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UT Professor of Musicology co-edits book on medieval French gender and voice

UT Professor of Musicology co-edits book on medieval French gender and voice


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A new book co-edited by School of Music Professor of Musicology Rachel May Golden analyzes gender and voice in medieval French literature and song.  It’s a project that merges a variety of different perspectives from a wide range of disciplines – one that Golden believes will aid in granting a fuller understanding of the period.

“Sometimes medieval times are viewed in a negative way like that it was a dark age, or that all knowledge and learning was lost, or that it was exclusively filled with war and hardship and disease and those sorts of things,” she said.  “In some ways, medieval people were not so different from us.  We’re a society that’s been heavily affected recently by disease and wars, and we’re a society that struggles with inequities. There’s truth to those things affecting the human condition a lot more broadly than in just one era.”

The book, titled Gender and Voice in Medieval French Literature and Song, is composed of essays that offer analyses of medieval French writings and song from a variety of perspectives, including literary, historical, and musical, to better understand the history of women’s voices in the time period.  The work grew out of a series of sessions on the topic at the long-running International Congress on Medieval Studies.  Katherine Kong, an independent scholar and previously associate professor of French at the University of Tennessee, co-led these conference sessions with Golden, and co-edited the book along with Golden as well.

Golden’s interest in France originally was piqued, she says, by accident.  She discovered a couple of Christmas albums in graduate school that featured Latin religious repertoires of southern France and were some of the first polyphonic music written in western Europe.  She was drawn to the history of that development, as well as how overlooked it was at the time – while students frequently first learn about the polyphony of northern France at Notre Dame in studying the form, these pieces of southern France preceded those – in some cases by as much as 100 years.

 “I started working on them and thinking about them because they’re a bit less set.  They don’t necessarily notate rhythm between parts, so they have a much more improvisatory feeling than the later Notre Dame pieces, which tend to be very structured,” she said.  “This makes them a bit more challenging to perform, to figure out how the two voices might fit together, and what kind of dissonances might be part of the practice of the time.”

Southern France, also known as Occitania in medieval contexts, has continued to be an area of interest for Golden, ultimately leading to the development of this book.   The polyphonic compositions of Occitania did not have a fixed liturgical function, but were created as expressions of creativity and experimentation, though still mostly in a religious context.  As the music developed further, expressions of gender developed as well, including expressions of devotion to the Virgin Mary. 

As the scholars who wrote the book’s essays explored this context, Golden says that the various represented perspectives interacted meaningfully with each other, even without direct intervention from the co-editors.  The authors also brought in perspectives on the relationship between writing and orality (speaking and singing), which challenges the way we tend to view those two things in a 21st-century context.

“Even today, writing and orality are sometimes juxtaposed and thought about as very different things.  But they’re really very interrelated and close things and that’s very true of medieval France,” she said.  “The writing down of a thing and the recitation and the performance of it are two parts of one integrated experience.  That sometimes that gets separated in our way of thinking because we’re so attached to the written word in all its various forms today.”

More information on the book can be found on the publisher’s website.

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