Evidence for English Country Dances in the Sixteenth Century

[ This article appeared in volume 2 of the Letter of Dance. ]

by Joseph Casazza

While the popularity of country dancing both at court and among the urban classes seems to have begun in the sixteenth century in England, there remains the problem of reconstructing what the sixteenth-century antecedents of the country dances commonly known from the time of John Playford's The English Dancing Master (1651) might have been. The first edition of Playford is largely retrospective, and many of the tunes in the first edition can be found in sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century musical manuscripts and publications. But what country dances were known in the sixteenth century?

As stated above, many of the tunes found in the first edition of Playford can be found in sixteenth century sources. Many of these tunes associated with country dances were originally song tunes, either in the tradition of the art song or in the popular ballad tradition, but one cannot presume that, because a tune was known in the sixteenth century, it had a country dance associated with it, much less that it had Playford's choreography associated with it. The following is not a list of the sixteenth-century sources for tunes associated with country dances. It is only a list of dances mentioned in sixteenth-century sources, and these sources are primarily literary. Music or a tune name from a sixteenth-century source can only be used as evidence for a sixteenth -entury country dance when the source specifically states it is a country dance tune, or when the evidence provided by the context convincingly favors the conclusion that we are presented a country dance tune. For example, "All in a Garden Green" (Playford, 1651) is certainly a sixteenth-century tune, but no sixteenth-century reference to it as a country dance, and no sixteenth-century source in which it is presented in a context demanding it be taken as a country dance tune, have been found.

It is not always possible to tell from the sources whether all the dances mentioned in the same context are of the same kind. For some of the titles given there is some doubt as to whether they should be called country dances, although they are mentioned with other titles which are certainly those of country dances. All of the titles are included here for the sake of completeness.

We must also be very cautious when we see mentioned in a sixteenth-century source a dance described later by Playford. In the list below, asterisks mark the dances for which choreographies are provided by Playford (1651), but there is no reason to suppose that the choreography of a dance remained constant during the 50 years or more between its mention in the sixteenth century and its inclusion in Playford. That same half century saw significant changes in the choreography of even the relatively simple branles, as a comparison of Arbeau's Orchesographie (1589) and De Lauze's Apologie de la danse (1623) shows. On the other side of this time frame, the fifty years at the end of the seventeenth century saw changes in the country dance, which we can trace in the various editions of Playford. We would be wise to refrain from imposing Playford's choreographies upon the sixteenth century. One source from just after the year 1600 is included in the list below, since the source may reflect dances known at the end of the sixteenth century.

This list was compiled from information in William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, New York, Dover, 1965 and in Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1966. See also Melusine Wood, "Some notes on the English Country Dance before Playford", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, vol. 3, no. 2, Dec., 1937, and J. P. Cuningham, "The Country Dance -- Early References", Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, vol. 9, no. 3, Dec., 1962. Thanks also to members of the RENDANCE list on Internet (rendance@morgan.ucs.mun.ca) who provided additional information.

1. All Flowers of the Broom
Nicholas Breton, Works of a Young Wit, 1577
Thomas Nashe, Terrors of the Night, 1594
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
2. Basilino
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
3. The Catching of Quails
Laurentius Bariona (Laurence Johnson)?, Misogonus, ca. 1560 (Cunningham: 1577)
4. The Cushion Dance
Thomas Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, ca. 1603
5. Greensleeves
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
6. The Hay
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
7. Heie de Gie (or Hay de Guise)
John Skelton, Against Venomous Tongues, 1529
William Bullen, A dialogue both pleasant and pietyfull wherein is a goodly regimen against the fever
pestilence ..., 1564
8. The Hunting of the Fox
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
9. John come kiss me now
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
10. Lusty Gallant
Breton, Works of a Young Wit, 1577
11. Peggie Ramsey
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
12. Pepper's Black*
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
13. Pretty Nancy
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603 ("Put on thy smock a Monday")
14. Rogero
Stephen Gosson, School of Abuse, 1579
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
15. Sellinger's Round
"Philip Foulface", Bacchus' Bountie, 1593 ("The Beginning of the World")
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness,1603
16. Shaking of the Sheets*
Misogonus, ca. 1560 (Cunningham: 1577)
John Lyly, Pappe with a Hatchet, 1589.
17. Tom Tyler
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
18. Trenchmore
Heywood, A Woman Killed with Kindness, 1603
Gosson, School of Abuse, 1579
Thomas Deloney, History of the Gentle Craft, 1598
Bullen, A dialogue both pleasant and pietyfull wherein is a goodly regimen against the fever pestilence
..., 1564
19. Trip and Go
Nashe, "Introductory Epistle" to Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, 1591
Nashe, Summers last will and testament, c.1600
20. Turkelony
Bodleian, Rawl. Poet. 108, ca. 1570
Nashe, Have with you to Saffron-Walden, 1596
21. The Vicar of St. Fool's
Misogonus, ca. 1560 (Cunningham: 1577)

I have included "Turkelony", "Rogero", and "Basilino" among the country dances because of the context in which they appear in Have with you to Saffron-Walden:

Or doo as Dick Harvey did, that having preacht and beat downe three pulpits in inveighing against dauncing, one Sunday evening, when his wench or friskin was footing it aloft on the greene, with foote out and foote in, and as busie as might be at Rogero, Basilino, Turkelony, All the flowers of the broom, Pepper is black, Greene Sleeves, Peggie Ramsey, he came sneaking behind a tree, and lookt on.

The last four are certainly country dances, and "Rogero", which is not really the name of a tune, but rather of an harmonic progression, much like the "Quadran Pavan" (passamezzo moderno), and which could be realized in a number of ways, is mentioned among country dances again in A Woman Killed with Kindness. In the Bodleian manuscript Douce 280 (ca. 1606) can be found the description of a dance "Basilina" which is perhaps the same dance as Basilino. See James P. Cunnigham, Dancing in the Inns of Court, London, Jordan & Sons, Ltd., 1965. Two early seventeenth-century dance sources list "Turkelony" among the "ould measures" as distinct from country dance. Consult Cunningham, pp. 12-17. The literary sources might very well be ignoring the distinction between measure and country dance. It has been suggested by Mabel Dolmetsch that Turkelony is a corruption of the Italian tordiglione or tourdion. It is certainly true that some of the earliest versions of the melody usually associated with the English "Turkelony" are Italian (British Library, Royal App. 59-62, ca. 1560, as "Gentil madonna", in gaillarde meter, modelled on a Filippo Azzaiolo villotta of the same name in his Il primo libro de villotte alla padoana con alcune napolitane, 1557), and it is also true that "Turkelony" immediately follows, as if it were the companion gaillarde, the "Quadran Pavan" in our sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources for the "ould measures" done at the Inns of Court. If this derivation is correct, however, the dance was apparently independent by the date of the references in my list. See Patri J. Pugliese & Joseph Casazza, Practise for Dauncinge, Cambridge, Mass., the authors, 1980 for more information and a reconstruction of "Turkelony." This volume also provides some insight into the question of consistency of choreography over the interval of eighty years between 1570 and 1650.

"Greensleeves" is, like "Rogero", a reference to a generic harmonic pattern (Romanesca) upon which any number of tunes could be written or improvised. Identification with a particular dance would be very difficult.

"The Hay" is mentioned as the name of a dance tune, but the name is generic, and there is little one could say with certainty about such a dance, other than that it no doubt contained a hay figure. There is no useful information about "Heie de Gie." It is mentioned together with "Trenchmore", but whether it should be included with the country dances of the sixteenth century is uncertain.

There is a sixteenth-century tune for "the shakinge of the sheetes" in the Ballet Lute Book, but the tune is different from that supplied by Playford for "The Night piece, or The shaking of the Sheets." "The Night Peece" appears, without the alternate title, in the 1651 edition of Playford. It is impossible to say whether Playford's dance is the same as the sixteenth-century dance, with a new tune, or an entirely different dance has appropriated the alternate title "The shaking of the Sheets."

Most striking about this list is that only one of the dance titles known in the sixteenth century was included in Playford's 1651 compilation. Certainly some of the titles above appear in later editions of Playford, but we would be foolish indeed to think that we have arrived at a point in our knowledge of country dance to present reconstructions of sixteenth-century dances. The most we can say about most of the country dances from Playford's first edition which are generally taught and performed is that they were known and danced sometime during the first half of the seventeenth century and compiled by Playford at mid-century.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl) (lindahl@pbm.com)