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The Dance of the Fer Cengail?


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                                                                "An Insular Dance - the Dance of the Fer Cengail?"

Text and illustrations reproduced from the Summer 2005 issue of Archaeology Ireland magazine.

NB When I use the term "figure" I am referring to a dance figure; that is, a discrete section within a dance, as opposed to an "illustration"
within this article or an artist’s "pattern" that I am interpreting.  

It may be tempting to dismiss this article as nonsensical wishful thinking so I have to grab your attention quickly. Consider Illustrations 1 and 2. The dance and the roundel both feature three persons with their legs over their arms. A strange dance, a strange pattern, both have good pedigrees and provenance. Are they related somehow? I am convinced that there is a connection and over the past twelve years I have compiled some intriguing evidence to support this theory.
Illustration 1.
The hopping part of the Wyresdale Greensleeves Dance

quernmore dance
Illustration 2.
Professor F.Henry's drawing of a
roundel in the Book of Kells

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The interpretation of Insular Art may only be possible if the researcher has particular specialist background knowledge. This article came about because I had specialist knowledge about traditional dance in general and one dance in particular – the Wyresdale Greensleeves Dance. Wyresdale is an area in North Lancashire and this reputedly ancient men's dance was observed and noted down there by Cecil Sharp [1], the father of folk song and dance collecting, in 1910. It can be shown that the dance was present in the area in 1789, thanks to a note in a fiddler's tune book. Nothing else is known of its history locally, other than that it was handed down from father to son amongst the upland shepherds of the Forest of Bowland, which surrounds Upper Wyresdale.


The dance is done by three or four men and the part that I will be discussing here is shown in Illustration1. When the dancers are joined in this leg-over-arm pose they hop round in a circle, in time with the tune Greensleeves played as a jig in 6/8 time.

Back in the 1970s when I first learned this dance I happened to come across George Bain's version [2] of the three-man roundel (one of six) from the first page of St. Mark in the Book of Kells. Bain's version is in fact incorrect so Illustration2 is Françoise Henry's correct, although simplified, line drawing [3]. I was immediately struck by the similarities between the roundel and the dance. The roundel shows three men with their legs over their arms in a country dancing star formation rather than the circle formation of the Wyresdale Dance. The roundel could be interpreted as a plan view of a dance figure but with the men's bodies flattened onto the page in a developed convention. Can this figure be danced?

Yes it can, except that the men in the roundel have their left legs over their right arms, which is physically impossible whilst standing in star formation. Right leg over right arm is possible. We would have to accept this as an artist’s mistake or joke.
Illustration 3 shows dancers in the formation described. The only alternative to a dance interpretation of the roundel is that it is a decorative pattern with no significance. However, there is further compelling evidence to suggest that this is not the case. In this article I can only deal with the essence of my theory.
Illustration 3.
A dance interpretation of the Book of Kells Roundel

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If Françoise Henry had known about the Wyresdale Dance she may have followed this line of reasoning before I did. In her book, ‘Celtic Art During the Viking Invasions’, she includes an illustration of Insular patterns related to the roundel.
Two of her examples are shown in
Illustration 4.
Illustration 4.
Françoise Henry's line drawings of the Togherstown Bronze Mount and a pattern on the Kells Market Cross

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Building on my theory and dance interpretation, the Togherstown Bronze and the Kells Market Cross patterns suggest another 3- or 4- man dance figure. The wrist-hold shown in the Book of Kells roundel has to be adopted to stabilise the hop-round – see Illustration 5.
When danced in public this is a very spectacular figure.

Illustration 5.
A dance interpretation of the Togherstown Bronze


3 dance

In their book, ‘The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland’, J. Romily Allen and Joseph Anderson [4] provided another pattern for interpretation. Illustration 6 is the swastika pattern from a grave slab at Meigle in Perthshire. Clearly it is closely related to the Kells Market Cross pattern and also to the Togherstown bronze. This pattern can also be interpreted as a dance figure by applying the same rules as mentioned above. The result is shown in Illustration 7.
Illustration 6.
A swastika pattern on a grave slab at Meigle in Perthshire
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Illustration 7.
A dance interpretation of the Meigle Swastika pattern

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One evening at a dance practice I tried an experiment with an interlocking ankle hold. It worked well with three men but not quite so well with four. We held hands in a circle, made a lock with our right ankles and feet, then hopped round. We found that we could let go with our hands and rely on the ankle lock to keep us together. It was a few months before I realised that the four-man square on a cross-shaft from Banagher, now in the National Museum in Dublin, could be a representation of this figure that I thought I had invented – see Illustrations 8 and 9.
Illustration 8.
A pattern on the Banagher Cross Shaft

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Illustration 9.
A dance interpretation of the Banagher Pattern

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As a result of the interpretations, we now have the Wyresdale dance figure, the Book of Kells dance figure, the Togherstown/Kells Market Cross dance figure, the Meigle dance figure and the Banagher dance figure. Are these interpretations valid? To find one potential dance interpretation is curious. To find two is surprising. To find three and perhaps four is, I think, beyond coincidence.

One of my main terpsichorean interests is Hilt-and-Point Sword Dance. This dance style is pan-European. It is characterised by each of the dancers holding the hilt of their own sword (often a metal or wooden substitute) and the point of their neighbour’s sword, thus forming a circle. Sometimes the "swords" are interwoven in a self supporting five, six or seven-sword star or lock and held aloft. Traditions are known from Papa Stour in the Shetlands, to Seville in Spain, to Salzburg in Austria. There is also a record of it being danced by Irish kerns around 1600. In England it was very common in Yorkshire and a little further north on Tyneside a variant called Rapper Dancing evolved among the coal miners.

For six years I was a member of a Rapper team and observed and took part in the process of dance design and showmanship. The main purpose of a sword dance is to entertain an audience (within certain rules imposed by the tradition). The dance is a series of clever, surprising figures performed with speed, agility, rhythm and panache. A good Rapper Sword performance should have the audience throwing money at the end. By contrast the Wyresdale Dance, as recorded by Cecil Sharp, required a set sequence to be repeated six times. A casual street audience would probably lose interest and drift away if all the repeats were performed. However if the repeats of the Wyresdale Dance are substituted with my Insular Art interpretations the result is an entertaining performance, which provokes a similarly enthusiastic audience reaction. I can vouch for this from personal experience.

The time gap between the Insular Artwork and the first clue to the existence of the Wyresdale Dance is about 1000 years. As far as the Insular Art interpretation is concerned, it is perhaps enough to know that a dance like the Wyresdale one can exist. The Wyresdale Dance does not have to be a long term survival although I am inclined to think that it is. It is a very peculiar dance that is easily remembered and Upper Wyresdale is an ideal place to preserve a tradition. The Insular Artwork has obvious monastic connections and the Wyresdale Dance actually came from the village of Abbeystead, which has 12th century monastic origins.

The evidence that finally convinced me that the dance interpretation is correct is a bit tortuous but quite logical. As I scrutinised book after book on Insular Art, looking for more clues, a very curious pattern on St. Muirdach's Cross caught my eye – see Illustration 10. The pattern seems too contrived to be dismissed as merely decoration. I was at this point already familiar with plan views of my dance interpretations and I noticed that this pattern had a lot in common with the Meigle dance figure viewed from above, see Illustration 11.
Illustration 10.
Carved pattern on St. Muirdach's Cross, Monasterboice.

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Illustration 11.
The Meigle Dance Interpretation compared with the Monasterboice Cross.

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There are some strange, eroded, animal head-like features that I can not explain but the overall geometry of the pattern seems too similar to the dance for it to be a coincidence. So to recap; the Wyresdale Dance suggests that the Book of Kells roundel is a dance figure which involves a wrist lock; using the wrist lock, the Kells Market Cross and the Meigle Grave Slab patterns can be interpreted as dance figures; and a plan of the Meigle dance figure is carved on St. Muirdach's Cross. Geographically this ties together Saint Columba's monastery on Iona, where the making of the Book of Kells may have been started; Kells monastery, where the Book was probably finished, and Meigle, a possible Columban monastic foundation in Southern Pictland.

My hypothetical dance could clearly be described as a hopping dance. An internet search for "Hopping Dance" will easily find the Ecternach Hopping Dance or The Dance of the Hopping Saints. Ecternach Abbey in Luxembourg was founded by Saint Willibrord in 698. He was a Yorkshireman who had been educated in Ireland for twelve years. The Abbey had a scriptorium, which produced Insular Gospels. This processional dance puts hopping into a sacred Insular context but otherwise seems unrelated to the interpretations discussed here.

Another continental connection came about once more with the help of Françoise Henry. In one of her books about the Book of Kells she featured a plate of a carpet page (MS O.IV.20) from the Bobbio Gospels, which is in the library of the University of Turin [5]. Despite fire damage and with the help of a colour slide from the library, the details in the top left and bottom right panels can be discerned – see Illustration 12. The leg over arm pose is clear and two of the figures seem to be linked as in the Wyresdale Dance figure. The monastery of Bobbio in Northern Italy was founded c613 by the Irishman, Saint Columbanus, and was another centre for Insular Gospel production.
Illustration 12.
A detail from the carpet page in the Bobbio Gospels

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If this hypothetical dance existed, it must surely have had a sacred context and it must have been revered in some way, so we might expect it to have literary references. There are two poems that contain possibilities. "Altus Prosator" a poem by Saint Columba, or a close associate, mentions angels doing sacred dances. This does no more than establish the possibility of sacred dancing. No detail is given but the Latin word translated as sacred dance is Tripudium. The word was used by Livy 600 years before and it is generally interpreted as a "three step dance".

In the place-lore poem, "The Fair at Loc Carmun", a group of entertainers called the Fer Cengail are mentioned. This could be translated as men bonded or intertwined. Was this perhaps their dance?

Christianity is not normally associated with sacred dancing but this was not always the case. The apocryphal gospel, "The Acts of John", describes Jesus dancing with the disciples after the Last Supper. Dance would have had a different role in Christianity if this book had been included in the Bible.

I am a cautious sceptic by nature but after twelve years of research I am convinced that this dance did exist. This article will introduce my hypothesis to a wider critical domain and I must leave readers to make up their own minds.

[1] Cecil Sharp, The Wyresdale Greensleeves Dance, Sharp ms. Folk Dance Note, Vol.2, English Folk Dance and Song Society, Cecil Sharp House, Regent’s Park Road, London

[2] George Bain, Celtic Art, The methods of Construction, Constable, London 1951, page 115.

[3] Francoise Henry, Irish Art: During the Viking Invasions, (London: Methuen 1967), p90

[4] J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903), (Edinburgh: The Society of Antiquaries, 1903 reprinted: Balgavies, Angus: The Pinkfoot Press, 2 vols, 1993

[5] F. Henry, The Book of Kells, Thames Hudson, London, 1974, page181



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