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Information: A dance.

Perhaps derived from the French (?) Carole, which resembles the Faroe Islands chain dance step and the 6-count pattern of the area of Alexander's empire.

Translation: See ETYMOLOGY below.

Pronunciation: In French and 16-17c English, like English BRAWL. In modern English, like English BRAN+NIL slurred together.

Region: France


In 16th and 17th century France, a branle (pronounced like English "brawl") was a type of group dance, done in a circle if there were a sufficient number of dancers, or otherwise as an "open circle" with the leader on the left (consistent with Arbeau's teaching that the net movement of the dance was to the left). Our documentation for it is from books on court dancing but Arbeau (1589) says that the branles evolved from French folk dances. It is also likely that the court branles in turn influenced the folk forms.

The most basic branles were the branle double (8 counts; step-together-step-close left, then repeated but with smaller steps to right) and the branle simple (6 counts; step-together-step-close to left, step-close to right). The step-close is sometimes referred to itself as a simple, as in Arbeau's description of the simple of the basse dance (55). The 1998 Library of Congress videos are faithful to the description of these dances by Arbeau (note that the "together" is not quite a close).

[Search the Internet for "Branle." The Library of Congress videos are easy to find.]

One can readily imagine them as folk dances (and Arena, 1520s, complains about how the country folk do branles –s205).

The branle coupé (mixed branle) uses a combination of doubles, singles, and perhaps other movements and Arbeau describes over a score of these. (There are many additional branles named by Arbeau, or in musical sources, for which we don't have step descriptions.) Some of the branles feature miming movements–"beating the washing" like a washerwoman, or pawing the ground like a horse. The Branle Official was an early example of a dance with a partner lift The Pease Branle and the Horse Branle had a challenge-response sequence.

A few branles had unusual evolutions. The Montarde Branle had one-by-one turns and a cast off to the end of the line. The Hay Branle had a "hay," and the Candlestick Branle was a mixer in which the dancer holding the candle (or torch) walks about, picks a partner, and then after they dance together, the partner takes the torch and finds a new partner.

The spirit of one-upmanship among dance masters guaranteed that more and more complicated branles would be devised. Arbeau says, "Whenever a new branle, termed a ballet and intended for use in a masquerade at some festival, is composed, the young people immediately introduce it into the ballroom and bestow what name they please on it" (p153). The Maltese Branle was one first choreographed for a court masquerade.

John Marston, The Malcontent (1604) Act IV makes fun of complex "brawl" dance patterns (and the description is reminiscent of Arbeau's Branle de Malte):

Aurelia (Duchess): We have forgot the brawl.
Ferrardo (Duke's minion): So soon? 'Tis wonder.
Guerrino (Courtier). Why? 'Tis but two singles on the left, two on the right, three doubles forward, a traverse of six round; do this twice, three singles side, galliard trick of twenty, coranto-pace, a figure of eight, three singles broken, down, come up, meet, two doubles, fall back, and then honor.
Aur: O Daedalus, thy maze! I have quite forgot it.
Maquerelle (guarding the duchess' door from interruption): Trust me, so have I, saving the falling back and then honour.

(Some internet sources appear unaware that this was parody, despite the giveaway in the last two lines quoted above!)

It appears that it was permissible for the more energetic dancers to "ornament" the figures, putting in little springs on their steps, kicking instead of closing, or even substituting a triple-scissor (fleurette = little flower) for a step-close. (If you did so, it was essential to maintain the leftward or rightward movement of the steps you were ornamenting.)

For Arbeau, the gavotte was a hybrid dance featuring both branle and galliard figures. While a group dance, from time to time a couple would move to the center of the circle and do some fancy footwork, and then "this first dancer proceeds to kiss all the damsels in the room and his partner kisses all the young men," and then they return to the circle.

The branles were sometimes organized into suites. One common arrangement in Arbeau's time was of the double, simple, gay (gai) and Burgundian branles and he indicates there were suites of the mixed branles, too. In the 1620s and 1630s, the suite consisted of four to six dances, the branle simple, branle gai, and some combination of the branle a mener (branle do Poitou), double de Poitou, branler de Montirande, and the gavotte (Garlick). A similar suite is mentioned in a 1690 dictionary (Semmens).

According to Arbeau, a French ball began with branles (p. 128). That was still the case in 1636, according to Mersennes, and even more than a century later (Rameau 1725). The practice in England is believed to be different, with the "measures" at the beginning and "possibly the branles and country dances at the end." (Daye).


In old French, the infinitive branler means "to shake". See Anglo-Norman dictionary, http://www.anglo-norman.net/gate/. In modern French, branler means to swing, shake, totter or budge (Spiers 103). Some  writers (e.g., Wood; Kassing 73; Johnston I:199) say that it means "sway" or "balance" in French. In 16th and 17th century English, the word branle (bransle, brawl, braule) could refer to a kind of dance, the music suitable for that dance, or to being in a state of "wavering" or "agitation." (OED).

The current theory among dance historians is that the term was applied to the dance because most branles (branle gai is an exception) moved both leftward and rightward, i.e., "swayed" or "shook."

The comparable dance terms elsewhere in Europe were brando (Italian, plural brandi), brangle (Scottish), and bran (Spain). Mid 17th century German and Austrian dance music sources appear to use the French term (Robertson 51, 65, 98, 214-5).


Arbeau (1589) says that it was done by "as many young men as do damsels," implying that dancers joined the dance as couples, and elsewhere indicates that the lady is on the right. Arena (1520s) lists the branles as being among the dances in which one might "bestow prolonged kisses" on one's partner (s349).

According to DeLauze (1623) and Mersenne (1636), in the balls of their day, "each couple led in turn, before retreating to the end of the line...." (Semmens 1997, p. 36). At a formal ball, the couples would form up in order of precedence. Rameau (1725) says "At the conclusion of the strain, the King and Queen went to the end of the line, then the next couple led the Branle in their turn, after which they took up their positions behind their Majesties. This continued thus until all the couples had danced and the King and Queen were at the head again." (Lindahl).


The double and simple (single) figures of the branle were found in an older dance, the basse dance. (Arbeau 55-56). Arbeau notes that when he wrote Orchesography, the basse dance had been out of date for forty or fifty years.

Isabelle d'Este and Anna Sforza danced French country dances, which perhaps were branles, in 1491 (Sachs 111). The Fader (Scotland, 1500) mentions the "brawll of France". (Machaffie).

According to Antonius de Arena, in the 1520s, the branle double and the branle simple were the ones "customarily danced" (s233), but he also refers to "mixed branles" (s245).

The Complaint of Scotland (1543) lists a variety of court dances, including  branles (Machaffie). In Love's Labor Lost (1590s) Armando's page says "Master, will you please win your love with a French brawl." Milanese royalty danced a brandi for 8 in 1574; 82 dancers enjoyed a brandi in 1594. Arbeau's 1589 dance treatise (Orchesography) sets forth steps for 24 branles, and there are many branles in de Lauze's 1623 monograph. Six types are mentioned by Mersennes (yes, the mathematician!) in 1636. In the reigns of French kings from Francis I to Louis XIV, the French ball began with a series of branles. (Sachs 385). According to Gyorgy Martin (17), "A French seventeenth-century abbot tells of dancing at the princely court of Transylvania where chain dances resembling the Branle were followed by couple dances like the French Contra-Danse."

By the mid-seventeenth century, however, the branle was fading in popularity. In 1642 Spain, it was an old dance that dance masters had to know but which wasn't actually danced (Brooks 79). Still, Pepys saw branles at a court ball in 1666 (Sachs 124), and it was still identified as the first dance of the ball in Rameau (1725).

There are descriptions of the early 18th century branle in Beauchamps-Feuillet notation (Semmens), but since I do not know that notation I cannot comment on them. But Semmes says that they are "figured dances for one or two couples" and hence they might be regarded as branles in name only.


(1) Arbeau is the source usually relied on for reconstruction of the 16c branle. The descriptions in Arena (1520s)(see s149, s165, s233, s239, s247) are in conflict with Arbeau, for example, saying that the movement is forward and backwards rather than sidewards, describing the double as step-close-reverse direction step-together, and elsewhere saying that the double is three steps forward and two back. The branle descriptions in de Lauze (1623) are reportedly "difficult to decipher", and Negri's brandi "bear little resemblance" to the French branles (Kite-Powell 411).

(2) Arbeau also refers to a "branle" as being a component of the older "basse dance." This branle itself is just a series of slight turns of the body, and has no relationship with the branle dance. As previously noted, however, the basse dance did feature double and simple step-patterns.

(3) I am not aware of any primary source that specifies the hand hold for the branle. With reference to another dance, the galliard, Arbeau depicts the man holding the woman's hand at waist level, elbows slightly bent, her palm down and his up (p. 80). And the  basse dance is shown as being hands down (p. 55). Consistent with this, the Library of Congress' online video reconstructions of the branle feature a V-hold (joined hands at or below waist level). There is a 1662 illustration by Israel Silvestre depicting the "Bal dans la Grande antichambre du Louvre", and this has been interpreted (Garlick) as an illustration of the branle in Louis XIV's court. The dancers are in an open circle and hands are joined at waist level.

The cover of Orchesography, however, shows a circle dance with hands up (at about armpit level). And there is a 1463 illustration of dancers who are using W-hold (at shoulder level), with linked pinkies to boot (Durham).

It is possible that more than one hold was used. The traditional French folk dance An Dro, as danced today, is essentially a branle double in which the hold is linked pinkies and the arms move from V-hold to W-hold and back again.


Arbeau [Tabourot], Orchesography [transl. Evans] (Dover Press 1967)
Arena, Rules of Dancing [transl, Guthrie and Zorzi in Dance Research: J. Soc'y Dance Research 4(2): 3-53 (Autumn 1986
Brooks, The Art of Dancing in Seventeenth Century Spain: Juan de Esquivel Navarro and his World (2003)
Cohen, ed., International Encyclopedia of Dance (1998) (6 vols.) [Ency.]
Daye, Youthful Revels, Masks and Courtly Sights, an introductory study of the revels within the Stuart masque, Historical Dance 3(4) 5-17 (1996)
De Lauze, Apologie de la Danse (1623) scanned copy (french) here https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/ there is an English translation by Wildeblood (1952)
Durham, Survey of European Dance Sources, 1400-1700 http://www.peterdur.com/
Garlick, Dances to Evoke the King: The Majestic Genre Chez Louis XIV Dance Research: J. Soc'y Dance Res., 15(2): 10-34 (Winter 1997)
Kite-Powell, A Performer's Guide to Seventeenth Century Music, Second Ed. (2012)
Johnston, All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World (2011)
Kassing, History of Dance (2017) Lindahl, Stepping on Our Toes: Some Background on Branles http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/
Machaffie, "Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Dancing" http://www.nonvi.com/sm/
Martin, Hungarian Folk Dances (Corvina Press 1974)
Mersennes, Harmonie Universelle (1636) scanned copy (Fench) here: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/ There is an English translation by Chapman (1957)
Robertson, The Courty Consort Suite in German-Speaking Europe, 1650-1706 (2017)
Sachs, World History of the Dance (1937) Spiers, Nouveau dictionnaire général anglais-franc̦ais (1891)
Wood, English Country Dance Prior to the 17th Century, J. Engl. Folk Dance & Song Soc'y, 6(1): 8-12 (Dec. 1949)


This essay copyright © 2020 by Iver P. Cooper.


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