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Performance and the Middle English Romance by Linda Marie Zaerr (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 81-82 | 10.1353/art.2013.0004

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Linda Marie Zaerr’s Performance and the Middle English Romance is an important book which breaks new ground. Interdisciplinary scholarship is in fashion, but in the field of literary studies it is not always the case that an author is equally qualified in both disciplines. Zaerr, however, is. She a skilled musician, a performer of long standing on the medieval fiddle and an accomplished singer, as well as a medievalist trained in literary analysis. Her book explores the complicated subject of minstrel performance of the Middle English romances, which we have been approaching largely as texts to be read, ignoring the implications of their performance. She thus speaks with an authority that few people in her field possess in arguing that they need to be understood as performance acts as well as texts.

The Middle English romances were sung or performed with a mixture of song and recitation and accompanied by musical instruments—the lute, the harp, and the fiddle (with the latter two instruments used more frequently than the former). She highlights the fiddle (the medieval instrument, not the modern violin), not only because it is the instrument she uses to accompany her performances of Middle English romances, but also because medieval texts exist that specify several to its configurations (number and disposition of its strings) and tunings. Her important thesis is that the limitations of the fiddle because of these configurations and tunings give us access to how it and, by extension, the other two instruments, could have been used in minstrel performance of the romances. Among the things that this means is that the fiddle’s shifting drone notes caused by its flat bridge, the occasionally large intervallic leaps natural to its known medieval tunings, its mode (ancestor of our modern ‘key’), and its range tell us much about how minstrel performance could have sounded.

She argues persuasively that contrafacta, which she defines in her helpful glossary of terms (253–6) as songs ‘in which the original text has been replaced by a new one’ (that is, borrowed for use in performing the romances), were originally used by minstrels and thus may be used by performers today to provide the musical setting for performance of the romances. She mentions several specific contrafacta and highlights the thirteenth-century English Edi beo thu (a song honoring the Virgin Mary) as a useful contrafactum, especially because a second line (or harmony, to use modern parlance) for it exists.

Zaerr backs up her arguments with an array of evidence—for example, references to minstrel performance inside the romances themselves (both English and from the Continent), theories about accent and meter, and full discussions of each of the three instruments commonly used. One very helpful feature of her book is its Appendix A, a fifty-three-page catalogue of all the references to minstrel performance found in the Middle English romances. Her treatment of fiddle tunings within the main text of her book is augmented by her Appendix B, a fuller treatment. Her conclusions for text-based literary analysis of the Middle English romances are, moreover, as important as those for their performance. Specifically, she demonstrates that textual variation among surviving manuscripts do not bespeak metrical corruption or ineptitude but are instead hallmarks of the improvisation used in performance. Musical rhythms also come into play, so metrical analysis that is purely text-based misses the point. Zaerr’s book can help free us from undeserved negative judgments about the skill of those who produced the Middle English romances.

She does not, of course, claim to provide evidence for what medieval minstrels actually did in specific performances, but rather, sensibly, she outlines the sorts of things that minstrels could have done. Musicologists interested in early music debated in the 1990s the issue of authenticity (analogous to the debate going on then among literary scholars about the recoverability of authorial intentions), and they concluded that historically informed performance is as close as we can get in our efforts to recover the music of the past. Zaerr makes it clear that her analysis can lead us to historically possible conclusions and thus viable modern performances. Those of us fortunate enough to have attended one of...



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