Session 43 (Themed Papers): Rethinking women and sound in the Middle Ages: Perspectives on patronage, voice, song, and authorship

Thursday, July 8, 14.30–16.30, Room 219 | Chair: Marianne Gillion (KU Leuven)

Session Abstract

Beyond the significant figures of Hildegard of Bingen and Beatriz de Dia, women’s voices and their contributions to music making in the Middle Ages rarely feature in broader narratives of medieval music. Recent scholarly work, however, has begun to unveil the range of contributions women made to the diverse musical cultures of the Middle Ages, whether as performers and composers, or patrons and audiences. The four papers on this panel consider a wide breadth of musical traditions and contexts chronologically, geographically, and linguistically, offering new avenues for exploring the role of women in medieval music making. This panel underscores how variable women’s roles could be in musical cultures across Europe and in medieval Islamicate courts. In this panel, the first paper investigates the significance of female royal patronage for music and musicians in 15th-century England. The second paper considers what, if anything, differentiated the feminine voice from masculine in the medieval Islamicate soundscape through the lens of medieval Arabic descriptions of music performances at court. The third paper demonstrates connections between women’s religious movements, including those deemed heterodox, and the emerging Francophone song tradition of thirteenth-century Arras. The fourth paper explores the agency of women in the transmission and performance of medieval Latin song, resituating women within a historiographical landscape dominated by clerical and monastic men. Ultimately, the panel seeks to (re-)inscribe women into historical narratives of medieval music in significant yet disparate ways, reflecting the rich ways in which women themselves were integral to the musical life of so many communities in the Middle Ages.

Beyond the liturgy: Women and Latin song in medieval Europe | Mary Channen Caldwell (University of Pennsylvania)

Did women compose or sing in Latin outside of the liturgy in the European Middle Ages? Scholarship on vernacular song has increasingly highlighted the role of women as creators, performers, and patrons; by contrast, women have been largely excluded from the historiography of Latin-texted song. This is partly due to increasingly outdated beliefs around Latin literacy among women beyond the liturgy and their performance of polyphony. Consequently, extraliturgical Latin song repertoires—monophonic and polyphonic—have been overwhelmingly associated with the creative and performative milieux of educated, clerical, and monastic men. Yet women, particularly those living in religious communities, did achieve a degree of Latin literacy and, as Anne Bagnall Yardley and others have argued, sang liturgical and extraliturgical polyphony as well as monophony. Drawing on manuscript evidence, textual accounts, and Latin songs themselves, this paper explores some of the ways in which women were actively involved in the compilation, adaptation, and performance of Latin song–versus, conductus, cantilena, and carmen–across medieval Europe. I consider, for example, how a manuscript like the twelfth-century Hortus Deliciarum, compiled by Abbess Herrad of Hohenburg for the use of nuns at Hohenburg Abbey, bears witness to the compilation, reception, and possibly performance of Latin song within a community of educated women. I also examine how the inclusion and adaptation of Latin songs in service books, tropers, and music books intended for use by women more broadly from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries firmly situates women within the history of Latin musical traditions outside of the chanted liturgy.

Heresy, Women, and Song in Medieval Arras and the Southern Low Countries | Brianne Dolce (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)

This paper posits that early witnesses to the persecution of heresy and nonorthodoxy in the region of Arras provide new avenues for exploring the role of women in the emerging Francophone song tradition of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While largely absent as authors in the chansonniers that valorize the songs and poetry of trouvères, documents that discuss heresy and religious life in Arras indicate that women were an integral part of lay religious movements. From the eleventh century, trials for heresy in Arras not only feature women, but explicitly mention use of the vernacular and concepts of literacy. By the thirteenth century, when Arrageois musical and poetic culture was at its height, women were deeply ingrained in various aspects of social, religious, and cultural life, and were key to transformations in new religious movements.

The agency ascribed to Arrageois women in various forms, and the emerging possibilities in lay religious life for women in the city, suggest a closer relationship with rising vernacular culture and women than has been previously considered. Putting records regarding heresy and new religious movements into dialogue with scholarly questions about women’s authorship, I suggest new ways women were involved in the musical culture of Francophone northern Europe, and demonstrate how women may have been key players in networks of transmission across the wider region.

Joan of Navarre’s Patronage of John Dunstaple | Gillian L. Gower (University of Denver and University of Edinburgh)

When Joan of Navarre (b. ca. 1368/70), dowager queen of England, died in 1437, she left behind evidence of the state of her finances. Among these documents were records establishing her nearly decade-long patronage of the composer John Dunstaple. This paper will consider the relationship between Dunstaple and his patron, which appears to have begun with the bestowal of her livery on the composer in 1428 and ended with a substantial annuity settled on him eight years later. To what extent might a renewed interest in Joan’s patronage of the arts inform our understanding of the works Dunstaple might have composed during this period?

This paper will explore how a renewed interest in Queen Joan might re-frame Dunstaple’s settings of texts addressed to female saints closely connected to medieval English conceptions of motherhood and female royalty, such as Anne and Katherine of Alexandria. Drawing on recent studies of queenship, gender, and historiography, I suggest that the charges of witchcraft made against Joan by her step-son Henry V following his accession to the throne may have obscured the extent of the dowager queen’s influence in medieval English religious culture, including music.

The Feminine Voice in Medieval Islamicate Musical Culture | Lisa Nielson (Case Western Reserve University)

Women musicians, enslaved and free, were essential to musical entertainments in the medieval Islamicate courts starting with the Umayyad era (661-750CE), and their influence on music culture continued for centuries. Medieval Arabic sources are filled with references to their performances and skill, yet how women singers sounded in comparison to men is unclear. Although certain instruments and subjects were associated with women, all musicians shared a broad array of vocal tools, including high and low registers. In addition, there was a class of cross- gendered entertainers, referred to as mukhannathūn (the effeminate ones), who dressed and performed “like women.” Part of their gender performance included using instruments and topics associated with women, such as small hand drums and songs about love. Given these intersections, what constituted a feminine voice? Or did the gendering of sound lie more in instrumentation, topic, and performance? This paper considers what may have differentiated women singers from men in the medieval Islamicate soundscape.