Dance music from the medieval era is hardly thick on the ground; a complete accounting of such works only adds up to about 70 to 80 pieces, most crammed into the odd margins of manuscript sources otherwise devoted to sacred or court music. One medieval source that forms an exception to the rule is Le Manuscrit du Roi, shelfmark fonds français 844 in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and also known as the Chansonnier du Roi. On folios 103-104 are found eight "Estampie Real" (i.e., royal); another estampie and two additional dances are located elsewhere in the volume. At one time, it was believed this manuscript volume belonged to Charles of Anjou, however its name probably stems from the fact that it contains a large concentration of chansons composed by King Thibault IV. The section containing the estampie is later than the rest of the volume, dating from around 1300, therefore well after Charles of Anjou perished during his final campaign in Sicily in 1285. It is not known which royal house once owned this volume, although it was certainly made for use in court, given its handsome miniatures and neat, easily legible layout.
Although the Estampie in the Chansonnier du Roi have been recorded many times under separate cover, recordings of all eight together are relatively uncommon, and they require a great deal of fleshing out. All are very short pieces made up of repetitive phrases, meant to follow the steps in dances about which we know nothing. Scholars are likewise divided on the meaning of the word estampie; at one time universally taken to mean stomp, some sources suggest the estampie was more stately than rustic, and yet others seem to suggest that the estampie might have been more of a meditative piece. In Alia Vox's Estampies & Danses Royales, Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI utilize the dances in the Chansonnier du Roi as the basis of an entire program, adding four pieces from vocal works identified as related to this genre and instrumentally performing the latter.
Curiously for Savall, these interpretations are rather safe and take a middle-ground approach. While informed by traditional Arabic music, in keeping with Savall and Hespèrion XXI's usual tactic in medieval literature, and utilizing tasteful percussion some scholars insist did not exist in medieval Europe, the dances are played at an even-keel tempo, and some pieces are played in a meditative, not dance-like vein. Although the brief melodies in the Chansonnier du Roi are the only part of the recipe we know for the royal estampie, their shape seems to lend itself to a lively and earthy treatment. While some pieces here rise to an exhilarating level of grandeur and dignity, none approaches the feverish pitch of performances of the same pieces, for example, by Frederick Renz and New York's Ensemble for Early Music or the Dufay Collective. While we do not know what kind of intonation was common in medieval times, the equal temperament utilized throughout this disc results in a bright sound that seems somewhat incongruous with the material.
Most fans of Hespèrion XXI will probably not see anything wrong with Estampies & Danses Royales and conversely will find it in keeping with Savall's other offerings. While it can hardly be described as a foot-stompin' good time, Savall's take on the estampie is certainly well worth experiencing and adds a distinctive perspective to the dialogue on what medieval dance music was all about.