Vocal stereotypes in the late middle ages

After a bit of a break from blogging, I’m pleased to note the publication a new piece that I wrote about vocal stereotypes and epistemologies of song in the late middle ages, with particular reference to Italian musical culture. “Howling like wolves, bleating like lambs: Singers and discourse of animality in the late middle ages” marks a new thread of scholarship for me in which I have become increasing interested in the ways that song is represented in the late middle ages. By this I mean how the practice of singing and the singing voice is described and conceptualised by contemporary writers, and indeed how composers make use of these ideas and attitudes in their compositions. My curiosity was sparked by a reference to the singing voices of the Mongols in the travel writings of a thirteenth-century author. (This line of enquiry has also lead to other fields of investigation, discussed briefly here.) This lead me to consider how other authors described the voices of singers of particular nations in often unflattering ways. (I intentionally steered clear of more “generic” descriptions that have been discussed by other scholars in great detail.) Well, from there I dug deeper into various epistemologies of song and poetry—principally in an Italian and humanist context—to reveal the depth of attitudes to singing voices from the thirteenth- to mid-sixteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the way that some poets sometimes described themselves as animals or even used an anthropomorphised animal voice as a poetic voice in their poetry. This led me to reconsider a few of the most puzzling songs from the mid-fourteenth century created by Italian composers, most likely around Florence. A good dose of Dante was also in order: this foray into Dante scholarship was both thrilling but also intimidating. In short, this is big picture scholarship that tries to map some ideas about the singing voice in the late middle ages (which I take as late as c.1550), although it ends by discussing some very particular musical works from the fourteenth century. Anyway, the full citation and the abstract for the article is as follows

Stoessel, Jason. “Howling like wolves, bleating like lambs: Singers and discourse of animality in the late middle ages.” Viator 45/2 (2014): 201–236. doi: 10.1484/J.VIATOR.1.103918.

In 1247 Simon of Saint-Quentin compared Mongol song to the howling of wolves. Like Simon, authors writing about music from the late thirteenth to mid-sixteenth century often associate the singing of certain socio-linguistic groups with the vocalizations of animals. This article argues that these statements betray what Cary Wolfe has termed the discourse of animality. This discourse seeks through a process of alienation to define morally or theologically the Latin West’s place in the world. Yet anthropomorphized animals in literature and song often instruct human readers/listeners in social and moral conduct. What might it mean when singers take on the voices of animals in Giovanni da Cascia’s Agnel son bianco and Donato da Cascia’s Lucida pecorella? By tracing metaphorical references to sheep, goats, and wolves in classical Roman and medieval literature, the article offers new social and political readings of these two madrigals.

Sorry, no free PDF is available for this publication. It can be accessed through either an Institutional subscription or by purchasing individual access to a copy here.

Addendum (10 June 2014)

Somewhere my recommended listening example for Lucida pecorella for readers that don’t know this music well (or cannot read music) slipped out of the proofs for this article. One recording that can be consulted is Bestiarium: Animals in the Music of the Middle Ages, performed by Ensemble La Reverdie, Cantus 9601 (1990); re-released online Nuovo Era 6970 (2010), track 10 (15 in earlier release). Ex. 3 in the article corresponds to 3’31” to 3’47 on this recording.


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