Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007. xiii, 345 p.

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Book description

Is birdsong music? The most frequent answer to this question in the Middle Ages was resoundingly “no.” In Sung Birds, Elizabeth Eva Leach traces medieval uses of birdsong within Western musical culture. She first explains why such melodious sound was not music for medieval thinkers and then goes on to consider the ontology of music, the significance of comparisons between singers and birds, and the relationship between art and nature as enacted by the musical performance of late-medieval poetry. If birdsong was not music, how should we interpret the musical depiction of birdsong in human music-making? What does it tell us about the singers, their listeners, and the moral status of secular polyphony? Why was it the fourteenth century that saw the beginnings of this practice, continued to this day in the music of Messiaen and others?

Leach explores medieval arguments about song, language, and rationality whose basic terms survive undiminished into the present. She considers not only lyrics that have their singers voice the songs or speech of birds but also those that represent other natural, nonmusical, sounds such as human cries or the barks of dogs. The dangerous sweetness of birdsong was invoked in discussions of musical ethics, which, because of the potential slippage between irrational beast and less rational woman in comparisons with rational human masculinity, depict women’s singing as less than fully human. Leach’s argument comes full circle with the advent of sound recording. This technological revolution-like its medieval equivalent, the invention of the music book-once again made the relationship between music and nature an acute preoccupation of Western culture.


“Elizabeth Eva Leach’s Sung Birds is a refreshing examination of the late medieval fascination with the intersection of human song, bird song, animal sounds, and the words of poetry. One of the most imaginative and accomplished scholars of music and literature writing today, Leach examines the question, ‘what kind of thing is music?’ Her analysis is interdisciplinary in the original sense, the work of a scholar who uses her secure base of musical knowledge to illuminate a range of other subjects from mythology (the song of Sirens) to technology (the lasting changes wrought by musical notation) to the poetry of Machaut and Chaucer. Sung Birds deserves an honored place among the best work of a talented group of younger scholars in medieval studies.”

—Mary Carruthers, Remarque Professor of Literature, New York University.

“Sung Birds is highly original and genuinely opens up a new way of reading (or hearing) much late-medieval vernacular lyric. It is representative of relatively new, potentially very exciting, directions in medieval musicology that involve reaching out to other disciplines and placing the study of music in a much broad theoretical and cultural context. Elizabeth Eva Leach covers a lot of ground and makes some complex arguments, pulling together a wide range of material in a way that is easy to follow.”

—Sylvia Huot, University of Cambridge



This is a fine book and is all the more useful for bringing the technical skills of the medieval musicologist to bear on issues important to any historian of medieval court life and the complex interplay between orality and literacy. [Read full review via JSTOR]


[A] rigorous, wide-ranging study… a beguiling read for anyone …. a dense and rich book. …a fascinating and important read for anyone with an interest in the history of ideas.

EMMA HORNBY, MEDIUM AEVUM 77 (2008), 328-9.

Leach’s determination to read the music-theoretical sources as far as possible on their own terms…is exemplary…., and the result has important implications for us all.

JENNIFER BAIN, SPECULUM 83 (2008), 1019-20

…illuminating, original, and multifaceted….. ought to become standard reading in advanced gender and music classes…. [A] truly interdisciplinary book…. medievalists of all stripes will find this book a fascinating and worthwhile read.

JASON STOESSEL, NOTES, 64 (2008), 490-3.

Leach’s depth and breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for her subject is readily apparent in this book….I recommend this book to music and literary historians alike.


…a fascinating perspective on the meaning and function of music.


  1. Adina Izarra says:

    Do you have a list of recommended repertoire on CD of the examples on your book?

    1. I don’t have a handy list, I’m afraid, but nearly all of the songs I mention have multiple commercially available recordings. Many can be accessed via Spotify and/or YouTube–just type in the incipit text. There’s also the CD listing and search here: if you want to find the CDs in question.

      Of course, I have my personal preferences. I particularly like the P.A.N. recording of Vaillant Par maintes fois, for example (see listing at, but I wouldn’t like to be doctrinaire about such things!

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