How did medieval people dance?

Historians have known that medieval people enjoyed dancing, but they did not know exactly how they danced. A book by Robert Mullally is answering a part of this question, detailing one of the most popular dances of the Middle Ages.

In The Carole: A Study of a Medieval Dance, Mullally pieces together a wide variety of literary sources that mention the Carole, one of the main dances of Western Europe in the 12th and 14th centuries. He reveals that it was a relatively simple dance done by men and women together: to do the Carole, a group of people, usually an even number of both men and women would form a circle, sometimes around an object like a tree. They would each hold hands (sometimes they would hold each other by their fingers) in this circle and move to the left (in a clockwise direction).


By moving sideways to the left, the dancers would start their step with their left foot, and then join the right foot to the left. The sources often describe it as the right foot striking against the other, and it was considered an elegant and graceful manoeuvre. The various sources never mention any other kind of moves that were part of the Carole. Mullally adds that “the very simplicity of the dance explains why no written choreography or dance manual was required.”

An early 14th-century depiction of the Carole – British Library Additional MS, 10293 fol. 292v.

The music of the Carole would be sung by the dancers themselves. It would usually begin by having one of the dancers, or a small group of them, to start the singing. After a few songs, they would give way to another dancer, who would then sing while the group continued their dance, and so on. Some sources talk about those dancing the Carole going on for hours – perhaps some people would leave or join the circle as the dance went on.


There were many different songs that could be sung for the Carole, but we only have a few examples of their lyrics. They include:

“You do not go the way I do, nor would you go that way.”

Vous n’a les mie tout en si que je fais. Ne vous, ne vous n’i saries aler, Ne vous, ne vous n’i saries aler.

“Love me, my sweet blonde, love me, and I shall not love anyone but you.”

Amez moi, blondete amez / Et je n’amerai se vos non!

“If I have great joy in my heart, do not ask whence it comes! Galyenne, my sweet sister, if I have joy in my heart, I do not want anyone at all to know about it! That I love with all my heart, you know full well. If I have joy in my heart, (do not ask whence it comes!)


Se j’ai grant joie enz enz mon cuer
Ne demandez dont elle vient!
Gallyennne, tres douce suer,
Se j’ai grant joie ens enz mon cuer
Ne veul que nuls en sache fuer!
Que j’iang du cuer vous saves bien.
Se j’ai grant joie enz enz mon cuer
(Ne demandez dont elle vient!)

Depictions of the Carole along with some of the music for the dance – Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264 fol. 181v

While a few descriptions of the Carole noted that a drum or horn accompanied the signing, musical instruments were used more with other types of dances, such as the hove dance.

For about three centuries the Carole remained a popular dance with all segments of society, from nobility to the peasants. Not everyone was happy with this dance, however, as a few religious moralists bitterly complained about it (their writings also offer some of the best descriptions of these dances). Jacques de Vitry, a French theologian from the 13th century, grumbled that the dance:


is a circle whose centre is the Devil, and in it all turn to the left, because all are heading towards everlasting death. When foot is pressed to foot or the hand of the woman is touched by the hand of a man, there the fire of the Devil is kindled.

Meanwhile, the author of the Mireour du monde found that “all those men and women who Carole sin in every member of their bodies by turning elegantly and by moving and shaking their arms, by singing, and by speaking dishonourably.”

Despite these complaints, the Carole remained a popular dance for three centuries, one that in Robert Mullally’s words, would be “performed by all classes of society – kings and nobles, shepherds and servant girls.”

You can read more in The Carole: A Study of a Medieval Dance, which was published in 2011.


See also: Festivals in a Medieval English Village