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Ben Jonson, on Dancing Witches

By Zan

That seventeenth century Witches should be credited with dancing as a custom ought not be surprising, considering that pretty much everyone in the Middle Ages danced (if you check out Wikipedia’s entry on Medieval Dance, you will find many examples of the sort of Circular, Ring, or Round dance often attributed to Witches, but plainly popular among other groups of society as well). The thing was that, as a rule (especially amongst the higher classes), dancing was an extremely decorous affair, with partners seldom touching beyond their hands whilst executing polite, well-mannered dance-steps. The dance of Witches, on the other hand, was apparently a mad, improvisational, rambunctious thing, probably alarming to the more staid and reserved upper-class types (the comment has been made that medieval descriptions of Witches dancing sound much like later accounts of rock ‘n’ roll or thrash-rock today). One of the best examples of the Witches’ Dance is provided by English playwright Ben Jonson, in his 1609 Masque of Queens, a ceremonial play performed at court and starring the ladies of the court as Goddesses of Virtue, with the back-up of actors as various disreputable Witches. In addition to providing useful discussion of the habits and customs associated with Witches in the early seventeenth century, Jonson (in an effort to appeal to the teen-aged prince, son of King James and Queen Anne) writes out extremely detailed references to prior sources for the young royal to consult. In short, in addition to depicting Witches and Witchcraft as the period conceived, Jonson’s work laboriously documents the legitimacy of his presentation, by establishing the precedent of earlier writers.

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