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  • Performance and the Middle English Romance by Linda Marie Zaerr
  • Alexandra Verini
Linda Marie Zaerr, Performance and the Middle English Romance (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer 2012) 284 pp.

While there has been extensive work on the manuscript tradition of Middle English romances, the minstrel tradition of these texts, because it is more elusive, has been largely ignored. Linda Marie Zaerr’s new book Performance and the Middle English Romance, therefore, fills a significant gap by [End Page 364] integrating musicological and cultural scholarship with a performer’s perspective in order to investigate how English minstrels performed romances with music and how their musical dimension may have affected these romances. Zaerr’s privileged position as both a literary scholar and a skilled musician (she performs with the medieval fiddle) allows her to offer a fresh perspective on Middle English romances not just as texts but also as performance acts.

Though we do not have access to the romances as they were presented in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries, Zaerr argues that it is vital not to discount the importance of minstrel performance. Her project proposes to search for “musicality” in romance manuscripts through careful historical and formal analysis. Chapter 1 explores the continental tradition as a context for studying Middle English romance performance. Specifically, Zaerr focuses on meta-performance dimensions of romances with protagonists who travel in the guise of minstrels, portrayals that can give us clues into real-world minstrel performances. What the absence of notated melodies in these continental texts suggests, Zaerr asserts, is that we should look for an approach to musical performance that would render musical notation superfluous. Such evidence may be found in documentation of performance contexts, narrative texts that interact with performance, and current performance theory, sources upon which Zaerr relies in her subsequent exploration of English romances.

In chapter 2, Zaerr begins her exploration of Middle English romances by considering the minstrel tradition in England as documented in historical sources and portrayed in verse romance. As in continental romance, she observes that historical evidence for performance offers an incomplete picture, necessitating the consultation other sources like payment records. For instance, Zaerr discovers a record of payment to two fiddle players for performing Gray Steel. By examining this evidence alongside an extant melody set to this text, Zaerr concludes that the medieval approach to narrative performance may have been more flexible than we imagine. She backs up this portion of the book with a wide array of evidence, contained in Appendix A, which documents references to minstrels in eighty-three romances. Based on these descriptions and the Gray Steel payment record, Zaerr argues that we should not exclude the possibility of sung narrative with instrumental accompaniment and that we should keep looking to sources like payment records for evidence of musical elements in romances.

Chapter 3 continues the search for details of music in romance performance by focusing on the particular instruments that would have been used: the lute, the harp, and the fiddle. Zaerr highlights the fiddle, the most commonly used of the three, and uses Appendix B, which is an analysis of evidence for the tuning of the fiddle, to support her claims. She argues here that the fiddle’s number and disposition of strings and tunings shows us how it could have been used in minstrel performances. For instance, the instrument’s shifting drone notes caused by its flat bridge, the large intervallic leaps natural to its medieval tunings, its mode (the equivalent of the modern “key”), and its range can suggest to us how minstrel performances may have sounded. Because variation was a fundamental principle in medieval textual and musical composition, by [End Page 365] examining the construction and tuning of the fiddle, Zaerr suggests, we can see how this principle would have applied instrumentally.

Chapter 4 continues to consider this principle of variation by addressing meter in terms of the medieval connection between verse and music. Zaerr asserts that scribes often transformed established rhythms, creating variation that might seem to make musical setting impossible. However, she finds examples of French and Latin monophonic songs that accommodate a varying number of syllables and shifting stress patterns. Moreover, the thirteenth...


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pp. 364-366
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