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The dancing virgins of 'Hali Meidhad.'

AMONG the assorted strategies by means of which the author of Hali Meithhad sought to make virginity alluring, there is one which has apparently escaped notice. This is the question of the nature of the singing and dancing uniquely reserved in heaven for the virginal elect. The author has been discussing the hierarchy of continence: the estate of wedlock sings its soag in a third-class compartmeat of heaven, and is superseded by the singing of the second-class estate, widowhood. In turn, however, both cede place to virginity:

Swote beoth peos soages; ah al [is] meidenes

soag unilich peose, with engles imeane, dream

ouer alle pe dreames in heoueae. In heore

ring, per Godd seolf aat his deore moder, pe

deorewurthe meiden, pe heouealiche cwea,

lea[deth] i pet eadi trume of schimminde

meidnes, ne moten nane buten heo hoppin ne


There is a qualitative difference distinguishing the soag that the virgins sing, and furthermore in their ring none but they may dance and sing. Theirs is an exclusive club whose dancing privileges are reserved for members only. It should be noted that the fact that they dance as well as sing is made perfectly clear by the additioa of the verb hoppin. (If wedlock and widowhood were permitted to hoppin too, nothing is explicitly said about it, and if they did, it was not in the ring of the virginal troupe.(2)) What exactly, therefore, is the nature of this heavenly privilege which virgins alone enjoy?

It seems that the dancing virgins of Hali Meithhad may best be understood if they are conceived as performing a carole en ronde. First, it should be noted that the virgins dance ~in heore ring'. Dancing in a ring was typical carole choreography.(3) A well known example, also of the thirteenth century, is available in the Atte wrastlinge sermon.(4) Its author seems to have had in mind an arrangemeat comparable in its essentials to that contemplated by the author of Hali Meithhad:

Mi leue frend, wilde wimmea & gole, i mi

contereie wan he goa o pe ring, among manie

opere soagis pat litil bea wort pat tei singin, so

sein pei pus: ~Atte wrastli<n>ge mi lemman', &


The dancers circle as they sing (here, ~Atte wrastlinge' seems to have been the refrain or burdea of the carole which all would have sung), and this matches what the Hali Meithhad virgins do: ~In heore ring ... ne moten nane buten heo hoppin ne singin'.

Second, both extaat witnesses to the text of Hali Meithhad agree in reading leat in the passage quoted above: ~In heore ring, per Godd seolf aad his deore moder, pe deorewurthe meiden, pe heouealiche cwea, leat in pet eadi trume of schimminde meidnes ...'. Leat, as Millett notes, is a contracted form of the third persoa singular present indicative of the verb to lead. She has emeaded this to leadeth, on the grounds that the verb should agree with its apparent plural subject (~God seolf aad his deore moder'). This emeadatioa, though entirely logical, is perhaps unnecessary, since lack of verbal concord with a compound subject is not unknown elsewhere in NM.(6) Were this an example of it, the original reading leat might be left intact. Moreover, another reasoa could help explain why the verb may have been attracted into the singular, apart from the possible attraction exerted by its syntactical proximity to the heavier elemeat of the compound subject, ~his deore moder, pe deorewurthe meiden, pe heouealiche cwea', which may have predominated in the author's mind over the remoter and briefer ~Godd seolf'. This heavier elemeat specifies Mary as the dance leader. The carole was conducted by a single leader who, as Greene observes, was frequently (though not invariably) a woman.(7) Therefore, were Mary herself the leader of Hali Meithhad's heavenly caroling troupe, her activity in medieval terms would have seemed entirely recognizable and, for the third reasoa discussed below, also entirely appropriate. An example that Greene did not adduce, though it further supports his case, may be found in the late-thirteenth century Of Arthour aad of Merlin.(8) In this text, aristocratic maidens lead the caroles, and furthermore the choice of the verb lead to describe what they do begs comparisoa with the similar verb choice of Hali Meithhad. Evidence of the female leader is also not far to seek earlier in the thirteenth century. In an importaat descriptioa of caroling in the sectioa of Le roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1235), it is the lady Leesce who leads and sings.(9) In the dance she joins hands with her lover Deduiz, who ultimately appears to stage-manage the way the whole carole is performed.(10)

Third, if the dancing virgins of Hali Meithhad are indeed carolers, they would not be departing from traditioa, nor disrupting with their gyratioas the calm commerce of heaven. Heaven is a place in which caroling might be expected as a matter of course. Stevens has drawn attentioa to the common associatioa of heaven and dancing in medieval texts, and illustrated how dance becomes expressive of the all-pervading concept of musica.(11) It is the carole that Dante's saints dance in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, for example, while tre doane in giro also dance in the Purgatorio.(12)

In sum, indicatioas within and without Hali Meithhad may suggest more exactly what the nature of another of the virgins' heavenly rewards was thought to have been. It may have been a spiritualized versioa of a joyous earthly pastime. Moreover, situated next to a text like the Roman de la rose, whose caroling descriptioa compares closest in terms of date, it becomes clear how the dancing virgins of Hali Meithhad share a common lustre: as the aristocrats of heaven, they were as capable of the courtly pursuits associated with the gilded world of romance as were Leesce, Deduiz and their fellows. In additioa to their wearing of the stunning garlaad of the aureola, virgins alone were free to foot it in the ring with the Virgin herself, and to follow ~eauer nest Godd hwider se he turneth'. (1) B. Millett (ed.), Hali Meithhad, EETS, o.s. 284 (Oxford, 1982),10-11. (2) The BL MS Cottoa Titus D. xviii versikoa of Hali Meithhad does, however, speak of widowhood as forming a ring of its own (the MS Bodley 34 text reads reng here). Thus this Titus reading may extend a possible connotatioa of dancing, at least as far as widowhood. In that case, the exclusiveness of the virgins' dancing ring, for an early reader of the Titus versioa, may have been thought to reside in its select persoanel (Christ and the Virgin) rather than in dancing per se. (3) See R. L. Greene (ed.), The Early English Carols, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1977), pp. xlv-vi; also, J. Stevens, Words and Music in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1986),166, while he points out that carole choreography may be difficult to determine (some evidence suggests that occasioaally caroles might be linear rather than circular dances), nevertheless adduces examples where ring dancing is in question. See also Joan Rimmer, ~Medieval Instrumental Dance Music', Music and Letters, lxxii (1991), 61-8; esp. 62-3.1 am grateful to Joan Rimmer for endorsing my opinioa on the likely nature of the Hali Meithhad dance. (4) Millett, Hali Meithhad. p. xvii, dates the compositioa of Hali Meithhad roughly between 1190 and 1220, ~probably rather later than earlier in this period', but given her recent argument that Ancrene Wisse is a Dominican product ('The Origins of Ancrene Wisse: New Answers, New Questions', MAE lxi (1992), 206-28), and given the fact that Hali Meithhad is generally held to have emanated from the same centre in which Ancrene Wisse was composed, it may be that the compositioa of Hali Meithhad too should be placed in the thirteenth rather than in the late-twelfth century. ~And see further on this, Alaa J. Fletcher, ~Black, White and Grey in Hali Meithhad and Ancrene Wisse', ME, lxii (1993), 69-78.) The Atte wrastlinge sermon was probably composed sometime in the second half of the thirteenth century (E. J. Dobson (ed.), The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle edited from B.M. Cottoa MS. Cleopatra C vi, EETS, o.s. 267 (Oxford, 1972), pp. cxl-lvii, identifies its scribe as also active in the Cleopatra manuscript of Ancrene Wisse, probably between 1284 and 1289). Dobson further believed that the scribe of Atte wrastlinge may also have been its author. If Dobson was right, the scribe-author may have been a Dominican. Note the specifically Dominican prayer for preachers added to fo. [198.sup.v] of the Cleopatra manuscript (Dobson, while acknowledgiag this, chose to explain it as the sort of material to which an Augustinian canon equally would have had access.) Moreover, the small format and ready portability of the unique manuscript of Atte wrastlinge, as well as the bulk of its contents, sermons, strongly affiliate it with a recognized class of manuscripts that are characteristic products of meadicant scriptoria (on this see D. L. d'Avray, The Preaching of the Friars (Oxford, 1985), 57-62). (5) Cambridge, Trinity College MS 43 (olim B.1.45), fo. [41.sup.v]. I have read the text afresh from this manuscript, italicizing expansioas, adding modern punctuatioa and supplying in angle brackets text originally omitted. (The sermon is edited in M. Forster, ~Kleinere Mittelenglische Texte', Anglia, xlii (1918), 145-224; see 152, lines 9-13 for this excerpt.) I have followed Dobson (ibid., p. cxliv, footnote continued from previous page) in reading gole (MS golme, with m subpuncted) in line 1. Also, in line 1 for i mi (usually read sic), inn seems equally possible. (6) T. F. Mustaaoja, A Middle English Syntax (Helsinki, 1960), 63; also F. Mosse, A Handbook of Middle English, trans. by J. A. Walker (Baltimore, 1952), 110-11. Greene, Carols, pp. xiv and xlviii. (7). D. Macrae-Gibson (ed.), Of Arthour aad of Merlin, EETS, o.s. 268 (Oxford, 1973), 127, line 1714: ~damisels caroles ledeth'. (9) F.Lecoy (ed.), Le Roman de la Rose, 3 vols (Paris,19657), i.23, lines 725-36. For an analysis of the choreography here, see Stevens, Words and Music, 164-6. The Roman example is also not cited by Greene. An interesting case of the female leader/singer which he does cite occurs in an exemplum of the thirteenth-century preacher Jacques de Vitry (Carols, p. xlv, n. 5; here, the verb used of her activity is ducit, a precise Latin equivaleat of the English lead). (10) Lecoy, ibid. 24, lines 757-61. (11) Stevens, Words and Music, 159. (12) Stevens, ibid.
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Author:Fletcher, Alan J.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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