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Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Great news – the following has now been published: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption edited by Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, Liverpool University Press, 2013.

Look, isn’t it pretty? Seriously though, there are some great articles. Mine is on the order of the lays in manuscript Paris, BnF fr 9221 (Machaut E), and it’s in very good company. Can’t wait for the hard copy to be in my hands.

Exeter book

I’ve been edited a few times, and this was certainly one of the most painless. The editors were helpful, courteous, efficient, and above all their work improved my article. (Sadly, that is not always the case; so it is doubly appreciated here.)

And of course, if you want to buy the book, you can get it here.

This review is also posted on the Medieval Song Network site here.

Review of the conference ‘Guillaume de Machaut: Music, Image, Text in the Middle Ages’, University of Exeter, UK, 29-30 April 2013

From the Exeter project site: Machaut.exeter.ac.uk

From the Exeter project site: Machaut.exeter.ac.uk

This conference took place to mark the approach of the end of the Leverhulme-funded phase of the Machaut edition project, which will for the first time provide a comprehensive edition of Machaut’s complete works and music (see machaut.exeter.ac.uk). A full list of papers can be seen here, and the conference was live-tweeted by Elizabeth Eva Leach (@eeleach), with Kate Maxwell (@skatemaxwell) taking over when necessary. These tweets can be found with the hashtag #Machex13.

All domains from Machaut studies were represented, with a fair number of papers crossing interdisciplinary boundaries. In addition, a concert by Le Basile provided a rare and much-appreciated opportunity to hear Machaut’s works performed live. On the historical side of things, project co-leader Yolanda Plumley together with Uri Smilansky revealed more details about the colourful courtier whose arms adorn BnF fr. 22545-6 (ms F-G). Perhaps more importantly, their paper revealed his extensive travels and associations with other manuscripts, thereby helping to expand the picture of manuscript patronage and exchange at the time. In a similar vein, Anna Alberni offered an insight into the role of some isolated works by Machaut in Biblioteca de Catalunya 7-8 (the chansonnier Vega-Aguiló) and the presence of Machaut’s works in Aragon more generally (a paper which chimes in well with that given by Lawrence Earp at the ‘Machaut in the Book’ symposium in Virginia, reviewed here). Machaut’s presence – bodily or otherwise – in Saint-Quentin in Picardy was the focus of David Fiala’s paper, which also shed some light on another clerkly musician at the Luxemburg court. Another paper which examined both musical and religious issues was that by Thomas Neal, who argued that the triplum and motetus voices of Motet 21 can be read as tropes, since they draw so heavily on the vocabulary and structure of office hymns. Emphasising art-historical issues, Julia Drobinsky’s analysis of the placement of miniatures in BnF fr. 22545-6 revealed that the artist of this manuscript – or the person issuing artistic instructions – paid close attention to the placement of the miniatures which emphasise the steps of a story more closely than any of the other illuminated Machaut manuscripts.

Of course, Machaut’s literary output also came under scrutiny, and in the first session of the first day, project co-leader R. Barton Palmer and Helen Swift both examined authorship and identity in Machaut’s works. While Swift argued for a mutable ‘je’ in relation to the Jugement dou roi de Behaigne and its accompanying images, Palmer included the two jugement poems, the Lai de plour ‘Qui bien aimme’, and the Voir dit in his paper where he traced the idea of authenticity both from the ‘inside’ – within the works – and the ‘outside’ – in the eyes (or ears) of the readers. Tamsyn Rose-Steel’s analysis of word repetition – particularly that of the ‘sans penser’ motif – in the lyrics now commonly known as the Louange des dames traced this single motif through the entire collection, from the very first line of the first poem, thus illustrating its importance.

On the second day, there were a number of papers which were intensely musicological in nature. The first of these was by Jared Hartt, who proposed a rethinking of the accepted notion of the workings of harmonies in Machaut’s mass so that, in line with research into his other works, the roles of the tenor and contratenor are not as clear-cut as has been previously thought. Following him, Anne Stone gave a paper in which she undertook a rhythmic analysis of two ballades which focused on the order of rhythms at the breve level. Her results showed the importance of the rhetorical technique of orditorio even at this micro level. David Maw’s paper argued that Machaut’s music displays ‘a pure intransitive subjectivity’, which he illustrated though Rondeau 5. The other session which was musicological in nature offered more in the way of text-music relations. Virginia Newes’s paper on the monophonic virelais in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) asked important questions regarding line lengths and scribal awareness of rhyme issues, and Warwick Edwards’s work on accent structures and their complicated relation to musical phrasing played its part in revealing the shift from an oral to written culture – from song to book – which was well underway by the fourteenth century.

Turning now to those papers which were more overtly interdisciplinary in nature, the jugement poems once again came into focus in Emma Cayley’s paper, which dwelt on the possible causes of damage – deliberate or not – to the miniatures in BnF fr. 1584 (ms A), relating them to the verb ‘effacier’ which appears in the Jugement dou roi de Navarre when the judge is asked to overturn the outcome of Behaigne. Another paper which combined textual and visual analysis was that of Emma Dillon, whose exploration of the circularity and function of the rondelet in the Remede de Fortune linked both to the miniature in BnF fr. 1586 (ms C) and to the layout of the page as a whole. Taking interdisciplinarity and layout issues one step further, Kate Maxwell presented some of the ‘modes’ at play on a single manuscript folio, arguing that the framework of ‘multimodality’ can be a rewarding method of manuscript analysis. Two papers combined musical and textual issues: Dmitris Kountouras’s analysis of the complainte in the Remede de Fortune – ‘Machaut’s only lament’ – offered new insights into this long and musically repetitive piece; and Jacques Boogaart’s interpretation of Motet 7 brought both David’s lament for Absalom and the story of the orgueilleuse alongside a musical analysis which suggested a ‘tantalising feeling of unobtainable perfection’.

Such a phrase is perhaps also applicable to the edition project itself, which was the subject of a round table given by members of the project team. With so much on offer – searchable online texts, recordings, and a new edition of the music, to name but a few of the delights displayed – the appetite of delegates was certainly whet for the eagerly anticipated release of the first portions later this year. Perfection is, indeed, difficult to obtain, and with audience queries focusing on compatibility and longevity of the online sections of the project, only time will tell whether all these expectations can be met. Nevertheless, as reading Machaut only reminds us, we should banish Desire and put our trust in Hope (admittedly assisted in her duties here by the skills of the project team). What is certain is that, with two major projects flowering this year and bearing fruit in the near future, Machaut studies will never be the same again.

This review is also published on the Medieval Song Network site here.

Review of the Mellon Research Symposium ‘Machaut in the Book’, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 11-12th April 2013

This symposium marks one of the culmination points in the Mellon-funded project ‘Machaut in the Book’ led by Deborah McGrady and Benjamin Albritton. (For a list of participants and abstracts, see here) It was an intimate gathering of some eighteen invited participants, and consisted of twelve extended research papers, one round table, and much discussion over the course of two days. The project participants had enjoyed access to those digitised manuscripts containing works by Guillaume de Machaut which they required for their research. (For a full list see the Stanford portal) In addition, access had been provided to two digital tools for research: TPen, for transcription, and DM, which facilitates annotation, linking, and more. Both tools allow collaboration between scholars, and both are in advanced stages of development. It was thus no secret that the participants were in some ways ‘Guinea pigs’, testing the adaptability of the tools to their individual research. Perhaps the principal outcome of the symposium was to alter the focus of Machaut studies to the whole manuscript corpus, rather than to focus virtually exclusively on the single-author codices. Most papers addressed one or more anthology manuscripts, some exclusively, thus showing that valuable scholarship is being undertaken with regards to these sources. The research was helped – if not inspired by – the ever-increasing availability of these sources in digital form, together with the collaboration and transcription tools.

Rising manuscript stars which are starting to reveal their secrets include the Pennsylvania chansonnier (University of Pennsylvania ms 902 (formerly French 15)) and Paris, BnF naf 6221 (papers by Maureen Boulton, Liza Strakhov). Two papers discussed the presentation of a Machaut work nestled in a single anthology (Mark Cruse, Rachel Greer), and two more traced the cross-manuscript transmission of individual lyrics (Benjamin Albritton, Kate Maxwell). All three principal disciplines in Machaut studies were well represented, with Helen Swift discussing the mutability of Machaut’s ‘je’, Anna Zayaruznaya tracing the complications surrounding the use of the musical ‘introitus’, Elizabeth Voss discussing the miniature to the Prise d’Alixandrie in BnF fr. 1584, and Domenic Leo correcting some of the work of François Avril pertaining to BnF fr. 1586. Two papers brought new light to individual single-author manuscripts: that of Jennifer Bain on the ordering of BnF fr. 9221; and that of Lawrence Earp, whose work on the likely commissioner of the Ferrell manuscript (currently housed in the Parker Library, Cambridge, without shelfmark) and BnF fr. 1585 means that a plausible picture of the patrons for the magnificent single-author codices is now almost complete. The closing round-table and group discussion centred around the effects and uses of digitisation and technology, and of thoughts for future work – a future which promises more exciting developments in the field.

At the closing dinner, I proposed a toast to what I personally considered to be three of the project’s greatest witnesses: to the faith that the principal investigators showed the participants throughout; the fun that we had working with the sources and tools and above all with each other; and to the fellowship that the project had engendered among Machaut scholars. If you have a glass to hand, I hereby invite you to raise it too.

This blog post has been a long time coming as I had to write a paper for a super-exciting conference at the University of Virginia which I will be attending next week. (For details see here.) As part of this paper I revisit the familiar medieval figure of Fortune, particularly her wheel.

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

BnF fr. 9221 (E), fol. 206v

Throughout Machaut’s seminal Voir dit Fortune’s wheel turns, first raising then lowering the lovers’ fates. (This is argued by Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet in her book Guillaume de Machaut et l’écriture au XIVe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1985), if anyone wishes to pursue it further.)

In my paper next week I will argue that the placing of the final group of Machaut items in the Pennsylvania Chansonnier (UPenn 902, viewable here) in fact reverses this wheel by re-using images from the Voir dit and representing them in the new format, often using different lyric items, and in reverse order, thus returning the lovers to their state of anticipation at the start of the tale. This whole thought process, then, is the background to this short reflection on circles and cycles.

N21 coverFor now, however, a step back (or ahead, since we are briefly leaving the Middle Ages). In 2009, the remarkable anthology Notations 21 was published by Mark Batty publishers. It is a collection of graphic scores in honour of the legendary John Cage, specifically marking the 40th anniversary of his own collection entitled ‘Notations’. (The project is ongoing: see notations21.net for more details.) It is, in some ways, a chansonnier, since it contains musical compositions (and additionally works of art inspired by the music), however, all of the works are presented with their creator’s name attached. Interestingly, though, the cover does clearly state ‘By Theresa Sauer’, clearly giving her authority over the collection. Naturally, she is listed as ‘author’ in many of the catalogues in which this book appears. Yet, although being the driving force behind the collection, she is but one of many creative artists whose work it portrays. In scholarly terms, she is closer to an editor, or to a director, than to a book’s ‘author’ in the traditional sense. Yet her name, placed as the highest textual item on the cover, is a striking witness to her involvement in the collection, and not at all unlike the rubric which we saw in the last blog post here invoking Machaut’s authority over one of the manuscripts transmitting his works.

Nevertheless, in this book there is one work in particular which draws its inspiration from the form of the circle, or, perhaps more accurately, the cycle. It is entitled ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, and is found on p. 147.Maxwell Performing Notation, Notation Performing 1b
Many medievalists will recognise the similarities between the visual presentation of this piece and one of those by Baude Cordier in the celebrated Chantilly codex (Musée Condé ms 564).
CND131271

Both have the structure of one large circle surrounded by four smaller ones. In the Notations 21 piece the principal circle is broken, rolling off into the difference. Cordier’s work is well behaved, enclosed within its page. Both works feature music in the central circle and text in the outer circles, though the piece in Notations 21 has a lengthy prose text within its principal circle. Of the outer circles, those in the Notations 21 piece offer quotations on music – including one from John Cage himself – whereas the small circles in the Cordier piece provide instructions for performance and additional verses. Both pieces make use of a limited colour palette, and present the composer’s name: Cordier’s at the head of the piece, that of ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ somewhat more modestly, yet nevertheless unashamedly, across the bottom of the page.

Both works are entirely hand drawn, one on parchment, the other on paper. Now, both are only available to view via the transcoded means of the computer screen or the book page: Notations 21 contains a high-quality reproduction, the Chantilly codex is kept under strict lock and key but is available in facsimile. Indeed, while the ‘original’ codex is indeed still in existence for the Chantilly codex, the French postal system saw to it that Notations 21 is, in fact, the ‘original’ for ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, since the precious piece of paper itself never made it home.

Unlike many of the items in Notations 21, ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ contains no explanation, no instructions. This was a deliberate decision, since I preferred to leave any interpretation to performers/readers. What I have said so far in this post is merely what someone with some knowledge of medieval music would be able to infer without too much forethought, and I do not wish to speak as the work’s composer. What follows, then, is written not from the point of view or the composer, but as an interpreter, looking at the work in the light of my current multimodal project. Imagine, then, if you will, a line across the page: any composer’s insider knowledge that may have been present stops here.

In the seminal Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (Abingdon: Routledge, 1996, 2nd ed. 2006), they offer the following analysis of the forms of the circle:

‘Circles and curved forms generally are the elements we associate with an organic and natural order, with the world of organic nature – and such mystical meanings as may be associated with them derive from this. Angularity we associate with the inorganic, crystalline world, or with the world of technology, which is a world we have made ourselves, and therefore a world we can, at least in principle, understand fully and rationally. The world of organic nature is not of our making, and will always retain an element of mystery. Curved forms are therefore the dominant choice of people who think in terms of organic growth rather than mechanical construction, in terms of what is natural rather than in terms of what is artificial.’ (p. 55)

It is not a great leap of deduction, then, to posit that the use of circles here to present visual music is a nod to music’s natural qualities, that is to say that music is a function of humankind that is not of our making and not entirely of our knowing. Both pieces bend the staves into a circular shape, thus transmorphing that which seeks to contain music to let it speak a new shape, a natural shape. In ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ the broken circle can be seen both as a distortion and an escape: the music escapes from the staves and, indeed, from the page. The notation starts which neumes and moves chronologically through various versions until it can no longer be contained on paper: in the eleven centuries following the invention of musical notation in the West only a minority of music has ever been written down, and collections such as Notations 21 only go to show that the boundaries of the stave are as fragile now as they ever were.

Additionally, both pieces make extended use of the areas of ‘centre’ and ‘margin’ on the page, and Kress and van Leeuwen can help us with that, too:

‘[I]f a visual composition makes significant use of the Centre, placing one element in the middle and the other elements around it, we will refer to the central element and Centre and to the elements around it as Margins. For something to be presented as Centre means that it is presented as the nucleus of the information to which all the other elements are in some sense subservient. The Margins are these ancillary, dependent elements. In many cases the Margins are identical or at least very similar to each other, so that there is no sense of a division between Given and New and/or Ideal and Real elements among them. In other cases … Centre and Margin combine with Given and New and/or Ideal and Real.’ (p. 197. Explanations of the horizontal ‘given’ and ‘new’ and vertical ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ can be found on pp. 181 and p. 186 respectively.)

But what of the reading path of such images? ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ invites a reading path whereby the more accessible text, that is the text in the margins, is read first, since this does not require turning an unwieldy book or screen (particularly a screen which ‘helpfully’ keeps images the ‘right’ way up when turned). Thus the marginal texts enter the reader’s mind first, and it is having read them – and probably the composer’s name – that the reader will turn to the words which are at the centre of both the page and importance. Finally, the reader may begin to decipher the notation, and decide whether and how the elements of the page should be rendered together, and what to do about the palindromic title.

Cordier’s ‘Tout par compas’, on the other hand, invites a reading which begins with the words under the musical notation, and then, for this reader at least, a preliminary look at the notation itself. Before proceeding too far with this challenging task (and it is challenging, even more so today than for those who grown up seeped its conventions), however, I look to the marginal texts for instructions, for clues. Once these have been assimilated, my attention returns to the musical notation. There are enough ‘clues’ provided that a coherent performance can be obtained from the manuscript; indeed, here is one now, courtesy of youtube and, more specifically, Ensemble Organum (it’s high time we heard some more music on this blog):

Tout par compas

This brief survey of two works has indeed been brief. It has not attempted a detailed analysis of either, merely drawn some links between them and offered some thoughts on circles and cycles. But one of the most intriguing things to have emerged from it, for me, is the link between both the graphic compositions and Fortune’s wheel. Look again at the miniature from BnF fr. 9221 (Machaut manuscript E) up at the top of the page. See those four circles within the wheel? Yeah, so do I. It seems that Katelijne Schiltz has had something to say about ‘Tout par compas’ and Fortune’s wheel, though I have not yet been able to consult a copy of her article ‘Visual Pictorialism in Renaissance Musical Riddles.’ in Journal of the Alamire Foundation 4:2 (2012), pp. 204–21. I very much doubt that she considers Notations 21 or, indeed, multimodality in the article, however. Nevertheless, if I can undraw that line I put in earlier and speak for a moment as the composer – I did not think of Fortune’s wheel. That is not to say that we can’t see it in there, of course. For that is one of the great delights of multimodal thinking: the onus is put on the reader to re-create the text. In other words, if you want to read ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’ as an allegory of Fortune, then that’s fine by me. Or, in a more scholarly working, the background of the reader of any textual being will impose itself on that reader’s re-interpretation of the text, and this does not invalidate that reading. A multimodal reading is not about uncovering hidden (or unhidden) codes sent from creator to receiver; rather, it is about the reader creating the text anew. Like the music escaping from the page in ‘Performing Notation, Notation Performing’, a multimodal interpretation is free from the constraints of author intention or, indeed, faithfulness to authority. In the context of Machaut studies especially, that is a breath of fresh air. L’auteur est mort; vive le lecteur.

It’s nice to be back in medieval studies. I had a few years off with babies, and they are lovely, but upon my return I’m quickly finding one of my old bugbears raising its head and annoying me again: making things up and then deciding they’re true.

Now, in theory at least, I’ve nothing against making things up, particularly in medieval studies. After all, with so little information available to us, we have to be creative quite frequently. If we weren’t, we’d never get anywhere. The trouble comes when we hypothesise and do not make it clear that we are doing so. When that happens, ‘fiction’ very quickly becomes ‘fact’. I had thought – hoped – that this tendency was dying out as the various calls for it to be regonised (my own contribution can be found in the first chapter of my PhD) were heard and acknowledged. Perhaps I’ve just been hanging out with too many like-minded people, because this week I read a piece from 2011 which had me, quite literally, shouting ‘what?’ at my otherwise innocent computer screen. I will return to the item which so offended me towards the end.

First, though, a little of the history of this, and how it relates to Machaut studies. Guillaume de Machaut is an enticing figure for today’s readers and scholars, because his manuscript legacy, rare for the medieval period, invites us to conceive of an author, a ‘poète’. It is, in all probability, an image he cultivated, though the actual degree to which he did so is not known for certain. Six manuscripts survive which appear to contain Machaut’s ‘complete works’, and their contents are surprisingly – though far from entirely – heterogeneous. Although there is a large number of manuscripts which contain a lesser number of works by Machaut, often presented anonymously and/or intermingled with works by others, the six ‘core manuscripts’ (as they are known) provide an immensely useful base on which to build our appreciation of the fourteenth century’s greatest poet-composer. Wait a minute – how do we know he was the ‘greatest’? Well, we don’t. There could have been others whose works have not survived. Philippe de Vitry, for example, is a figure named in contemporary works but whose surviving output is relatively small, though much lauded. There is no accounting for documents lost through the ravages of time, or indeed never produced. But the presence of the core Machaut manuscripts leads us to think that he must have been ‘great’ – otherwise why would they even exist? It is not an unreasonable assumption. But let’s make one thing clear: it is an assumption.

One of the core manuscripts is particularly enticing, and it can be viewed online here. (We met one of its pictures in the post on authority.) Known by the siglum A, its full title is Paris, BnF fr 1584. When I’m feeling cynical, I call it ‘the carrot’. The principal source of the enticement can be found, on folio Av, at the opening to the manuscript’s index:

Av

See it? It’s in red, at the top of the left-hand column, just to the right of the big initial ‘L’ for the first item. ‘Vesci lordenance que G. de Machau wet quil ai en son livre premiers’; ‘Here is the order that G. de Machau wants his first book to have’. It is interesting that the ‘first’ is almost never mentioned in discussion of this item; the notion of  there being more than one ‘book’ – when the manuscript is in fact only one volume – is evidently uncomfortable and best ignored. Nowhere in the carefully rubricated index is ‘second’ mentioned; the ‘premiers’ is thus puzzling. (Some of the other core manuscripts are – or have been – in two volumes, and it could be that at the time of writing this rubric the compiler of the index anticipated a second volume, but he does not mention it again, nor does he correct its mention here.)

This rubric appears to claim that the index reflects Machaut’s wishes. It is hard to imagine what else it might mean. But how do we know it is telling the truth? Well, frankly, we don’t. On the other hand, we do not have particular reason to doubt it, other than general, and easily misdirected, cynicism. But what we can say, I think with as great a degree of certainty as is possible for this period, is that whoever wrote the rubric wanted his readers to think that his index reflects Machaut’s wishes. This, in itself, implies that Machaut’s wishes were important enough to merit reflection – or at least the semblance thereof. (For, as has been noted by Lawrence Earp, the actual order of the manuscript is not quite that given in the index, and in his dissertation ‘Scribal Practice, Manuscript Production and the Transmission of Music in Late-Medieval France’ (Princeton University, 1983) he spends considerable time detailing the deviations and the possible reasons for them.)

François Avril, to whom Machaut studies owes such a great debt, dated this manuscript to within the poet-compoer’s lifetime. He also identified the artist of the great frontispieces (again, we saw one of them on the post on authority) as being active in Paris. The artist for the rest of the miniatures remains unidentified, and Avril suggested that he was provincial, perhaps based in Reims where Machaut lived, since such a scenario would allow for Machaut’s supervision of the codex to have been possible. This hypothesis is by no means impossible – indeed, it is quite likely. But it is a hypothesis.

BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 319r

BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 319r


Domenic Leo has taken it further in his dissertation ‘Authorial Presence in the Illuminated Machaut Manuscripts’ (New York University, 2005). His arguments and detailed analyses are convincing, enough that there really is very little room for doubt that Machaut played a significant role in the artistic programmes accompanying his works in some of the manuscripts which have come down to us today. Do we, then, need to use verbs such as ‘seem’, adjectives such as ‘probable’, adverbial phrases which highlight our ultimate uncertainty about Machaut’s role in manuscript production? Surely, this is cumbersome and unnecessary: we don’t know for certain, we can’t know for certain, we know that we don’t know, so let’s stop peppering our prose with these unwieldy caveats.

Well, this is the crux of the matter at stake. We need those unwieldy caveats to draw the line between established fact and likely hypothesis. As more and more writings become more and more accessible to a broader public, the importance of these caveats in scholarly discussions increases. We cannot assume that readers of open-access, online texts know this background. (They may know it far better than I do, they may be at the start of a journey into the Middle Ages, or at any point on that journey.) If we are not clear about where the line is drawn between fact and hypothesis, then before we know it, hypothesis is considered fact.

The majority of scholars are aware of this. Leo certainly is in his dissertation. The most recent book-length overview of Machaut and his works, Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician by Elizabeth Eva Leach (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2011), is extremely clear about what we do and don’t know, and Leach is crystal clear about where her own assumptions come into play. Readers may or may not agree with such assumptions, but the clear drawing of the line between the (pitifully few) facts surrounding the medieval period and the conjecture which colours the picture gives scholarly works credence.

The work which brought out the valkyrie screech from me, however, draws no such line. As a freely available, online edition of one of Machaut’s most neglected works, its audience appeal is wide, and its responsibility to its readers is great. Sophie Hardy’s doctoral ‘Edition critique de la Prise d’Alexandrie de Guillaume de Machaut’ (Université d’Orléans, 2011), available here thus fails its readers in this sense.

The repercussions of this oversight – or decision, if it was conscious – is that it is hard to take the edition seriously. Hardy does not justify why she feels the previous, and recent, edition of the Prise (by R. Barton Palmer, soon to be reissued as part of the edition of Machaut’s complete works later this year) is inadequate. She also makes no mention of the new edition underway. This makes one wonder what the usefulness of her text will be, as it is so soon to be superseded. It doesn’t help that she departs from one of the core manuscript sigla, and not acknowledging that it already in fact has an entirely new siglum (thus n. 5 on an unnumbered page, presumably xi since it falls between x and xii, shows her to be several years behind the history of one of the core manuscripts containing the work she is editing). She ‘reminds’ us that one of Machaut’s ‘obsessions’ was the conservation of his works in manuscript form. She then quotes Elizabeth Keitel who in fact acknowledges that this is but a hypothesis; Hardy, however, ignores the hypothetical nature of Keitel’s observations and treats them as fact (p. xii).

f178

It is not my intention to discredit Hardy’s careful work. She is but a recent example of a trend which, before my break from medieval studies, I had thought was in decline. This trend can be traced from the rediscovery of Machaut’s works – along with many other medieval works – in the nineteenth century. Early printed editions often mutilated the manuscript’s contents – Paulin Paris’s edition of the Voir Dit is the frequently cited example for Machaut – in their quest for the untainted original. Sometimes this quest was coloured with nationalistic sentiments, as Andrew Taylor has argued for the (inappropriately named?) Chanson de Roland and ‘Sumer is icumen in’ (Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and their Readers (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania University Press, 2002)). In any case, such quests for the original have seemed futile since the work of Derrida in the 1960s, Zumthor in the 1970s, B. Cerquiglini and Barthes in the 1980s, Nichols and co. in the 1990s, and countless examples in print and online from the twenty-first century. I thought we had moved on.

Let’s hope we have moved on, and that I can get off my high horse once and for all. It’s drafty up here.

Paris, BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 178v

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this is ‘personal publishing’, as John Lennon didn’t sing. It has, I have learnt, a ‘frontstage’ and a ‘backstage’. Right now, I am backstage, typing this, preparing it for frontstage viewing. I have even found a canny picture to accompany it, suitably stage-y, and with a mask to boot (ooh, exciting).  In fact, I’ve been reading a lot about personal publishing and pictures this week, and I’m not sure I believe it all. But then, this is only the end of week 2 of a long journey – there is much more to read.

According to Eisenlauer (2011), himself adopting linguistic terms from Halliday (1985), social media images – avatars – can ‘demand’ or ‘offer’: the pictorial equivalents of Halliday’s ‘Give me a drink!’ and ‘Would you like a drink?’. According to this analysis, on facebook I demand that drink (for I am looking directly at the viewer), yet here, I am offering you the drink.

RIMG0079

In some senses I can relate to that. After all, my facebook page is non-acadmic, it is personal in the sense of ‘free time’ – if you want it, you take me as I am. Whereas this webpage, this blog, is indeed an offering of my research, a sneak preview, a live commentary, for you, dear reader (for you are lonely in your singularity) to do with as you see fit. These are the humble musings at the start of a journey; the facebook page is me me me – my family, my (other) life.

That gloss is certainly possible. It is not, however, the reality. The facebook image was supposed to be a photo of the Eiffel Tower. My companion was taking a long time perfecting the shot. I playfully stuck my head in front of the lens to hurry him on just as the shutter closed. By accident, a rather jaunty picture of my last days of living in Paris holds a dear place in my heart, and so I chose it for my facebook profile. Unlike many users of that site, I have never changed it. (Nor have I ever pressed the ‘like’ button. Just because I can doesn’t mean I will – there is an instance of an ‘offer’ that I, unexpectedly from the offerer’s point of view, choose to refuse.)

The avatar on this site has a far less interesting story. Two weeks ago, I needed a picture. I failed to find a decent, recent photo, so decided to take my own. I have eyesight problems (the pink glasses may be funky but I don’t wear them through choice), so had to switch off the flash. But the flashless pictures were all too dark. Ach well, I decided to hold the camera over my head, eyes cast down to avoid the necessary flash, that’ll do. This blog’s first reader looked at me incredulously when he saw the photo (for he was looking at the computer over my shoulder) – ‘why on earth did you choose a photo where you’re not looking at the camera?’ he asked. When I queried why that should be necessary, he hesitated, before replying, with a hint of Celtic wit, ‘you’re supposed to have a picture of you in your office, studiously surrounded by books – manuscripts, I corrected him – indeed, with one open in front of you, perhaps touching it…’

And what would such a photo have said? Oh yes, an academic in her milieu. Perhaps I would be looking at the books (ahem, manuscripts), and you would be disturbing me. Perhaps I would be writing, making notes in my pink notepad. Then I would have a true image that was an ‘offer’. We would also have a fully-fledged manuscript authorship image, wouldn’t we? Machaut in his study, busily writing. G 74 Manuscript F-G, the most author-focused of the core manuscripts, presents just such an image at the head of its music section. In contrast, manuscript E for the Louange des dames presents a group of singers, with a manuscript on a barrel, clearly having fun (and, this reader wonders, perhaps drinking the barrel’s contents somewhere ‘backstage’). E 16r What is noticeable about the core Machaut manuscripts is that the traditional dedication to the patron, where the author offers the book to a noble personage, is missing. Instead, in the famous frontispieces to manuscript A, it is the mythical creatures of love and nature who offer their children to Machaut, to the author. Our author is not looking at the viewer, but at his visitors, yet he is not offering anything. Should we use one of these frontispieces as our ‘Machaut avatar’, the ‘offer’ would be misleading, just as it is with my own photo. Of course, these images were painted long before the printing press, never mind the Internet. But my point is that authority does not have to look us in the eye.

a frontispiece

M avatar?

Again, according to Eisenlauer (2011), personal publication does not carry the authority of traditional publication. Apparently, even a blog is a ‘collaborative text-creation process, at least to some degree’ (p. 134). Well, the only other person here with me is the dog, and he’s not been too helpful. Oh, wait a minute, you mean online collaboration. But we are still backstage; as I write this, it is entirely my voice that is speaking. However, should my reader care to comment (and should I choose to accept it), there will indeed be another voice, one that is clearly distinguished from mine. Of course, I can choose to edit my text at a later date, but only I have the permission to do that.

I am being deliberately obtuse here (just for a change). Of course, i can claim no credit for the design of the site, which was made using a WordPress template, devised by some clever person on the interweb. But there is the point – that person is anonymous. Silent. It was me who chose the pink background (it matches the glasses), the images, the text, the links. I am the author of this ‘text’. The designer of the background template (which I have adjusted) therefore holds less power of authority over the content of this site than does the typesetter in a printing press, and far less authority than the scribe(s) of a medieval manuscript. For while the pink background, the snippet of artwork, the photo, and all the page elements do indeed work together to create the whole, it was I who put them there. No medieval author can claim that – I say that as a Machaut specialist, for he, if any, is a candidate – indeed, few modern-day print authors can claim full control over the typography and layout of their books, unless they self-publish. Publish personally. Personal publishing on the internet.

Of course, personal publishing can be collaborative, as Hoem (2004) has discussed, and as is demonstrated in the medieval blogosphere – if I may call it such – by In The Medieval Middle (http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/). I am even part of a fledging collaborative site myself over at the Medieval Song Network (http://www.medievalsongnetwork.org/). But it ain’t necessarily so, and, as my multimodal literacy increases, that is something which I shall bear in mind.

References:

Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1584 (Machaut ms A)

Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 9221 (Machaut ms E)

Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 22545-6 (Machaut ms F-G)

Volker J. Eisenlauer, 2011. ‘Multimodality and Social Actions in “Personal Publishing” Text: From the German “Poetry Album” to Web 2.0 “Social Network Sites”’ in Multimodal Studies: Exploring Issues and Domains eds Kay L. O’Hallaran and Bradley A. Smith (NY: Routledge), pp. 131–52

M. A. K. Halliday, 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar (London: Edward Arnold)

Jon Hoem, 2004. “Personal Publishing and Media Literacy”, http://infodesign.no/artikler/personal_%20publishing_media_literacy.pdf , accessed 15 Feb 2013.