Here is a distilled introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman. To read their previous introduction, click here. To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here. To read the full introduction to “Aural Ecology” and to read last week’s post by Thomas Blake, click here.
What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. [. . .] The essays in “Aural Ecologies” address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body. —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman
While the raucous rancor of last year’s Super Tuesday was dominating network news and social networks—which, sadly, seems so long ago now—a quieter news story emerged from the tranquil fields of Lincolnshire: an Anglo-Saxon island has been discovered. Its artifacts are some of the most remarkable to have been found in recent decades; among these finds are writing utensils, game pieces, butchered animal bones, and other indicators of a sustained trading community.
The Guardian reported that surveys and software enabled the archaeologists to model the island in its contemporary landscape and seascape, revealing that it had once rested “between a basin and a ditch.”
This placement, the lead archaeologist continued, suggests that the site “was a focal point in the Lincolnshire area, connected to the outside world through water courses.” So if these reimagined waterways can show us how people saw the site, can they tell us how people heard it, as well?
I think so, especially because of the recent work on ancient acoustics in early churches. In February, The Atlantic published an article on the recent scholarly collaboration among an art historian-archaeologist, a music producer-engineer, and the founder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory (yes, it’s a real thing). This super-interdisciplinary team was able to “map the acoustic fingerprint of several [Byzantine] churches,” which were shown to have been deliberately “designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.” Now, the USC member explains, they can record a chant, “process it … and all of the sudden we have performances happening in medieval structures.” They can actually rebuild the sounds of our ancient past. [By the way, Allison Meier of hyperallergic reported on this story as well; her article provides links to the Escape Velocity podcast on Acoustic Museums, which is well worth a listen].
If they can recreate the lost sounds of ancient structures, and archaeologists can recreate early medieval topographies, then it stands to reason that the recreation of past landscapes, and even seascapes, might not be far behind.
But was sound different across the cooler, wetter climate of the early Middle Ages? Were the hearers’ auditory contexts drastically different in a pre-modern world? To what effect?
To me, what’s tantalizing about the Lincolnshire island is that it was on the border of the early medieval fenland—an area described by the 8th-century monk Felix as dense and undulating, “now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams” (Ch XXIV, trans Colgrave p 87). In such an aqueous environment, sound would have travelled well, staying close to the cool, dense air hovering over the waters.
In his prose hagiography, the Life of St Guthlac, Felix enshrines certain sounds in the wetland ecology of Guthlac’s surroundings. He does so most explicitly at the landing-place, where visitors must “sound a signal” to alert the hermit that they’ve arrived. But what was this signal, and why would Felix bother to emphasize such a mundane practice of alerting your host when you’ve arrived?
In monastic communities bells were used to sound the Daily Office to calling each member together in prayer. As moderns, we should remember that these bells—frequent, sonic interventions of everyday life—were rung on the shore, or in a church, or on monastic grounds rather than from the larger towers of later belfries (an exception to this is the early Irish Round Tower). These small hand-held bells “of hammered sheets or cast metal” which “would presumably have clanged or tinkled, rather than tolled sonorously across a distance” (Resounding Community, 103).
Bells were spiritual and supernatural; they could cleanse or curse, and were kept by clerics and lay people alike. They were sometimes sworn on, as if they were relics. Sometimes, they were made into relics. For more about early Irish bell traditions, click here and or/ here.
In Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Christopher Loveluck describes David Hinton’s work on a seventh-century smith found buried alone, “next to the marshland and waterways to the sea, with his tools, a bell, a fine seax and a silk-wrapped amulet” and therefore “emblematic of the transition from such ‘outsider’ itinerant artisan/merchants to the vibrant artisan and trading communities of the emporia ports.” Still, the“[p]erception of threat from itinerant ‘outsiders’ is emphasized in the late seventh-century Anglo-Saxon law code of Wihtred, by the obligation on non-local travellers and foreigners to announce themselves with bells or horns, prior to leaving principal roads or trackways to approach settlements.”
For seventh-and eighth century people, then, bells sounded time, community, and stillness as well as place, strangeness, and travel. In either instance, the aural intrusion always betokened a human presence. And of course, these were some of the only sounds that weren’t naturally occurring; this might have been as close as they got to manmade sound pollution.
For Guthlac, sound was especially important because he could not see far from his earthen hermitage. Not having any need for a bell to sound the Daily Office, he nevertheless depended on some kind of signal for approaching visitors.
In one episode, distraught parents bring their once-possessed, now very ill son to Crowland in the hope that he might be cured. This is quite different from an earlier visitation from Wilfrid and Æthelbald, whom Guthlac knew personally, and with whom he might have traded correspondence. To me, this is the real test of Guthlac’s grace: will he help the neediest? The stranger? The tired, desperate parents? Does the bell, or whatever the signal is, proclaim their sameness or difference?
We can sense the tension in the passage, during their sounding of the signal and speaking to Guthlac:
Then when the sun rose in its splendour, they approached the landing place of this said island, and having struck the signal they begged for a talk with the great man. But he, as was his custom, burning with the flame of most excellent charity, presented himself before them…[and after hearing their story] immediately seized the hand of the tormented boy and led him into his oratory, and there prayed on bended knees, fasting continually for three days…(XLI, Colgrave 131).
The parents had expected to wait; they expected to plead on their son’s behalf. They expected a struggle to be heard. But—and I do think that’s a rather crucial autem in the Latin—Guthlac is eager to listen; the sound on the shore was enough.
What’s more, his cure is a series of utterances. He prays (aloud) for three days straight, without pausing to eat. And after ritually rinsing and breathing the “breath of healing” on the boy, the child, “like one who is brought into port out of the billows and the boiling waves, heaved some deep sighs from the depth of his bosom and realized that he had been restored to health”(XLI, Colgrave 131).
I’m a mom to an asthmatic toddler, so I find myself quite moved by this scene. I can imagine ringing the bell—the thing I might have heard in church, or had in my home; the signal by which monks were called to prayer and children inside for curfew—to make a sound for myself. I can imagine traveling with my husband to a strange place far from home, not knowing what would happen. I can imagine using something everyday for something extraordinary, and having the sound of my arrival echo with anticipation. If I were this mother, I would hear it bounce off the marshes and off the low-lying islands. The dawn would be warming the air above us, amplifying our sound. And I would be standing there, with my child wrapped in my arms, hoping to see someone emerge from a barrow; a man of God whose isolation and entrenchment was supposed to be part of his holiness.
The sound travels outwards to the hermitage and back with the hermit—the echo of her hope, meeting them at the shore. This is a soundscape and a landscape in which time seems still on the shore, but sped through in the oratory. Felix joins both sites, and both temporalities, with the simile of the boy as one rescued from shipwreck catching his breath as he washes ashore. The image recalls the sound of their arrival, and that first bell still seems to ring through this narrative of hope against all odds.
Wouldn’t it be great to hear that again?
Featured Image: Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. © British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4, from Medieval Histories.com
Rebecca Shores is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her Dissertation is entitled “Bringing Saints to the Sea: Ships in Old English and Anglo-Latin Hagiography.”
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin–Linda O’Keeffe
Audiotactility & the Medieval Soundscape of Parchment–Michelle M. Sauer