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Inaugural Lecture: Song, Silk and Romance: the Values of Medieval Music

Anatomy Lecture Theatre 6th Floor King's Building Strand Campus
24/10/2013 (18:00-19:30)

Part of the Arts & Humanities Festival 2013: Being | Human

Presented by the Department of Music


The starting point for this lecture is an alignment of song and silk. The silk in question forms a luxurious embroidered bedspread in the chamber of an emperor and protagonist of a thirteenth-century French romance, Jean Renart’s Guillaume de Dole. The song is the one the emperor sings at the moment he realises he has unwittingly fallen in love. In this emotional epiphany, song and silk are connected: it is the sight of sunlight catching the gold thread woven in the silk bedspread that provokes the emperor’s lyric outpouring.


The tradition of inserting song into French romance dates from the thirteenth century, and remains one of the earliest records of the troubadour and trouvère repertories. Yet perhaps on account of the patchy and incomplete nature of the musical notation accompanying many surviving manuscripts of such texts, romance remains somewhat peripheral in the historiography of medieval music. This lecture resituates romance in the history of song from the perspective of what it might reveal about the values associated with song and singing. Ranging widely through the tradition from Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut, it pursues a particularly materialist theme. Precious and desirable objects such as the emperor’s bedspread in Guillaume de Dole were common currency in romance, and connected texts to the real courtly environments of their production and consumption; and invested romance with a carefully calibrated taxonomy of social and economic values as defined by objects. I show how songs are absorbed into that economy of things, and defined as being as sumptuous as silk or as desirable as jewels or fine clothing. If gold thread lends value to cloth, what, then, were the properties that lent song its worth? What kind of commodity or object was sound? Romance offers precious insight into such questions, and permits us a way to reflect on the elusive dimension of emotional and expressive values of the musical past, values that are after all very much alive today in how we relate to music.

This talk was illustrated with live performances by students in the King’s College Music Department.

Emma Dillon in Professor of Musicology. Her work focuses on European musical culture from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. Her work ranges widely in terms of repertories, sources, and methodological approach, and broadly speaking falls at the intersection of musicology, sound studies, medieval studies, and the history of material texts. She is the author of Medieval Music-Making and the Roman de Fauvel (Cambridge University Press, 2002), The Sense of Sound: Musical Meaning in France, 1260-1330 (Oxford University Press in 2012) and co-editor of Cantus Scriptus: Technologies of Medieval Song (Gorgias Press, 2012), as well as author of several essays on medieval musical culture. Her current work explores the evidence for musical feeling and the emotional effects of sound in the later Middle Ages.

Professor Dillon has degrees from the University of Oxford. She came to King’s in 2013 from the University of Pennsylvania (2000-2012), where she was Professor of Musicology. She has also held positions at the University of Bristol (1998-2000) and as a visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley (1999). She has also been a Member and Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Studies (School of Historical Studies) in Princeton, and a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.  

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