Negotiating the Steps of Faith: Dance in the English Parish, 1300-1640

Lynneth Miller Renberg

In 1607, John Hole, a churchwarden and somewhat prominent man from Wells in Somerset, lodged a complaint against a group of twenty-six of his neighbors and “divers others vnknowne.” For, at a time of rebellion against the king in May and June of the previous year, his neighbors had: “Assemble[d] themselues together in the Citty of Welles then armed with vnlawfull weapons and drums & then & there acted not only many disordered Maygames Morice daunces long daunces men in weamens apparall new deuised lords and ladyes and Churchales . . . to faction & great disturbaunce of your highness subiects . . . and by that meanes drewe many people then from the church & divine service & sermon there.” Hole’s attempt to use his authority as churchwarden to force his neighbors into proper Christian behavior was met with stiff opposition from the neighbors that Hole and several others charged. Depositions, interrogations, and testimonies followed the initial several hundred-line complaint, adding up to a full week in court and thousands of lines of complaints against neighbors. Neighbor accused neighbor of slander, blasphemy, cross-dressing, inappropriate paintings, rebellion against the king, rebellion against local clergy, and a host of other disruptive behaviors. Hole, as a representative of the authority of the church, rather aggressively sought to use that authority to renegotiate appropriate standards of behavior for his neighbors. Negotiation clearly turned into outright conflict, however, and the scene here is of a community in disarray: of religious tensions about festive behavior and royal proclamations erupting into public mockery, brawling, and slander.[1]

This rather entertaining episode in Wells is simply one of many that took place in parishes throughout England between 1300 and 1600, as over these years the clerics and people of the English parish negotiated the boundaries of proper Christian behavior amidst a rapidly changing theological landscape. As theological standards shifted, clergy and laity alike sought to find their footing and to define proper Christian belief and behavior, trying to place boundaries between true and sacrilegious beliefs, bodies, and behaviors. Dance—an often-overlooked activity that filled the lives of the laity of late medieval parishes—played a key role in this negotiation and in identifying who was living a holy life or a sinful one. In my book, I show how through carefully framed mentions of dance in medieval sermons, preachers and sermon authors created rhetorical and theological structures that functioned as mechanisms for the perpetuation of clerical authority and misogyny. Sermons laid out clerical expectations for the parish and the parameters of “true faith,” which clergy and other authority figures then sought to enforce. Lay behavior often challenged these rhetorical structures and mechanisms through bodily performance and action, though; it is this reciprocal process that ultimately shaped lay faith and the boundaries of proper Christian behavior, although the misogyny conveyed in teachings on dance often remained unchallenged.

In some of my favorite encounters from early modern diocesan and parish sources, we see broad lay pushback against this clerical interference in lay behavior and beliefs through danced protests. In these instances, dance becomes a weaponized form of protest that laity used against the ministry. Many of these conflicts played out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the clerical position on dance became more uniformly negative and as laity, as noted by Andy Woods and Eamon Duffy, lost their collective voice in religious practice. One such example of danced lay protest appears in the diocesan court proceedings from Waterbeach, in a 1602 case brought against one John Knock “for having put on a blacke gowne and following my Lord, leaping, dauncing, and rejoicing in the defacing of the ministry.”[2] In short, Knock dressed in a way that looked like the clergy and then mockingly danced behind his minister throughout the village, while a crowd of 9 men followed along behind him. The source of this conflict between the parish men and the minster doesn’t appear in the case, but the form of protest, mocking dancing, is certainly notable. In another case, as preserved in a 1620 letter from a vicar to his archdeacon, dance again appears as a form of protest (and ministerial torment). John Marten, the cleric in the case, begs Archdeacon Jones to bring charges in ecclesiastical court against a churchwarden of New Windsor, Thomas Hall, for inciting a mob of morris dancers to dance on the minister’s doorstep, flinging insults and issuing threatening speeches while dancing.[3]

Both of these cases are interesting in what they reveal: although it seems that sermons against dancing may have sparked at least the second protest, dancing itself does not seem to be the main point that laity and clerics are negotiating. Instead, dance seems to be a specific means of protest against clergy that these laymen disliked.  The use of a form of protest that was, itself, already a fraught point of contention in many parishes, indicates a shrewdness in lay negotiation of parish behavior and standards, one that clearly led to clerical frustration but often worked to change parish conditions. Clergy may have held much of the rhetorical power in their parishes, leading to clear frameworks for godly behavior laid out from the pulpit, but the laity could turn this rhetoric against them to reclaim traditions, actions, or spaces they felt were rightfully theirs.

As we seek to understand the parish on the threshold of the Reformations, it is important to note who had the ability to participate in this negotiation, however. In negotiating the place and space of dance in parish life, as soon as dance became a specific point of conflict, the first individuals to lose agency were women. In none of the cases of direct danced protest did women have a space or a say. And in fact, of the ecclesiastical court cases about dance that hinted at conflict between clergy and laity, those involving women were treated as more serious. Women were fined more heavily and often labeled as women of “no good repute” or as “no good wives” because of their dancing. The rhetorical frameworks constructed around dance in the sermons could be used by both male laity and clergy to negotiate for their own agency and authority, but, as these gendered frameworks solidified and became more central to theologies of dance, women lost the ability to participate in the negotiation process in their own parishes. Negotiating the steps of faith shifted to negotiating the gender hierarchy of the parish, and in that discussion, only the men of the parish—whether clergy or laity—had a voice.

[1] 1607–8, Bill of Complaint in Hole v. White et al., PRO, STAC 8/161/1, sheet 219, as transcribed in REED Somerset Including Bath 1, ed. Stokes with Alexander, 261–262.

[2] Waterbeach, 1602, Diocesan Court Proceedings CUL, EDR B/2/18 (Waterbeach fols. 174v, 175, 179), fol. 174v. As transcribed in REED Cambridgeshire, ed. Geck with Brannen. 

[3] Windsor, 1620, Oxfordshire History Centre, MS Oxon. Archd. Papers, Oxon.c.174. Letter of John Marten to Master Jones, fol. 1–1v. As transcribed in REED Berkshire, ed. Alexandra Johnston (REED Online: 2018), collections/berks/. 

Women, Dance and Parish Religion in England, 1300-1640: Negotiating the Steps of Faith

Lynneth Miller Renberg

Gender in the Middle Ages
£60.00 / $85.00, 9781783277476
November 2022
Boydell Press



Enter BB132 for 40% off

Related titles

LYNNETH MILLER RENBERG is an Assistant Professor of History at Anderson University. She teaches and publishes on religion, gender, performance, and emotion in medieval and early modern Europe.