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Music and Late Medieval European Court Cultures: Towards a Trans-Disciplinary and Post-National Cultural Poetics of the Performative Arts

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MALMECC (Music and Late Medieval European Court Cultures: Towards a Trans-Disciplinary and Post-National Cultural Poetics of the Performative Arts)

Reporting period: 2018-03-01 to 2019-08-31

Late medieval European court cultures have traditionally been studied from a mono-disciplinary and national(ist) perspective. This has obscured much of the interplay of cultural performances that informed “courtly life”. Recent research has begun to reverse this, focusing on issues such as the tensions between orality, writing, and performance; the sociocultural dimensions of making and owning manuscripts (musical and otherwise); the interstices between musical, literary and visual texts and political, social and religious rituals; and the impact of gender, kinship, and social status on the genesis and transmission of culture and music. These “new medievalist” studies have significantly enhanced our understanding of the cultural meanings of singing, listening, and sound in late medieval times.

Taking a decisive step further, MALMECC systematically explores late medieval (c. 1250-1450) court cultures and their music synoptically across Europe. The project is a large-scale comparative study focused on the role of sounds and music in courtly life. It removes music from its customary “splendid isolation”, instead embedding it within a multidisciplinary framework encompassing all the arts as well as politics and religion. England, the Low Countries, Avignon, Bohemia, south-eastern Germany/Salzburg, Savoy, northern Italy, and Cyprus have been selected for study as vibrant sites of cultural production which have been relatively neglected due to prevailing discursive formations favouring “centres” like Paris and Florence.

Two thirds into the grant period, the MALMECC project is bearing salient initial results in the form of workshops, study days, lectures and conference presentations on the international playing field, and a first group of submissions to significant journals and publishers of essay volumes such as Speculum, Plainsong and Medieval Music, Brepols and De Gruyter. These reveal the complex ecology of late medieval performances of noblesse in new depth while at the same time throwing into distinct relief the unique qualities of each courtly site studied by the project.

The MALMECC approach provides new insights into late medieval cultures and the societies that produced them. This contributes directly to Europeans’ understanding of the often enigmatic artefacts they see in museums, or the equally obscure pieces of medieval music that they hear in concerts and on recordings. By reconstructing cultural practices and the performances that shaped and surrounded these pieces, MALMECC also reveals submerged cultural links across Europe. These preceded – and thereby have the implicit potential to transcend – the boundaries of today’s nation states. In this way, MALMECC contributes to the formation of new European trans-national and post-national, but also regional (cross-border) identities, for example in the former duchy of Savoy (now divided between Switzerland, France, and Italy), or by highlighting the links between Hainault (in modern Belgium) and England. We also reveal the impact of social hubs like tournaments, diplomatic encounters, ecclesiastic familiae, monastic studia, and the late-medieval European universities on the transfer of cultural practices. As our work will show in considerable detail, this happened along multidimensional interconnected networks of mutually interacting individuals, spaces, and habitus that form a Deleuzian rhizome avant la lettre. By making the formal and informal cultural communities of the past visible again through our research, MALMECC provides unique opportunities for today’s Europeans to re-connect with their heritage, and to understand and re-negotiate their own identities and histories. From an academic point of view, the project is important because it develops and tests an innovative, team-based research paradigm for historical “art” research which, it is anticipated, will be transferable to other periods of history and regions of the globe.
The MALMECC project began in January 2016 and transferred to Oxford in September 2016. As soon as recruitment was completed, the team launched into an intensive period of knowledge exchange, both within the team and with selected external experts. This exploratory phase, designed to establish a common base of knowledge and a shared sense of purpose and identity for the team, culminated in the project workshop, ‘Methodological Innovation in Late-Medieval Studies’, at Wadham College (27th-28th April 2017). Bringing together some of the most cutting-edge medievalists active today, the workshop helped the MALMECC team to consolidate its approach. In addition to hosting and maintaining a lively website, and preparing a series of short project videos, which can be viewed on our dedicated YouTube channel,
the team added a series of international ‘study days’ to their work plan in the current research-driven phase of the MALMECC project. Each study day explores one of the main themes of the MALMECC research in particular depth. The first of these, on ‘Cultural production and ecclesiastical courts’, took place in Oxford on 16th and 17th February 2018. Several more followed: ‘Translingualism’ (1st-2nd November 2018) to focus on recently discovered links between the Germanic (High German, Low German/Dutch, English) and the Romance (French) languages, with a focus on the Low Countries. On 7th and 8th February 2019, we dedicated a study day to ‘Avignon the Italian’, shifting the traditional focus from the papacy and the impact of French culture to the cardinals and the impact of Italian but also other regional cultures such as Catalonia’s on Avignon.
Soon thereafter, on 21st and 22nd March 2019, a fourth study day held in Liège (Belgium) was dedicated to ‘Transnationalism’. The team is also working on a series of short project videos, and intends to enhance project visibility internationally through collaboration.
At the time of writing, the central research phase, dedicated to the individual sub-projects, has been completed, and progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact can now be described with some precision.
Specifically, we have prepared a series of eight to twelve high-profile journal articles or equivalent chapters in peer-reviewed essay collections that will discuss aspects of sounds and music in courtly culture. None of these articles would have been generated without the specific and continuous input of disciplinary knowledge exchange within the MALMECC team. Three articles or essays have already been submitted (Speculum) or accepted (Brepols and De Gruyter, respectively). In addition, we shall produce a project-based essay volume focused specifically on the possibilities of transdisciplinary research in the Humanities. The project conference in Oxford, Sept. 2019, acted as a major focus for the latter, and provided a key opportunity to discuss and critically assess methodological issues of post-national(ist) and transdisciplinary work, including the transferability of the MALMECC approach to other geographical regions and periods of history. All of this creates genuine potential for long-term paradigm shifts in humanities research across Europe through first-hand experience and the sharing of innovative best practices, next to our published work.
Image of the courtly life studied in the project
Outdoor public display of courtly art