Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.09, Galvez, Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe

13.10.09, Galvez, Songbook: How Lyrics Became Poetry in Medieval Europe

In this, her first book, Marisa Galvez offers a material philological study of medieval songbooks, and in so doing, succeeds in tracing the development of the chansonnier, the songbook, as the production of a collective consciousness--almost a medieval conception of "crowdsourcing"--towards our more modern notions of lyric poetry. The principal merits of the book stem from its comparative approach: Galvez studies songbooks from the Occitan, Middle High German, and Castilian traditions most extensively, but she fleshes out her analyses with copious allusions and asides to the Italian, Gallician-Portuguese, and Latin traditions. Any scholar of medieval manuscript culture will want to read this book carefully for its subtle readings and because it prompts several questions for further investigation.

In the book's introduction, Galvez surveys her field of inquiry. Rather than begin with generalizations and work towards the specific, she prefers to begin with the available evidence--individual songbooks--in order to elaborate on the history of a literary consciousness of "poetry":

In other words, by studying how the songs were compiled, we can go back to the original hybrid nature of medieval lyric before it was 'poetry': the book as embodying overlapping cultural and historical perspectives, as showing the formation of genres and the act of reading through visual and verbal texts, and as displaying the fluidity between prose and verse. Songbook shows how lyric came into being as a communal phenomenon, even if seen only through its written transmission years later. My research compels us to revise our modern idea of individual, subjective introspection directly translated to a written publication (6).

Galvez situates her investigation at the nexus of literary studies, art history and philology, coming in the wake of New Historicism and New Philology and following in the footsteps of such eminent scholars as Sylvia Huot and Stephen G. Nichols. It is the opinion of this reviewer that in the subsequent four chapters, Galvez makes fulfills most, if not quite all, of her promises.

In her first chapter, "Paradigms: The Carmina Burana and the Libro de buen amor," Galvez juxtaposes analyses of these two heterogeneous compilations. In her discussion of the Carmina, the author focuses primarily the juxtaposition of Latin versus to Middle High German Minnesang lyrics, which results in the overlapping of form, function, and heuristic aim. Similarly, the Librocontains examples of the estribote, a genre that opens the possibility for spontaneous emendation when "the audience interacts with the joglar through the refrain or estribillo" (49). She concludes by enumerating three ways one might read medieval songbooks: first, from the perspective of their modern reception as heterogeneous, yet unified collections of lyric; second, as blueprints for the production of songbooks incorporating contemporary tastes while inviting further participation through extemporaneous emendation; and third, through a kind of dialectic that accounts for both synchrony and diachrony where "a songbook makes possible creative reception situations for various participants within its circle of influence" (55).

Galvez turns in her second chapter, "Producing Opaque Coherence: Lyric Presence and Names," to proper names and their functions mainly within Occitan chansonniers of Italian provenance. She posits that proper names function as organization principles in these codices and became, in turn, memorial structures for modern archives of lyric poetry. Of course, the troubadours delighted in the use of secret names or senhals, whereas the composers of vidasand razossought to familiarize their non-Occitan public with troubadour lyric through the creation of "biographies" and "interpretation" of poets and poems. Obviously, a poet's name provides a convenient anchor for such an enterprise. However, if we intuitively believe that evoking a proper name, Bernart de Ventadorn, for example, constitutes a very specific and univocal speech act, Galvez turns this common sense approach on its ear:

[A]ttribution of meaning through the proper name in songbooks produces a second-order anonymity. We return to the troubadours' original refusal to signify themselves and their song, not through the absences of names, but through the activity of naming, which produces multiple meanings. In this process, a hermeneutic opacity develops: that is, an interpretive effect of the songbook's materiality from which we can deduce how names function from various vantage points without attributing agency to any one standpoint, such as poet or scribe, or value to any one situation of reception (61).

In the remaining pages of the chapter, Galvez offers admirably nuanced readings of lyrics attributed to such luminaries as Peire d'Alvernhe, Guilhem de Peitieu, Raimbaut d'Aurenga, Bernart de Ventadorn, Marcabru, Ermengaud de Bézier's Breviari d'Amor, and Arnaut Daniel. From Arnaut, it is just a short leap to Dante and Petrarch, famous readers of troubadour song, commentators, and compilers of lyric. Galvez' ability to balance attention paid to both text and context in this chapter is nothing short of commendable.

Anyone who studies medieval manuscripts recognizes the significance of the visual arts in the production of these collections. The third chapter, "Shifting Mediality: Visualizing Lyric Texts," abundantly illustrated, offers an exploration of how such famous patrons of the arts, Alfonso X and Frederick II, depict themselves as troubadour-kings through portraiture in the songbooks of the period. Galvez then turns to the Codex Manesse (or Groäe Heidelberger Liederhandschrift or Heidelberg, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Codex Palatinus Germanicus 848), a compendious Middle High German songbook compiled between 1300 and 1340 in Zürich. Her analysis of portraits and miniatures takes an ingenious direction in which she incorporates rhetorical analysis grounded in studies of medieval memory as a visual art and in rhetorical treatises well-known to medieval audiences. She argues persuasively that such official, Latinate techniques functioned to attribute value to the vernacular lyric art.

In her final chapter, "Cancioneros and the Art of the Songbook," Galvez asks the following: "To what extent do the earlier traditions of the songbook reflect a closed monumental past, and the cancioneros a shifting, historically and socially determined display of courtly competence?" (15). She sees the late-medieval Castillian songbooks such as the Estúñiga, the Palacio, and the Cancionero de Baena, among others, as sites of experimentation in the expression of a rising humanism. The heterogeneity of earlier songbooks remains but a newer sense of ritual secured in the ritualistic court life of the fifteenth century emerges. The local flavor of such compilations would subsequently be eclipsed, asserts Galvez, by Petrarchism, which, of course, would soon dominate European literary consciousness from the later Middle Ages into the Renaissance.

The volume's conclusion is particularly ambitious, but it offers more questions than answers. In summarizing and extending her study, Galvez rightly points out that post-medieval editorial practices have tended to obscure parts of the chansonnier tradition due to aesthetic and cultural values held by the antiquarian's, scholar's or editor's time and place. Her jump to postmodern concepts of orality and lyric compilations--CDs, mp3 playlists, etc.--is rapid, but intriguing, and one might wish to read more here since the contrast between modern and medieval lyric conceptions is the starting point for the book. However, an author must leave off somewhere, and her final concetto is appropriate.

Taken as a whole, the book is admirable. Specialists in each of the traditions under study will undoubtedly quibble with details; as it is a comparative work, truncations and omissions are inevitable. The bibliographical foundation is very complete, though highly pertinent studies by John Haines (in particular, Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères, Cambridge, 2009) and H. Wayne Storey (especially Transcription and Visual Poetics in Early Italian Lyric, Garland, 1993) are unfortunately absent. Codicologists may wince at the author's persistent reference to manuscripts by sigla rather than shelfmark, which are more specific. Finally, some readers may find the use of academic jargon a bit wearisome at times.

These minor criticisms aside, Songbook will find interested and appreciative readers among medievalists in literature, art history, music, and codicology. Its author is to be heartily congratulated, and the academic public can only look forward to reading Marisa Galvez' future scholarly contributions.