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Thoinot Arbeau’s “Orchésographie”

An exploration of the most important French dance manual of the Late Renaissance, which includes advice for dancing, fencing, and proper etiquette for men.

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dancers in costume

Photo: Courtesy of IHDP

Dancers in Renaissance costume.

The most important dance instruction manual published in France during the latter half of the 16th Century holds a number of distinctions. For one, it is alone. There are no others. And because it’s unusually detailed, the manual provides a wealth of information for scholars and performers wanting to further their understanding of Renaissance dance and etiquette.

Initially published in 1589 at Langres and entitled “Orchésographie,” the manual was written by Jehan Tabourot, a French cleric. And like many a writer, Tabourot went by a pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau, which was an anagram of his real name. He is commonly referred to as Arbeau.

The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Arbeau, the master, and Capriole, the student. Their lively conversation pervades the entire work and helps to instruct the reader on the many subtleties of the so-called “manly art” of dancing with a partner.

Courtship

Towards the beginning of the manual, Arbeau stresses the importance of gentlemen learning how to dance both for health benefits and for its role in courtship:

“…if you desire to marry you must realize that a mistress is won by the good temper and grace displayed while dancing, because ladies do not like to be present at fencing or tennis, lest a splintered sword or a blow from a tennis ball should cause the injury.”

Arbeau later adds an insightful point: “…dancing is practiced to reveal whether lovers are in good health and of sound limb, after which they are permitted to kiss their mistresses in order that they may touch and savor one another, thus to ascertain if they are shapely or emit an unpleasant odor as of bad meat.”

Dancing as tradition

For Arbeau, dancing was part of a tradition handed down from antiquity. He says “the noun dance comes from the verb to dance, which in Latin is called saltare. To dance is to jump, to hop, to skip, to sway, to stamp, to tiptoe, and to employ the feet, hands and body in certain rhythmic movements.”

The list and explanations of dances he provides is impressive and contains the most important new and old-fashioned dances that a gentleman was expected to know, including the pavane, gaillard, courante, branle, volte, and many others—some having numerous variations.

Exercise

Whether describing martial or recreational dances, there’s always a greater point for learning to dance—one that might even be relevant for us today. Recalling Galen’s book on health, Arbeau says “all things have a natural desire for movement and that everyone should practice gentle and moderate exercise… [dancing] contributes greatly to health.”

One wonders what Arbeau might have thought about the plethora of today’s dances classes; or the highly physical ballroom dance competitions; or even dancing couched as pure exercise like aerobics, jazzercise, or the video game Dance Dance Revolution.

New Release

Our new release of the week features a new composition for choir and Renaissance band on the Navona record label. American composer Kile Smith has composed a work based on the Lutheran tradition entitled Vespers. Donald Nally directs…

Music Heard On This Episode

Kile Smith: Introit Psalm 70
Piffaro Renaissance Band and The Crossing/Donald Nally — Vespers (Navona, 2008)
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Kile Smith: Introit Psalm 70
Piffaro Renaissance Band and The Crossing/Donald Nally — Vespers (Navona, 2008)
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Thoinot Arbeau (compiler): Basse danse appelée "Jouyssance vous donneray"
Lucidarium — Le droict chemin (L’empreinte digitale , 2001)
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Anonymous: Bassedance 5 "Hellas amy," Bassedance 1 "Ta Bonne Grace"
Hesperion XX/Jordi Savall — Musicque de Joye (Astree, 1987)
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Improvisation: Pavane d’Espagne
Ensemble Doulce Mémoire — Folie Douce: Renaissance Improvisations (Dorian, 1998)
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Thoinot Arbeau: Pavane "Belle qui tiens ma vie"
Hesperion XXI/Jordi Savall — Carlos V (Alia Vox , 2000)
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Antonio de Cabezón: Diferencias sobre "Belle qui tiens ma vie"
Hesperion XXI/Jordi Savall — Carlos V (Alia Vox , 2000)
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William Byrd: La Volta
Musicians of the Globe/Philip Pickett — Shakespeare’s Musick: Songs and Dances from Shakespeare’s Plays (Phillips, 1997)
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Thomas Morley: La Volta
Musicians of the Globe/Philip Pickett — Shakespeare’s Musick: Songs and Dances from Shakespeare’s Plays (Phillips, 1997)
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Anonymous (arr. Piffaro): Bransles de village
Piffaro/Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken — Chansons et Danceries: French Renaissance Wind Music (Archiv, 1996)
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Anonymous: Dance from the Arundel part-books: Almand-Galliard-Galliard-Galliard
The Parley of Instruments Renaissance Violin Band/Peter Holman — Musique Of Violenze (Hyperion, 1997)
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Pierre Phalese: Pavane-Gaillarde sur "La bataille," Les bouffons, and Volte
Peter van Heyghen — First Book of Dances (Passacaille, 2007)
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Anonymous: Tordion 2
Hesperion XX/Jordi Savall — Musicque de Joye (Astree, 1987)
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Kile Smith: Hymn "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern," and Sonata a 7 "O süsser here Jesu Christ"
Piffaro Renaissance Band and The Crossing/Donald Nally — Vespers (Navona, 2008)
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Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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