Sensing the sacred through music: conference review

‘Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses, 1300-1800’ was the brainchild of a dynamic team of postgraduates from the University of York’s Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. The response to their call for papers was huge, the conference attracting over 100 delegates and enough speakers for 21 panels (organised into 7 parallel sessions).  Interest in the role of the senses in pre-Enlightenment cultures, fed by increased critical emphasis on the body, space, and thing theory in the noughties, shows no signs of waning – but what new developments and approaches were on offer between the  21st and 22nd of June, 2013?

The body’s sensory enjoyment of music and its use for edifying effect were discussed by Susan Brown, whose work on seventeenth-century Anglican and Puritan writers led her to consider the effect of singing on the soul, the efficacy of the Word of God and, most crucially, devotion that expresses the self as a ‘visceral’ being. The voice, she argued, was understood as an ‘emblematic signifier of the self,’ being the vehicle by which the pleasures of the physical body and emotions could be articulated. In response to a question on whether taking pleasure in music and the musical self was perceived as spiritually risky, Brown argued that the Augustinian anxieties about musical excess and enjoyment of melody over and above the words of Scripture were not evident in early English Protestant cultures.

Michele Campopiano commented on the Early Modern revision of Augustinian theology in his talk on Francesco Zorzi’s De harmonia mundi. He argued that the early sixteenth-century text was influenced both by Augustine’s understanding of the universe as a harmony between good and evil in De civitate Dei and a re-emerging Neoplatonic tradition in Italy, particularly among the Franciscans. He claimed that Zorzi’s work, which displays a Neoplatonic and Pythagorean conception of harmony in its sophisticated numerical structure, was not just an exercise in the technicalities of number symbolism and mathematical relation, but also made reference to the sensory and practical enjoyment of music. Despite his claim for the importance of the sensory aspects of De harmonia mundi, musical and theological technicalities dominated both Zorzi’s text and Campopiano’s discussion of it.

A paper given by Hyun-Ah Kim (placed, rather oddly, in a different panel to Campopiano) also approached the Italian Neoplatonic revival from a musical angle. Kim examined the work of Ficino in light of the ancient and medieval conception of the musica humana, the proper balancing of the human soul which can be expressed through vocal music. She noted how Ficino drew together Platonic metaphysics, late antique humeral theory and Christian theology to present music as a source of nourishment for the spirit, though, sadly, there was no time to delve into the complex and fascinating history of many of these intellectual traditions. She explained how music, in sharing similarities to the ‘airy’ human spirit, could deliver its message to the soul more powerfully than sight, becoming a means by which the soul could be restored to its original wholeness.

Many of the speakers touched on the idea of music as a means of connecting heaven and earth. Charlotte Poulton examined images of St Cecilia as a musician, arguing that paintings such as Carlo Saraceni’s 1610 work, ‘St Cecilia and the Angel,’ subverted contemporary expressions of resistance to the use of stringed instruments within monastic worship. Emilie Murphy discussed how song, chant, ritual and bell-ringing within two seventeenth-century communities of English Catholic exiles – St Monica’s Convent and the Brussels Benedictines – created a ‘sacred soundscape’ that connected them to their wider environment. She cited the odes of Richard Verstegan, which make reference to pious call of the Ave bell, whose resonant tones emanated from the convent of the Brussels Benedictines and stirred those outside the nunnery walls to Marian devotion. Surprisingly, given their focus on nuns and female saints, neither Poulton’s contribution nor Murphy’s generated extended discussion of gender in relation to music and devotion.

Erin Lambert also discussed song and exile. Lambert claimed that the Dutch Stranger Church, in exile from England during the mid-1500s upon the death of Edward VI, eliminated the need for a stable earthly location by crafting rituals and devotional activities that could be enacted anywhere. The Strangers used the Psalms in their liturgies of burial, excommunication and remission to create ritual practices which highlighted that the Strangers were in exile from heaven, and could only return to a true community after the death of the body.

While Lambert was concerned with the textual resonance of the Psalms, the sensory and affective nature of the Song of Songs was central to Anne Baden-Daintree’s paper on Middle English devotional lyrics. Her discussion explored how the sensory aspects of reading translated into spiritual experience. She was particularly interested in how literary techniques might trigger an affective response by encouraging the reader to make imaginative connections across texts and by reminding them of liturgical contexts. The macronic lyric, ‘Surge mea sponsa, swete in sight,’ not only opens a door into the world of the Song of Songs, but its use in the liturgical setting of the Feast of the Assumption establishes relations between the desired spouse of the Song of Songs and the maternal sweetness and tenderness of Mary. Baden-Daintree referred to neuroscience in her argument, explaining the roles of mirror neurons and cortical activation in the process of reading and recalling images or experiences from the memory.  Although she used neuroscience cautiously, conceding that the affective and sensory qualities of lyrics work on multiple levels and cannot be explained using scientific theory alone, it is interesting to note that she was one of three scholars who used theory from a discipline outside literature to explain emotive and sensory responses to texts and their performance.

Though Baden-Daintree did not touch on the musical aspects of medieval lyric, Andrew Cheetham’s paper on Richard Dering’s motets offered an analysis of the musical rhetoric of ‘Sancta et immaculata virginitas,’ to demonstrate how the motet heightens devotional feelings towards the Virgin; he argued that its explicitly Catholic nature would have made it suitable for performance in the court of Henrietta Maria. Furthermore, he claimed that the motets were used as a means of proselytising, though, due to the absence of evidence for the effect that the motets had on their listeners, this remained speculative. In response to a question on whether there was anything quintessentially Catholic about the music itself, Cheetham could not identify any elements belonging to the melody, harmony or rhythm, asserting that the rhetorical flourishes of the music only served to bring attention back to the lyrics.

Two recurring elements arose from the papers attended:  the worshipper’s awareness and enjoyment of the sensory dimension of the human body; and the relationship between direct sensory experience and philosophical, theological or scientific technicalities or systems. There was little discussion of the tensions between body and spirit, but rather, the tensions between theory and practice, intellectual systems and lived experience. Unlike the contributions in the 2008 volume on Rethinking the Medieval Senses, which explored concepts such as the ‘mind’s eye’ and the place of the heart in the sensory system, papers drew connections between systems of understanding and perception that are less abstract, including the concept of species and neuroscience. Most surprising, though, was that despite the array of religions mentioned in the call for papers, the number of proposals dealing with religions outside Christianity were so few that there was no panel dealing with Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist understandings of sensing the sacred, making the conference largely Western European in orientation. Does the conference represent a shift away from spiritual experience and doctrine, towards more ‘concrete’ evaluations of perception and epistemology? And if so, does this suggest that future research on medieval music will focus increasingly on the responses of individuals or micro-cultures? Will there be room to make comparisons about the senses and spiritualties on a grand scale? One thing is for certain: music and soundscapes continue to be a juicy area of scholarship, ‘fat things full of marrow’ (Is. 25:6).
Sophie A. Sawicka-Sykes