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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

manuscript  of the month

Ballet Plots, Dance Figures, Alchemy and Fireworks

What information might you expect to find in the notebook of a dance master teaching and performing in Brussels in the second decade of the 17th century? If the material contained in the manuscript now held at the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm (Cod. Holm S 253) is anything to go by, the answers are surprising. Outlines of ballet plots (see fig. 1) or a list of ballet titles might be expected, as well as music for current, fashionable dances, but perhaps not instructions for making fireworks, for fumigating one’s house against the plague or for making wheat grow in poor soil, remedies for toothaches and epilepsy, or a recipe for making a cosmetic preparation to improve one’s complexion. What does this collection of such diverse material reveal about the manuscript, its owner, his activities and interests?

Fig. 1: Cod. Holm S 253, fol. 45r. Outline of the Ballet
of Seven Virtues, one of the six ballet plots recorded
in the manuscript. Reproduction: Andrea Davis Kronlund,
National Library of Sweden > Enlarge

Even though we do not know the name of the dance master who owned the manuscript, his character and interests emerge from the pages of the notebook. The range of subject matter of the recipes – medical, cosmetic and agricultural – reveals a man of wide interests, while the systematic canon of dance figures suggests someone with a logical mind, who appreciated order and design in his art, and his ironic comment on the lovers in the title of one of his ballet plots reveals his sense of humour. The notebook reveals that he was a busy entrepreneur who ran a school in Brussels where dance and music were taught throughout the year to students from a wide geographic area (including Denmark, England, Germany and France) and from a range of social backgrounds: gentlemen, ladies, knights and barons, the nobleman in charge of the household of the Prince of Lorraine. On one occasion the princes ‘de la sau’ are mentioned, but we do not know who they were (see fig. 2).

The personal nature of the manuscript is in keeping with its small size, with its paper cover being only 19.2 cm high and 14.5 cm wide, and the poor-quality paper that has further deteriorated due to time and use. Some edges have been torn off or worn away, and on many of the 122 folios ink has bled badly through the paper. It was not a manuscript that was ever destined for publication. While the writing on some folios is clear and legible, on others it looks rushed and messy. There are folios with lines crossed out, and instances of text being squeezed roughly into the available space. The notebook was originally a bound book of blank folios, as opposed to a collection of individual folios that were collected together and bound at a later date. This is clear from the fact that on several occasions the writer arrived at the end of the last stave on a folio’s verso before the piece of music was finished: the remainder of the piece is continued on the bottom of the next folio’s recto.

Fig 2: Fol. 68r, with signatures of dance pupils and
the entry recording the
princes de la sau who started
their lessons in Brussels (
a brucelle) on 8 February
(probably in 1617). Reproduction: Andrea Davis
Kronlund, National Library of Sweden > Enlarge

From the texts contained in the manuscript, written in French, fifteen different hands can be discerned, while six distinct hands wrote the music in the notebook. Substantial sections of the manuscript, such as the ballet plots, the instructions for making fireworks, and the instructions for the pike exhibition, are in seven clearly differentiated hands. This indicates that more than one person had access to the notebook, and had the responsibility of recording the songs and dance tunes that were taught to the students. In my opinion the notebook did belong to one person, but he allowed a number of different people to copy or record material in it. The hand that occurs throughout the manuscript, I suggest, is that of the dance master, the owner of the manuscript. The notebook must have been kept at the school run by the dance master in order to allow all the teachers to have access to it. The dance master also asked experts in the creation of fireworks and in staff weapons to write their contributions directly into his notebook. Apart from the dance master who owned the notebook, the other five musical hands most likely belonged to teachers at his school.

One of the unique features of this manuscript is that it records a canon of widely used dance figures or patterns which formed the basis of the choreographed danced spectacles performed at the French and English courts in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The staggering variety in this collection of figures for five to sixteen dancers is a telling reminder of just what was meant when contemporary witnesses wrote of their amazement at the bewildering variety of figures which unfurled before their eyes while watching a danced spectacle. In the manuscript, some of the figures have names, such as ceur (heart), croi (cross), solleille (sun), leunnes (moon), estoille (star), and pome de pin (pinecone). Other names describe a geometric figure such as a lozenge, square, or a pyramid (see fig. 3). The geometric figures had close associations with the nature of the cosmos and divine truth, while other named figures such as ‘salamander’ and ‘tortoise’ represented common alchemical images.

Fig. 3: Fol. 12r. The first fourteen figures for ten
dancers, including named geometric figures and
those with alchemical associations. Reproduction:
Andrea Davis Kronlund, National Library of Sweden
> Enlarge

The series of instructions for a virtuoso exhibition for one man with a pike that is recorded in the notebook is a precious document not found elsewhere in the historical record (see fig. 4). These instructions exhibit some characteristics of a choreographed dance, while sharing common elements with the military pike drill, and is a unique example of how the martial arts and the art of dance could be integrated to produce a spectacular demonstration of rhythm, balance, and dance-like control over one’s bodily movements, combined with the strength and dexterity required to manoeuvre a large, heavy staff weapon. These instructions may have been a record of a past performance, or they may have been prepared for a future event. Just as fireworks were a common part of spectacles so too were militaristic displays. It would be an advantage to a dance master when putting forward ideas for a spectacle to be able to have examples of the different components of such displays that he could show to potential patrons.

Fig. 4: Fol. 94r. The start of the instructions for the
pike exhibition that begins with a reverence (a bow).
Reproduction: Andrea Davis Kronlund, National
Library of Sweden. > Enlarge

This rare notebook is not a daily record of the activities of the dance master who owned it. Certainly it contains material that he could, and most probably did, use for teaching, but the contents are arranged in a more systematic manner than would be the case if that material had been added on a day-to-day basis. In my opinion, the notebook had several functions. It served as a repository of vocal and instrumental music that his students could learn. The pieces in the notebook were selected by the dance master from current printed collections to cater to the demands of his students, to whom he taught the latest fashionable dances and airs from the French court. It also served as a record of around 120 dance pupils taught at the school, with dozens of signatures of pupils and the dates they started dance lessons, as well as general descriptions of the dance students such as ‘the German baron’ (though it was not an account book that recorded payments for the lessons). It also functioned as a reference work, an aide-memoire for the many possible figures which could be used during the composition of entrées and the closing Grand Ballet of a ballet de cour, an indispensible tool for a professional dance master involved with theatrical dance performances. In part, the notebook also served as a curriculum vitae for its owner, as a written document that held examples of what he could teach and whom he had taught, and what he could choreograph and organize for a theatrical spectacle, ballet or masquerade. Today one might even describe such a document as an ‘event manager’s handbook’.

The notebook also had a domestic purpose; that is, the recording of useful remedies for everyday (and occasional) ills that could beset a person at that time. Centuries before ‘OK Google’ people collected and recorded information that they either needed in daily life or in which they were interested. Remedies for a toothache, or a preparation for a skin cream, not to mention fumigating one’s house against the plague, would fall into the first category, while instructions for making wheat grow, information not of immediate use to a city dweller, indicates the interests of our anonymous dance master ranged well beyond choreographic and musical matters.


BRINSON, Peter (1966): Background to European Ballet: A Notebook From its Archives. Leiden: Sijthoff.

McGOWAN, Margaret M. (2008): Dance in the Renaissance: European Fashion, French Obsession. New Haven: Yale University Press.

NEVILE, Jennifer (2018): Footprints of the Dance: An Early Seventeenth-Century Dance Master’s Notebook. Leiden: Brill.

RAVELHOFER, Barbara (2011): “Choreography as Commonplace”. In David J. Cowling and Mette B. Bruun (eds.): Commonplace Culture in Western Europe in the Early Modern Period: Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Revolt, vol. 1. Leuven: Peters.

Present Location: Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm
Shelfmark: Cod. Holm S 253
Material: Paper, 122 folios
Dimensions: 14.5 cm (w) x 19.2 cm (h)
Provenance: Brussels, c. 1615-1619

Manuscript of the Month 11/2017
Text by Jennifer Nevile
All images from Stockholm, Kungliga Biblioteket,
Cod. Holm S 253 are reproduced courtesy of the
National Library of Sweden.
Reference note:
Jennifer Nevile, “Ballet Plots, Dance Figures, Alchemy and Fireworks”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.11, SFB 950: Hamburg,