Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XXXII

The “Old Dance” in Medieval Verse…

 In the Roman de la Rose…

     I’ve discussed the Old and New Songs in a previous posting, featuring some manuscript illustrations of that opposition, including one from the Roman de la Rose which shows Gladness playing the bagpipes and leading the companions of Sir Pleasure in their terpsichorean diversions (see Fig. 42, Grammar, Part Twenty-Six).

The Old Song and the Old Dance go together, of course.  In a poem by Gautier de Coincy, the Old Dance is conducted by the Devil himself,

Anemis a mout grant puissance
Et tant seit de la vielle dance
Qu’a sa dance fait bien baler
Celz qui plus doit cuident aler.

[The Enemy of most great power who knows so well the old dance that at it he causes to dance those who ardently wish to go there.]

In one of Gautier’s metrical sermons (on chastity), the Old Dance takes on all the amorous connotations of the Old Song.  Here Gautier calls virginity and chastity “holy flowers of paradise”, which should be perceived with the eye of the spirit:

Sachiez de voir:  se vous en eles
Des iex dou cuer bien vous mirez,
L’ anemi tout esbaubirez.

[Learn how to see:  if you look at them (the flowers of chastity and virginity) with the eyes of the heart, you will abash the Enemy.]

Mais tant set de la vielle dance,
S’il voit en vous point d’inconstance,
De tez pensez voz amenra
Par quoi mout tost voz sozpenra.

[But he is so skillful at the old dance that if he detects in your thoughts any sign of inconstancy, he will take you suddenly and lead you away.]

The Enemy, then, may lead you in a dance for the express purpose of destroying your virtue and carrying you off with him to the underworld.

Pepe le Pew’s metaphor of seduction as “making beautiful music together” thus has an ancient pedigree, and the same invitation is profferred by the young suitor in one of Deschamps’ balades:

Marion, entendez a mi:
Je vous aim plus que creature,
Et pour ce d’umble cuer vous pri
Qu’ au dessoubz de vostre sainture
Me laissez de la turelure
Et de ma chevrette jouer.
La vous aprandray a dancer
Au coursault, et faire mains tours.
–Robin, je n’y scaroie aler:
Doint on ainsi parler d’amours?

[Marion, listen to me.  I love you more than any creature, and for this reason I beseech you with a humble heart, in spite of your sacred virtue, to let me play on my turelure and my chevrette.  I will teach you to dance, to make somersaults and spins.

–Robin, I don’t wish to go there.  Is that the way one talks of love?]

The turelure, of course, is a bagpipe, the chevrette, a related instrument made of goatskin.  The maid Marion is well aware of the sexual implications of Robin’s offer to teach her to dance to his bagpipe, and her sainture disinclines her to accept.


The dance to which Robin invites Marion is the same as the kissing-and-grinding affair the dreamer sees taking place in the terrestrial paradise of Deduit, and he is soon invited to take a turn around the floor with the beautiful maiden Courtesy.  Not yet feeling quite sure of himself, the dreamer for the moment demurs, biding his time while observing and describing the dress and attributes of each of the dancers.

He begins with Sir Pleasure, then his consort Gladness (“she a belle and he a beau”), then the God of Love himself, then Sweet Looks, the randy young bachelor who attends upon Love as his all-round factotum and squire who carries his quiver.  In passing, we read a description of Cupid’s bow and five arrows, each of which is duly personified, as, for instance, Fair Seeming which, we are informed, made the deepest wound.

The dreamer then identifies the noble dame Beauty, to whom, he says, Cupid is most attached, and standing by Beauty’s side, he sees Wealth, “a lady of great haughtiness and pride”, who demands to be flattered and catered to by anyone who wishes to gain her indispensable favour, and against whom no one would dare offend.  “Many an envier and a flatterer”, as the dreamer observes, “thronged her court”.  But hardly chastened by this fact, the dreamer goes on to admire Wealth’s fabulously opulent robe, including the gorgeous clasp ornamented with a magic stone, which protects its wearer against poisoning.

Wealth’s consort just happens to be a pretty youth.  The dreamer describes him as well-dressed, well-shod, with a stable full of the finest horses.

With Lady Wealth and her benevolence
To be acquainted he was therefore glad;
For ever in his mind was one thought fixed:
How he might sojourn most luxuriously;
And she would furnish him with the wherewithal
For his expenditures…

Amongst the dancers, the dreamer next describes Lady Franchise, whose name in Old French suggests the freedom with which she bestows her sexual benefices.

Like turtledove’s
Was her simplicity; her tender heart
Was debonair; she dared not say or do
To anyone a thing that was not meet.

A tender heart is a fine attribute, insofar as it can be bestowed in mercy and compassion upon the poor, the unfortunate, and so on; but in the next lines we learn why the odd comparison to the turtledove is apposite.

If any man were dying for her love,
On him she would take pity, probably;
For such a rueful, pious, loving heart
She had that, lest he do a desperate deed,
She’d aid a man who suffered for her sake.

Like the turtledove indeed (another commonplace symbol of lechery), she was, as one would say today, an “easy” woman.

These, then, are the “angelic” companions in the celestial paradise of Deduit:  the deadly sin Idleness; Cupid and his manservant; Lady Wealth, who, as she is described by Boethius in TheConsolation of Philosophy, is so dubious a worldly good that she is always surrounded by flatterers and enviers, and has to protect herself against those who covet her possessions by wearing an amulet against poison; Lady Wealth’s beau, whose youthful attention she must purchase with her riches, and whose addiction to luxury he must pay for with his body; and finally, Franchise, Easy Woman, whose “rueful, pious, loving heart” never refuses a desperate man’s entreaty for love.

The dreamer lavishes his praise upon the excellence and virtue of all of these characters, as upon everything he sees; and it is in the great disparity between his rosy appraisal of things and their rather darker reality that the humour, once again, lies.