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  • A Year-Long Dance in the Eleventh Century? April 5, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    dancing mad

    A busy day here but really this strange twelfth century text (about an eleventh century event) needs little in the way of explanation. Wonder should be enough. William of Malmesbury, who quotes this account, apparently has a witness to hand. Note that Ethelbert sounds an Anglo-Saxon name but it is presumably an Anglified version of a cognate Germanic name.

    I Ethelbert, a sinner, even were I desirous of concealing the divine judgment which overtook me, yet the tremor of my limbs would betray me; wherefore I shall relate circumstantially how this happened, that all may know the heavy punishment due to disobedience. We were, on the eve of our Lord’s nativity, in a certain town of Saxony, in which was the church of Magnus the martyr, and a priest named Robert had begun the first mass. I was in the churchyard  with eighteen companions, fifteen men and three women, dancing, and singing profane songs to such a degree that I  interrupted the priest, and our voices resounded amid the  sacred solemnity of the mass. Wherefore, having commanded  us to be silent, and not being attended to, he cursed us in the  following words, ‘ May it please God and St. Magnus, that  you may remain singing in that manner for a whole year.’  His words had their effect.

    We have, then, a kind of cursing Tarantella dance. So far a steady mix of suggestion and guilt could explain the progress of the dancing mania but the disappearing arm ends all credibility. As to the dancers sinking into the ground…

    The son of John the priest  seized his sister who was singing with us, by the arm, and  immediately tore it from her body; but not a drop of blood  flowed out. She also remained a whole year with us, dancing  and singing. The rain fell not upon us; nor did cold, nor  heat, nor hunger, nor thirst, nor fatigue assail us: we neither  wore our clothes nor shoes, but we kept on singing as though  we had been insane. First we sank into the ground up to  our knees: next to our thighs; a covering was at length, by  the permission of God, built over us to keep off the rain.  When a year had elapsed, Herbert, bishop of the city of  Cologne, released us from the tie wherewith our hands were  bound, and reconciled us before the altar of St. Magnus.  The daughter of the priest, with the other two women, died  immediately; the rest of us slept three whole days and  nights: some died afterwards, and are famed for miracles [why?]:  the remainder betray their punishment by the tremblng of  their limbs.

    The constant trembling could have been suggested by a Parkinson sufferer? The final sentence, meanwhile, is mysterious because it moves away from Ethelbert to a certain Peregrine, who was recalling Ethelbert’s account?

    This narrative was given to us by the lord  Peregrine, the successor of Herbert, in the year of our Lord  1013.

    There are a number of medieval letters, which were invented and encouraged reform in the church and Christian life: perhaps the dancing letter should be filed away with Prester John and the Sunday Letter?

    Other medieval witness accounts? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    28 April 2014: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes: Is this where Robert Mannyng got “The Cursed Dancers of Colbeck,” found in “Handling Synne”? Something not brought out in your text is that this was a Christmas caroling – a ring-dance done around the church, something as forbidden as disturbing the Mass with profane songs. I read Mannyng in college and still remember the girl’s arm being ripped off. The shaking, the madness, the miracles–it all points to a  transformative, possibly hallucinogenic, shamanic experience. [an assertion you might want to take with a jumbo grain of salt!]   thanks Chris!!