And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 28. april 2012

Sacred and profane: a Selection of Medieval Music

Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
- Psalm 33:3

In the course of my thesis work I spend much of my time in the Middle Ages, reading Medieval texts, reading about Medieval texts and of course writing about Medieval texts. Many of these texts are liturgical texts, antiphons, responsories, versicles and so on, and I have to admit I'm less than fluent in this particular field of scholarship. In an attempt to acquire a better understanding of the material I'm working on, and in order to get in a proper "Medieval" mood, I usually listen to Medieval music when I'm writing. In this blogpost I would like to share a few of my favourite songs. This selection encompasses works meant for an ecclesiastical setting as well as the temporal sphere, including both liturgical pieces and dance music.

I feel obliged, however, to comment briefly on the title and the matter of dividing Medieval music into categories. The dichotomy sacred/profane was first formulated by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and it is accordingly an anachronism in this contexts since this was not a division employed by Medieval musicians. On the whole it is difficult to use Durkheim's dichotomy when describing the Medieval world, for the borders between sacred and profane were sometimes very blurry and sometimes virtually indistinguishable. Bishop Anthony Bek of Durham (d.1311), for instance, was both bishop and King Edward's official during the king's Scottish campaign.

There did exist a division, however, between the spiritual world and the temporal world, between the matters pertaining to salvation and the immortality of the afterlife on the one hand and the matters pertaining to the affairs of mortal and sinful men on the other. The Church naturally was in charge of the spiritual sphere, wielding the sword of God to paraphrase Augustine, while the monarchy was responsible for upholding the waning world, wielding the temporal sword and doing so under the auspices of the Church. At least this was the ideal, harkening back to Augustine and Pope Gelasius I (d.496), and this was also the cause of much contention between the king and the clergy throughout the High Middle Ages.

In Medieval music, however, this is a much more difficult division to make. We can, of course, safely say that liturgical pieces belong squarely in the spiritual sphere since they were intended to celebrate the life and times of Christ and the lives and deaths of the saints. Other pieces were undoubtedly temporal, such as dance music for bagpipes. Some songs are, however, quite difficult to place and most likely we should not even try too rigorously to categorise them. An example of this is the Roman de Fauvel, a work written by Gervais du Bus c.1316 and interspersed with musical pieces old and new. Although the work is written in French and intended for a temporal setting - it is a didactic text for the newly-crowned king Philip V of France - it treats matters of the spiritual sphere, admonishing the king to avoid the vices of the world and improve what is at fault in France lest the Antichrist strikes and ends the world as they knew it. The subject is therefore both temporal and spiritual at the same time and shows very nicely how averse reality is to simplistic categorisation.

From Messe de Notre Dame by Guillaume Machaut (1300-77)

Nuper rosarum flores by Guillaume Dufay (d.1474)

Supremum est mortalibus bonum by Guillaume Dufay

Psalm 2 as used in Le Roman de Fauvel

Ai vist lo lop, anonymous Occitan song, probably 13th century

14th-century saltarello, anonymous

fredag 20. april 2012

Life's Little Oddities, part IV - The Rockery

You could have got off with Shepherd Book at the Bathgate Abbey. Could've been meditating on the wonders of your rock garden by now.
- Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly S01E09

This month and the next my life is dominated by my MA thesis hurrying inexorably to its allotted end. One of the many consequences thereof will be that I no longer have that much time to dedicate on this blog, and my blogposts will be shorter, briefer and - much likely - more self-absorbed than usual. The subject of the first in what will probably be a long line of such posts is a minute feature in one of York's greatest attraction, the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens.

I was walking through the garden one day as I was wont to do when going between the city and Constantine House, when suddenly I noticed a sign telling me that what I had thought was rocks casually clumped together, actually was a deliberately designed rockery, a stone garden with alpine plants.

This stone garden was put together in 1980 by students of Askham Bryan College in commemoration of the Backhouse family nursery, an interesting feature of the city's commercial and scientific history that was operative between 1815 and 1955.

A nursery is a place for cultivation of plants, a business that stayed very lucrative throughout the 18th and most of the 19th century. The reason for this was that the gentry and the parvenus were putting up gardens and collecting curiosity cabinets, either for the purpose of displaying their wealth, acquiring knowledge or a blend of both, and this created a demand for plants to put there, preferably exotic and rare plants.

The Backhouse family nursery, first known as James Backhouse and Son of York, was established by James Backhouse III (1794-1869) and his brother Thomas (1792-1845). The brothers were of a wealthy Quaker family and this allowed them to buy the nursery of John and George Telford (or Tilford) situated on the grounds of an old Dominican friary at Tanner Row.

Since the wealthy of the north often were dependent on London nurseries to provide them with fine plants the Backhouse brothers' local supply must have made them ideally situated for competition with the southern businesses. When the railway station was built in 1841 transport became easier, faster and safer for the plants and seends. This was also a time when several new scientific societies, botanic and public gardens were founded and the upper classes, who made good money on the trade with the colonies, could afford to pursue their horticultural interests. In the decade leading up to the arrival of the railway in York, James Backhouse III had been away in Australia, engaged in mission activities, and he had collected and shipped home a number of seeds and plants. This may also have helped the business significantly.

From the 1860s and up to the 1890s the Backhouse nursery was at its summit, admired for its underground fernery (allegedly more impressive than that of Kew Gardens), its expensive rockery and its forty greenhouses. Because of the Agricultural Depression of the 1880s, the Land Tax of 1910, World War I and the establishment of competing nurserymen the business declined badly. In 1921 the nursery was forced to sell much of its land and in 1955 the firm closed down. What was left of the company's land was bought by York City Corporation and converted into a public park.

Today the only visible testament to this enterprise that I know of is this arrangement of rocks in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens. When I first became aware of these stones I had no idea that they would direct me to an interesting part of the city's modern history that so far was unknown to me. This is one of the beautiful things about the City of York: almost whenever you start looking for its history it will be there and it will surprise you.

Thence forward by that painfull way they pas,
Forth to an hill, that was both steepe and hy;
On top whereof a sacred chappell was,
And eke a litle Hermitage thereby
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

torsdag 12. april 2012

The New Walk

If the strong Cane support thy walking Hand,
Chairmen no longer shall the Wall command
- Trivia, John Gay

In the beginning of the 18th century part of the public discourse of Britain was marked by a clash of estates over the use of the cityscape. While the members of the upper class desired to stroll the streets, the working class used the exact same space to conduct their business. In essence this was a debate with the mercantile interests on the one hand and the rising leisure culture of the gentry on the other, a struggle between producers and consumers, both of which were acknowledged as important parts of the proto-industrialist world of Britain.

The leisure culture of the early 18th century was made manifest in various ways. The book trade blossomed as a consequence of an increase in the spare time of the upper echelons, and throughout England parks were constructed for the pleasure of the rich. One of these parks - or what me might today call green lungs - was The New Walk of York, an elm-guarded avenue stretching from the Tower Gardens to the junction of the Foss and the Ouse. To access this pocket of peacefulness the walkers passed through an iron-gated stone arch - constructed in the Mayoralty of Jonas Thompson (1731-32) - that is no longer extant.

The New Walk was begun in the early 1730s at the behest of the York City Corporation and finished in 1733. Its purpose was to make York a social centre in Georgian England, providing an outlet for leisure to the gentry and parvenus. The Corporation also commissioned the Assembly Rooms, the Mansion House and the Racecourse for the same purpose, and the popularity of the project resulted in the construction of the original Blue Bridge in 1738, allowing the walk to extend even further along the riverbank.

In 1880-81 Skeldergate Bridge was constructed and the New Walk passed through a short tunnel that opened into St. George's Field where citizens in Medieval times were allowed to walk, practice with bows and arrows and to dry linen. Today the Field is occupied by a housing estate. Skeldergate Bridge was designed by Thomas Page (1803-77) who had also designed Westminster Bridge and Lendal Bridge in York.

Today the New Walk offer a completely different experience to the modern walker than to the pedestrian of ages past, partly because of the changes in the surrounding geography, and partly - but perhaps most importantly - because of the changes in local society that makes the goals of its founders redundant. Today the City of York is in itself a major attraction for pedestrians. Cars are not allowed to drive certain streets within given timeframes, the majority of tourist attractions can be found within the city walls - themselves a pedestrian attraction - and numerous walks are arranged throughout the city that allow the walker to experience the city's history in a specific way. This shift has, however, restored one of the main features of the New Walk: here one can truly escape the hustle and bustle of the city, the commotion of streets packed with tourists and enjoy some peaceful solitude along the bank of the River Ouse.

When I returned to York in September 2011 I took the opportunity to take a solitary stroll up the river one beautiful summer day. The water level was sufficiently low to allow walking on the embankment between the river and the trees, but to my great delight - I have become very fascinated with this particular feature of the Ouse - the vestiges of a previous flood could still be seen in the footprints perforating the dried and cracked mud.

  One day, about noon, I was walking along the shore toward my boat, when, looking down, I saw in the sand the print of a man's naked foot.
- Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

After a short while I came upon the Blue Bridge, a curiously designed construction that has been rebuilt four times since 1738. The first bridge was made of wood, had a high-pitched roof and costed 100£, while the modern version is made of metal and was raised in 1929. In 1858 the Blue Bridge was flanked by two Russians cannons - spoil from the Crimean War - but these were melted down in World War II.

 In the background we see the Foss Barrier, a structure built after the severe floods of 1979 and 1982 to protect the city centre.

Past the Blue Bridge the scenery becomes more idyllic as the city disappears into the distance and the landscape beyond the river is dominated by a more forested landscape, allowing the walker to ignore the housing estate on his or her left-hand side. The Walk continues past Pikeing Well of which only its well-head is extant. This was commissioned by the York City Corporation in 1752 and constructed by the architect John Carr (1723-1807) at the cost of 80£. Pikeing Well was said to have curative properties and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (d. 1762) was advised to let her son bathe here to cure his rickets.

                                                                            Pikeing Well

The natural end point of the New Walk is Millennium Bridge, constructed by the engineering firm Whitby Bird and Partners of London and opened to the public in 2000. From here the walker can either retrace his or her steps or cross the bridge and return to the city past Rowntree Park. I chose the latter.

Millennium Bridge is the first permanent bridge on this location. Prior to its construction the only means of traffic was a ferry operating between the New Walk and Clementhorpe. In 1955 a temporary bridge was put in place for the York Tattoo.

On my way back to the city I kept a lookout for the tansy beetle, a species of coleoptera located solely by the banks of the River Ouse. Its decline owes to the reduced availability of the tansy plant, its main foodsource. Unfortunately I was unable to find the beetle, but I did come across some other examples of the local wildlife.

As I was taking the above pictures I was accosted by a lady who asked me if I had been taking pictures of the push-chairs. I realised that lurching by the the fence of Rowntree Parkwith a camera and a hood pulled over my head - it was a windy day - was perhaps not the smartest thing to do. I was a bit taken aback by the question, but I appreciated her concern, knowing full well that my scruffy beard justified the assumption that I was a pervert. Fortunately she was convinced of my innocence when I showed her that none of the pictures featured push-chairs or humans for that matter.

Rowntree Park was a gift from Rowntree & Company Ltd. to the citizens of York and the City Corporation in 1921. The park was meant as a memorial to the staff of the cocoa company who fell in the Great War, while the gates were donated in 1955 as a memorial of World War II.

The New Walk is a nice change from the cityscape of York and leads you into a very different part of the local geography. As always in York history never lets go and modernity never fully retreats or stops, so the blend of old and new so integral to this wonderful city remains a salient feature even in the farthest reaches of the Walk. This probably accounts a great deal for its charm, as does the fact that tourists do not seem to seek out this locality.