Monday, 15 December 2008

Beowulf and Dancing.

I was going to post on the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu in Turkey, but then I realized I had nothing to say about them except "Wow, these are pretty neat." This would make for a very short post.

So, moving on to other things, I was listening to the radio, and Hunter S. Thomson asked me (in the guise of the rock-pop group The Killers) "are we human, or are we dancer?" The obvious grammatical mistake notwithstanding, I figured it was a good enough question to be worth trying to answer from a medieval standpoint. Then I realized that until about 1450, nobody wrote things down about dancing. According to Karen Miriam Silen, in the book "Women and Gender in Medieval Europe" by Margaret Schaus (pp.187-8):

"Despite the large number of references to dance, however, medieval writers recorded surprisingly few details about specific movements of steps before the middle of the fifteenth century, when a few Italian dance masters produced the earliest known manuals."

"Fortunately," she writes, knowing I want more,

"a great deal of information about earlier dance practices can be gleaned from medieval sources, including chronicles, saints' lives, preachers' aids (especially collections of sermons and moral tales called exempla), and treatises of the vices and virtues."

What she fails to mention is how much the 'epic' (and I use the term VERY loosely)* poem Beowulf can tell us about manly dancing in the -cough-dark-cough-** ages.

[You'll forgive me, I hope, for using an online translation for those of us who don't speak Old English naturally. The translation is courtesy of Dr. Anne Savage of McMaster University, with her Beowulf in Hypertext website.]

The dance begins with a strong hero sleeping on the floor. Then enters another strong-man into the hall and the dance begins.

"Straight away he seized a sleeping warrior," reads the text. Of course this first partner is not the primary, and he is soon eaten. But!

"Then farther he hied; for the hardy hero with hand he grasped."

The dance begins -- in earnest. Beowulf "clutched [the claw] boldly," reads the text, going toe-to-toe with the other æglæca.

"Up he bounded, grasped firm his foe, whose fingers cracked." It's a little icky, maybe, but wow, that is one strong and manly grip.

"The fiend made off, but the earl close followed." Who is leading, who is following? I don't know for certain, but I do know both were "gay with gold."

Okay. Maybe only Mr. B was.

In the end, Grendel has enough of dancing with our hero, the Alpha Male, and heads home: "Grendel thence...his den in the dark moor sought."

And sure, this little doe-see-doe ends with one partner ripping off the arm of the other, but you know what?

I think it's romantic.

Well kinda.

At least you'll read my next post. And that's what's important, right? :D


* If it doesn't have at least twelve books it's not an epic anything.

** Don't get me started.

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