission of the ‘Trésor des Chartes’, under the reign of Charles V and the beginning of the reign of Charles VI, one notices the diversity of the agonistic stakes. From informal games (such as attempting acrobatic moves or pushing one another) to arguments for leadership, or even violence against women, opportunities to gain prestige or to lose face vary enormously. Ultimately, if dance is a place of competition, it is still not a competition in and of itself. It remains embedded in the context of social life, sharing the same issues and complexity.


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