Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.09.02, McGrady and Bain, eds., A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut

13.09.02, McGrady and Bain, eds., A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut

Scholarship on Guillaume de Machaut stands at an important juncture. The first complete edition of his works--not to mention the accompanying translation into English--is due to start appearing this year, both online and in print. An international project entitled "Machaut in the Book" is underway at the University of Virginia. Around three-quarters of the extant manuscripts containing works by Guillaume de Machaut have been digitised, including the "complete-works" codices. It is into this arena, then, that A Companion to Guillaume de Machaut emerges as the first of a series of promising major developments in the field.

The book sets out to be appealing to a broad audience, to offer both an up-to-date summary of the state of affairs for each topic considered, as well as "to sketch out new avenues of scholarly inquiry" (7). This, as the editors note, is a brave task indeed for the eighteen essays the volume contains. The volume aims to be multidisciplinary, and a glance at the contents page shows contributions which cover the broad fields of musicology and literature, as well as narrower fields such as genre, citation, media and manuscript studies. Another point that the contents pages reveal, however, is the lack of a contribution related to the field of art history. While this is the smallest of the major Machaut disciplines, the volume welcomes non-Machaut specialists in other areas, and art history is a field to which Machaut studies owes a great debt, particularly for the dating of illuminated manuscripts and for the tracing of individual artists.

The Companion is divided into five sections, entitled "Machaut in Perspective," "Select Works in Interdisciplinary Dialogue," "Situating Machaut's Music," "Contextualizing Machaut's Literature," and "Tradition and Reception." Following the editors' introduction, which sets the scene for the contributions to follow, the first contribution under "Machaut in Perspective" is that of Helen Swift: "The Poetic I" (15-32). While none of the essays in the volume could be considered sub-standard, that of Swift is surely one of the stand-out contributions, epitomizing the aims of the book as a whole. She provides a coherent and thought-provoking overview of the topic of Machaut's poetic voice, but also a great deal more than that. For, in teasing apart the debates surrounding Machaut's mutable "je," she offers a significant portion of her own thinking which advances knowledge on the matter.

The next contribution, from Anne-Hélène Miller on "Guillaume de Machaut and the Forms of Pre-Humanism in Fourteenth-Century France" (33-48), is an excellent go-to for those seeking an overview of pre-humanism, however, its appeal to those already well-versed in Machaut studies is less obvious than in many of the other contributions.

Elizabeth Eva Leach, author of the most recent monograph devoted to Machaut, [1] here offers an essay entitled simply "Poet as Musician" (49-66). Like that of Swift, it succeeds in offering a broad overview of the topic to readers less well-versed in the literature, whilst at the same time providing enough new scholarship to satisfy those already immersed in the field. She ably tackles the issue of analysis of sung language, and in particular the role of the singer--the performer--in the reception of song, reminding us that singing "enables a communication beyond the symbolic order of language that defies silence to express the linguistically inexpressible" (66).

Section II of the book begins with the contribution which could perhaps be considered the volume's tour de force, that of Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet entitled " 'Ma fin est mon commencement': The Essence of Poetry and Song in Guillaume de Machaut" (69-78). In only nine pages--the shortest contribution--Cerquiglini-Toulet analyses a work which is itself as succinct, complex and brilliant as her own essay. Describing "Ma fin" as an "emblem" which "condenses and embodies the art of the poet and of the musician" (69), she demonstrates how this well-known musical riddle is no less linguistically complex, stretching language to its limits within its short number of lines. Perhaps most ingeniously, Cerquiglini-Toulet observes how the manuscript transmission of the work adds to the riddle, particularly that of BnF fr. 22546, which, through its upside-down text, engages the reader in the act of creating a circle, at the same time as turning the illuminated letter M into an Omega.

Such an act is hard indeed to follow, yet co-editor Jennifer Bain does a commendable job in her cleverly entitled essay "'...Et mon commencement ma fin': Genre and Machaut's Musical Language in his Secular Songs" (79-101). Like all of the best articles in the volume, Bain succeeds in engagingly presenting existing research to a wide audience at the same time as bringing in her own new ideas on the topic. Here, she tackles the ever-more-accepted notion that Machaut's "musical works were meant to be read" (79), but in doing so manages to compliment Cerquiglini-Toulet's reading of "Ma fin" by approaching the rondeau--and the rondeaux in general--from the musical perspective.

The section continues with two essays featuring Machaut's judgement poems. The first is that of Emma Cayley, "Machaut and Debate Poetry" (103-118). Cayley provides us with an overview of debate genre at the time of Machaut, which she terms the "'debating climate' of medieval France" (105). Cayley's sage and clear overview will be of interest for scholars and a wider readership alike.

Benjamin Albritton's contribution "Moving Across Media: Machaut's Lais and the Judgement Tradition" (119-139) rounds off this second section. Even more than the debate poems, the lais are a neglected area in Machaut studies, and Albritton's union of the two is a wholly natural step given the relationship of the lai "Qui bien aimme" to Machaut's two judgement poems. Alongside this well-known relationship, Albritton presents evidence of debate in two other lays in Machaut's works where it has not before been acknowledged. In addition, Albritton argues convincingly that the musical setting--particularly the manuscript presentation of the musical setting in the Ferrell manuscript (on loan to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, without shelfmark)--aurally and visually reinforces the debate.

The break between sections here does not--nor does it attempt to--disguise the fact that the next contribution, that of Mark Everist entitled "Machaut's Musical Heritage" (143-158), disagrees in some fundamental musicological principals with that of Albritton. Indeed, the decision to place these two contributions side by side highlights in a meaningful way the differences not only in Machaut musical scholarship, but in medieval musicology as a whole. While the Companion, or indeed any other book, cannot hope to solve these issues, the subtle highlighting of the tip of this iceberg, together with Everist's acknowledgment of the differing viewpoints (n. 28, 153) only serves to highlight their interest for the book's readership. Everist, of course, has far more to say, and his comprehensive overview of Machaut's broad musical expertise, and the scholarship it has inspired, is impressive indeed.

The title of Yolanda Plumley's contribution, "Self-Citation and Compositional Process in Guillaume de Machaut's Lyrics with and without Music: The Case of 'Dame, se vous n'avez aperceü' (Rondeau 13)" (159-183) is in keeping with the style adopted in the essay itself. In contrast with the conciseness of the preceding whirlwind contribution from Everist, Plumley takes the reader on a gentler journey, carefully signalling Machaut's equally careful and extensive self-citational nexus. Thorough and close-knit, Plumley's contribution leaves few stones unturned or questions unanswered, and is an essential port of call for all those interested in citational practice in the Middle Ages.

Alice V. Clark's essay entitled "The Motets Read and Heard" (185-208) outlines the stance now most often applied in considerations of the motet that these works were indeed intended to be both read as well as heard, as the title suggests. She offers an extremely useful, if brief, account of Machaut's place in the context of other motet composers (199), and gives a coherent overview of Machaut's motets both as single items, but also as a group of works.

The indefatigable Lawrence Earp is the final contributor to this section, with a piece entitled "Declamation as Expression in Machaut's Music" (209-238). He is forthright in his (wholly justified) criticism of the neglect of the stylistic possibilities of "music overlay" seen in the Machaut manuscripts (as opposed to the later "text overlay"): "Even today, it would seem that scholars resist the thought of a stylistic development that does not fit into an evolutionary view of stylistic history" (211). One of the contribution's greatest strengths, for this reader at least, is the way Earp begins with a wide view of the late-medieval period and narrows down to Machaut's practices, thus offering both an overview for non-specialists and fresh insights for those already immersed in the field.

In Section IV we move from the overtly musical to the overtly literary, and it is not inappropriate that one of the best-known names in Machaut literary studies should start us off: R. Barton Palmer with his contribution entitled "Guillaume de Machaut and the Classical Tradition: Individual Talent and (Un)Communal Tradition" (241-260). In this article he revisits the idea that descriptions of postmodern literature an also apply to Machaut; an idea which, given the aim of the volume, is certainly worthy of a re-airing here. Palmer does more than that, however, for this broad-ranging article also reaches back to Antiquity, thus the situation of Machaut as "an artist between times" (244) is clearly articulated.

Reading is the topic of Daisy Delogu's "'Laisser le mal, le bien eslire': History, Allegory, and Ethical Reading in the Works of Guillaume de Machaut" (261-275). In the essay, she builds on the work of Mary Carruthers, and argues that (ethical) reading "is an active process that supposes a connection between a reader's engagement with a text, and his or her subsequent conduct" (264). It is refreshing to read a discussion of truth and reading in Machaut where the focus is not only on the Voir dit but also on other, less-studied texts (here the two Judgement poems, the Fonteinne amoureuse and the Confort d'ami).

A text which is currently enjoying a renaissance in Machaut studies is the subject of Zrinka Stahuljak's contribution entitled "History's Fixers: Informants, Mediators, and Writers in the Prise d'Alexandre" (277-292). Stahuljak situates the text well in the historical tradition, with some reliance on R. Barton Palmer's introduction to his edition and translation of the text (although she makes no mention at all of the 2011 French edition by Sophie Hardy). Her use of the term "fixer" to understand the role of some of the characters is certainly interesting and of wide appeal, however, the use of such a contemporary term does raise questions as to how future generations will benefit from the comparison. Nevertheless, the presence of the word in the OED bodes well.

The final contribution in this section once again brings music back into play. Julie Singer's "Instrumental Comparisons: Machaut's Shorter Dits" (293-308) is another of the highlights of the volume. With its main focus on one of Machaut's most under-studied texts, the Dit de la harpe, Singer succeeds in situating this unloved piece as one of Machaut's key works, unlocking some secrets which leave the reader desperate to (re-) read the text.

Section V begins with Barbara K. Altmann's "Guillaume de Machaut's Lyric Poetry" (311-331) which launches itself with a strong statement of Machaut's undeniable importance in the lyric tradition (311-312). With heavy reliance on secondary literature (particularly Chichmaref, Calin, Wilkins, and Earp), the high point of this contribution is the analysis of the Prologue (314-317), which offers new insights into the relationship of its four ballades to the rest of Machaut's extensive lyric corpus.

Following this is Kristin Yri's "Performing Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame: From Modernist Allegiances to the Postmodern Hinterland" (313-359). In it, she undertakes a survey of broad trends in the recording of Machaut's mass and how these reflect changes in scholarly thought. Yet, there are a number of inconsistencies in this contribution which make it difficult to read, and which were strangely not weeded out during the publication process. For instance, among other stylesheet slips, modern French is usually left untranslated in the volume (e.g. 71), yet here translations are provided (e.g. 340). Much more seriously, not every reference is complete (e.g. 338, n. 13), and in one instance the author of a secondary text is referred to not by his full name or surname, but only by his initials (349, n. 61).

The final contribution in the volume is that of co-editor Deborah McGrady, "Machaut and his Material Legacy" (361-385), and with it the volume ends on a high note. Arguing strongly that scholarship should encompass the more neglected Machaut sources--as the "Machaut in the Book" project which she is co-leading in fact achieves--McGrady shows how the placement of Machaut's works among those of other authors, anonymous or not, influences a reading of all the texts. As she demonstrates, such a move does not necessarily reflect Machaut in a negative light; indeed, it can also show him to be "a respected writer, a learned poete, and a vernacular magister" (380). It is this contribution which offers the only strong nod in the direction of the importance manuscript illumination through the author's treatment of the miniature sequences of the Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse.

The lack of art-historical research presented in the volume is lamentable, for it is really only this which stops me from whole-heartedly lauding it as an essential purchase for anyone wishing to have a one-stop-shop overview of the master. Nevertheless, its contribution to Machaut studies should not be underestimated, for it will certainly serve both as an introduction for students and interested readers and as a reference work for scholars deeply engaged in the field. In that respect it achieves its aims, and the editors--and contributors--are to be congratulated for a volume which is at once engaging, fulfilling, and inspirational.



1. Elizabeth Eva Leach, Guilaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011).