This is the final post in a short series about my trip to the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference in Maynooth during July 2018.


The final day of the conference dawned bright and clear (again!), so once I’d packed up and checked out of my accommodation, I headed over to the south campus for the roundtable on ‘Researching Renaissance Soundscapes’.   The participants talked about the authenticity problem facing researchers, and how putting music into its spatial context makes it easier to understand how the relationship between power and sound worked.  Tim Shephard pointed out that one approach starts with sounds and works up, the other starts with power and works down.  There is, however, a tension between which is the most useful.  He asked if we should we see composed music as an effort to impose control upon sound in a spatial way?  

Vincenzo Borghetti suggested that power tries to control everything – what sounds you are allowed to make, when and where.  But rules are often disregarded and what is written on paper and what people actually do are different things. This is true, but the historian in me might suggest that rules are only put in place when there is a reason to do so, and a governing regime doesn’t usually try to control things that are not happening or that they didn’t perceive as a threat.  In which case, you read back from the rules to see what people might have been doing in the first place, as well as whether they are actually prosecuted.  As the panelists pointed out, Le Febvre makes a distinction between top down and bottom up spatial control, which is why historians like legal records – they show where the two collide.  Nevertheless, many things happen which are never recorded, especially in music.  Things are done and used in ways that were not the way that the composer or choirmaster intended.

The discussion was then opened to the floor.  There were questions about how the materiality and visuality of objects can help us to understand the spatiality of sound too.  Objects imply the spatial dimension of the users too, giving us a level of meaning beyond the sound.  Tess Knighton commmented that although we can’t reconstruct and hear with 15th century ears, other factors such as placement and materiality help us to understand the conditions of an object’s use.  Moreover, discussion centred on the ways in which we have to integrate the object into its social practices, with several layers coming together.  Music isn’t just an abstract idea, but its the social practices that make it meaningful in everyday life.  We can begin to understand how different areas of the city sounded.   Tess provided the example of ephemeral, cheaply-printed song: as soon as you think about the way that the text was used, heard, and valued, it becomes a portal.

The use of music to keep people under control is more complex than it at first appears.  Who is controlling whom if a churchgoer pays a blind singer to sing a prayer for him? Especially given that this was a state-controlled service (or should that be enterprise?).  People also believed that if they gave money to orphans and the poor it gave them a spiritual advantage, so spiritual and urban perceptions of life and the afterlife meshed with social welfare because the blind were given a role in society which didn’t make them dependent or criminalise them.


As I know from my own work, it is the music about which we have least information  (and is least studied) which is the most pervasive and as much the part of the soundscape as the footfall.  Polyphony was exceptional and denoted particular things, including power and the celestial, but there are more pervasive musics, right down to the firecrackers.  Recreating and understanding street sounds is difficult because it was everyday sound, and those are the sounds that were least worthy of contemporary comment even if, for me at least, they are perhaps the most interesting because they were so widely experienced.

Vincenzo also reflected on how quickly things have changed in recent years. Now we can project music beyond its physical spatial limits with amplifiers.  People just used to sing, even during his lifetime.  Of course, as a folk musician as well, I would probably argue that people still do.  My own children can be heard singing as they go about their daily lives, sometimes with each other.

We can think about music through the objects we can exhibit – finding ways to make it meaningful for people who know nothing about it – not having any actual music can make it easier for people to engage – we have to think about the musicality of it, starting from the visual.

The discussion also reflected on the problem musicologists have with positivism – that is, accepting suggestions that cannot be proved and allowing the resultant contingencies.  This has an impact on their ability to take interpretative risks, and also allowing them to work with academics from other backgrounds.  This was a really interesting comment to hear coming from musicologists themselves, given that it’s something I have struggled with for a long time as my work is interdisciplinary! 

Michael Noone noted that music is often an added extra and, sadly,  misrepresented in otherwise glorious exhibitions.  Music breathes life back into parchment, which was itself once alive.  He commented that this made it  a fragile but terribly important thing.  The transmission of musical texts was an aural thing and even the parchment music books in Toledo cathedral were not exclusively (maybe not even mainly) about transmitting the parts: these large, highly decorative books made a statement, especially glittering in candlelight.  Maybe new technology can help us bring life back into these objects.

Tim noted the risk that sound in an exhibition becomes a soundtrack. The V&A are working on avoiding this by asking how is the sound linked to other objects in the exhibition, as this is often where a weakness lies.  Instead, each object is a way in to much more than just itself, because it is indicative of broader issues.  Although I was a little alarmed by the comment that historians and art historians are too quick to claim they have no responsibility for music because they “can’t read music” or “can’t play the lute”.  Almost no-one doesn’t engage with music, as the vast majority of the music making public are not professional musicians.

Unfortunately I missed the launch of the exhibits in the Museum of Renaissance Music, but of course that is the nature of a big conference such as this – you simply can’t be in two places at once, so there are things that you would like to see but don’t.

Instead, after the coffee break, my final panel was on Song and Singing.  First up was Elizabeth Lyon on ‘Jesus Christ Superstar: Medieval Tales of a Singing Saviour’.  She pointed out that the Gospels do not present the main characters in the New Testament as musicians or singers, unlike the sacred works of other religious traditions.  There is a reference to Christ and the apostles saying a hymn in gospels of Matthew and Mark, and while this could have been speak or chant, either way this was understood as musical.  But the Gospel writers don’t refer to Christ as a singer. 

It is, then, quite unexpected to find that Tinctoris portrays Mary and Jesus as singers.  But the ordinals of Christ suggest that he was a psalmist.  If the ordinals provide a way to see Christ as the original cantor, it is the Magnificat that makes Mary a singer, even if she only ‘said’ it.   The Bible doesn’t provide any evidence that Christ or Mary studied singing which is why medieval thinkers didn’t really include them in their histories of music.  Late medieval authors characterised the Magnificat as the outward overflowing of spiritual contemplation, while there is a variety of opinion among theologians about whether there was music in the Garden of Eden.  Tinctoris was different because he drew on scholasticism, but also more humanist spheres of knowledge, such as lived experience.

Tinctoris starts his history of music with the infusion of music in Adam’s spirit – this was different to all others.  If Adam was perfectly made with all knowledge of things that were knowable and important for man, he must have known music.  This knowledge gave Adam the ability to sing.  Tinctoris draws this down through the Old and New Testaments, making an effort to show that musicians had a lineage back to Adam and can model themselves on the Godhead.  Finally, Tinctoris makes the extraordinary claim that eternal life is given out to all the faithful but most exaltedly to the musicians.  

The next paper was given by Uri Jacob on ‘Love, Crusade and Distance in Songs by Jaufre Rodel‘.  Jaufre Rodel was an early troubadour in the Occitan tradition.  Love and Crusading are commonly juxtaposed in the songs but not in obvious ways.  Instead, it was based on ‘caritas’ (Christian love), which was understood as a heightened state.  

6 Jaufre poems survive in manuscript, of which 4 have melodies.  Uri hopes that the songs will help us to understand representations of the Crusade in medieval music.  He argued that physical and mental distances are reflected in the music and his first example was a strophic song.  The motto – a refrain unit – is the word ‘loing’, meaning distance.  In a typical courtly love song, distance is a metaphorical distance, such as different social background of the lovers.  In this case it’s physical distance as the beloved is in the Holy Land.  Uri argued that the poetic context of the song plays into the sonority of the verses.  The pes ends on a destabilising C cadence, while the mid point is on the stable d cadence.  These coincide with the word ‘loing’.

The final paper that I heard at the conference was ‘Doctors, Dowries and Funerals: negotiations between the singers of the Cappella Pontificia and the  oman Arciconfraternita del SS. Crocifisso in the late sixteenth century’. Noel O’Regan shared with us a unique document in which the papal singers confidently attempted to negotiate terms with the confraternity SS. Crocifisso for membership, medical insurance, death rites, the right to vet those girls who were nominated for dowries etc.  The demands relating to the dowries were rejected.  There was no more discussion, and the papal singers continued to be involved with the confraternity, so it seems they accepted the decision.  The confraternity pointed out that they always gave preference to the female relatives of members, which is what it seems that the papal singers actually wanted.  There were benefits for both sides in the arrangement between the two.

The confraternity controlled access to a miraculous holy cross, supported a house of nuns and gave dowries to poor girls.  The papal singers sang Mass twice a year, and there were spiritual and material benefits to joining the confraternity, even if their status as singers who had been through a rigorous audition process meant that they believed themselves to be a cut above the rest.  There is little evidence that the members of the Tredici, the representatives of the papal singers in the confraternity, had any hand in organising their music.

The conference was friendly, supportive and, all in all, a pleasure to attend.  I don’t think I’ll be back every year, but I’m sure they’ll see me again sometime in the future!