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Labyrinth Dances in the French and English Renaissance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Thomas M. Greene
Yale University


Some descriptions of ballets performed at the late Valois court in France draw upon accounts of choreographic and equestrian maze-like performances extending back into early antiquity. Common elements include a convoluted complexity in the dancers’ movements, repeated reversals, and a series of patterns variously reformed after regular interruptions. The practice of medieval dances at Easter upon the labyrinth designs of one or more French cathedrals may also have exercised an influence on Renaissance dancing. A sonnet by Ronsard describing a labyrinthine ballet invites at least two metaphysical interpretations. Neoplatonic theories of magic are apparently reflected in the choreography by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx for his Balet Comique de la Royne. Labyrinth dances in Ben Jonson's masques are associated with Orphic cosmogony. The description of an angelic labyrinth dance in Milton's Paradise Lost leads to historical and theoretical questions concerning the intermittent persistence of the phenomenon.

“Here's a maze trod indeed Through forth-rights and meanders!“

— The Tempest

Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2001

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