Ringleaders of Redemption

How Medieval Dance Became Sacred

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Kathryn Dickason
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     2021.
     392 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780197527276.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ringleader of Redemption is an intriguing study of dance on the Christian church, with a focus on medieval Europe. The book includes an impressive amount of art history that extends the previous scholarship on the topic, and author Kathryn Dickason provides some thought-provoking theological interpretation for the various iterations of dance in medieval Christianity. However, there are significant issues with this book. There is often a lack of cultural context provided for the dances and historic critiques discussed in the volume, and importantly, there is exclusion of discussion on essential previous work on this topic. Overall, this is a book worth reading for the research specifics it offers, but it is best read in view of previous studies with a more complex theological understanding of dance in Christianity.

Dickason’s thesis is that “differing from past studies” she will “argue that dance became an integral part of medieval life religious life” (3). She introduced this notion with a concept that “the demonization of dance began when Christianity started to transition from a fringe movement into a more mainstream religion” ( 2–3). She cites several church fathers in this, including John Chrysostom and Augustine. However, there are previous studies that look at dance as an important part of medieval Christianity. E. Louis Backman’s Religious Dances in the Christian Church and Popular Medicine (Allen and Unwin, 1952) offers significant cultural and historical details about the role of dance in the early and medieval church, as does Doug Adams’ shorter Congregational Dance in the Christian Church (The Sharing Company, 1971). Both share positive statements on dance made by church fathers, including Chrysostom and even Augustine. These studies also succinctly share the theological and ethical issues addressed by early church scholars on particular types of dance. Adams, for instance, notes that at the stage of transition Dickason mentions the concern was for mixing of classes during dance, and individual performance. A quick overview of Roman dance history during this era confirms that negative attitudes towards dance were influenced by wild cult dances, bawdy theatre, and social distinctions—it was the peasants that utilized simple folk dances that were employed by the church for gatherings.

Given her thesis and claims she makes in each chapter, Dickason’s tone contains problematic overstatement. She briefly mentions Backman in her last chapter when she discusses choreomania, so it is puzzling why she does not include his discussion of dance in the early and medieval church. It is difficult to sort through her source materials in the dense notes at the end of the book, and there is no bibliography. Her concept of the church having a paradoxical relationship with dance leads her to, at times, claim that criticism of any form of dance is a condemnation of all dance. She lays out this argument with a first chapter on the “Medieval Bible,” noting how Miriam and David were considered to portray good dance, where the story of the Golden Calf and Salome portray “bad” dance. A more complex theological discussion might consider the relationship between Christianity, culture, and ethics, and include notable scholars of theology and the arts.

Instead, Dickason seems to place great importance on dance being included in Christian worship services. Her chapter on “Dance of the Hours” nicely outlines the amount of liturgical dance used in the medieval church, and the theological validations and warnings that went with it. But what of dance as a form of healthy socialization outside of church services?  More on dance history specifics in medieval Europe would also have been helpful for why a practice was rendered “bad.” Rather than attitudes toward dances in Christianity being paradoxical, there might have been thoughtful consideration of what types of dance were considered edifying or destructive.

Thankfully, Dickason offers more specifics as she continues with her discussion of dance in the medieval church. Her chapter on women Christian mystics, “Partnering Divinity,” is particularly well done, and like in much of the chapters in the book she offers a complex mix of translation of descriptions of dances, such as the tripudium and carole. Inclusion of art history and pictures is also very well done. For instance, after sharing the positive attitude and use of dance by Christian mystic women, complete with matching images, she moves to the negative view also present, stating “female mystics were also aware of the dangers of dance. Hildegard von Bingen . . . elsewhere a pioneer in liturgical choreography, urged her sisters not to follow the example of the dance who acts like a whore,” using the term salatrix (149). Dickason also explains that it was the higher classes who had time to dance, so “for high-born religious women, abstaining from dance was a class-conscious mode of self-discipline.” Round dances, which were more inclusive, but not “ribaldry of secular dance” (150).

While a broader range of dance history would have been helpful to include in this study for context, what Dickason does share and how she shares it is helpful. She is inclusive of music and literature, as well as visual art. In one chapter she examines Dante’s use of dance in his Purgatorio (129-140), and in another chapter in his Paradisio (197-206) after considering dance in The Romance of the Rose (174-186). At times this moves the discussion away from dance into textual criticism, yet it establishes the importance of dance in the culture as a whole. The final chapter’s section on The Dance of Death (218-232) demonstrates this as well, though again more specifics on overall dance history and less on courtly dance would have been helpful. For instance, women’s mourning dance customs and death processions as a type of dance might offer insight into the visual and written materials of the Dance of Death.  

In all, though this work has problems in its overall argument and tone, the amount of research that is shared makes it worth including in a study of dance in Christianity. It should be read in conjunction with previous studies for sure, but it has its own merits.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cia Sautter is an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn Dickason is a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities and the School of Religion at the University of Southern California.

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