Loyola University Chicago

Medieval Studies

The Pelota and the Easter Dance

One of the possible functions of the labyrinth, especially those found in the cathedrals of Reims and Auxerre, was to mark out the area which would be used in an Easter ritual where local monks and clergymen jumped, danced, and tossed a leather ball, called a pelota, to each other.[1]  Eugene Louis Backman, in his work, Religious Dances, states that these actions would have been akin to a mystery play where the labyrinth literally became the stage for the festivities.  So what could this ritual have represented?  According to Backman:

The dance symbolized the joyous and triumphal journey after the Resurrection from the labyrinthine kingdom of the dead.  The great ball was the Sun of Resurrection and Righteousness, i.e., the resurrected and victorious Christ.[2]

Having said that, there is some debate as to how far this evidence can be extended in relation to other French pavement labyrinths. Daniel Connolly points out that there is only one known text, dating from 1396, which describes these festivities.[3]  Since this postdates the construction of the French labyrinths by some two centuries, Connolly argues that the dances and games would not have been the primary purpose driving their construction.  Viewing the games as popular occurrences in cathedrals throughout France, Connolly cites the discourse of a certain John Beleth, who as rector of the University of Paris wrote the Rationale divinorum officiorum in 1165 and an almost identical text by Guillaume Durand, Bishop of Mende, who published under the same title in the thirteenth century, to illustrate how widely practiced this festivity must have been that two scholarly men would seek to describe it.[4]  The reasoning goes, if the dances were just a local color, taking place only in Auxerre and Reims it would not have attracted too much attention.  Since they wrote, it must have been a prevalent practice.  Therefore, it could be that these dances developed after the labyrinths had already been constructed, but even if this is so, the descriptions of the dances being performed at Reims and Auxerre suggests that the labyrinth was an integral aspect of these mystery plays, which would seem to point toward a continuing evolution of this object.          

[1] Connolly, 292; Kern, Through the Labyrinth, 146-147, 150; Edith B. Schnapper “Labyrinths and Labyrinth Dances in Christian Churches,” in Festschrift Otto Erich Deutsh, Ed. Walter Gerstenberg et al. Kassel, 1963. 352-360.

[2] E. Louis Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine (Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1977) 328-330.

[3] Connolly, 292; Backman, 66-70.

[4] Connolly, 292.