The Medieval Review 10.10.07

Page, Christopher. The Christian West and its Singers: The First Thousand Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xvii, 692. $45 ISBN 978-0-300-11257-3. .

Reviewed by:

Alice V. Clark
Loyola University
avclark@loyno.edu

This is an extraordinary book. Immensely learned and generous with text and image, its goal is to survey what we can know about singers in the Latin West up to c. 1100, a particularly daunting task considering the paucity of documentary sources, especially for the earlier part of this period, and the complete absence of musical notation for most of the period under study. It is necessary therefore to mine material that is not intended to provide information about musical practice, such as chronicles, saints' lives, charters, and epigraphy. Such a project is necessarily an exercise in reading between the lines, requiring both excellent scholarship and vivid imagination.

Christopher Page may be the best person to take on such a difficult task. Scholar of medieval literature and music and director of the ensemble Gothic Voices, he possesses both the scholarly rigor and the artistic imagination to take the hints available and weave them into a compelling story. This bifocal approach has served both his writing and his performance well in the past, and it does so here.

He makes clear at the outset that the book "is not about what singers actually sang" (5), nor is it about all singers, but only those who were part of the clerical and monastic communities and therefore participated in the literate tradition. (Readers who are interested in secular song traditions should turn to Page's earlier books.) Here he provides a vivid portrait of the world in which these early clerical singers lived. That means considerable space is given to descriptions and images relating to doctrinal issues, maritime communication, and other topics that may not appear to be immediately relevant, but that makes their lives more real than the limited information available can do on its own. As Page reminds us, those who sang in worship during this period were almost never solely dedicated to that task--they were clerics with broad responsibilities, participating in the full range of contemporary issues.

This study is divided into three large parts. Part I, "Mediterranean Beginnings: Lector and Cantor," includes seven chapters covering the period up to about 700, for which documentation is sparse indeed. Still, Page makes clear that, despite the growing difficulties in moving individuals, groups, and commodities, good Latin and "at least a residual knowledge of Roman administration" (27) continued to be valued widely, and liturgy served as one link to an increasingly distant Rome. Song is further classed by writers such as Tertullian as one of the higher functions of the body, a practice that will persist even after the resurrection when lower functions, such as the need to eat and drink, are lost. The act of singing therefore reinforces the existence of those higher functions and underlines an orthodox position in the face of Gnostic ideas that radically divided soul from body.

Page identifies several different groups whose responsibilities may include the singing of psalms and other sacred texts in this period. Urban house-ascetics, deacons, and individuals known as psaltes or lectors, who were often boys or young men, were among those who seem regularly to have functioned as singers when needed. It cannot always be determined with certainty whether a text is sung or declaimed, and there is no specific ministry of music, so the task of performing the sacred text was given to whomever could best fulfill it.

In the ten chapters of Part II, "The Kingdoms Come," the relationship between Rome and the north, particularly in the sixth through ninth centuries, takes center stage. This section includes, but goes beyond, the well-known tale of the Carolingian appropriation of Roman liturgy, leading to the creation and dissemination of the Frankish- Roman chant we know as Gregorian.

This was a time when the ordinary person's speech was evolving into dialects distinct from the increasingly conservative clerical Latin. The need to maintain the proper declamation of sacred texts, Page argues, forced a shift away from congregational singing toward a more professionalized type of clerical singer, and a recognizable music ministry was born.

The allure of Rome, Page shows, was felt long before Pippin sent to the pope for singers in the mid-eighth century. Gregory of Tours, for instance, tells us of his uncle, Gallus, a cleric who possessed "a voice of wonderful sweetness with a sweet melodiousness" (192) that led to his recruitment away from his rural monastery first to the cathedral of Clermont, then to the royal court at Cologne. Merovingian kings and clerics, then, already valued singers from the south for both their musical abilities and their romanitas.

Page identifies groups of fifth- and sixth-century clerical singers from Vandal Africa to Metz. A series of councils in Toledo between 580 and 633 designed to bring together Arians and Catholics further shows a desire to use liturgical reform on a Roman model as one means to help create confessional unity. The power of romanitas was used in different ways in a number of places, especially on the edges of the Christian world, from Kildare to Braga to Regensburg, from the middle of the sixth century through the eighth. Roman influence did not manifest itself in the same way, and cross-European unity was neither achieved nor sought, but the fact that so many looked to Rome for inspiration and support is striking. The Carolingians may have been the most important and most lasting of these, but they were not alone.

Part III, "Towards the First European Revolution," deals with the tenth and eleventh centuries in five chapters. The proliferation of new and newly-invigorated saints' cults, part of an overall economic as well as spiritual reawakening, required new tools to teach and transmit chant. Hence the theoretical developments of the eleventh and twelfth century, perhaps most notably the development of staff lines and clefs popularly credited to Guido of Arezzo.

Page goes further than the traditional story, linking the need for an exact method to graph music on the page to trends in Gregorian reform. The need for clerics to be pure in body and mind was equaled by the need for purity in what came out of their mouths, whether sacred text, sermon, or music. Here music is not only a speculative art, as taught in the university as part of the quadrivium, but a mechanism to clothe doctrine in living sound. Propriety in chant is therefore as important as propriety in grammar or theology. As Page puts it, "There may never have been a period when a greater number of influential and scholarly individuals have regarded music as an art of importance to both their influence and their scholarship than 900- 1100" (407).

Page usefully includes at the end a prosopographical listing of what we can know about specific named and unnamed singers as an appendix. He further gives a number of useful lists within or appendices to specific chapters. Perhaps one of the most interesting of these is a listing of amulet psalms, which might begin to identify verses used as refrains in liturgical performance.

The book is beautifully produced, even beyond the stunning group of nearly one hundred color images it contains. The large number of photos may be the reason it is printed on art paper throughout, which unfortunately can glare in bright light and makes the book weighty in the physical as well as metaphorical sense. Given the size and scope of the volume, it is rather astonishing that Yale lists the book at $45, less expensive than far sparer books from some other publishers. They even agreed to provide Page with the editor of his choice, and he could not have chosen better than Bonnie Blackburn. There are almost no visible errors, and the text, while sometimes necessarily dense, is always readable.

Page chooses (or was convinced) to use end notes, as is too often the case, but he tries to turn that into a virtue by modifying the citation process: he gives notes only at the ends of paragraphs, and within the notes at the back of the book, phrases in bold type indicate the topic under discussion. I'm not sure if I like this method, but it at least facilitates the kind of sporadic note reading that the use of end notes encourages. It can, however, be misleading: for instance, a note to a paragraph that concludes with a "reminder that the chapel of the royal hospital at Burgos is perhaps as likely a destination for the celebrated Las Huelgas manuscript of Latin sacred song and polyphony as the adjacent convent of Cistercian nuns with which it has often been associated" (507) piqued my interest, but the note, while it includes references on ospedales and leprosaria from Norwich to Gerona, unfortunately provides no information on the hospital of Burgos, the convent, or the manuscript in question.

As Page notes in his preface, scholars of medieval music frequently hear from our colleagues that what we do is simply too technical for non-specialists to understand. Music, however, is part of the overall sweep of cultural and social history, and no one does a better job than Christopher Page of reminding both musicologists and other medievalists of that fact. All in all, this book is a magnificent accomplishment, and I will read and reread it for years to come.