Ecclesia Saltans (1): A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance, by Jacques Chailley

Image result for david's dance
King David’s dance under the ark, a miniature from the 13th century
Woisen, Maria-Gabriele: Sacred Dance. Encounter with the Gods.
1974, illustration 39. Bible Moralisée, France

From David’s ecstatic jigs, to the round dances of Dante’s saintly choirs, the Western tradition is permeated with the idea and practice of sacred dance. Even among the clergy.

Holy day revelers of yesteryear, peeking into a cathedral, might very well find the precentor prancing to a tune, or staid canons caroling round the labyrinth, nuns linking arms to circle around the creche, or altar boys in ornate raiment staging a holiday show.

If we believe the sources, proper parts of the Mass like Introits, Kyrie tropes, Sequences, responsories, were danced to. Significantly, earlier Gregorian chant (until ca. 13th century), at odds with its most recent Solesmes iteration, was rhythmic, at least enough to inspire people and clergy to dance to it.

Verily, the blood of Latin Christendom coursed once nearly so warmly as (dare I say it?) that of the Ethiopians, with their unmatched ritual dance:

“Dance rites were of great and varied significance in many churches of eastern and western Europe. The physical surrender to a state of transcendence, personified by the dancing body, led to a wide range of expression in gestures, both where solo and round dance were concerned. Ritual dances took place in the cathedral of Dubrovnik prior to 1425, as they did in English cathedrals, in Notre-Dame in Paris, in Saint-Leonard in Limoges. In the cathedral of Seville, in an unbroken tradition instituted in 1439 by Pope Eugene IV, still today ‘los seises’ (the choirboys), clad in luxurious processional garments, sing and dance before the high altar accompanied by castanets, constituting an integral part of the liturgy.[1] The late medieval Church remained therefore in many places an ‘ecclesia saltans,’ [‘a dancing Church’] following in the footsteps of the celestial angels performing their symbolic round dance.[2][3]

The following article, translated here for our readers’ pleasure and edification, claims to have found documentary evidence for clerical dance in the 13th century cathedral of Sens.

Introductory illustration of the Magnus Liber Organi, Notre-Dame MS F. Note the dancing clerics in the middle right panel.


A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance

Jacques Chailley, Acta Musicologica, vol. 21 (1949), pp. 18-24.

In his Dictionnaire de Plain-chant, d’Ortigue relates a proverbial expression still in use in his day (1853) in Sens: “On such a day, the precentor dances” (Tel jour, le préchantre balle). He writes: “We cannot say precisely what this dance once performed in Sens by the precentor consisted in.” The only known evidence is found in a text of the Statutes of the chapter of Sens, reproduced by Du Cange and d’Ortigue, wherein we learn that this dance took place, not once per year as the latter believed, but twice and only twice, non plus per annum: on the feast of the Invention of St. Stephen, patron of the metropolitan church, during the procession in the cathedral’s nave, and on the feast of St. Loup, a former archbishop of Sens, in the abbatial church of St. Colomba where his tomb lies.

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Sens, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms. 6, f. 234v

The precentor danced in gloves, with a ring on his right hand and a baton—the baculus, the insignia of precentor, which played such an important role in the feast of Holy Innocents, incorrectly called the Feast of Fools: Dum cantatur in choro…precentor in his duobus locis, in chirotecis et annulis cum baculo debet ballare, et non plus per annum.

By chance I have come across, in Sens itself, the score, as it were, for this peculiar dance. It is found on f. 234v of Ms 6 of the Bibliotheque Municipale, which contains the Precentoris Norma, the book belonging to the precentor himself, once found chained in the choir of the cathedral, according to the library catalogue.

This is all the catalogue tells us, for the inventory of the MS seems to have been rather superficial, since it lists this part of the MS as concernimg the duties of the precentor during a synod, which is untenable. The same inventory makes no mention of two series of interesting motets dating probably from the beginning of the Ars Nova, which have never been noticed.

To return to our precentor’s dance, we find in this MS, probably from the beginning of the 14th century, a rubric that accords with the chapter’s Statues:

In inventione beati Stephani, ad processionem in navi ecclesiae Senonum precentor debet ballare. R(esponsorium).

Next is a musical text in square notation, over the following words: Lapides omnes animae iuste.

Then a second rubric, parallel to the first:

In processione ad sanctam Columbam, precentor in festo sancti Lupi debet ballare. R(esponsorium).

And with the music: O venerandum eius descendit.

These texts may seem to be nonsensical but they are easily identifiable. The incipit of the first, Lapides, is known from a Terce antiphon for the feast of St. Stephen found in the current chant books. It also figures in a monastic antiphoner as the second antiphon of Lauds: Lapides torrentes illi dulces fuerunt: ipsum sequuntur omnes animae iustae. From this we can gather that the text of Sens joins the incipit and the final of the complete text, leaving out the middle. It is a responsory, however, not an antiphon, and the music is moreover entirely different. Let’s turn to the older antiphoners.

There we find the same two responsories in the office of Sens in the form we expect. Here is the first as given in the antiphoner of Sens, B. N. n. acq. lat. 1535, from the end of the 12th century:

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This response is not proper to Sens and is found in many books, but what is peculiar here is the addition, at the end of the repetition of the response, of a long melisma or pneuma which would have been used precisely for the precentor’s dance. Of course, this is not a unique case in the use of Sens: such melismas are frequently added to responsories on solemn feasts, especially to the final responsory of a nocturn, and exhibited stock melodies adapted for each Church mode. We find the same pneuma, for example, in f. 85 of the same MS for the Precursor Domini of the feast of St. John the Baptist. In the same office of St. Stephen, other responsories have pneumata (f. 24, 25).

The same holds for the O venerandum, which belongs only to this local use. The same MS gives it as follows:

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We note that this responsory is found without pneuma in another Sens antiphoner, B.N. lat. 1028, f. 243, which comes chronologically between the previous text and the book of the precentor (second half of the 13th century), while Lapides is found along with its pneuma (f. 54). Other responsories of the same office also have pneumata (n. acq. 1535, f. 101), Dum beatus Lupus).

It is interesting to note that the pneuma of O venerandum is found in the form of a Sequence after the responsory.

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Now we come to the object of principal interest in this page of the Precentoris Norma. Here we find something unique among all the other pieces of the same manuscript: the long melismas of the pneuma are divided by vertical bars into small groups of 2 to 4 notes, and the last note of each group is topped with two dots placed side-by-side. Further, in the middle of Lapides, the initial note of one of the neums is topped by a sort of comma very similar to forms of the clivis in ancient notation. Finally one of the neums of O venerandum is topped by a visibly later annotation, in 15th century script, which can be deciphered as the word Arière.

We may thus suppose that we have found a true semeography of the precentor’s dance steps, which further proves that we are dealing not, as in a chorea or tripudium, with a simple rhythmic walk or hop, but with real dance figures defined and passed on by tradition, since one of the people charged with executing it judged it necessary to make notes as a sort of memory aid.

Another interesting conclusion: this proves that liturgical dance was performed to genuine Gregorian chant, and not only, as we sometimes tend to believe, to metered texts of tropes or conductus or Latin rounds (cf. Yv. Rokseth, Danses clericales du XIII siecle, in les Melanges 1945 des public. de la Fac. des Lettres de Strasbourg, Paris, Bellles Lettres, 1947).

This leads to a question of capital importance for the interpretation of chant: was the rhythm of Gregorian—at least as practiced at the time of our MS—with its pronounced asymmetry, modified in view of the dance, to permit an equal rhythm of steps? For example, should interpret the groupings of notes and vertical bars as an attempt to impose proportional notation? I do not think so. In fact, in some sense these signs and bars seem to have been added après coup; erasures are visible in the first and possible errors in the bars of the second responsory, a fact that bolsters our interpretation of the markings as a later memory aid leaving the sense of the earlier notation unaffected (compared with the writing in the piece that follows: Gloriosa dicta scio). Further, this MS was not used in chanting but for the dance itself, since the precentor did not chant while dancing, as the statues of the chapter clearly state: dum cantatur in choro. We have the chanters’ book: it is the antiphonor mentioned above. The text there is notated in neumes on staff and does not lend itself in any way to an unusual interpretation, proportional or otherwise.

It is thus certain that the precentor made his steps at predefined notes of a pure Gregorian chant. It must be pointed out, however, that in the pneuma and its two responses, emendation of parts of several phrases has produced an internal symmetry, found also in the sequence, which renders them particularly suitable for this unexpected use.


[1] Renato Torniai, La danza sacra (Rome, 1950), 276-80

[2] Reinhold Hammerstein, Die Musik der Engel (Berne, 1952), ills. 81 and 85.

[3] Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages, Volume 3, Part 1


5 thoughts on “Ecclesia Saltans (1): A New Document Bearing on Ecclesiastical Dance, by Jacques Chailley

  1. Most interesting! I had never heard that there was dancing to the Introits, etc. Do we know what it might have looked like? Something rhythmical, maybe, vaguely resembling the shuffle of the Ethiopians?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would refer to Cardinal Arinze’s famous distinction between liturgical dance in the modern west and that practiced in Africa. Do you know the video I mean? Of course I wasn’t in medieval Sens, but there is good reason to believe that for medieval people dancing was a more natural expression of sacred joy than a decadent, sentimental theatrical performance, as it is for us today.


      1. I mean, the medievals had their share of wild secular dances, but perhaps they were also capable of a dance befitting the sanctuary, practiced in moderation on great feasts. These practices were never without their critics; regional councils from late antiquity to the Council of Trent tried to limit or eliminate dancing in Church…and succeeded largely after Trent. I hope that will make another post…


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