Distance

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Abstract

My contribution to this volume explores the medium of sound, particularly musical sound, in defining, bridging, creating, and imagining distance in the Middle Ages. Distance will be treated here in two senses. First, distance is a spatial, geographical reality: a space to be traversed, measured, and represented when out of eye- or ear-shot. Second, distance is a powerful metaphor, commissioned as the pervasive topos for love and desire, given its most ardent and enduring expression in the lyrics of the troubadours, and eminently suited to the medium of song for its articulation and expression. Distance is also a useful principle with which to think through the properties of sound: where sound is, what happens to it after its decay, how it was possible to keep it present: these were the preoccupations of theorists, composers, scribes, and listeners across the period. Distance, then, is in turn a means to interrogate sound as a medium, one requiring technologies to permit its enduring presence and mobility.
The chapter will proceed along two lines, according to the two guiding principles of ‘distance’ outlined above, and via a series of case studies will seek to demonstrate what a history of sonic media may reveal about medieval experience of distance. The first part will explore the role of sound in the definition of city space, with the bell as the quintessential marker of space, measurer of distance: as ‘look out’ beyond the confines of the city and as a participant within a noisier hubbub of sound. Included in this section will be an exploration of how sounds endured after the decay of the audible effect – in memory and in notation – and how these ancillary recording technologies permitted sound to travel, where it went, and what impressions it retained of a point of origin. The case study here will be an early vernacular chansonnier, transmitting songs of the troubadours and trouvères, produced in Metz in the 1230s – and preserving songs that were in the imagination of their users and their scribe a long way from home. This section will conclude by situating sound in the broader context of other technologies devoted to transmitting information across considerable distances. The case study here will be a politically-charged song by Philip the Chancellor, written in Paris c. 1219, and targeting the papal curia in Rome. How does a song here compare to the more familiar technologies of letter and papal bull in transmitting news and messages over considerable distance?
The second portion of the essay, devoted to the imagining of distance through lyrics (song and poetry), will take as a starting point the lyrics of the troubadours and will consider how song itself experiments with the limits of its own medium. How might musical performance serve as a space of fantasy of other places, and of people in other lands? What role did the voice of the troubadour have in this conceptions of separation? How did song-writers conceive of their songs as messages, intended to travel, in the absence of a notational technology through which to transmit them? The case study here will draw on songs from the vernacular corpus of love songs, ranging from the 12th-14th centuries, with reference, too, to the tradition of Marian devotion.
The chapter will conclude with reflections on what musicologists and sound scholars may learn about their objects of study when they are approached through the principle of ‘distance’. Underpinning the essay will be approaches to sonic media derived from musicology and ethnomusicology, and particularly recent work from sound studies. These critical approaches will be woven into interrogation of a variety of primary source material, and a quieter narrative threaded through this contribution will be the sheer range of contexts in which sound and music took a role in shaping experiences of place, space, and the distances between them.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA Cultural History of Media in the Middle Ages
EditorsCarol Symes
PublisherBloomsbury
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 10 Aug 2018

Publication series

NameThe Cultural Histories Series
PublisherBloomsbury Publishing

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