Benjamin Albritton’s Guest Blog: Six Fish, A Falcon, A Wounded Washerwoman, and The Dissertation Blues

April 13, 2007 at 10:00 am 1 comment

Item:  From the Lady of Pembroke, 3 pikes and 3 breams.*

Why does this send a thrill of anticipation down my spine?  Other than, as one of the early comments on this site pointed out, those of us who do this sort of thing are dorks?   Well, the Lady Pembroke happened to be part of a circle of ladies who were closely associated with Isabelle, the dowager queen of England.  You might remember Isabelle because Michael Crichton happened to use the spectacular death of her husband (by hot-poker-up-the-rear-so-as-not-to-mark-the-royal-body, if some of the chroniclers are to be believed), Edward II, in his rather iffy time-travel novel Timeline as an exemplar of the callow brutality of the fourteenth century.  Wondering what this has to do with musicology?  Well, Isabelle lent her cousin, the French king, several romances (including a Lancelot, apparently) while he was held hostage after the disastrous French loss at Poitiers, Lady Pembroke shared meals with him, and Lady Warren, the third in this trio of ladies, lent him her copy of the Bible, translated into French, which he later had rebound for her by a certain Marguerite, whose job title was “repairer.”

Item:  Marguerite, the repairer, for repairing a book where the Bible in French is contained, which belongs to the Lady Warren, and for recovering it and replacing its boards.

Still not clear on the musicology angle?  Okay, more on that in a minute, but first, a few observations. While looking over the previous posts here, two things struck me:  our field, and its sphere of discourse, is constantly changing (we sense that this is so, of course, but Drew’s post really brought it home); and we are constantly re-reading the past and making new links and discoveries among the ephemera and other assorted historical flotsam, jetsam, and prosthetics that others have collected, overlooked, ignored, or read in other ways.

Item:  Mahaut the washerwoman, the one that Beraut wounded with a knife; for paying her for the healing of said wound, by the order of J. Danville.

Returning to the relevance of these payment records to musicology for just a second, let me explain why fish, wounded washerwomen, and repaired books have me fired up.  I’ve been working on my dissertation on Machaut’s lais for a long time and have grown increasingly frustrated by my lack of knowledge of who would have listened to these poems and songs.  How do you reconstruct a context for a genre of music that is so “boring” (20 minutes of monophony!) that even most Machaut scholars steer clear?  Oh.  Right.  You reconstruct the context of performer, audience, and composer.  However, Machaut’s artistic output spans some fifty years during a period that comprised the Black Death, a chunk of the Hundred Years War, the beginnings of the Schism, and the aforementioned capture of the French king at Poitiers.  There is no one “audience” for his works, but rather multiple micro-audiences – specific courts, certain short spans of time, responses to individual works by individual readers.  As medievalists, we’re frequently confronted with reminders of the alien-ness of the past, of our inability to reconstruct context, of the ineffectuality of attempts to do so, or – as happens to me occasionally – blank stares from literary scholars as if I had just crawled out of the mud of some long-forgotten scholarly backwater, covered in moss and fungus, reeking of long-disabused methodologies.

Item:  Thènes de la Brune, for a yellow stone bought from him for the King, of which was made a signet for him, which signet is of a crescent moon on a field of stars; paid by the order of the King.

If we’re going to talk about a performative cultural object like music, though, how can we possibly ignore who listened to it, how they listened to it, when, and what else they did in their lives?  Of course, the modernists already know this and utilize their vast archival resources toward that end – unearthing false teeth, for instance, and explaining their relevance – it falls to those of us studying the music of earlier periods to find creative ways to make up for the huge gaps in source material which make deep context and comprehensive narrative such an elusive goal.


Item:  The King, for an offering made by him at the new Mass that the chaplain, Guillaume Racine, sang for the King.  Monsieur Philippe, for the same.


It is here that the work of 19th-century scholars can provide a key for the nascent medieval musical social historian.  Like most American students, I have not had access to the types of archival materials that our European and UK counterparts see as a matter of course, and when I finally got a chance to spend significant time in European libraries, I was unprepared for the fragmentary nature of collections, much less the learning curve required for reading crabbed chancery hands or deciphering shrunken, fire-damaged, illegible, and disordered documents.  However, nineteenth-century scholars like Léopold Delisle, Jules Delpit, Louis Douët-d’Arcq, and Henri d’Orléans, the duc d’Aumale produced, with the support of organizations like the Philobiblon Society, the Société de l’histoire de France, and many others, produced exhaustive diplomatic transcriptions of court documents, payment records, treaties, letters, legal transactions, and all manner of other seemingly non-musical documents that provide a first step toward investigating social context.  I say first step, because returning to the archives fulfills the treasure-hunting instinct many of us have – but our time in the archives can be greatly enhanced if we’ve already read a transcription (even a flawed one) of the script we’re going to be looking at.  And it is here that my chapter revelation of the fishes finally fits in.

Item:  Jaque, the repairer of books, for repairing one of the chapel breviaries, putting it in new boards, covering it anew in red leather, and decorating the leather.

It became clear, in the moment that I read about the fishes, and about the various other details of the French king’s life in England, including the money spent on book repair for breviaries and romances, and about the Scottish minstrels singing for him, and about the English falconer finding and returning Gace de la Buigne’s falcon (Gace would go on to write the Roman des deduis, inspired by his experiences with the French court in England), that audience context is abundantly available, and just waiting for more scholars to comb through what was collected in other contexts and apply it to our specific field.  We find, from the 1380s at the French court, payments made for named female singers, for a four-year old who sang before the king, for masses sung by multiple members of the chapel, all in the same context as payments for ginger, for fish, for the guy who jumped in the river for the king’s pleasure (I’m hoping he did something cool – like a swandive or cannonball), or simply for a new saddle.  The sheer diversity of entertainment at the courts becomes apparent after reading just a few of these records, and the place of music and poetry within the various courts can be guaged with some accuracy by what was paid for, and when.  These 19th-century monuments to a different era of scholarship, then, provide an easily accessible, rich vein to be re-mined.  A minor, and obvious, observation perhaps – but it was a revelation to me.


* All payment items drawn from: Henri d’Orléans, Duc d’Aumale, Notes et documents relatifs à Jean, Roi de France, et à sa captivité en Angleterre, Philobiblon Society Miscellanies 2 (London:  Imprimerie de C. Whittingham, 1855-56).  All translations mine, and somewhat freely done.
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A little old-school new school for the new-school old school Papers and Performances: GSIM 10 in Review

1 Comment

  • 1. amusicology  |  November 14, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Originally Posted by Lisa Hirsch at 2007-04-26 08:46

    This is really quite fantastic. I have done some archival research and love it for just the reasons you cite – so much to be learned, sitting right there.

    There is a marvelous book, “The Wooden World,” by N.A.M. Roger, that is based on archival research about the Royal Navy in the late 18th century, just before Nelson. You would very likely enjoy it.


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