THE MILIEU of FOURTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH MUSIC
What was it like to study music in fourteenth-century England? Who studied theoretical treatises? What were they written for?
These have been the questions to which I have spent the good part of three years attempting to answer. In these last few months of my PhD studies, I have come to deeply appreciate what scholars of music seven centuries ago may have had access to, where they would have studied them and what they were interested in studying.
Contrary to our previous understanding of these works, it seems to me that the wealthy, powerful and influential monastic institutions which dotted across the land were heavily involved in nurturing a discourse of musical principles. It was the monks who lived there who wrote theoretical treatises which made new teachings of musical notation more accessible. It is through their writings that we can now understand that the innovative changes of methodologies to notation were not only confusing for singers, but also a point of contention among those who tried to procure their establishment.
What is more, these scholars were already very interested in their own historical past, writing historical narratives of how musical practices had reached their century. Such a curiosity is not unlike our own in our attempts to understand traditions and practices which have been handed down to us. It seems their students were sometimes just as prone to forgetting important facts, as one theoretical writer points out that he cannot remember all of the many names of authority.
In short, English theorists working in the fourteenth century seem to have been keen to protect the information which had been passed down to them while also staying up-to-date with the newest practices of their time.
|British Library Additional 62925 fol. 97v, c. 1260|
Image from the British Library website (http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/medieval/artmusicliterature/large96675.html)