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MLN 121.3 (2006) 740-756

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The Body of the Singer.

Sensory Perception and the Production of Meaning in Steinmar's Song of Singing1

Ludwig-Maximilian University, Munich


Be it a performance or be it a piece of writing, the courtly love song is always both an aesthetic text as well as a form of communicative action and thus situated in a field of various social practices. This field shall be called 'courtly' for the time being, and from our point of view in the 12th and 13th centuries it is characterized by its historical alterity. There is, for instance, no strong differentiation in this field between aesthetic communication on the one hand and various other forms of social interaction on the other.2 Religion, law, rule and power, love [End Page 740] and sexuality as well as the rituals of cultural reproduction such as feasting and repast, or games and tournaments: in medieval courtly cultures all these features intertwine with forms of action that can be called aesthetic in the narrow sense of the word, and in a way which in retrospect can appear strange. With regard to courtly texts, we therefore cannot speak of a social subsystem 'literature,' which was institutionally stabilized and delimited against other social systems as the political or the religious one. What the texts show over and over again, rather, is how disputable it was who, under which conditions, and according to which rules, was allowed to sing or narrate; how role-models, the orders or the legitimacy of poetic speech were negotiated; and that some aesthetic criteria were far from the level of self-evidence that they gained in the process of institutionalization of literature as a social subsystem in post-medieval times (such as originality, fictionality, polysemy or autonomy of the aesthetic text). How to determine the status and functions of poetic speech at court has therefore been at the centre of attention in recent medievalist research.

It has, for instance, been attempted to map the problems briefly outlined above by focusing on the interactive aspects of the symbolic system 'song.' Such keywords as 'performance' or 'ritual' refer to these aspects. The respective discussions made clear, that 'performance' denotes only one of several forms of communicative realization of poetry, and that the term therefore only can indicate a strictly textual category.3 The objects of medieval literary studies are texts not performances, and in particular written texts. However, these texts are historically situated, so to say, 'between' performance and script;4 they remain bound to a culture of 'semi-orality' in many respects. We are dealing with texts that, for example, in a variety of characteristics in their linguistic and stylistic structures refer to performative situations; texts, whose discourses thematize within themselves the principles and problems of courtly performances and the relations of singing to other social practices.5 [End Page 741]

The view of such dimensions of literary speech in the middle ages is one aspect of a movement in recent medievalism that is connected to concepts of 'performance.' A second aspect, closely linked to the previous one, follows from the notion, that—before the invention of telephones and voice recorders—oral communication implies vocality.6 That means that it presupposes the bodily presence of the speakers and listeners alike. Under these circumstances, communication is more than a mere linguistic process: it remains bound to reciprocal sensory perception; its medium is the bodies themselves. In medieval cultures, literature as communicative action is at all times also physical and sensory action. It relies on functional principles such as visibility, mutual participation, common partaking, and sensory immediateness7 —or to make it brief: literature as communicative action relies on the direct involvement of the communicators. It is at this point that interests that genuinely count in the field of literary studies coincide with those of, for instance, historical anthropology.

Texts may or may not offer discourses about bodies and sensual perception; they may have been oral texts or genuinely written ones&#x02014...


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