The Dancers of Colbek - James Prescott


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The Dancers of Colbek

Copyright © 2013 James Prescott


This is a reading that was prepared for the Calgary Chautauqua in December 2013. It is my prose version of a poem written in 1303 by Robert Manning, aka Robert de Brunne, a Gilbertine canon.

The Dancers of Colbek
I wish to take you back in time, with a Christmas story from long ago. This story was told in a poem in Middle English by the monk Robert Manning in 1303, and he in turn had it from much earlier sources.
It involves carolling. Back then carolling was a dance, a dance that you did while singing songs. The carols were danced by a long line of people holding hands, with the person at the front leading as they danced round and round, hither and yon, through the town.
< conspiratorial voice > Did you know that Christmas carolling, and many other things that we are doing here, this evening, were evil?
< proclamation voice > Whosoever taketh part in carolling, wrestling, summer games, playlets, singing, beating the drum, or playing the pipe, in a church or churchyard, is risking sacrilege, for all of these are forbidden while the priest is conducting mass. These activities will enrage the priest more than having to listen to fools or heretics. At sacred times of the year, such as Christmas, to sing carols or read rhymes in holy places, disturbing the priest in his devotions, is a sacrilege many times over.
It is Christmas Eve in the year 1020. Into the town of Colbek, in Germany, come seventeen mad fools, holding hands, following their leader, dancing and singing their carol. They make their way to the church.
The leader of these carollers, the one who inspires their revelry, is named Gerlew. They are come to the church to ask Ave, the priest's daughter, to join them.
The priest has a son as well, who is named Azone. That the priest has children, and that the poet does not find this unusual, tells us how old the story must be. If the accounts are accurate, this story took place almost exactly one thousand years ago.
The carollers send two women from their band, who persuade Ave, the priest's daughter, to join them in their carolling around the church.
Now Bevolyne leads the dance, and Gerlew leads the singing. The first verse of the ballad that he sings is:
By the leafy wood rode Bevolyne,
With him came fair Mereswynde.
with the chorus:
Why stand we still? Why do we not go?
Despite the risk of committing sacrilege, they danced in the churchyard throughout the evening liturgy, until the mass itself was about to begin.
The priest put on his holy vestments and went to the altar for mass, but the dancers paid no attention and continued their carolling. Hearing the noise and commotion, the priest left the altar and came out to the church porch, and called to the carollers:
"In God's name, I forbid you to do this any longer, but come in respectfully to hear God's service, and observe the law of Christian people. Carol no more, in awe of Christ! Worship him with all your might, he that of the Virgin was born this night."
Despite the priest's commands, they continued dancing and singing around the churchyard. The priest became angry. He prayed to God, and to Saint Magnus, the church's patron, that vengeance might be sent upon the carollers, that they be condemned to dance for ever more.
The instant the priest had spoken his curse, the caroller's hands became locked together. They could not let go of each other, nor could anyone separate them. The priest's daughter, Ave, was at the end of the line of dancers.
The priest, seeing this, commanded his son Azone to go quickly and rescue Ave from the carolling. But it was too late, for the vengeance had been laid upon them all.
Azone went quickly to the carolling, and he took his sister by her arm, to pull her away from the others, but instead, when he pulled her arm, it came away from her body. Those who saw this marvelled at it, and marvelled even more when they realized that, even though he was holding her arm, she did not die but continued to carol. Neither the body nor the arm was bleeding, neither cold blood nor warm blood, but all was as dry as if the arm were a branch torn from a tree.
Azone returned to his father with the grisly present, and said, "Look, father, I have here the arm of your dear daughter, my own sister Ave, who I went to save. Your curse is now seen to have taken vengeance on your own flesh. Foolishly and hastily you cursed, and asked for vengeance, and your wish has been granted."
In sorrow and in woe, the priest took his daughter's forlorn arm and buried it. The following day the arm was found lying on the ground by the grave. Twice more he buried the arm, and twice more it was cast out by the earth. He then had the arm placed in the church where everyone might see it.
The line of carollers, locked hand in hand, never stopped dancing around the churchyard, nor could anyone persuade them to go elsewhere. They never felt weariness, ate no meat, drank no drink, and slept not a wink. The carollers were aware of neither night nor day, sunrise nor sunset.
Frost, snow, hail, rain, cold, and heat caused them no pain. Their hair and their fingernails did not grow, and their clothes did not become dirty or faded. Neither thunder nor lightning did them any harm. And always they sang the same song, with the chorus
Why stand we still? Why do we not go?
< amazed voice > Now, who would not wish to come and witness this wonder?
Even the emperor, Henry the Second, came from Rome to see their hard fate. When he saw them, he wept with pity at the dancers' plight. The emperor called for carpenters to make a shelter above them, to protect them from the tempest, but what they built was in vain. Once, twice, thrice they built; and once, twice, thrice the shelter lay in ruins on the following day.
Nothing could protect the dancers from the elements until Christ, in his mercy, might set them free.
That freedom came exactly twelve months later, on Christmas Eve, at the very day and hour that the priest had cursed them. At that moment the carollers' hands flew apart, and they were released from the curse. They all ran into the church, and there they fell down upon the pavement as if dead.
For three days every one of them lay without stirring, and at the end of those three days they returned to life. They sat up, and spoke openly to the parish priest, saying, "You are the cause of our long confusion, the maker of our ordeal, that many have seen as a great marvel."
And they told the priest, "Know that your own ordeal will soon end, and to your long home you shall go."
The carollers had all returned to life, except Ave, who lay dead beside them. Her father and her brother had great sorrow, and all others had both wonder and dread. The poet believes that it was her body's pain, not any spiritual torment, that brought about Ave's death.
Soon after her death, the priest, her father, died as the result of his unwise curse.
As for the other carollers, they were condemned for the rest of their lives to skip through many lands as if still dancing, never to stay in one place, and never to be together again. Their clothes never rotted, their fingernails and hair never grew longer, nor did their hair turn grey.
Nowhere did any caroller find relief at any saint's shrine, not even the four who went to Rome; save for one caroller named Theoderic, who on Our Lady's day in Lent slept beside the tomb of Saint Edith, and so was cured.
This marvellous tale was written down by Bruno, bishop of Toul, who was afterward Pope Leo the Ninth. Some say that this story is just a trifle; but to others it is a highly valued tale of a great marvel.


This tale is told at fourth hand, for it was told in a poem by Robert Manning in 1303 in his book Handlyng Synne; and he had it from the famous Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln [c. 1175 - 1253], who wrote a hundred years earlier in Manuel de Pêché; and he in turn had it from an older document called the Book of Saint Clement.

This incident may be derived from reports of a dancing mania, sometimes called Saint Vitus' dance, that seems to have occurred in Europe for a thousand years, from the 600s to the 1600s. See Wikipedia.

The poem is in MS. Harley 1701 (c. 1375). See Furnivall's edition here.

The reading is a combination of a translation from the Middle English by me (James Prescott); the translation appearing in Medieval Legends edited by Philip Jennings; and the translation by Roger Sherman Loomis and / or Rudolph Willard (1948) found here.

I did not manage to get a copy of the translation that is in The Norton Anthology of Western Literature (Vol. 1).

The poem has been largely converted to prose. I dropped various words, phrases, and sentences that did not seem to advance a direct story; and have made a few other alterations.

I have added some additional material from other sources, including specific identification of the Emperor and the Pope involved. The Emperor reigned from 1014 to 1024, so I initially picked 1019 as a midway point. A later web search suggested a 1020 date for the incident.

In 1493 it was said that "The well-known Nuremberg Chronicle has recorded, that in the time of the Emperor Henry the Second, whilst a priest was saying mass on Christmas Eve, in the church of Saint Magnus, in the diocese of Magdeburg, a company of eighteen men and ten women amused themselves with dancing and singing in the church-yard ... ". See page 6 here.

Saint Magnus of Avignon died in 660.

I consulted various dictionaries including the Middle English Dictionary here and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English by Mayhew and Skeat here.




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