Parsons Farewell: An Alternative Reconstruction

by Sir Patri du Chat Gris

[ This article appeared in volume 1 of the Letter of Dance. ]

[Editor's Note: as anyone who has ever done a Renaissance reconstruction knows, reconstructing dances from period is a game of working with sparse sources and lots of guesswork. Sir Patri provides us here with an alternate viewpoint on Parson's Farewell. My thanks to both Dani and Patri; one of the real strengths of the Letter is that it enables the dancers of the Known World to trade information, and gradually build up a better understanding of the dances we do...]

For four; in three parts (1st ed., 1651)

First Part

Second Part

Third Part



In the British Museum Library, London, there is a manuscript consisting of notes on a variety of topics including astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and pharmacy. Included as well are seven pages of notes (ff. 15r-18r.) describing nearly a dozen English Country Dances. The manuscript is undated, but the comparison in the astronomy section of heliocentric and geocentric values for planetary data suggests a seventeenth century origin. Student exercises on this continued long after the heliocentric system was established, so there is no reason to suppose that this manuscript predates or is even contemporary with the earliest editions of Playford. Nevertheless, even if this constitutes a late seventeenth or early eighteenth century source, it is sufficiently close to being contemporary to provide insight into the interpretation of Playford's instructions. In this context, it is important to note that this manuscript account is clearly not merely notes on Playford's published descriptions, but gives every appearance of being the personal notes of someone who was actually observing and taking part in these dances in the seventeenth (or perhaps eighteenth) century. The entire text of the description of Parsons Farewell has been transcribed below:

British Museum Library, Ms. Sloane 3858 (undated), ff. 15v-16r:


Parsons farewell .4.

They meete hand in hand; and then slide aside one another: then fall back: and slide againe till they be opposite.

The men leape, then the women; then all: then men fall in turne about on[e] onother, and then their owne women.

They meete hand in hand then each takes his neighbours woman, and lead away; then in againe & take their owne, and lead away.

The men goe in, take first the right hand, then the left; and both held turne and turne their owne.

The women goe in take first the left hand &c.

They meet with both hands &c.

The man turnes his woman about and walks the hay his woman following him: to the other side.

Then the woman turnes the man &c.

Overall, this account provides fewer details than Playford's; but conveniently, it does add an occasional detail exactly where ambiguity exists within Playford's account. Thus, while the reconstruction provided is intended to reflect Playford's description, an attempt has been made to resolve ambiguities by recourse to this manuscript account. On the other hand, in cases of clear disagreement between the two, Playford's instructions have been adopted.

The only non-standard step involved in this dance is Playford's "foure slips" in the "A" portion of the first and third parts. The manuscript version instructs the dancers at this point to "slide". I believe what is now (since the nineteenth century) referred to as the Chasse step was intended. This step (like most, easier to do than to describe verbally) begins with a small step to the side with a slight shift of weight onto this foot. As the other foot is brought beside the first, the dancer makes a small jump or hop off the first foot and onto the second, which has now displaced the first, which is now free to begin a second (etc.) chasse.

Cecil Sharp treats this dance in The Country Dance Book, Part II, 3rd ed. (1927), pp. 88-91. The version above disagrees significantly only in the last figure, though there are minor differences in earlier ones. It has become customary in current English Country Dance practice to introduce a pronounced nodding of the head during each of the rises in the "First Part", section "B". While there is nothing wrong with this innovation, it should be remembered that this is an ornamentation and that the primary movement is a rising of the entire body. This is reinforced by the manuscript reference to the men and women performing a "leap" at this point. The limited time available limits such a leap to one of modest height, especially in the case of the sets of four which must be performed in two measures of music (B1, 3-4; B2, 3-4).

In the "Second Part", section "A" is again as in Sharp, except in the last measures (7-8) where Sharp has "partners fall back to places." This is certainly a perfectly valid interpretation of Playford's instructions; the suggestion above that one Double forward to original places rather than back up to place derives from the manuscript instruction that one should "lead away" at the end of this figure. Section "B" of this part also differs only slightly from Sharp's version in that Sharp has the men (and later the women) release one hand as they clasp the other (B1, bar 2; B2, bar 2). Again, the manuscript is the source for the difference in interpretation above of having the men (and later the women) continue to hold the first hand for a brief time after taking the second.

In the "Third Part", section "A" is as in Sharp. Section "B", the "Hey" figure, is very different. After the men turn partners by the right hand (B1, 1-2), Sharp has the men "cross over and change places" (the side by which they pass is not specified, but the right is almost certainly intended as the left is specified in the repeat of the figure for the women). As they do this, the women must remain in their places, ready for the next portion of the figure: "Partners face, and all dance the circular-hey (two changes)...." which brings the men back to their original places, while the women have exchanged places. The final portion of the figure, wherein "each man turns his partner half-way round and changes places with her" completes the figure with each dancer placed such that the entire set has been rotated clockwise one quarter around. This placement makes it impossible for the second execution of this figure (by the women) to be a true mirror image of the men's figure, which can be regarded as a minor violation of the pattern established in the earlier figures. There is also some question as to whether a "circular-hey" would have been described by Playford as a "S. Hey" or "single Hey". The strongest evidence against Sharp's version comes from the manuscript, a source unknown to Sharp and thus no criticism of his otherwise plausible interpretation is intended by the alternative presented above. The key clause in the manuscript is the instruction that the man "walks the hay his woman following him." This is clearly not consistent with a circular-hey, but would be a legitimate way of describing the hay figure as described in the version above and illustrated below. Note also, that in this version the women's figure is the exact mirror image of the men's. As in Sharp's version, it is necessary to move briskly through the hey figure as there is considerable distance to cover. Many current English Country Dancers perform a skipping step in this figure, which while not justified by the early sources, nevertheless reflects this need to move relatively quickly. The figure can be done without skipping so long as all dancers proceed briskly (and without indecision) with their walking steps. Note, for instance, that dancers must perform a full turn by one hand (B1, 1-2; B2, 1-2) in only two bars of music. Tightening the entire set into a bit smaller space at the outset of this figure will help the dancers to move through it more quickly.

Notes to the Version of Lord Dani of the Seven Wells

I found Lord Dani's version of this dance to be a fully legitimate one in nearly all sections. I most especially commend the clarity and conciseness of his instructions. I am assuming that he is familiar either with Cecil Sharp's published version of this dance or, more probably, with current English Country Dance practice which derives from Sharp's version. Indeed, Dani's version does not appear to me to differ significantly from that published by Sharp fifty years ago. Thus, I believe all my disagreements with the Sharp interpretation as described above apply to Dani's exactly as stated. The most significant of these for the performance of this dance is in the second portion of the third part, the "Hey" figure. In spite of Dani's claim for his (and Sharp's) version that the second execution of this figure by the women is the mirror image of the men's figure (note 24), it is clear from his diagrams 3a and 3b that this is only strictly true if you rotate the woman's version by a quarter turn (i.e. It is not a left to right mirror image, but rather requires a mirror held diagonally across the set to produce a quarter turn rotation as well as a reflection).

Some additional differences between Dani's version and my own arise in those areas where Dani's instructions differ from Sharp. The first of these is in his measures 3-4 and 7-8, where Dani has the couples performing a "double" rather than the four "slips" in Playford. There are many cases of dances in which Playford specifies double steps and Sharp substitutes slipping steps, but this is not one of them. I presume the emphasis on "nodding" rather than "rising" in measures 9-24 derives from observation of current English Country Dance technique. There is much we can learn from current practice: for instance, the graceful way many modern country dancers flow from one figure to another without permitting the dance to halt and yet clearly distinguishing between each figure as they pass into it. I do believe, however, that our interest in doing things as they were done historically should tend to guide us away from current practice when this represents a clear change from the original Playford instructions. This seems to me to be especially true here where the current version can lead, as Dani suggests by the instruction in his note 7 to "Think marionettes", to a movement rather less graceful than that indicated by Playford. Another point in which Dani's version seems less satisfactory than Sharp's is in the second figure of part two, where Dani (33-34) apparently ignores Playford's instructions to "crosse right hands" prior to passing into each other's place by the left hand.

I wish to emphasize that while the above is in its many details quite critical of Dani's interpretation of this dance, the similarities in all three versions (Sharp's, Dani's and my own) outweigh the differences. Moreover, certain of the disagreements arise from my having access to a source presumably unavailable to my fellow examiners of Playford. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to discuss such details in a public forum so as to illustrate that even the relatively simple dance form of English Country Dances possesses a richness of depth that justifies our every respect as students of historical activities. I have asked that Lord Dani be given an advance copy of this article that he may have an opportunity to add to the points made in his notes on his (or on my) interpretation of this dance.

[The following is from Dani's reply:]


Sir Patri has identified the places where our versions diverge, and has given cogent reasons for his decisions. I'd like to respond with one question... The question concerns the four leaps in the first part: Is there any orientation associated with them, or does everyone just bounce four times in place?

[To which Sir Patri replies that he prefers to leave the orientation up to the dancers' discretion. The originals don't specify the orientation of the leaps, so he prefers to let the dancers do this as they see fit. Dani also pointed out an ambiguity in the dance instructions, which has been rectified.]