Barbarian Voices: The Role of Song in Encounters between European and Asian Cultures

I have been fortunate enough to have been offered and to have accepted a prestigious International Research Visitorship in the Balzan Programme in Musicology “Towards a Global History of Music” led by Professor Reinhard Strohm. I will be joining Professor Strohm at The University of Oxford for the last few months of this year to undertake a project looking at “The role of the singing voice and concepts of song in encounters between Latin, Persian and Mongol cultures during the time of the Mongol Empire, 1206–1368”. My interest in this area of research has grown over the last year or two after I discovered some interesting accounts of thirteenth-century Mongol singing made by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries. Rather than dismiss their unfavourable judgements of Mongol singing as statements made out of prejudice or ignorance, I set about deconstructing these statements by looking at how Latins from the West also described each other singing “badly”. I found some interesting parallels, and these will be published soon in a leading journal in Medieval Studies (yay! my first article for medievalists in general!). Although these early accounts only reveal small pieces of information about Mongol culture in the thirteenth century, they shed considerable light on how Latins who are not music theorists thought about music.

Mongol commander of a thousand troops, in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Martyrdom of the Franciscans, 1330.
Mongol commander of a thousand troops, in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Martyrdom of the Franciscans, 1330.

The next phase of my research at Oxford looks at how concepts of the singing voice feature in reports of musical encounters in Latin, Persian and Mongol sources during the period 1206–1368. The rise and fall of the Mongol Empire shifted geopolitical boundaries during this period and resulted in greater contact between the East and West. Prior to this the Christian West had been separated from the East by the Islamic world’s control of the old Silk road trade routes to the East. The destruction of the Khwarezmid Empire by Ghenghis Khan in 1220 and the continued expansion of the Mongol Empire until 1368 created the conditions in which Christian missionaries and traders were once again able to travel to the East. While readers would know of Marco Polo’s journeys to the East in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, fewer know that Franciscan and Dominican friars had first travelled eastward around the middle of the century. Indeed, there is much that still needs to be investigated about this period of contact between East and West, not only in terms of Christian missionaries, but also trade relations across the Eurasian continent.

Part of the challenge of a project like this is looking for additional evidence of transcultural contacts in this period, especially musical encounters. Outside the travel reports of the missionaries (which at times resemble an espionage brief on the Mongols for King Louis IX of France), one important piece of additional evidence for contact between the Latin West and Mongol culture is found in an unusual manuscript that survives today in a library in Venice. This manuscript contains what seems to be a phrasebook for the Cuman-Kipchak language intended for missionaries and traders compiled around the year 1330. The nomadic Cuman people had occupied the Eurasian steppe for several centuries before they were subjugated by the Mongols in the early thirteenth century. Many Cumans had fled to Hungary, although many evidently remained in the area around the Black Sea as Mongol subjects. The most astounding feature of the Venetian manuscript from the perspective of music history is that it also contains translations of several Christian hymns into Cuman, one of which is set to the rhythmic music notation typical of Italy. Perhaps because of its peripheral nature, the only thorough study of this music I have found is one by the eminent Italian musicologist Agostino Ziino. Ziino asks many insightful questions of this source, some of which have not yet been completely solved. I look forward to taking up some of this challenges in the months ahead.

I have hinted that trade relations might shed light on some of the questions around the Venetian Cuman manuscript, and to this end I have only recently become aware Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350. Abu-Lughod’s history of a global system of trade examines the blossoming of contacts and trade relations throughout Eurasia and beyond that occurs in the second half of the thirteenth century. Although it is early days yet for my investigation, Abu-Lughod’s economic history suggests that some of the answers to a history of musical encounters in the same period might lay in economic history. If anything, this suggests that the challenge of writing one of the early chapters in the Global History of Music will rest upon an interdisciplinary approach, one that combines musicology with economic, cultural and social readings of history. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Watch out here and elsewhere for an announcement concerning a workshop I will convene at Oxford later in the year in which I will assemble a team of experts to examine the question of how the concept of the singing voice shaped early musical encounters between Eurasian cultures like the Mongols, Latins and Persians.

One thought on “Barbarian Voices: The Role of Song in Encounters between European and Asian Cultures

  1. Jason, It’s always so exciting to read what you’re doing. Congratulations on all your successes and the fascinating directions your work is taking.
    Best wishes,
    Rebecca H.

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