The 30th Harlaxton Symposium, 16-19 July 2013: Language Networks in Medieval Britain

Convened by Ardis Butterfield and Elizabeth Eva Leach, a pair of sessions on music and literature relating to the overall conference theme of language networks comprised three paper-presentations and a linked concert given by the talented performers Ensemble Leones, directed by Marc Lewon ( The three papers took complementary stances on the theme, exploring a wealth of music and lyric from Britain and beyond, and especially the networks of which they formed part. The concert then illustrated the concept of musical and linguistic networks beautifully, with groups of pieces that shared musical material in different versions, including several whose texts were substituted in different languages, or 'de-texted' altogether in versions for instruments alone.
Janet F. van der Meulen (University of Amsterdam) presented her research on Jean de la Mote's Li Regret Guillaume, a narrative poem with interpolated ballades lamenting the death of Count William I of Hainaut, father of Edward III's queen, Philippa. Answering several previously unexplained conundrums about the occasion and purpose for the commissioning of the poem, van der Meulen demonstrated that the Regret may have served as a not-so-gentle nudge to William's son to follow his father's example of honour and chivalry and to take up arms in the cause of the English king, his brother-in-law. Her interpretation involved accepting many of the source-text's more surprising readings that other editors have emended, including a number of barbed and threatening remarks found within the ballades. Though the music for the ballades does not survive, van der Meulen proposed that de la Mote's contemporary reputation (as second only to Vitry and Machaut) must have rested on his gifts as a composer even more than as a poet. In discussion, the speakers and chair (Elizabeth Eva Leach, University of Oxford) considered the  performance of the Regret, with sung ballades framed by either spoken or recited text. I wondered if their sung performance as part of the ballades would render the text's harsher comments somewhat softer, more acceptable perhaps (or at the very least, ephemeral and quickly passed over if they created discomfort among the audience).
Ardis Butterfield (Yale University) then spoke of her recent research on networks in the Middle English lyric, noting that lyrics are almost never 'isolable', though their presentation in anthologies inevitably obscures many of their links and connections both to other lyrics and texts, and to their varied manuscript environments (not to mention their original performance contexts, of which we know almost nothing). Her work for her forthcoming edition of Middle English lyrics has uncovered numerous clusters of words or repeated sentiments that may hint at a tradition of English refrains parallel to that on the Continent. With exemplary clarity, aided by manuscript images and live sung examples, she then demonstrated the network of music and text formed by the famous 'Maiden in the mor', 'Peperit virgo' and 'Bryd one brere'. Such a network fortuitously allows us, in this case, to reconstruct the music for lyrics whose music - at first glance - seems to have been lost, but also gave a clear demonstration of how melody renders texts more memorable, presumably as much in the fourteenth century as it does now.  In response to a discussion of how often medieval lyric (or poetry more generally) was sung, Elizabeth Eva Leach gave a spirited defence of the theory that even lyrics preserved without musical notation were envisaged as song and performable, by singers of the time , to tunes that were either memorised or that circulated with various texts and were cast in regularly used verse-forms.
Taking up the theme of songs with alternative texts, Helen Deeming (Royal Holloway, University of London) explored the phenomenon of multi-lingual contrafacta, or songs whose original texts were substituted with texts in another language, in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Britain. Demonstrating the different ways that the creators of these songs chose to draw attention to their models - often by copying both texts together beneath their shared music, or by identifying the source-song in a rubric giving its original text incipit - Deeming went on to show how these creators worked within the prescribed parameters of their model while taking some liberties over details of the poetic structure. In certain cases, the musical adaptations required to accommodate these slight variations from the model went unrecorded in the written copies, suggesting that such adaptations could be managed, ex tempore, by their performers. Mary Carruthers asked if multi-lingual contrafacta could ever be performed with both texts sung simultaneously, noting a medieval tradition of hymn-singing in multiple languages at once; though we have no evidence that could prove such a use for these songs, it certainly seems possible, especially among audiences used to hearing multiple texts sung simultaneously in the musical genres of the motet and polytextual chanson.
In the concert that concluded the morning we heard Ensemble Leones singing in at least four languages, most notably in the anonymous virelai 'En tiés, en latin, en romans' ('In German, in Latin and in French'), whose macaronic French-Latin-German/Dutch text sees the unfortunate lover unable to get a clear answer from his lady, no matter in what language he proposes his love. Their admirably-constructed programme, leading neatly from each song to its alternative versions, brought the concept of musical networks to life in a strikingly audible way that clearly made a strong and highly favourable impression on the audience.

The conference as a whole was live-tweeted by Elizabeth Eva Leach (@eeleach) under the hash-tag #Harlaxton13.