Country Dancing In Literature

Thomas Waleys c 1349

(On the tendency for well bred young women to go into towns and dance caroles with the general population)

As a dog sits quietly by his aristocratic master, but fights with his fellows in the town when he gets chance, so the demure daughters who sit and say their Hours by the firescreen love to run free and dance caroles in the town when they can.


Philip Stubbes: Anatomie of Abuses 1583

(An Elizabethan Puritan who was opposed to public dancing, church ales, wakes and football. His work entitled “Anatomie of Abuses” gives us some insight into the customs of the time.)

‘Summer Lords and Morris Dancing’

First of all the wild heads of the parish conventing together, choose themselves a grand captain (of mischief) whom they enoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule, and him they crown with great solemnity, and adopt for their king.

The king anointed, chooseth for the twenty, forty, three score or a hundred lusty guts like unto himself, to wait upon His Lordly Majesty, and to guard his noble person. Then every one of these his men he investeth with his liveries of green, yellow or some other light wanton colour.

And as though that were not bawdy enough I should say, they bedeck themselves with gold rings, precious stones and other jewels. This done they tie about either leg twenty or forty bells with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across over their shoulders and necks, borrowed for the most part of their pretty Mopsies and loving Bessies, for bussying them in the dark.

These things set in order, they have their hobby horses, dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipes and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devil’s Dance withall, then march these heathen company towards the church and church yard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng: and in this sort they go to the church (though the minister be at prayer or preaching) dancing and swinging their handkerchiefs over their heads, in the church, like devils incarnate.


‘May Day’

Against May Day, Whitsunday, or other time, all the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding overnight to the woods, groves, hills and mountains where they spend all night in pleasant pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall.

But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather), which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two of three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion.

And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground round about, bind green boughs around it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it. And they fall to dance about it.


Hogarth: The Analysis of Beauty 1753: The Country Dance

4thly, Of Country Dancing. The lines which a number of people together form in country or figure dancing, make a delightful play upon the eye, especially when the whole figure is to be seen at one view, as at the playhouse from the gallery; the beauty of this kind of mystic dancing, as the poets term it, depends upon moving in a composed variety of lines, chiefly serpentine, govern’d by the principles of intricacy, the dances of barbarians are always represented without these movements, being only composed of wild skipping, jumping, and turning round, or running backward and forward, with convulsive shrugs, and distorted gestures.

One of the most pleasing movements in country dancing, and which answer to all the principles of varying at once, is what they call the hay ; the figure of it altogether, is a cypher of S’s, or a number of serpentine lines interlacing, or intervolving each other, which suppose traced on the floor, the lines would appear as fig.* (top left)

Milton in his Paradise lost, describing the angels dancing about the sacred hill, pictures the whole idea in words; Mystical dance! Mazes intricate, Eccentric, intervolv’d, yet regular. Then most, when most irregular they seem.


The Treasures of Terpsichore, Norman Wilcot 1809

It is, I believe notorious that if country dancing continues to decline as fact it has done for sometime past, and that once delightful amusement will shortly dwindle into mere running and that beautiful regularity of movement, which should always be displayed in a country dance, be perverted into a chaos of riot and confusion.


A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens 1843: Mr Fezziwig’s Ball

“Hilli-ho!” Cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility, “Clear away , my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!”

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way ; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place, new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, and he were a brand-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there were mince pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” The old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

But if they had been twice as many-ah, four times-old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs Fezziwig had gone through all the dance; advance and retire, both hands to your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig “cut”-cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.


Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

(The country dance called the “Triumph or Follow my Lover” was the figure with which they opened…..)

And so the dance proceeded. Mr Shiner, according to the interesting rule laid down, deserted his own partner, and made off down the middle with this fair one of Dick’s – the pair appearing from the top of the room like two persons tripping down a lane to be married.

Dick trotted behind with what was intended to be a look of composure. But was in fact, a rather silly expression of feature – implying, with too much earnestness, that such an elopement could not be tolerated.

Then they turned and came back, when Dick grew more rigid around his mouth, and blushed with ingenuous ardour as he joined hands with the rival and formed the arch over the lady’s head; which presumably gave the figure its name; relinquishing her again at setting to partners, when Mr Shiner’s new chain quivered in every link, and all the loose flesh upon the tranter – who here came into action again – shook like a jelly. Mrs Penny, being always rather concerned for her personal safety when she danced with the tranter, fixed her face to a chronic smile of timidity the whole time it lasted – a peculiarity which filled her features with wrinkles, and reduced her eyes to little straight lines like hyphens, as she jigged up and down opposite him; repeating in her own person not only his proper movements, but also the minor flourishes which the richness of the tranter’s imagination led him to introduce from time to time – an imitation which had about it something of slavish obedience, not unmixed with fear.


“Absent mindedness in a Parish Choir” by Thomas Hardy

T’was a very dark afternoon, and by the end of the sermon all you could see of the inside of the church were the pa’son’s two candles alongside of him in the pulpit, and his speaking face behind ’em. The sermon being ended at last, the pa’son gi’ed out the Evening Hymn. But no quire set about sounding up the tune, and the people began to turn their heads to learn the reason why, and then Levi Limpet, who sat in the gallery, nudged Timothy and Nicholas, and said, “Begin! Begin!”

“Hey? What? ” Says Nicholas, starting up: and the church being so dark and his head so muddled he thought he was at the party they had played at all the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at “The Devil among the Tailors” the favourite jig of our neighbourhood at that time. The rest of the band, being in the same state of mind and nothing , followed their leader with all their strength, according to custom. They poured out that there tune till the lower bass notes of “The Devil among the Tailors” made the cobwebs in the roof shiver like ghosts: Then Nicholas, seeing nobody moved, shouted out as he scraped (in his usual commanding way at dances when folk didn’t know the figures) “Top couples cross hands! And when I make the fiddle squeak at the end, every man kiss his partner under the mistletoe!”.

Then the unfortunate church band came to their senses, and remembered where they were: and t’was a sight to see Nicholas Puddingcourse and Timothy Thomas and John Biles creep down the gallery stairs with their fiddles under their arms, and poor Dan’l Hornhead with his serpent, and Robert Dourdle with his clarionet, all looking as little as ninepins ! and out they went. The Pa’son might have forgived when learnt the truth o’t, but the squire would not. That very week he sent for a barrel-organ that would play two and twenty  psalm tunes, so exact and particular that, however sinful inclined you was, you could play nothing but psalm tunes whatsoever. He had a really respectable man to turn the winch, as I said, and the old players played no more….


Other Sources

Achilles Shield from The Iliad by Homer (8th century BC)

Lucian (120-190 AD): The Dance

Lewis Carol: Alice in Wonderland 1865: The Lobster Quadrille

Terry Pratchet, Reaper Man, 1991

Terry Pratchet Lords & Ladies 1992

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