Forging song in the medieval rehearsal room (contains links to full text)

Pythagoras in the forge (left) from GKS 80 2º: Speculum humanae salvationis, 47 verso Speculum humanae salvationis [The Mirror of Human Salvation], Germany, 1400-1450
Paper on distributed cognition and medieval song is published in a volume edited by Mary Carruthers

A methodological approach that combines the psychology of distributed cognition with a close reading of Senleches’s Je me merveil / J’ay pluseurs fois suggests a new cultural role for song in the later fourteenth century.

Mary Carruthers’s new edited volume Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages has just been published by Cambridge University Press. It contains my essay ‘Nature’s Forge and Mechanical Production: Writing, Reading, and Performing Song’, which attempts to suggest a new way of viewing the relations between medieval songs and their original performers. Using the image of the forge as a way of thinking about artistic creativity, and the modern concept of distributed cognition (cognition when a process that necessitates collaboration involves a hierarchical structure of individuals, using external objects to represent things difficult to represent mentally), it argues that part of song’s important cultural work was done among singers in rehearsal.


The paper focuses its initial efforts through one of the central metaphors of making (i.e. artistic creativity) in the Middle Ages: the forge or smithy. Initial subsections discuss ‘Memory, the forge, inventio and the mechanical’ and ‘Creation and procreation: the moral ambiguity of memory’ before the article focuses on a single song by Jacob Senleches, that uses the forge image centrally: the double balade, Je me merveil / J’ay pluseurs foys. Sections here are entitled ‘Senleches (& Co.) as the hammer of the amateur’, ‘Forging song’, and ‘Forging irony?’. Full texts and (new) translations for the song are offered. Engaging with earlier analyses by Gilles Dulong and Anne Stone, my own analysis of the song concludes that

Far from criticizing his compositional rivals, Senleches’ song addresses the relationship between forging a song in writing as a composer and forging a song in sound as a singer—a relationship mediated by notation—in a period when the memory was a machine for invention, the mechanical was positively human, and being someone’s instrument was a culturally approved career choice. In short, I suggest that a song is less an object than a collaborative rhetorical process which binds the composer, notation, singers and listeners within a machine, whose workings—when going well—should mirror in sonic ratios those that medieval thinkers posited in the heavens.

A final section (‘Musical notes as memorial notae’) relates the reading to a concept in modern psychology that has recently been used fruitfully in studies of rehearsal in Renaissance theatre, where the performers similarly worked from individual parts—the idea of ‘distributed cognition’.

Link to the full text of this article. Published as Elizabeth Eva Leach, “Nature’s Forge and Mechanical Production: Writing, Reading, and Performing Song,” in Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Carruthers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 72-95. © Cambridge University Press 2010. Reprinted with permission.

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  1. Fascinating piece on the music of a wonderful master! Thanks for providing access to it.

  2. Marc Lewon says:

    Thanks for the great article and the nice insight into “forging” song. The notion of stating within a song text that the singer (or maker of the song) will stop singing, now because of being annoyed with fumblers who all pretend to be great masters in the art of making songs reminded me of some of Neidhart’s songtexts. I just recorded the songs of the Frankfurt Neidhart-Fragment and there I encountered a similar situation in two songs:

    “Nv wil ich den odelgouchen orlop gheben
    dat se in irn nuwen troyen hin [schwe]nzen also vert
    vnd ne wil nicht mer [s]inghen van ir aller goughelheyt
    ia wil ich mich richten in eyn ander lebn”

    (Now would I grant those despicable dandies permission
    to swagger about in their new coats just like last year,
    and I do not wish to sing anymore about their foolishness.
    Yes, I want to turn towards another life.)

    Only to then talk some more about them, betraying his earlier statement, and of course adding humour and irony:

    “heyzot weden vmbe gurten ere langhe gassen swert
    den sin ir vitzel vollenclichen mer wan spannen breyt”

    (Let them just don and gird their greatswords
    the straps on which are ample, more than one span wide.)

    Admittedly he doesn’t go on much longer, but in this lament (the song is called “Allez daz den sumer her in vreuden was”) he says several times that he no longer wants to follow this path of a singer, but the lament goes on and on…

    And there are other instances in German Minnesang and related genres that refer to stopping singing, while singing and not stopping…

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