A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Poetry & Song

Our modern imagination of medieval life is often filled with poetry and song: the image of the minstrel playing music at court, the monk chanting prayers in the cloister, or the lady reading romances in her chamber are among the most consistent motifs in our own books and films about the Middle Ages. Reconstructing this culture from books, however, is not easy. Literary and musical manuscripts survive in relatively small numbers, and fewer still are illuminated. Even among the known examples, the books often say little about how their contents were performed, or when or where, or in front of which audiences. Nevertheless, the manuscripts in this section are among the most luxurious in the show and offer a striking glimpse of a rich tradition that must have been much more extensive than what has been preserved.
Though the books in this section vary widely, and balance courtly amusements with sacred rituals, they share a focus on musical and literary themes. The facsimiles give us a sense not only of the contents of these books, but also their formats: how they may have been held and the role of their images in shaping experience. In some instances, words preserved as poems were meant to be sung; in others the music was intended to be read not by the performer but rather by a listener, so that they may better understand the notes they heard. These facsimiles allow us to see signs of use on the pages themselves; they offer not only the presence of the words and notes on the pages, but also the visual effects of rich illuminations that guided their readers in the experience of sound.

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