The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance(?) tune

One of the earliest surviving pieces of English instrumental music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.

This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window. An untitled instrumental piece from the late 13th to mid 14th century English manuscript, Douce 139, often titled Estampie or English dance in modern editions, played on citole by Ian Pittaway. Since many aspects of the music are inconsistent or problematic, this is one possible and non-definitive interpretation. (Citole based on the British Museum citole, commissioned by Ian Pittaway, made by Paul Baker.)

The manuscript

Francis Douce
Antiquarian Francis Douce, 1757-1834. (As with all pictures, click for larger version.)

Francis Douce (pronounced Douse), 1757–1834, was an English antiquarian who collected manuscripts, prints, books, drawings, coins, and games dating from the 8th to the 19th century. On his death he bequeathed his collection to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, including a manuscript catalogued as Douce 139. We can be sure it dates from the late 13th and mid 14th century since specific dates are mentioned: 1286-1307, 1303, 1332 and 1352. The document comprises statutes from various towns; other legal matters; items relating to Coventry, such as gifts of land and letters to and from the prior of the Benedictine Priory of Coventry Cathedral, including the only known record of the death of its 11th century founder, Countess (now erroneously known as Lady) Godiva; and verses on love in three languages. There are also some leaves of music, not integral to the manuscript: Foweles in þe frith for two voices, a French motet, and the mostly monophonic melody which is the subject of this article.

Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie?

The piece at folio 5 verso is often called Estampie or the less specific English dance in modern sources, though it is without title in the manuscript. The estampie, its French name, was a popular musical form of the 13th and 14th centuries, called estampida in Occitan, istampitta, istanpitta or stampita in Italian, and stantipes derived from Latin.

The earliest surviving estampie is the tune to the song, Kalenda maya, with words by the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, 1180-1207, set to the melody of an estampida played on vielles (medieval fiddles) by French jongleurs, itinerant entertainers who performed juggling, acrobatics, music, and recitation, at the court of Montferrat in northern Italy. Kalenda maya, however, does not help us to understand the instrumental estampie form, as it is clear that estampie songs and instrumental estampies followed different musical rules (explained in this article about Kalenda maya).

The Parisian music theorist, Jean de Grouchy, better known by his Latinised name, Johannes de Grocheio (or Grocheo), wrote Ars musicae (Art of music), in 1270-1300, in which he described the stantipes (estampie) as irregular and complicated. The name, stantipes, is perhaps derived from the Latin, stante pedes, standing feet, or stanti pedes, standing on their feet. Inasmuch as all dances are performed standing up, this doesn’t tell us a great deal, unless we understand it to mean standing on one spot. In Spanish, la estampida is a stampede, which may give us a clue about the dance: paintings from the period indicate that one dance – the estampie? – may have involved stamping. The Provençal verb, estampir, to resound, could possibly describe the sound of such stamping and be the derivation of the dance name. It is not inconceivable that all possibilities are true: an irregular, complicated dance that involves standing on the spot and stamping. Currently, we can only speculate, since no clear dance descriptions have survived. Indeed, the description of the estampie as a dance is itself problematic.

Shepherds dance in an antiphonal missarum from Poitiers, 1485 (BnF MS Lat. 873, f. 21r). Information is lacking for a clear interpretation: the joining of hands indicates a carol; the apparent stamping of feet may indicate an estampie. But this is highly unlikely to be an estampie, appearing 55 years after the last written evidence of the dance. 

Swimming against the tide of previous scholarly attempts at reconstructions, Christiane Schima (Die Estampie, thesis at Utrecht University, 1995) has interpreted the historical sources to mean that the estampie was never a dance, but a vocal and instrumental musical form for a listening audience. For example, French court historian Jean Froissart made a distinction between the estampie and the carol in his L’espinette amoureuse, written 1365-1372: “And as soon as [the minstrels] had stopped the estampies that they beat, those men and women who amused themselves dancing, without hesitation, began to take hands for carolling.” This may mean that dancers performed estampies without joining hands, then joined them for the carol, but taking all other references into account, it is more likely to mean that they simply listened to the estampie, then joined hands to begin dancing. In Christiane Schima’s study, every supposed medieval reference to the estampie as a dance follows the same pattern, yielding no evidence that it was danced at all.

In terms of musical form, there were two kinds of medieval instrumental music: either each section had different material but with the same open and close ending (the equivalent of today’s first and second time bars), as we find in the French estampie, la rotta, the royal dance, and the ductia; or sections were cumulative, built up by including a previous section and adding new material, followed by an open and close ending, as in the Italian istampitta (estampie), trotto, and saltarello. The nota is the only exception. Grocheio described the nota as having four double puncta (sections), indicating that each section was to be repeated, though it lacks an open and close ending. It is, he wrote, “either a form of ductia or an incomplete estampie”.

Grocheio described stantipes being played by the best fiddlers “before the wealthy in their feasts and entertainments”, having sections or puncta with open and close endings. In other words, in the estampie, each section starts differently and ends the same, each part repeating with the same open and close ending. This is so in all surviving estampies.

So far so clear. Grocheio’s further description is open to interpretation: the stantipes or estampie “is determined by puncta since it is lacking in that percussive measure which is in the ductia, and is recognised [by] the differences between its puncta.” By “percussion”, he explains that he does not mean instruments of percussion, but the rhythmic sounds common to all instruments. His comment seems to mean that the lengths of phrases, the “percussive measure”, are equal in a ductia but of unequal length in an estampie, thus there are “differences between its puncta”, i.e. different phrase lengths. There are 8 surviving pieces of music specifically named Estampie in the Chansonnier du Roi (Paris BN fonds français 844), a French manuscript with its dances dated to c. 1300, and 8 more from Italy under the heading Istanpitta from the late 14th and early 15th century, in British Library Additional 29987. Each one of them fits this interpretation of Grocheio’s description. Thus differing lengths of puncta also suggests his description of it being irregular and complicated, causing rapt attention in both player and listener: “Because of its difficulty, it totally absorbs both the performer and the listener, and often distracts the minds of the rich from wicked thoughts.”

The piece in Douce 139 has open and close endings (but inconsistently) and has differing lengths of puncta, so it does appear to be an English estampie, albeit one with a range of musical problems to be reconciled. Together with three (dance?) tunes in the British Library manuscript Harley 978, mid to late 13th century, and three more in the Robertsbridge Codex, early 14th century, this English estampie is a cultural treasure: these tunes collectively comprise the small remnant of medieval English instrumental music to have survived.

Dancers contemporaneous with the Douce estampie, from The Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a medieval French poem (British Library Stowe 947, c. 1320-1340, folio 7).

Problems of interpretation

I cannot show you the entire manuscript page since the Bodleian Library has copyrighted the manuscripts they hold. The complete original folio of this untitled estampie and pieces in this and other medieval music manuscripts can be viewed by registering as a member on the DIAMM (Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music) website. The portion of the page below is shown under the fair dealing copyright law.

To make this estampie playable, there are several issues of interpretation.

The beginning of Douce 139 folio 5v, showing an F clef and the indication of a Bb throughout. © Bodleian Library. See paragraph above.

Firstly, the melody is monophonic, but there is a section at the end that splits into three parts. The upper part consists entirely of a repeated one-note drone. The lower parts are a brief example of a gymel, a form of polyphony harmonised almost entirely in thirds or sixths. This monophonic/polyphonic inconsistency may indicate an early draft of a composition or a musician struggling to remember the details.

Secondly, there are other indications that the scribe was a musician working out some unfinished ideas, or perhaps trying to remember a piece that was fading from memory, as there is inconsistent notation for what are clearly similar phrases. There are corrections and some music out of sequence: after the polyphonic final section there are two more puncta to be inserted in two different places earlier in the piece.

Thirdly, in an estampie we would expect each punctum (section) to have an open and close ending. The first five puncta do, but the remainder do not. In all other surviving estampies, the open and close endings are identical at the end of each punctum. In Douce 139, the first three sections have identical endings, each of these puncta being in any case the same but for the opening notes. Puncta four and five have endings which are different to each other and different to the first three. Neither this, nor the lack of open and close endings from section six onwards, are in keeping with the estampie format, indicating either a work in progress, failing memory, a loose grasp of the estampie form, or musical intentions we have not fully understood. Since open/close endings mean that the section is played twice, fully written out in the first five puncta, it makes sense to repeat the later sections that have only close endings to continue the musical format. I briefly considered creating my own open endings from section six onwards, but decided to stay melodically with only what can be justified from the page.

Fourthly, there is a question over how many puncta there are. Depending on how we count them, there could be between ten and thirteen. This matters in the second half of the piece with only close endings: if each punctum is to be repeated we have to decide where the sections end to know when to repeat. Puncta are always delineated in the manuscript by several vertical lines. Since neither of the additional passages at the end of ths music are delineated with vertical lines, I have concluded that they are addenda to existing passages rather than discrete puncta. Is the final polyphonic section a discrete punctum? Since it is almost identical to the previous monophonic passage, I have counted the two together, making the final punctum half monophonic and half polyphonic, thus bringing the total number of puncta down to ten.

A fifth problem is establishing the underlying rhythm. In modern music, time signatures are written at the beginning of a piece: 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc. In 13th and 14th century music, there were no bar lines or time signatures, so rhythm was indicated by notes’ relative value to each other, giving an underlying rhythm which is key to the heartbeat of the music.

In medieval square notation, clefs were movable, using either a C clef or an F clef to indicate the relative position of all other notes for a given piece of music. The point was, as far as possible, to keep all notes within the 4 or 5 line stave, avoiding ledger lines. There follows 4 neumes or note values, their duration indicated by shape. Since there were no bar lines or time signatures, rhythm was indicated by the notes’ relative value to each other.

Until the mid or late 13th century, a long was always worth two breves, akin to the rhythm of today’s 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 time signatures. A proportion of a long worth three breves, akin to today’s 6/8 or 9/8, was considered by music theorists to be unwriteable, ultra mensuram, beyond measure, until Franco of Cologne. In his Ars cantus mensurabilis, written 1250-1280, Franco was the first (in surviving records) to accept proportion tripla, triple proportion or triple time: indeed, he considered a proportion of 3:1 to be a perfect long and 2:1 an imperfect long.

This became accepted practice and added an extra layer of interpretation for medieval musicians playing or singing from the page. To interpret the music, one needs to see from the overall shape of the music whether there are 2 breves to 1 long, an imperfect long, or 3 breves to 1 long, a perfect long. During any given piece of music, the relationship remained perfect 3:1 or imperfect 2:1 throughout. There was only one way of notating a long, so the perfect long rhythm of, in modern terms, a 6/8 time signature with a bar of dotted crotchet – crotchet – quaver would be written as long – long – breve, with nothing written to differentiate between the differential lengths of the two longs. This was left to the musician to work out from the musical context. If the music is accurately written this is not problematic as, when played, the music would only work in the intended rhythm of perfect or imperfect long.

However, in the case of the Douce 139 estampie, the scribe’s inconsistent notation means that it can be read equally well rhythmically as perfect long (like 6/8) or imperfect long (like 4/4), both ways throwing up their own sets of notation problems and inconsistencies to be worked through and reconciled. Because both work equally well, are equally problematic, and both are historically credible, I have chosen to interpret the piece as perfect long for the purely aesthetic reason that I prefer the feel of the music that way.

Remaining questions

Was this the script of a composer working out musical ideas, making notation mistakes as decisions were half-made, with some of the open/close endings yet to formulated; or a musician with a failing memory, trying to remember quite how the piece went? Does the lack of complete conformity to the estampie form mean this was a musician sitting loosely to convention; or one who didn’t fully understand it; or a musician who was not intending to write an estampie at all? Is the split into three voices in the final section an indication that this was originally polyphonic throughout but imperfectly remembered, or was this final polyphony the beginning of an idea for the whole piece, later to be developed? Or did the scribe expect players to extemporise polyphony through the rest of the piece but with a set idea about the polyphonic ending? Does this final polyphony indicate an instrument that can play three parts at once, such as a harp, or an ensemble of three? Since we have only one source and can make no comparative judgements, none of these questions have answers.

My own performance in the video above is what I make of the manuscript, my own attempt to reconcile the problems. Other solutions are possible. Whatever decisions we make to arrive at a musical compromise between imperfectly-written music and a convincing performance, the original material is so strong that, in any event, I am convinced we will arrive at an exciting, engaging, melodically interesting and historically important piece of 13th or 14th century English music.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

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