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New Medieval Books: Women, Dance and Parish Religion in England, 1300-1640

Women, Dance and Parish Religion in England, 1300-1640: Negotiating the Steps of Faith

By Lynneth Miller Renberg

The Boydell Press
ISBN: 978-1-78327-747-6

It may surprise some readers to learn before the thirteenth century, dancing was a regular part of Christian worship. However, by the later Middle Ages the Church was very much against dancing, seeing it as sinful, and put out a great deal of effort to have it stopped. This book looks at why this shift happened, finding connections to perceptions about women and their bodies.


Thus, to return to my initial question: what led to the stillness of the saints and to this shift in approach to dance? I argue that attempts at eliminating sacrilegious behavior and reforming the church led to growing concern about both dancing and female bodies. Dance moved from something that could be either problematic or acceptable, celebratory and communal or sinful, to sacrilegious (collectively) and then sacrilegious and sexualized (individually). This shift took place because of changes in the ways in which medieval clerics and communities thought about sacrilege and transgression in relation to gender. These medieval discourses about dancing and female bodies increasingly intertwined and collided throughout the late medieval period, until eventually, by the start of the sixteenth century, both sacrilege and dance were defined as transgressions gendered female. And defining sin as gendered female had very real ramifications for both men and women, as new definitions of what it meant to perform one’s gender collided with discourses about holiness and transgression.


Who is this book for?

Those interested in how people decide what is immoral or sinful will find this a particularly fascinating case study. It tells the story of how one practice goes from something that people think is good to something that is seen as evil. It is also useful for those wanting to know about how Christianity transformed in the Later Middle Ages, which plays out not only among theologians and the ecclesiastical hierarchy but at the parish level.

The author:

Lynneth Miller Renberg is an Assistant Professor of History at Anderson University, where she researches issues with medieval gender, religion and dancing. You can visit her university webpage or follow Lynneth on Twitter @LynnethRenberg


She recently spoke about Women’s History Month:

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