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Let’s Dance: A Journey Through Medieval Dance Iconography with Fulbright Fellow Zofia Załęska

Take a spin on history’s dance floor with an expert in scenes of dance in medieval manuscripts.

Zofia stands in front of a large wooden taken in the Lea Library. Behind here is a wall of bookshelves filled with old books.

Have you ever noticed the strange and surprising illustrations that sometimes appear in the margins of old books? Called marginalia, these blooming flowers, horseback-riding rabbits, sneaky snails, and dancing monks show up in all kinds of medieval manuscripts, from prayer books to scientific treatises.

“Some of these marginal images are quite wild, and sometimes the connection between the marginal images and the words on the page is not really clear,” says Zofia Załęska, who has just completed a Fulbright research fellowship with the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS). An art historian currently earning her PhD from the University of Warsaw, she focuses on dance scenes drawn in the margins of Books of Hours and other devotional manuscripts, publications that were extremely popular among wealthy people of the Middle Ages. “These are usually tiny figures, sometimes a centimeter high.”

What better opportunity could there be to take a spin on history’s dance floor than with an expert in scenes of medieval dance? We recently sat down with Zofia to chat about monstrous marginalia, gyrating nuns, and the changing nature of dance through the ages. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.  

How did you end up studying images of dance in particular?

At the end of my MA, I got into medieval art history and I discovered all these amazing images on the margins: all those knights fighting snails, and bloodthirsty rabbits, apes mimicking human behavior, and whatnot.

I also saw that there were a lot of different types of dancers. There were jugglers and acrobats, but also dancing nuns and monks, and even weird hybrid monsters dancing.

At the time I was working as a dancer. I was a performer and an instructor, so I started thinking about the moves that were presented there. And then I wondered, why [would someone] put dance scenes next to the prayers in the prayer book? What's the meaning of the dance?

What made you want to come to SIMS and the Kislak Center for your Fulbright?

When I was submitting my papers for the Fulbright Fellowship, I was looking for centers that focused on manuscript studies and were connected to the best American universities. After some research, I decided that SIMS was the perfect place for me. It brings together book historians, paleographers, librarians, digital humanists, and art historians, which makes for an amazing opportunity to work with a lot of people with different backgrounds.

So I reached out to [Lawrence J. Schoenberg Curator] Nicholas Herman, who has published widely on Books of Hours, and he invited me to work with him. I'm really excited that I got the opportunity because it’s just amazing to be in this Center, surrounded with very helpful academics who are very encouraging.

What are Books of Hours and how did people use them?

Books of Hours are prayer books that people would read every day. They were designed for lay readers, and were a big thing from the middle of the 13th century until the 15th century. Each day, and sometimes several times a day, the reader would read the prayers, and each day the owner — the reader — would look at the little marginal images. And these books were designed to help the reader in his or her prayer. So my question is, how were the images working in this way, as a devotional help?

Close up of a page from a medieval manuscript written in Latin. In the margins is a scrolling border, with illustrations of two rabbits. a person playing a flute, and a person doing a handstand.
Book of Hours, use of diocese of Cambrai, 1300-1310, Walters Art Museum, Walters Ms. W. 88, fol. 176v.

What do dance images in Books of Hours look like, and what do you think they might represent?  

In general, dance images can appear in manuscripts in two different formats. Sometimes they appear in the miniature, often as a picture that illustrates the narrative of the manuscript. But they can also appear in the margins. Sometimes we can spot just one dancer. Sometimes it's a dancer with a musician that's providing music for the performance. Sometimes it's a group of dancers. These performers can be animal, human, or as I already indicated, hybrid.

In the Middle Ages, dance existed in many, many contexts. Dance itself was a part of Christian liturgy. It evoked King David's Old Testament dance before the Ark of Covenant. It could be linked to Plato's music of the spheres, or the dance of the angels in heaven. Dance could mean Christian heavenly order.

But on the other hand, it was an earthly leisure, because people did it for fun, just as we do now. It was a profession because people were earning money with their dance. It had a place in medieval theater. And it was also connected to sin, since it evoked Salome’s performance that ended with the beheading of John the Baptist.

There's a super wide context for dance, and I'm really interested in discovering which types of dance are recalled by the marginal images. These images often show dance as something super bad, and unholy, and horrible. But sometimes they show that dance is a good thing, because you can pray with your dance, you can pray with your body. It can be something that unifies you with God and brings a higher level of awareness.

It's often the case in iconography that dance is very black and white, even if the textual sources show numerous shades of gray. With the pictures in most cases, it’s either super bad or super good. So I'm interested in finding out, what kind of dance is in the margins? Is it a holy dance or is it a sinful dance?

Additionally, I want to see if dance can be a reminder to the reader how he or she should or shouldn't behave. Maybe it's a warning and a performer appearing next to a prayer means: ‘don't do this because you will end up badly in hell.’ Or maybe it's an allusion to happy heavenly dance, because if the reader is pious enough, he or she can experience this heavenly dance after death. Or maybe it serves purely as entertainment so the reader won't fall asleep during prayers.

So far, are you seeing more “sinful” dances or “holy” dances?

I'm still not sure, but I'm seeing a lot of solo performers that I suspect can be connected to sinful dance because they're often jugglers or some kind of street performers, who were condemned by the many theological texts. They are often shown twisting and doing some weird acrobatic poses – the church believed that changing one’s body and appearance leads to sin.  

There are also some cases where it's clearly a performance of the prayer type. For example, the text of a psalm could mention singing a song, and it could be illustrated with musicians and people dancing to it. It could refer to King David’s dance or to the other cases of 'good' performance from the Old Testament, like Miriam's dance of happiness after crossing the Red Sea, or Judith's victorious dance after saving her city.

I love your larger point that people aren’t sure what to do with dance, morally. It can be super holy, but it can be this terrible sinful thing, too.

And what is dance, really? That's such a huge question and it's also very hard to answer.  

Sometimes the definition of the dance is that you need music to dance to. But then you have types of mystic prayer dance, and you might not have music for that because it's just happening in your head. It's a very complicated thing, just trying to describe what dance is.  

Early in my research, I was trying to find what dance looked like in medieval manuscripts. I was just browsing through the manuscripts and discovered that most of the dancers have some kind of musician next to them. And, of course, music can be very important when it comes to dance.

And at some point, after you've seen so many images of dance, you can start to see some specific movements. They're very, very characteristic, they're very specific. So that's another thing I’m hoping to analyze: what kind of dance gestures are common? And how can you recognize them?

I want to emphasize that we cannot reconstruct medieval dance. We don't have enough information about the choreography or the music. But studying marginal iconography can show us how dance was portrayed and why. Was it hated? Was it adored?  

I don’t know yet, I don’t have the answers yet, but hopefully I will have them in time.