Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

A group in traditional medieval attire engaged in a medieval circle dance.   Source: JackF /Adobe Stock

The Multifunctional Merriment of Medieval Dance

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In the often violent and gloomy medieval life, dance triumphantly emerged as a vibrant expression of joy, celebration, and social interaction. From the grand halls of noble courts to the humble village squares, medieval dance permeated every stratum of society, reflecting the cultural, religious, and social dynamics of the time. This intricate art form served as a conduit for communal bonding, storytelling, and religious worship, offering a window into the beliefs, values, and traditions of the medieval world. By exploring the various aspects of medieval dance, from its forms and functions to its societal significance, we can delve into the intricate web of human expression that flourished during this fascinating period in history. But just how much exactly do we know about it?

Medieval Dance and the Fragments of Knowledge That Survive

Medieval dance encompassed a diverse array of forms, each with its own distinct style, purpose, and symbolism. One prominent form was the courtly dance, which unfolded within the opulent confines of noble courts and castles. These dances, often accompanied by live music, featured intricate choreography characterized by graceful movements and refined gestures. The courtly dance served not only as entertainment but also as a means of socializing and showcasing one's grace and elegance. However, much of what is known about the dance of the noble courts is left to guesswork, as no forms of it survived to this day.

Dance at Herod's Court, an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, 1490. (Public Domain)

Dance at Herod's Court, an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, 1490. (Public Domain)

Folk Dance

Another prevalent form of medieval dance was the folk dance, which found its roots in the everyday lives of common people. These dances were often performed in communal settings such as village squares, fairs, and festivals. Unlike the courtly dances, folk dances were characterized by their simplicity and accessibility, with lively rhythms and energetic movements that invited participation from all members of the community. Folk dances served as a means of fostering solidarity, celebrating seasonal rhythms, and passing down cultural traditions from one generation to the next. Many scholars agree that the simplest of the folk dances had far-reaching roots, that went way before the onset of the Middle Ages. In fact, many dances had pagan roots, and were passed on through generations, even after Christianity took over.

Italian folk dance, The saltarello. (Public Domain)

Italian folk dance, The saltarello. (Public Domain)

Multifunctional Medieval Dancing

Medieval dance fulfilled a multitude of functions within society, ranging from entertainment and recreation to religious worship and ritualistic expression. At courtly gatherings, dance provided a form of entertainment for the nobility, offering respite from the rigors of courtly life and fostering social connections among the elite. In this context, dance functioned as a symbol of prestige and refinement, with elaborate performances serving to showcase the wealth and sophistication of noble patrons. It was also a form of a “get together”, where young people could meet possible suitors and find partners. Nobles and commoners alike would put on their best attire and show off their graceful moves in hopes of catching the eye of that special someone.

A Dance In a Dark Time

In the realm of religious worship, dance played a significant role in many medieval traditions. Across Europe, various forms of religious dance emerged as a means of expressing devotion, recounting biblical narratives, and participating in communal rituals. The liturgical dance, for example, was performed within the sacred space of churches and cathedrals, often as part of religious ceremonies and processions. These dances, imbued with spiritual symbolism and solemnity, served to elevate the worship experience and foster a deeper connection with the divine.

Medieval Church Painting, Dance of Death. (Tony Craddock/Adobe Stock)

Medieval Church Painting, Dance of Death. (Tony Craddock/Adobe Stock)

Beyond its immediate functions, medieval dance held profound societal significance, reflecting and shaping the values, norms, and power structures of the time. In the hierarchical world of medieval society, dance served as a means of reinforcing social distinctions and hierarchies. Courtly dances, with their complex choreography and refined aesthetics, affirmed the status and privilege of the nobility, while folk dances celebrated the communal bonds and shared experiences of common people. Moreover, dance provided a platform for the expression of cultural identity and regional diversity within medieval Europe. Different regions and communities developed their own unique dance traditions, influenced by local customs, beliefs, and landscapes. These regional variations contributed to the rich tapestry of medieval culture, highlighting the interconnectedness of diverse communities across the continent.

Elegant Couples Dancing in a Landscape, painting by Ambrosius Benson at The Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Circa 1540.  (Public Domain)

Elegant Couples Dancing in a Landscape, painting by Ambrosius Benson at The Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Circa 1540.  (Public Domain)

In addition, medieval dance offered a space for social interaction and negotiation, where individuals could navigate interpersonal relationships, courtship rituals, and social hierarchies. Through the language of movement, dancers communicated emotions, intentions, and social roles, forging connections and alliances within their communities.

Dance the Troubles Away

Alas, dance is not a tangible thing. As such, it did not truly survive through the centuries, and historians nowadays do not know the exact movements and melodies of medieval dances. However, thanks to surviving frescoes, carvings, and similar imagery, we know for certain that people did dance in this era. From Scandinavia to Asia, dance was one of the most common human expressions.

Ultimately, medieval dance emerged as a multifaceted and dynamic phenomenon that penetrated every aspect of medieval life. From the grandeur of noble courts to the rustic charm of village squares, dance served as a vibrant expression of human creativity, community, and spirituality.

Top image: A group in traditional medieval attire engaged in a medieval circle dance.   Source: JackF /Adobe Stock                                  

By Aleksa Vučković


Hoppin, R. H. 1978. Medieval Music. W. W. Norton.

Mullally, R. 2011. The Carole: A Study of a Medieval Dance. Ashgate.

Sachs, C. 1963. World History of the Dance.


Frequently Asked Questions

Medieval dance could involve a solo dancer, couples, or groups of any size, and was accompanied by music that was either sung, or played on instruments of all types. The dances themselves could be simple or complex, sedate or energetic, and contributed to the social life of every level of society.

It was a common way to celebrate festivals, weddings, and other joyous occasions. Dancing provided a way for people to interact and socialize with each other. This was especially important for young people who might be looking for potential romantic partners. In some cases, dance was even used as a form of religious expression, although this was not always approved of by the Church.

The most documented medieval social dance is the "carol" or circle dance, where participants joined hands (or just fingers) in a circle, likely men and women alternating. They would move sideways, typically clockwise, with simple steps like a left foot followed by a right closing to the left. While the carol was a popular social dance, there's evidence of more elaborate dances performed at court by nobility. These might involve solo dancers or couples, with more intricate footwork and formations.

Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

Next article