Special Issue of postmedieval Spotlights Medieval Dance

By Kathryn Dickason

Legacies of Medieval Dance,” a new special issue of the journal postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, is the most comprehensive collection of medieval dance scholarship to date. This exciting publication features medievalists and early modernists from diverse disciplines who place premodern dance into conversation with critical race theory, (post)colonial studies, medievalism, game theory, queer studies, choreographic reconstruction, and beyond.

Within academia, dance is the least theorized of all the arts. As renowned ballet historian Lynn Garafola wrote in her 2005 book Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance: “A deep current of anti-intellectualism runs throughout the dance world, a mistrust of scholarly analysis, of probing beyond the evident, of questioning the truthfulness of received wisdom.” According to Garafola, dancers, dance critics, and scholars resisted subjecting ballet and modern dance to intellectual scrutiny and critical methodologies.


Until recently, the same could be said of medieval dance studies. Before the 2010s, scholarship on dance in the Middle Ages was scant (and rarely published in English). The few texts that did materialize offered little analytical depth, with the exception of select works by musicologist Walter Salmen and historian Alessandro Arcangeli.

The last two decades ushered in an exciting efflorescence of scholarly attention to medieval dance. Indeed, medievalists from a variety of disciplines have probed polysemous dance iconography (Elina Gertsman), interactions between dance and space (Nicoletta Isar), connections between dance and illness (Gregor Rohmann), the intermediality of dance and poetry (Seeta Chaganti), the religious significance of dance (Philip Knäble, Kathryn Dickason, and Laura Hellsten) and the gendering of dance (Lynneth Miller Renberg). Moreover, two edited collections have brought scholars together into productive conversations. Carefully curated by guest editor Licia Buttà, “Dante e la Danza,” a special issue of Dante e l’Arte, explores issues of choreography, poetic imagination, and penitential theology. Cursed Carolers in Context, co-edited by Lynneth Miller Renberg and Bradley Phillis, examines the circulations of prohibitory dance tales from a variety of perspectives.


The newest contribution to medieval dance studies is “Legacies of Medieval Dance,” a special double issue of postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. This is the most interdisciplinary and comprehensive collection of medieval dance scholarship to date, bringing together the cutting-edge research of both early-career and well-established scholars in history, art history, religious studies, theology, musicology, literature, performance studies, and dance studies. Moreover, the geographic range is quite global in scope: Europe, Byzantium, the Middle East, North Africa, the African diaspora, and the Americas. All articles are in English and several of them are open-access.

As guest editor Kathryn Dickason writes in her introduction, “The authors engage a variety of historical, critical, and artistic approaches. . . Several contributions not only interrogate the significance of dance in the Middle Ages, but contemplate the lasting traces of medieval dance history within cross-cultural encounters, modern novels, ballet, and beyond. The collection also works to decentre Western Europe, revealing the racialized and colonial legacies of medieval dance. . . As both archaic archive and enduring legacy, medieval dance continues to haunt us in enchanting and unsettling ways by transmitting knowledge, conflicts, and values through the ages.”

An important intervention in the special issue is rethinking the relationship between dance and music. Mary Caldwell draws attention to the disjuncture of choreomusicology in select premodern sources, when dancers seemed to move in silence. Investigating Iberian music/lyric/strophe structure, K. Meira Goldberg reveals the medieval Islamicate texture of modern flamenco. Nicoletta Isar interprets the music of Igor Stravinsky and the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky in Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring, a 1913 ballet) from a premodern perspective. Examining antiphons for Ad Mandatum (the rite of foot washing) and Romanesque art, Bissera Pentcheva reveals how liturgical and visual artifacts invest dance with caritas.

A group dances a carole in Le roman de la rose, France, ca. 1400–1402. Bibliotheque nationale de France MS fr. 1665, fol. 10v

Other contributions demonstrate how critical theory can advance medieval dance studies. Seeta Chaganti draws from critical race theory and contemporary advocacy to underscore the abolitionist potential of medieval dance studies. In her study of medieval Jewish dance, Tamara McCarty looks to subaltern studies and dance studies. Laura Hellsten suggests that insights from lived theology can sharpen our apprehension of late antique and medieval discourses on dance. In a delightful article on Middle English literature, Clint Morrison Jr., invokes contemporary game theory to explicate the narrative logic of playing and dancing in medieval texts.


The two early modernist contributors resituate premodern dance in colonial contexts. VK Preston discerns the interrelationships between dance, land, ecology, and memory by reading colonial writing (from present-day Canada) against contemporary Indigenous artworks. Turning to New Mexico, Lindsey Drury investigates Indigenous dances by tracing their convoluted entanglements with European colonization and scholarly misrepresentation.

Several authors engage the topic of medievalism. In her study of Baptist missionaries in nineteenth-century Jamaica, Lynneth Miller Renberg reveals how British imperialists wielded medieval theologies of lay dance to otherize Black subjects. Kathryn Dickason analyzes medievalism in The Nutcracker ballet vis-à-vis medieval toys and travel literature. In his comparative study of Dante Alighieri and Christopher Isherwood, James Miller highlights the queer reception of Dante’s dancing sodomites in mid-twentieth-century America, which intersects with the aesthetic of camp and the atomic bomb.

The final two articles look at medieval dance from an artistic and performative standpoint. Artist-scholar Rebecca Straple-Sovers takes readers through her choreographic process when she reimagined the spirituality of Hildegard von Bingen through modern dance in a 2017 performance at the Mostly Medieval Theatre Festival. Professional dancer and choreographer Charlotte Ewart discusses her approach to bringing medieval dances to life, as well as the challenges of making dances for film and television.


As a visual bonus, “Legacies of Medieval Dance” features original cover art by contemporary artist Atticus Bergman. His whimsical Crayola crayon drawing (“Untitled Composition”) derived inspiration from an archival photograph of the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881–1931). Bergman’s fascination with Byzantine iconoclasm imbues this imagery with a heightened significance.

With its plethora of perspectives and innovative frameworks, “Legacies of Medieval Dance” will entice scholars of the Middle Ages as well as non-academic dance lovers drawn to the intoxicating power of bodies in motion.

Click here to read this special issue of postmedieval

Kathryn Dickason is a Public Relations Specialist at Simmons University (Boston, USA) who has published widely on Western medieval Christianity, dance, iconography, literature, and sign theory. Her first book, Ringleaders of Redemption: How Medieval Dance Became Sacred, was published in 2021 by Oxford University Press.

Top Image: Bodleian Library MS. Douce 195, fol. 007r – © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford