Section II.C -- Sixteenth Century English Sources


Sir John Davies

Sir John Davies. Orchestra, a poem of dancing (London: 1594). Various modern reprints.


This is an Elizabethan poem which celebrates dancing as an art, and in particular indicates that the dancing which was done at the time in the court of Elizabeth I was the ultimate form of the art. The poem is of interest to dance historians in that it includes some passages which describe the dancing of the time. These passages are not very detailed, however, so their value lies mostly in providing some supporting evidence for interpretations of steps and dance forms which are described in more detail in other sources.


Thomas Morley

Thomas Morley. A Plaine and easie introduction to practicall musicke (1597; 2nd ed. 1608). Modern reprint edited by R. Alec Harmon (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1952).


This work is primarily a music text, but some comments are offered on dance music. It is useful in the same way that Orchestra is useful.


Inns of Court Mss

Inns of Court Mss. Six manuscripts all originally relating to dancing at the London Inns of Court: Oxford, Bodleian Library (Rawl. Poet. 108) (c. 1570). London, British Museum Library (Harley 367) (n.d.). Oxford, Bodleian Library (Douce 280) (c. 1606). Oxford, Bodleian Library (Rawl. D. 864) (c. 1630). London, Inner Temple Library (Misc. Vol. XXVII) (mid. 17th century). London, Royal College of Music (Ms. 1119) (mid. 17th century). All mss. have been transcribed by James P. Cunningham. Dancing in the Inns of Court (London: Jordan and Sons Ltd, 1965). Also transcribed with commentary by D. R. Wilson. "Dancing in the Inns of Court" Historical Dance, Vol. 2 No. 5, 1986/87. pp. 3-16.


These manuscripts describe the dancing which was done during the early seventeenth century at the four London Inns of Court. Dancing at the Inns of Court consisted of a fixed program of dances, beginning with pavans and almains, and followed by galliards, corantos and branles. These manuscripts are probably notes for the dancers, to remind themselves of the steps and patterns of the dances, and as such can be difficult to understand, particularly for the more complicated dances.

Of the two transcriptions, Wilson's is the better, having Cunningham to draw on. Wilson also points out a number of flaws in Cunningham's transcriptions, which are worth examining. Cunningham, on the other hand, gives more background on the Inns of Court and gives a great many quotes from accounts which describe the dancing, expanding on the text which is given in the manuscripts themselves.


John Playford

John Playford. The English dancing master (London: 1651; and many subsequent editions). Facsimile reprint with introduction and notes by Margaret Dean-Smith (London: Schott & Co. Ltd, 1957). Modern reprint with music in modern notation by Hugh Mellor and Leslie Bridgewater (London: 1933); reprinted by Dance Horizons (New York: n.d.).


Most SCA people are familiar with some English country dances, which are at least as popular as Arbeau's dances. This is due in part to the fact that there are organizations outside the SCA which have done considerable research into these dances. It should be remembered, however, that many of the dances which are commonly done by such groups come from later editions than Playford's original publication, or from other sources stretching all the way to the late eighteenth century.

In any case, the dances which are described by Playford in his 1651 edition are relatively easy, and are mostly combinations of a fairly small vocabulary of steps, so they are fairly easy to reconstruct. Along with Arbeau's Orchesography, this is the most accessible of the original sources, and can serve as a good starting point for aspiring dance masters. One disadvantage, the fact that the music given with the dances is only a single line, has been offset by the publication in recent years of a number of booklets of early Playford dance tunes with full arrangements, as well as a number of recordings for the dance master who doesn't have musicians at his or her command.