The Lusty Dancing Priest of Rufforth

The Wedding Dance, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Records of Early English Drama North-East project presents its latest Flower of the Month – an intriguing find from the archives of the region. This month’s Flower features a certain Sir Tristram Tildsley, vicar of Rufforth and Marston, who in 1581 faced accusations that he had debased his job by dancing and playing at bowls.

Rather than conducting Sunday services for his parishioners in these two Yorkshire villages, Tildsley seems to have preferred to spend his time bowling, behaving in a way “most contrarie to his vocation.” Worse, he apparently had a penchant for dancing with the ladies, which led to one unfortunate incident when Sir Tristam allegedly tried to kiss a young maid:

the said trystrame was so lusty in his dauncinge that eyther he kyssed or offered to kysse the said hunter’s doughter a younge woman and a yonge felowe who kyssed her was beaten on the face by sir trystrome

[the said Tristam was so lusty in his dancing that either he kissed or offered to kiss the said hunter’s daughter, a young woman, and a young fellow who kissed her was beaten on the face by Sir Tristam]

What – beyond the slapstick comedy of it – makes an incident like this of interest to literature scholars? As Professor Ted McGee (University of Waterloo, Ontario) explains, by burrowing deeper into the archives and history of performance, an alternative view of Sir Tristam comes to light. Such acts of “kissing” may in fact have been part of a folk tradition, and while Sir Tristam was reported to have enjoyed his moments in church on Sundays, where he did “Daunce skip leape and hoighe gallantly,” rather than this being scandalous Sir Tristam may have been acting the performative part some people expected of him – albeit a little too exuberantly.

One aim of Records of Early English Drama is to uncover examples of the now forgotten traditions that were attached to communities and towns, and to see how festivals and dances were important rituals with their own codes of practice and reception, which evolved into the medieval and later drama that we are more familiar with.

You can read more about the revealing case of Sir Tristam Tildsley over at the Records of Early English Drama North East blog.

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