Dances from the Gresley Manuscript - Circa 1500


The Gresley Manuscript is very important in that it is one of only three English sources for late C15th/early C16th dance, and of these three it is the only one containing both choreographies and music. This manuscript has not been common knowledge for very long, I only found out about it in August 1998. As at that time I was working on a booklet to introduce re-enactors to early dance I felt obligated to include in the booklet at least one dance from this source. Since then I have made several attempts at realising these dances. This article describes my progress to date.

The manuscript contains 26 choreographies and 13 pieces of music. There are 8 choreographies that can be matched up with pieces of music easily (they have the same or similar names) these are:

I have concentrated my efforts on these and have only skimmed the other choreographies.


The choreographies all seem to have a floor pattern, which makes them more like the Italian balli and Ballo Francese than the Burgundian basse dances. Of the 26 choreographies in the manuscript 12 start with the phrase "double trace", and 12 start with the word "trace", 4 of the latter have what appear to be choreographed "traces" (Esperans, Egle, Pernes on gre & Damesyn). 3 of the double traces have some directions associated with them (Grengynger, Roye, & Oringe). The Italian balli mostly start with a salterello or piva section (always a multiple of 4 salterelli or piva), as does the French L'Esperence de Bourbon (12 measures of pas de brabant). The ballo Belfiore (Paris B.N, Ital. 972) and two of the Ballo Francese: Amoroso and Petit Riense (Paris B.N., Ital. 476) start with piva (3 times 4 measures in Belfiore, 2 times 8 measures for Petite Riense and 2 or 3 times 4 measures for Amoroso.

All of the music for which there are matching choreographies (I haven't examined the rest in any detail) is notated using white notation which to my mind implies that this is the cantus or melody line. Stylistically the music in the opening sections is reminiscent of the surviving C15th Italian salterello and piva sections and the surviving French pas de Brabant tunes. I looked at the 8 tunes for which there appear to be matching choreographies and noted that 4 of these start with a 4 measure phrase repeated 3 times to give 12 measures (like Belfiore and Amoroso). Putting all of this together leads me to think that the "trace" is directly equivalent to the opening salterello/piva sequence common in the Italian Ballo and Ballo Francese.

I don't think that the presence or absence of the word double tells us anything about the duration of the trace. In the 8 dances I looked at the durations of the double traces were (in bars) 18, 12 and 12. The durations of the traces were (in bars) 18, 12, 12, 18 and 24. So the "double" must tell us something about the steps used or the formation of the dancers (or something else I haven't thought of yet). As the ballo Francese have come from a location closer to Derbyshire than the Italian Ballo and they all use piva for their opening "trace" I think the "double trace" is performed with piva steps (which are as Cornazano says just quick doubles). Further evidence of a piva/salterello nature for the trace is provided by the English play "Mankind" (1470), in which New Guise, Now-a-days, and Naught lead the heroine in "a common trase" during which they "leap lively". The ordinary trace probably uses singles if the choreographed traces of Esperans (no. 1), Egle (no. 4), and Pernes on gre (no. 7) are anything to go by.

Finally if I make the above assumptions about the trace then Eglamowr (Gresley choreography no. 17) is remarkably like Belfiore [2]. If I compare the Smith translation [2] of Belfiore and the Fallows transcript of Eglamowr [3] then the similarity is striking.



In the beginning all three together tempi of piva in the misura of quadenaria beginning with the left foot Double Trace
The first man performs a doppio beginning with the left foot and at the end of the doppio the right foot is brought to the left and he stops At the end of the trace the first 3 forth,
The woman performs similarly the second the same,
Likewise the other man the 3d the same.
They always go in a straight line, one near and behind the other. One performs this part in the misura of quadenaria
The first man performs a movimento. The woman responds to him. The man at the rear responds to the woman
The first man performs a full turn, which consists of four small sempi beginning with the left foot, ending in place. The woman performs similarly. The other man performs similarly.
The first man turns on the right side, looking at the woman, going behind her and the other man with 3 doppi on the left foot, and stopping side by side below the man. Then the first man outward on the left shoulder and goo behend,
The woman performs similarly the 2d the same,
The other man performs similarly. the 3d the same.

At this point the two dances diverge. Belfiore ends with the two men exchanging places and the woman weaving to the front in piva. Eglamowr has each dancer in turn "out".

If we take into account that the first figure after the trace in Belfiore is in quadenaria then the doppio is basically 3 sempi followed by what appears in this dance to be a close - the equivalent section in Eglamowr calls for 3 somethings - I suggest that the somethings are simples which gives the equivalent of the quadenaria doppio. An identical sequence occurs in Petit Riense in a similar place in the dance. As the music is stylistically the same throughout there is no reason to suppose that there is a change in misura, and as the trace is probably in piva I have assumed that wherever no step is described a piva step is used. I think simples would also work, but I don't like this solution for two reasons: firstly it is dull to dance and duller to watch, and secondly I think that when John Banys wants a simple he says so (simple is the most common step in the manuscript) . The realisation I have constructed requires only a minor change to the music. Every section must be repeated 3 times, not just the first two sections as indicated by the manuscript. I have added a note for a final honour.


Prenes a gard
Pernes in gre
Lebens disinens

In all of these realisations I use the following abbreviations:

The steps used in the Gresley choreographies are: singles, doubles, rak(e)s, branles, turns, half turns, leaps, flowrdelice, trett, retrett, move, obeysaunce, horne peppy,& stop. For my reconstructions I have taken singles and doubles at face value and assume they are the same as their French or Italian equivalents (note that in Amoroso the doppio are generally accepted as being be the normal piva step - I have had to copy this assumption to get a working interpretation of Talbott). I have assumed that the branle is like the French branle (and therefore more or less equivalent to the Italian 2 continenze).

I think the trett is a closed simple either towards the other dancer(s), or forwards and that the retrett is a closed simple either directly backwards or away from the other dancer(s). This seems to be borne out by Esperans where the instructions for what are clearly 3 simples backwards in the trace are - "the medyl retrett thre" and "the last 3 retrettes". Also from Temperans "All trett and retrett 3 simples with a stop". A further indication that a retrett is a specific step is given in Tamrett (no. 12) "trett and retrett and 3 bake" the 3 unspecified steps backwards must be different from the retrett otherwise the instruction would probably have read either "4 retrettes" or "4 bake". The sequence trett retrett and turn seems to turn up a lot. If my interpretation of tretts and retrettes is correct then you end up with something a little like the chorus of the version of Alta Regina in il Ballarino (Puntato forwards, Puntato backwards, Seguito Spezzato turning left, cadenza). Another thought influencing me in this direction is the similarities between the Gresley dances and the Nancy basse dances. The vocabulary of the Nancy basse dances seems to have a lot in common with the Gresley descriptions. For example Basse Dance de Bourbon "iii s iid iid i sault i conge iii s a destre une levee iii s i d iii s recules iii r ii conges" which I think John Banys would have rendered "3 singlis forth, then 2 doblis forth, then 2 doblis forth, then leap, then obeysaunce, 3 rakkis, ?, then 3 singlis forth, then doble, then 3 retrettes, ?, 2 obeysaunce". What is particularly interesting to me is the way both the Gresley dances and the Nancy dances use an unusually high number of singles often in groups of three - a pattern which is very rare in both the Italian (although it does occur twice in Amoroso - a Ballo Francese) and the Burgundian sources.

I am taking a rak(e) to be a sideways movement (one interpretation of rake is a path or way at an angle to the perpendicular), partly because all other directions of travel seem to be adequately covered, but also because I think a sideways movement is implied by the instruction in Aras (no. 16) "rak both one way then face to face rak the contrary way". If you accept this interpretation then the ending of Talbott is very like the ending of Petit Riense "They perform two riprese, one on the left and the other on the right, and then they all perform a voltatonda together on the left foot." Using the Nancy basse dances as a model I am taking a rak to be a simple sideways - this seems to fit quite well with the musical arrangements too. Hawthorne (no. 21) seems to point towards the rak being an open step when it says "3 Rakkys and a stop" note the use of 3 raks - like the iii s a destre in Basse Dance de Bourbon.

I think the flowrdelice is a single sideways followed by a second single to the other side and finally a single forwards. My reasons are (in no particular order): I think a flowrdelice is something one person can do on their own because in Sofference (no. 14) we are told "Then the first a flowrdelice, the second another" which implies to me that these events happen sequentially, otherwise why not say "both together a flowrdelice" ? Another argument against the flowrdelice being a pattern that is created collaboratively is that it occurs in both dances for two and for three. If it were a set figure I would expect it to require a set number of persons to perform each time. I think that a flowrdelice takes 3 bars (as barred by Fallows [3]) based on the only useful piece of evidence about the duration of the flowrdelice that I have found in the text, which comes in Egle (no. 4) "Then the first a long brawll alone, the second a flowrdelice whith 3 retrettes. Then the last man trett and retrett and torne." This could be read several ways: either the movements of the first and second man are simultaneous, or each man moves in turn. The flowrdelice is either made up of 3 retrettes or it is followed by 3 retrettes. I think the most likely interpretation is that each man moves in turn, that each man is allocated the same amount of time for his actions, and that the flowrdelice is executed with 3 retrettes. If you accept this, and my explanation of what a retrett is then the flowrdelice takes the time of 3 simples - which given the frequency with which 3 simples turns up in these choreographies is (I think) another indication I am on the right track. Also 3 bars would make an acceptable long branle - after all 4 bars would be enough to branle twice, so a long branle must be between 2 bars - an ordinary branle and 4 bars - two branles. As this is the only place a flowrdelice is described in any detail I think it must in some way be atypical. What I think makes this example atypical is the fact it is in 3 retrettes (single back to the left, single back to the right, single straight back). I think a normal one is as described at the beginning of this paragraph. Finally in the two dances I have tried to realise that contain flowrdelices a 3 bar flowrdelice fits (just).

I think a move is a movimento based on the section in Armyn (no. 9) "Then the first meve, the second half torne; the second move and the last half torne; the last move, and the first half torne." Which I find too much like so many Italian choreographies to ignore.

Some of the dances do not mention the gender of the dancers, but all of those that do state or imply that the dancers are men. It is possible that these dances were intended to be danced solely by men. However in the absence of any pictorial evidence of men dancing together, and the fact that the Italian and French sources definitely refer to mixed dancing I have assumed in my reconstructions that by "man" the author meant a person of either gender.


[1] Frederick Crane, Materials for the Study of the Fifteenth Century Basse Danse. Musicological studies Vol XVI.

[2] A. William Smith, Fifteenth Century Dance and Music, Pendragon Press, 1995.

[3] David Fallows, The Gresley Dance Collection, c1500, RMA research chronicle xxix, 1996.

[4] Jennifer Neville, Dance in early Tudor England: an Italian connection? Early Music, May 1998.

Copyright Robert Huggett 2002