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 the modern interpretation of an estampie.
But this is 55 years after the last written evidence of the estampie,
and there is no historical evidence that the estampie was a 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 other references such as the description of a lavish entertainment in Guillaume de Machaut’s (c. 1300–1377) poem, Remède de Fortune, confirm that they listened to the estampie, then joined hands to begin dancing. In Christiane Schima’s study, every medieval reference to the estampie follows the same pattern, yielding no evidence that it was a dance.

Grocheio described stantipes being played by the best fiddlers “before the wealthy in their feasts and entertainments”, having puncta (sections) with open and close endings (first and second time bars in modern parlance). 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 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. 1320-40, 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, Ars cantus mensurabilis, 1250-1280, and Magister Lambertus, Musica mensurabilis, c. 1270, who were the first (in surviving records) to accept proportion tripla, triple proportion or triple time: indeed, they 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, in a given context, there are 2 breves to 1 long, an imperfect long, or 3 breves to 1 long, a perfect long. 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, the rule that when there are two longs together, the first is perfect and the second imperfect.

However, in the case of the Douce 139 estampie, the scribe’s inconsistent notation means that the whole can be read equally well with an underlying pulse of 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 with an underlying pulse of 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.

13 thoughts on “The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance(?) tune

  • 19th September 2021 at 4:38 am

    What a wonderful post! It’s so lovely to find such deep thinking about medieval musical matters outside of the academic paper mill.
    I’m wondering about the irregularity of the English piece you write about. It’s my understanding that the (late/r 14th c) Italian istampitta had irregularities similar to what you describe here, though the Italian examples are considerably more complex (ie. Chominciamento de Goia). I expect you would raise – and answer – a host of questions pertaining to potential sources of influence, or not (given the gap in time).
    Your thoughts?

    • 19th September 2021 at 11:15 am

      Thank you, Leslie. All the surviving French estampies from c. 1300 and Italian istampittas from c. 1400 can be read clearly from the page, and don’t have the host of interpretation problems this English piece has. They’re all complex in the sense that a punctum does not have a set length, which is indeed what indicates an estampie, but as you suggest there is something special about the Italian examples. The English estampies in the Robertsbridge Codex, c. 1370-1400, follow the straightforward French model, i.e. Ax/Ay, Bx/By, Cx/Cy, etc., whereas the Italian istampittas have a compound structure. For example, Ghaetta is ABCx/ABCy DECx/DECy FECx/FECy GBCx/GBCy. It’s important to notice that this isn’t peculiar to Italian istampittas – nearly all the pieces in the Italian source of c. 1400 have this compound structure, that is to say, the trotto and the four saltarelli have it, too. This seems to suggest that this extra complexity is about what was happening in the milieu of this Italian source, rather than in istampittas specifically, especially given the closeness in time to the estampies in the Robertsbridge Codex, which do not follow the compound model.

      I think we can sure that the English estampie – if that’s what it is, as it appears to be – in the article above, late 13th to mid 14th century, follows the English/French model. Though its notation is problematic, it is at least clear that it doesn’t have the compound structure of the istampittas.

      All the best.


  • 16th January 2022 at 4:34 pm

    Greetings again, Ian!
    Have you considered thinking through the metrical questions using what is known about dance and “choreometrics”, as described by Joan Rimmer (for instance)?

    • 16th January 2022 at 9:51 pm

      Hello, Leslie, and thank you for your question.

      There are three problems with trying to work on a piece like this using notions of choreography. Firstly, there is no evidence that the estampie was a dance, as I state in the article above. Despite the fact that modern writers repeatedly call the estampie a dance, no medieval writer says so. Secondly, even if we did have a clear medieval statement that the estampie was danced to – and all the evidence points the other way – we know next to nothing about dance from the period of this piece, the late 13th to mid 14th century, beyond static images, with no notion of what came before or after the figure shown, or even what dance is being depicted much of the time. We know most about the carole, but even in this case some of the evidence is arguable, and we have no detailed choreography. Thirdly, the idea of metrics in dance and dance music, a recurring pattern of rhythmic beats, is rather antithetical to the estampie form, which is characterised by rhythmical variety and unequal lengths of puncta.

      All the best.


      • 17th January 2022 at 3:52 am

        Thanks very much for your reply, Ian!
        I’m aware of the evidentiary issues and thin support for characterizing transmitted estampie as danced dances. To be honest, given the nature of the record (and the range of quite interesting accounts from outliers in the academic community), I’m not even sure that more of the transmitted troubador/trovere material might not have been both danced as well as sung, as well as serving as musical bases for courtly contrefacta.
        I’m actually quite interested in moving “off” the texts, or rather, approaching the transmitted musical texts as evidence (at best) of a kind of oral process. Which means that their notated forms are provisional (at best). Which means that they might be just as susceptible of analysis through the (admittedly limited) evidence of actual dance (or what might be inferred or borrowed from ethnomusicology, or “chorometric” anthropology) as through the usual historiographic models. Something like historical musicology meets ethnomusicology.
        I haven’t seen anyone respond to Joan Rimmer’s comments, and I wondered if you might have a few thoughts. Perhaps in the future ….
        All the best,

        • 18th January 2022 at 10:38 am

          Hello, Leslie.

          There is some clear evidence of medieval sung dances – the carole was one – and this may have included some of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, as I show in this article under the heading ‘Musical function’. It’s certainly true that some of the borrowed troubadour tunes were originally dance music, but there is some serious doubt about whether they were sung dances as performed by troubadours, for reasons I explore under ‘Non-mensural music, free rhythm, and its implications’ in this article:

          There’s plenty of evidence for an oral process at work in troubadour material (which I will present in articles that will appear here eventually, too long in the pipeline, alas), and the continuing process of the oral tradition is a clear factor in musical variation – see and

          I’m very sceptical of drawing on ethnomusicology for research into medieval music, if what you mean is the implicit model that suggests medieval music is old, people in location X have traditions unchanged for hundreds of years, therefore the two are linked. Firstly, we need evidence of an unchanging tradition, and in my reading that is usually assumed based on cultural stereotypes, then we need to show that there is a real link between what happened in location A 600 years ago and what is happening in location B in the present day, and I’ve never seen any evidence presented.

          Joan Rimmer wrote a great deal, so I’d need a specific reference to give any thoughts.

          All the best.


  • 25th August 2022 at 6:10 pm

    My partner is looking for an interpretation (ie not in tablature) of the pieces in the Robertsbridge Codex. He is working on the earliest known keyboard instrument, RCM1, the clavicytherium.
    I have not been able to find any printed matter for sale nor reference – have you any suggestions? Presumably you, when you played the etampe had had the piece interpreted. Going to commercial sites on the web takes me down rabbit holes or round the mulberry bush (to mix one’s metaphors) but doesn’t get me the sheet music!
    Any help would be much appreciated.

  • 25th April 2023 at 9:43 am

    Hi Ian ,

    I am a student at the BRIT school, and I’m creating a sound design for Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’ and I need to gather medieval music . Would it be ok for me to use your English estampie, 13th-14th century – citole interpretation.

    If it is, would it be okay to ask for an MP3 or MP4 of it?

    Hope you are well,

    Many thanks,
    Faye Knight

    • 26th April 2023 at 9:49 pm

      Hello, Faye.

      I replied yesterday by email. If you haven’t seen it, please check your spam folder. If it’s not there, do let me know.

      All the best.


  • 15th May 2023 at 10:57 am

    Hello Ian: Great article, and a musically very satisfying and intuitive reconstruction that deserves to make the rounds of the traditional music crowd – I think it would become a favorite!

    I’ve sent you a separate inquiry about a related musical inquiry. With regard to the discussion in the above comments, I was fascinated by the structure of the Italian estampie example “Ghaetta” that you cited. Do you have a recommended source for hearing those Italian estampies?

    I’ve done a great deal of private work on notations for tune structure, derived on my practice working with traditional Irish and American fiddle tunes. If I rewrite the structure you listed:


    using my format, I get the following:

    A B C D
    A B C E

    F G C D
    F G C E

    H G C D
    H G C E

    I B C D
    I B C E

    Viewed this way, we can see that the structure actually interleaves (in “acrostic” fashion) four different patterns:

    AA FF HH II -> AA BB CC DD the “narrative” structure of chained couplets
    DE DE DE DE -> the alternating trailing refrain lines (open/closed)
    C C C C … -> a recurring medial “spine” that helps integrate the form

    and the most interesting pattern of all…

    BB GG GG BB – a chiasmus form ABBA

    Perhaps the apparent complexity of the form arises from the interplay of these four interleaved patterns.

    Are you aware of any theorists writing in source materials from the time that would have discussed these sorts of design patterns? Or modern academic (or non-academic!) writers investigating these structural devices?

    All the best – Mark

    • 15th May 2023 at 3:58 pm

      Hello, Mark, and thank you for an interesting question.

      I see exactly what you mean about the “chained couplets”, which of course is integral to the open and close endings. We have to be careful with the idea of the spine and the chiasmus, as every estampie is different, and there appear to have been national, regional or temporal differences. The spine is certainly there in all the Italian istampittas of c. 1400, but not in the English estampies or the French estampies of c. 1400. The chiasmus I remain to be convinced by. In other words, we can’t view either as integral to the estampie form per se, but the spine does appear to be part of the national (Italian) or temporal (c. 1400) variant of the form. I therefore don’t see any musical theoretical underpinning for your suggestion of interleaved patterns.

      Later this year I’ll be publishing an article analysing all the French estampies together, each with a video.

      I’ll reply to your other enquiry by email.

      All the best.



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