Project information

My postdoctoral project is entitled ‘Multimodal Machaut: Manuscript, Print, and Digital Receptions of the Oeuvre’. It is hosted at and funded by Multikul, the Centre for Multimodality and Cultural Change at the University of Agder, Norway. It began on 1st February 2013 and will run for two years.

The following is a summary of the project proposal. I welcome feedback and comments.


Multimodal Machaut: Manuscript, Print, and Digital Receptions of the Oeuvre


Multimodality in texts is not restricted to those produced in recent decades or centuries; as a phenomenon, multimodality has been known since long before texts came to be written. Indeed, it has been known since stories were told with song, which is arguably ever since stories have been told.

One site of multimodal play is that presented by manuscripts, particularly those which combine two (or more) of the elements of text, music and image, and the illustrated manuscripts of the French poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut offer a particularly rich repertory. Even in manuscripts which contain only text or only music, the overall presentation of the page and book is often at least as important as – if not more important than – the texts it contains.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, manuscripts were a site of play of visual and aural elements. On the one hand, texts and music were often received orally by an audience to whom they were read or sung aloud. On the other hand, technical developments, in musical notation and in scribal procedures, meant that more and more manuscripts were being designed to be received visually. Two well-known examples are the Livre de Fauvel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale fr. 146) and the Chantilly codex (Chantilly, Musée Condé 564).

In the last twenty years, huge advances have been made in the field of manuscript digitisation. Today, many medieval manuscripts, including a large number containing works by Machaut, are no longer confined to libraries, but are instead viewable online, via various different platforms. Manuscripts previously separate in time and distance can be brought together on the computer screen, often ‘digitally bound’ together through a web portal. In addition, teams of scholars are now coming together to share comments and ideas around the very manuscript image in discussion which, apart from exceptional instances with exhibitions or private collections, has not previously been possible owing to library regulations. This new aspect of multimodality, comparable to the scholarly commentaries witnessed in medieval annotated versions of texts (for example the Bible, L’Ovide moralisé, sermons), or to the onset of printing, offers an intriguing and previously uninvestigated dimension to the ongoing reception of manuscripts.

The proposed research will centre on manuscripts containing the works of Guillaume de Machaut which are available in digital format. The work builds on the author’s PhD thesis (Maxwell 2009) which studied the visual presentation of the six manuscripts that transmit a corpus which pertains to be Machaut’s ‘complete works’. The present project, however, whilst of course taking into account these vital sources, is more concerned with anthology manuscripts containing the work of more than one author, this culmination of sources being itself a pertinent aspect of multimodality.


Guillaume de Machaut was a figure popular in his lifetime and remained extremely influential for a generation or two afterwards, yet slipped into obscurity with the advent of printing. His works were virtually neglected until the nineteenth century, when the scholars now known as the early philologists began to work on extant manuscripts, editing the texts, and in some cases mutilating them (Earp 1995, 73-77). Machaut’s nineteenth-century editors saw him as a mediocre figure, little worthy of study.

Recent approaches to Machaut have resituated him as a highly influential poet-composer, writing for the highest offices in the land, author of a vast corpus of narrative and lyric poetry, and composer of the earliest attributable complete setting of the ordinary of the mass to have survived. While he has no great innovations to his name, he is credited with concretising many genres which were hitherto in a state of flux, namely the so-called formes fixes and particularly the lay. Several important studies of his work have been published in recent years. That for which Machaut is arguably most revered today, the multimodal Voir Dit, has been the subject of book-length studies by Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet (1985) and Deborah McGrady (2006). The most recent contribution to Machaut studies is a monograph by Elizabeth Eva Leach (2011), which situates Machaut’s works in the context of his biography. Still lacking is a study which situates the poet-composer and his works in the context of the surviving manuscripts, particularly those which fall outside of the central ‘complete-works’ corpus.

Although it has long been agreed that the works of Machaut as presented in manuscript represent a culmination of all of the elements of the page, this is the first work to link to them the term ‘multimodal’. Likewise, the application of multimodal theories to texts preserved in manuscript is a rarity; indeed, although some influential research has come close to exploring this concept (for example Nichols ed 1990), the author’s preliminary research suggests that the present work will be the first instance of the terms occurring together.

Methods and approaches

The author’s PhD thesis (Maxwell 2009) put forward a new interdisciplinary methodology for interpreting medieval manuscripts. This methodology, which draws on works such as B. Cerquiglini (1989), Huot (1987), and Leech-Wilkinson (2002) and relies heavily on primary sources, is founded on the premise that each of the manuscripts is a complete and unique artefact, irrespective of who created it and for what purpose. Building on this, the thesis argues that each manuscript can be considered a performance. When one of Machaut’s compositions (poetical, musical, or both) is preserved in more than one source, each such manuscript is considered as a performance in its own right. This performative approach allows for and indeed welcomes variations in interpretation and presentation, including those that appear to entail manipulations of the work itself, by performers as diverse as copyists (involved in internal, possibly mnemonic performance), oral interpreters (singing or reading out loud, either from memory or from a copy), editors (whatever their purpose and medium, be it a paper edition based on all sources or a digital edition of just one: and who may arguably be considered as being the copyists of today), and readers (scholarly and leisurely, from any era).

This method, however, can be enhanced. Gunther Kress has written several items on multimodality (see for example: Kress 2003 and 2004; Kress and van Leeuwen 1996 and 2002; Jewitt and Kress 2003), although, while he treats many aspects which ring true for medieval manuscripts, he does not explicitly venture into that specific area. Jacques Derrida’s notion of ‘grammatology’ (Derrida 1967) has been successfully applied to visual culture (Ulmer 1985). Grammatology, which considers the relation between spoken and written language, is also relevant to work on multimodal medieval manuscripts, as has been explored in preliminary work by the author (for example Maxwell 2010, Maxwell and Simpson 2011).

The present project will build on the performative method, successfully employed in the thesis for the manuscripts purporting to contain Machaut’s ‘complete works’, by enhancing it with aspects of the thinking of multimodality and grammatology. This new method will then be applied to manuscripts from the wider Machaut corpus. The performative method has been tested not only by the author but also by colleagues working on other aspects of literature and history of the Middle Ages (Maxwell, Simpson and Davies eds, 2012). Multimodality has been successfully applied to modern visual cultures (for example Duncum 2004). However, the proposed project will be the first to link the two.

The project hypotheses posit that the binding together of multiple works in a single volume, whether by accident or by design, influences the reader’s reception of all of the works. In addition, that which the author terms ‘digital binding’, that is, the grouping of multiple manuscripts, or links to these manuscripts, on websites or portals, also influences the reader, though to a different extent and in a different way. These aspects of reception pertaining to the increased modes of reception will be investigated.

Project aims

Machaut stands out as an important figure today because of the unusually large number of manuscripts containing works exclusively by him. The majority of late-medieval French authors, including Alain Chartier and Oton de Granson, are known only through anthology manuscripts containing the works of several authors, and indeed some of Machaut’s works also circulated in this way. Some of these manuscripts are preserved in their entirety, planned and designed to bind their contents together, with all works copied contemporaneously with each other. Other manuscripts contain principally a single work, other texts being appended at a later date. Finally, some manuscript anthologies appear to be collections of individual works of diverse prominence, bound together for reasons which are usually unknown. In all three cases, the combined contents take on new meanings when considered in context with their fellows (Huot 1987). Sometimes these new meanings can be considered intended, sometimes not; in any case, they influence the textual reception of each item within the whole.

The project sets out to answer two major questions:

1. How do multimodal techniques enhance our understanding of the Machaut anthology manuscripts?

2. How do different modes of reception, in particular digital reception, influence the reader’s perception of these texts?

These questions will be broken down further into specific areas of study:

i. What are/were the reasons and purposes for the multimodal formatting of the manuscripts in the ways in which they survive today?

ii. What patterns of textual and/or reader influence are revealed by the manuscripts?

iii. What is the effect of the multimodality of the page on the reader’s reception of the manuscripts?

iv. In what ways have the patronage and readership of the manuscripts changed over time?

v. What are and have been the purposes of editing (in whatever form) manuscript texts?

vi. What does it mean to be a multimodal reader in the digital age?



Cerquiglini, Bernard. 1989. Eloge de la variante. Paris: Le Seuil.

Cerquiglini-Toulet, Jacqueline. 1985. ‘Un engin si soutil’: Guillaume de Machaut et l’écriture au XIVe siècle. Geneva: Skatline.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Minuit.

Duncum, Paul. 2004. ‘Visual Culture isn’t Just Visual: Multiliteracy, Multimodality and Meaning’. Studies in Art Education 45:3, 252-64.

Earp, Lawrence. 1995. Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research. New York and London: Garland.

Huot, Sylvia. 1987. From Song to Book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jewitt, C. and G. Kress, eds. 2003. Multimodal Literacies. New York: Peter Lang

Kress, Gunther. 2003. Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Kress, Gunther. 2004. ‘Reading Images: Multimodality, Representation and New Media’. Conference presentation: Expert Forum for Knowledge Presentation: Preparing the Future for Knowledge Presentation. .

Kress, Gunther, and T. van Leeuwen. 1996. Reading Images: the grammar of graphic design. London: Routledge

Kress, Gunther, and T. Van Leeuwen. 2002. Multimodal Discourse: the modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Edward Arnold

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. 2010. Musicology, medieval to modern. Research website.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. 2011. Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2002. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maxwell, Kate. 2009. ‘Guillaume de Machaut and the mise en page of medieval French sung verse’. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Maxwell, Kate. 2010. ‘ “Grammatology” as a means of understanding early music notation: a look at the Chanson de Roland and the Voir Dit’. Conference presentation: RMA Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference.

Maxwell, Kate and James Simpson. 2011. ‘Page, Performance and Play: Presence and Absence in Medieval Lyric Transmission and Reinterpretation’. Conference presentation: Medieval Song Network Workshop II.

Maxwell, Kate, James Simpson and Peter Davies, eds. 2012 (forthcoming). Performance and the Page. Turnhout: Brepols (under negotiation).

McGrady, Deborah. 2006. Controlling Reasers: Guillaume de Machaut and his Late-Medieval Audience. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

Nichols, Stephen G., ed. 1990. The New Philology. Special Edition of Speculum (65:1).

Queen’s University Belfast. 2007. Geographies of Orthodoxy. Project website (principal investigator: John Thompson).

Stanford University, 2011. Machaut Resources. Digital Library maintained by Benjamin Albritton.

Ulmer, Gregory. 1985. Applied Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.