Conference Report: Imagining French Narrative and Song c.1100–c.1350

The single-day event ‘Imagining French Narrative and Song c.1100–c.1350’ was held at St John’s College, University of Cambridge on a mercifully mild day in mid-January 2023, and was made possible by generous financial support from M&L, the RMA and the University of Cambridge. It comprised two closely related but distinct parts: a conference held at the Old Divinity School, an impressive Victorian edifice in the Gothic Revival style; and a closing concert in the nearby medieval Round Church, founded in the early twelfth century.

The event explored changing medieval perceptions of French secular songs and romances through twelve papers given by various literary scholars and musicologists based at universities in the UK, France, Belgium and the USA. The conference thus set the ground for an exciting and long-overdue interchange of ideas between scholars and practitioners from different yet overlapping disciplines. The positive tone was established by Sarah Kay (New York University), a leading specialist in medieval French, Occitan and Latin literature, whose keynote speech traced the role of French songs far beyond the borders of France—into the Empire, and even the unlocatable ‘imaginary’—via a description in the ‘Lai d’Aristote’ (c.1215) of a French song performed by an Indian woman at a Greek court in India.

Time and again, themes raised in Sarah Kay’s engaging keynote speech emerged in subsequent presentations. Some papers developed the idea of France’s international impact through the literary and musical genres under investigation, for example via examination of the Anglo-French network discernible in the poems of Philippe de Rémi (c.1210–1265) or the influence of French fiddle playing on that of thirteenth-century Germany. Other papers instead focused on translation issues, analysing Old French versions of the Bible that exploit secular chanson de geste forms and tackling thorny interpretative questions presented by Geoffrey Gaimar’s Estoire des Engles (c.1137). Similarly, Aristotle’s surprising reaction to the Indian woman’s French song discussed by Sarah Kay—namely, his change of focus from philosophical teaching to natural philosophy—set the stage for two investigations into birdsong in medieval French literature via the omnipresent nightingale and more generally in relation to birdsong and desire; the Indian woman’s use of song as seduction in turn linked to an examination of the carole, dance and sex in ecclesiastical texts and secular romances. Finally, the close interrelationship between ‘imagination’ and medieval song—as highlighted by Sarah Kay and reflecting the conference title—formed a springboard for papers examining various topics ranging from trouvère chansonniers containing empty staves, imagined performance contexts of Guillaume de Machaut’s Remède de Fortune (early 1340s), and hands-on performance questions such as the meaning of singing ‘en haut’ and whether or not lyric song was performed in a rhythmically free fashion.

A key feature of the event—made possible by generous support from the RMA—was the concluding concert given by Ensemble Leones, a specialist medieval music group based at the world-renowned Schola Cantorum in Basel. The three musicians (performing variously on citole, gittern, fiddle, bagpipes and voices) treated the conference speakers, attendees and the wider public to a magical exploration in sound of pieces and themes mentioned in the conference papers, bringing the day to a stylish close in a packed church. Due to the success of both events, possible publication of select papers in a themed issue of a core peer-reviewed journal is currently being explored alongside potential future collaborations between scholars in the Cambridge medieval music scene and professional musicians from the Schola Cantorum in Basel.

Richard Robinson is a PhD candidate in Musicology and Medieval German at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, where he is researching minnesang and performance practice (c.1200–c.1350).

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