Archive for March, 2016

Douce Dame Jolie: Machaut’s ghostly music of love and death

March 18, 2016



Douce Dame Jolie was composed in the C14th by Guillaume de Machaut who lived between 1300 and 1377 around the area of Rheims in France. It follows the conventions of the ‘Ars Nova’ style which flourished in France and the Low Countries during the C14th and the structure of a ‘virelai’, a verse of three stanzas with a repeated refrain before the first and after each subsequent stanza.

Machaut was a master of this form and Douce Dame is probably the best known and most performed of his virelai pieces. Many contemporary performers continue to sing versions of the song with different tempi and voice styles but it remains consistently haunting and intoxicating to the ear.

The virelai was one of the three ‘Formes Fixes’, along with the ballade and rondeau which were popular in the C13th – C15th and together with motets and lais formed the basis of secular musical verse during this period. The virelai changed in the C15th though, losing it’s musical accompaniment and turning into a purely literary form of poetic expression.

Machaut’s work follows the earlier virelai compositions of Jehannot de l’ Escurel (c. 1304) who was a transitional figure between the ‘Trouvere’ style of the troubadors and the Ars Nova and the later work of Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474).


Machaut composing

It is hardly surprising that Douce Dame has remained so well-known and loved over the centuries because the particular combination of music and words has a addictive quality which seems to get inside your head and revolve around and around; as beguiling as the imagined lady of the piece who destroys the poets equilibrium and causes him such anguish.

There is a strong rhythmical structure to the virelai form which lends itself to the expression of longing and reiterated complaints of unrequited love. The words are short and evenly balanced, almost conversational but the musical momentum of the piece drives them on in an unrelenting torrent towards an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Douce dame jolie,
Pour dieu, ne pensés mie
Que nulle ait signorie
Seur moy fors vous seulement.
Qu’adès sans tricherie
Vous ay et humblement
Tous les jours de ma vie
Sans villain pensement.
Helas! et je mendie
D’esperance et d’aïe;
Dont ma joie est fenie,
Se pité ne vous en prent.
Mais vo douce maistrie
Mon cuer si durement
Qu’elle le contralie
Et lie
En amour tellement
Qu’il n’a de riens envie
Fors d’estre en vo baillie;
Et se ne li ottrie
Vos cuers nul aligement.
(instrumental followed by first stanza repetition)
Et quant ma maladie
Ne sera nullement
Sans vous, douce anemie,
Qui lie
Estes de mon tourment,
A jointes mains deprie
Vo cuer, puis qu’il m’oublie,
Que temprement m’ocie,
Car trop langui longuement.
(Douce Dame Dame…)
It’s the kind of song that you hear once and want to repeat immediately and then find yourself singing snatches of in the middle of the night! It has an obsessive quality about it. You want it to stop, to take a breath and step back but it whirls you around again til you lose balance and start to feel disorientated. This is, of course, a masterly conceit by Machaut. He wants to draw you in to the poetic world of the song and once he has hooked you with a the catchy tune then he tightens his grip until you experience an echo of the poet’s dis-ease and entrapment.
machaut poesies

Sweet, beautiful lady
For God’s sake, do not think
That anyone rules over me
But you alone
(The first phrase introduces the beautiful, remote object of adoration, the conventions of courtly love are established and the faint echoes of the Marian cult of the C12th which did so much to influence the troubadors. You imagine the beloved; cold and clear and remotely untouchable as a statue of the Virgin.)
For endlessly, and without treachery
I have cherished you
And humbly
All the days of my life
I have served you
With no unworthy thought
(Upward key change and repetition on ‘treachery’ and ‘cherished’ are very beguiling and sensuous but they are balanced by the purity of his long service and adoration. He is a true and honourable lover.)
Alas! and I beg
For hope and aid
For my joy is ended
If you do not take pity
(He poet laments and sighs with the pangs of love as the pace of the music begins to take hold of the listener. You sense the poet’s breathing and heart rate increasing as he warms to his subject.)
But your sweet mastery
My heart so harshly
That it torments
And binds it
So much in love
(The lift on ‘mastery and echo in ‘masters’ reinforces the desperation of the poet’s feelings. He is mastered and unmade by the power of her hold over him both in body and soul. His emotions bind him to the sweet lady but she treats his heart harshly with distain and remains unmoved.)
That it desires nothing
But to be in your service
And yet your heart
Grants it no relief
(Again, the tempo of the music and circular motion of the melody assist the impression of being caught up in something that the poet is incapable of breaking free from. The listener is caught up too and there is no relief in the relentlessness of the music.)
And since my sickness
Will never be healed
Without you, sweet enemy
Who is glad
At my torment
(The beloved becomes a sickness, an adversary who is aware of the torment they cause but offers no respite or relief.)
I join my hands and pray
To your heart, since it forgets me
That it should kill me quickly
For I languish too long

(The poet finally asks for the ‘coup de grace’ in order to be freed from his suffering. The listener also needs to break off and take a breath by this point but has already become infected with the poet’s malady and longs to return to hear more.)

The imagery conjures up the vision of a battlefield where the poet has been mortally wounded by love and requires the ‘misericorde’, the quick stab by the thin blade which dispatches the knight from his sufferings. There is no hope of recovery so he requests an honourable end from his enemy.


There is also a sense of fever and delirium in the song. Machaut’s lifespan encompassed the terrors of the ‘great mortality’ otherwise known as the Black Death which changed the face of Europe forever and also had profound effects on all forms of artistic expression. Life had been precarious and beautiful and heart-breaking before but something about the scale and speed and random cruelty of the Black Death touched the very soul of humanity during the C14th.

On the one hand people looked for answers in order to make sense of the enormity of the destruction and turned to religion and penitence in the hopes of calling off God’s wrath and on the other hand artists and musicians cherished every fleeting moment of youth and beauty and every fragile thing which symbolised hope and life as an antidote to the terror and misery and ugliness of the disease.

Machaut’s work seems to me to reflect aspects of both responses. Love and beauty are cruel and distant and unmoved by human suffering yet they are also pure and clear and something to cling on to in the face of decay and death.

The Dance Macabre became a potent symbol in art of the relentlessness of the plague. Grinning cadavers catch hold of the hands in a vice-like grip, twirling their victims around and around as they drag them down into the waiting pits. The same suggestion of a never-ending, pitiless tempo runs through the song. The poet is caught up in a dance of love that he fears will kill him but he is unable to break free. There is a feverishness and sense of rising panic in the lyrics until he finely begs for a quick death to release him. His lady’s grip on his heart is merciless and fatal.


Another aspect of the lyrics of Douce Dame relates to constancy and devoted service. This derives from the traditions of courtly love and the troubadors where feudal obligations between men were mirrored in service and unquestioning loyalty to an unobtainable lady. The poets of the Occitaine region usually sang and composed for the courts of great lords and ladies and the troubadors were often drawn from aristocratic circles themselves. Status was a feature of courtly love because the lady was literally elevated above the poet by her social status as well as by her untouchability. She was raised up on a dais or surrounded by her women; the consort of a powerful liege lord, was removed from the everyday world and her attributes became symbolic of a mystical femininity unknowable to the male observer.

Although courtly love had altered by the time of Machaut, his music and lyrics echo that long tradition of setting the beloved on a pedestal and adoring them from afar. The song is the poet’s attempt to make his feeling understood and speak openly about the secret passion that he has carried for many years. The listener knows that if his love was ever reciprocated it would lose it’s piquancy. The ‘coup de grace’ must never be delivered or the ecstacy of the song would be diminished.

courtly love

Love’s arrow pierces the flesh of the lover while the lady looks on

The world of the poet’s love must exist in a place out of time, untouched by reality and decay, unchanged by the temporal concerns of survival and reproduction and death but rather always fixed and eternal. This reflects a quasi-religious quality in secular medieval music which goes to the core of the sentiments being expressed. Just as the mass was an aural expression of the presence of the divine on Earth, so secular music like this piece, reflected an aural contemplation of perfection and timelessness.

Machaut also wrote many pieces of sacred music including his famous Messe de Notre Dame, Mass for our Lady, the first mass which can be attributed to one composer. Divine love and secular love brought together by the same composer and expressed through the vehicle of music.

Music as meditation and re-iteration of eternal truths about beauty of form and balance and unchangeable purity. You can hear this in the sounds of Douce Dame just as you do in Hildegaarde of Bingen or Gregorian chant. It inhabits the same mind-space and touches the same aesthetic regions of the soul despite being grounded in cat gut and wood and human vocal chords and even through the lens of so many centuries it reaches out to us with a message of longing and shared humanity which speaks to something deep inside ourselves.


What really motivated medieval minds?

March 3, 2016

Love, ambition, fame, self-interest, fear, religious conviction, physical desire for something or someone, patriotism, duty, compassion, self-sacrifice, revenge or bitter hatred.

Historians make a case for the various motivations of historical figures in order to try and understand these people themselves and then persuade their readership through their analysis as to why a particular figure acted in certain ways as borne out in the evidence of their deeds and the eye witness accounts of their contemporaries. These motivations tend to fall within a core range of basic drivers; well-known to psychologists and literary writers which most of us tend to believe control why humans do what they do.

Depending on which drivers you apply to the historical facts, a very divergent picture of the figure emerges and a very different set of emotional responses are engendered in the reader so these motivations are hugely important and often controversial in their application.

Added to these basic, commonly-held drivers there are also other factors at play. We tend to focus on the kind of society in which the individual lived and the general mores which operated during their lifetimes in order to build a personal ‘mind space’ within the wider context of their era. For the medieval period this might include the importance of spiritual beliefs whether Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other. A particular figure may not have left any specific evidence of their religious beliefs or indication of their spiritual affiliations yet assumptions are made about what was popularly considered to be acceptable and how there actions fitted within that code.

Social factors are another facet of this process. For example, when considering Anglo-Saxon culture, many historians and commentators refer to the importance of the concept of ‘comitatus’ which most believe ran through Anglo-Saxon culture and society; that strong, symbiotic bond between the leader and his war-band which held communities together and extended beyond the warrior class to their relationship with the producers and peasants and which foreshadowed the development of the feudal system and became interwoven with chivalric values and ethics during the later medieval period.

In Viking society the emphasis is on the bond of the family unit or clan and also the cult of the warrior-hero which, again, grew from a shared Germanic culture familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. A figure is weighed against these ideals of community and courage, of individual heroism and the demands of hospitality yet their morality is also opaque and complex to the modern mind as that of their mysterious gods and myths.

How far can the psychological effects of a general belief in ‘wyrd’ or fate explain the particular actions of an individual who happened to live during these times? There is clearly a danger of imposing a structure which never had any relevance to a specific person and making a case based on this which excludes other, pertinent drivers.

Where to find clues about motivation? Personal slogans or mottos, letters, recorded words, the family structure and upbringing of the individual. Their class, gender and access to education, their religious beliefs and wider social and economic environment all provide clues but personal motivations are illusive and difficult to prove by source evidence and actions alone.

Broader factors like geography, topography, climate and economic conditions might also have a contributory effect on the personal motivations of an individual. Did a shortage of Herring lead to the Viking raids or were they due to the ambitions of men who were pushed out of their society by warring factions? Does a cold, Northern climate breed people with particular character traits which lead to associated psychological tendencies?

So many medieval historical figures seem to be so contradictory and irritatingly difficult to pin down. Single-minded fanatics who left a bloody trail of destruction behind them trip us up by writing beautiful poetry or leaving generous bequests to the poor. Ruthless generals who hung little boys in revenge for rebellion but loved their spouses and proved to be doting parents. Cold-hearted expedients who suddenly died like heroes on the field of battle and seemed to embrace their fate with courage and dignity.

It is these contradictions which make the study of history so fascinating and allow us to construct a ‘rainbow’ of interpretations which is constantly shifting against the ghosts of the other people who they interacted with. At one point we are sure that we know them and then the next moment they are gone again, beyond the veil of certainty, into their own complex mind space and ruled by motivations we can only guess at and wonder about.

This issue surfaced recently in another blog post during a debate over self-interest and ambition which is often cited as a prime motivator for many of the great ‘players’ throughout medieval history from the Anglian generals of post-Romano Britannia to the Tudor kings who eventually seized power at the end of the period.

What exactly was ‘self-interest’ to a medieval mind and did it have the same meaning and carry the same connotations as the term implies to us now in the C21st? At its most basic level, self-interest is nothing more or less than survival instinct. You take it before the other guy in order to survive and by extension, keep your family unit or clan or community or country one rung higher up the ladder than those you are competing against. Morality doesn’t apply here because it is driven by greed and aggression.

There are many instances were we look at the ruthless acquisitiveness of leading figures and assume that they were driven by massive egos and an unquestioning belief in their ‘divine right’ to have whatever they wanted regardless of the cost in terms of human suffering or economic distress. Ruthless ambition, over-weaning pride and arrogance are core motivators.

Yes, but the flip-side to this argument is that self-interest is also protective, inclusive and driven by fear or necessity. You take it first because if you don’t the other side will to the cost of yourself and your dependents. You need to strike first in order to protect you and yours from calamity. You have to be one rung higher up the ladder to prevent your family unit, clan, community or nation from being harmed, over-run, annihilated.

Fear would seem to run through medieval society at every level – fear of attack, fear of poverty and illness and old age, of child-birth and battle injuries, of falling from Fortune’s Wheel or into the gaping mouth of Hell if your sins were sufficiently terrible and even those who were blameless were corrupted by original sin and would spend time in purgatory before they might see the joys of Heaven in the Christian doctrine.

What happens when we weigh self-interest against ‘duty’? Duty is usually interpreted as a positive characteristic, particularly in a society with strong downward pressure from the top whether that be from a political leader, feudal over-lord, patriarchal figure or religious figurehead. Seen in this context self-interest becomes much more complex and morally nuanced. You benefit personally from your actions but they are tied up with the greater benefit to your overlord, king, father, older brother, Pope. You owe allegiance to these figures and also understand that failure to deliver will have serious consequences for not only yourself personally but the duty you have to your dependents. There are many, many instances during the medieval period of a whole family being ruined by the failure of just one member. The family was an inter-connected, living organism. It may have taken generations of struggle and sacrifice to reach a particular strata of social status. One person could either push the ‘family’ up to the next level or send it sliding down, down, down into a bottomless pit of shame and penury.

Beyond the immediate family there was also the extended web of those who depended upon the head or heads of the family to keep them afloat. The extended family, retainers, the servants, the affiliation, the peasants beyond the walls who tilled the fields and farmed the lands that might be taken from you or burnt in retaliation for a poor policy choice. We might consider here the burdens of the aristocracy in relation to political decision-making during the medieval period and the huge implications that their actions had for their tenants and retainers. In this context ‘self-interest’ combined with ‘duty’ and family honour on the one hand but was also tempered by the burdens of having many mouths to feed and the expectations of those who looked up the pyramid to the next source of security and gain.

You begin to sense the enormous pressure that these ‘players’ were under to achieve and excel and out-do their rivals and the heavy burden of ‘duty’ which weighed down on them especially in an age where status meant so much in terms of your life expectancy and the choices which were open to you.

Conversely did ‘duty’ sometimes combine with self-interest as a means of pursuing your own desires under a veil of morally sanctioned righteousness? Like ‘piety’ it could be applied by someone who was actually motivated exclusively by what they could achieve for themselves as a smokescreen to avoid criticism by the church, for example. There are genuine motivations and quasi-motivations at work and often it may be impossible to evaluate which can be applied to a particular individual.

This is an area where medieval women need to be considered in particular. Chroniclers and contemporary sources were largely male and often openly hostile to great ladies who appeared to wield too much influence or power over their male counter-parts. We see this in the case of the Empress Matilda and the other ‘She-Wolves’ of medieval history.

Foreign princesses like Isabella of France and Marguerite of Anjou were regarded with deep suspicion because the sources feared that they were motivated by duty to their birth family above duty to their husbands and newly acquired nation. We can see the problem here immediately. These women were sent to a strange country as the physical manifestations of alliances and treaties made between nations who were usually opposed to and deeply suspicious of one another. They were raised to be completely obedient to the will of their male relations and to see their destiny in terms of cementing alliances and promoting their families’ interests in every way possible. As soon as they were married to their new husband there was a conflict between the duty owed to their family and to their spouse. This was further exacerbated by the arrival of children who they also had a duty of care to protect and advance and whose interests they were fiercely interested in promoting. So these women were pulled in three directions at once and labelled as ‘self-interested’ if they tried to take any control over their own destinies in the midst of all these pressures. It was also more difficult for them to hold property in their own right, though not impossible, but it made them more vulnerable to losing the means by which to support themselves to the control of a male relative or the crown itself. Then, in addiction to all this, they also faced the contradictory demands of church teachings about their place in the social order and male prejudices against their abilities and rationality into the bargain!

Not so easy to dismiss Matilda or Isabella as ‘She-Wolves’ when all these factors are taken into account. It was well-nigh impossible for them to fulfil their roles to universal approval given the different interpretations of where their duties lay or for them to achieve any lasting success when their lives were so finely balanced between conflicting and powerful forces.

Even a motivation as basic as maternal love is exceedingly complex in the medieval world. The Marian cult which took such a powerful hold of personal spiritual belief in the C12th elevated motherhood to a divine vocation and changed the perception of motherhood within some Western societies. The Holy Mother became the ultimate intercessor between humanity and divine power; the perfect vessel for hope, compassion, grief, desperation and suffering love. So, earthly mothers were motivated by all these powerful emotional forces but at the same time judged as weaker than their male relatives for embodying them. Their role was to be fluid and malleable, obedient and pliant and to almost glory in their helplessness as Mary had become the icon of impotent suffering at the foot of the cross.

‘Mater Dolorossa’; the mother of tears. Women were to emulate Mary in being the intercessors and diplomats within the family who took on the sufferings of their clan and pleaded for mercy or justice or leniency when nothing else would make any difference. They were baby-making machines who had little legal control over the fates of their children and often watched helplessly as many were taken by illness and disease and poverty but were taught to accept this as the will of the Gods, or God and keep trying until they succeeded in passing their trials on to the next generation. Their lives sound pretty hopeless seen from this perspective and many undoubtedly were just this hard and unforgiving and desperately sad to witness at all levels of society.

Their essential powerlessness had a direct effect on their motivation for gaining influence and on how they administered estates and even nations when they did find themselves able to exercise authority. It is a difficult area to even discuss due to contemporary views of equality and the extra-ordinary levels of bias within the sources available to us and the intervening layers of interpretation of women’s roles in society since the primary sources were written down.

Historians generally dis-like overlaying modern social mores when considering the actions of historical figures so how do we account for the complexities of prejudice and misogeny  when looking at female motivations during the medieval period in order to get to the truth?

The Empress Matilda was famously criticised by a contemporary source for acting like a man when she exercised power. How else would a female monarch hope to exercise power within a male-dominated elite than as a male would? The pliancy and intercession that women were praised for would immediately be viewed as weakness in a female ruler. Conversely, authority and dominance would be viewed as un-feminine and criticised where the same traits would be lauded in a male.

It is hard to see how a female ruler could have received universal acclaim given the nature of popular opinion and especially considering that most of the contemporary chroniclers were based in monastic institutions which segregated the sexes as well and were reared on church teachings about women’s place in the cosmic order.

She is often characterised as being arrogant and overly conscious of her title as Empress yet she was operating in a world where male counterparts were claiming kingdoms and empires on paper which they often had no actual control over and where status was key in the game of propaganda and negotiation. Can we really blame Matilda for displaying her credentials to authority when she was fighting for power and had been lead to expect that her father intended her to inherit his crown? William of Normandy certainly had no problem with seizing on the alleged intentions of Edward the Confessor and denouncing his rival when Harold took the throne. Perhaps if William had failed in his invasion attempt history would have been less accepting of his claims? The benefits of hindsight may well play havoc when it comes to assessing the motivations of particular figures. It is often an unconscious action but can slew the reasoning and create motivations which never existed. Some commentators and historians even seem to blame a figure for losing  in the power game and retro-actively apply their ultimate failure to their previous life experience and drives.

Achieving a balance in interpreting source evidence is only one factor in trying to come to a true assessment of motivations though. Added to different mores and social structures, gender issues and religious teachings there is also deeper, and more hidden differences in perception based on the medieval understanding of science and cosmology, philosophy and ethics.

It may not seem directly relevant to us that we live in a age of mass communication, advertising, consumerism or even the popular culture which surrounds us but all these factors play an unconscious role in how we view our life and place in the world which impacts on our motivations.

How differently would we feel about risk and opportunity, about respect for the established order or whether to act on a certain date in the calendar if our world view was completely different? Medieval maps provide just one example of this. If you see the world as centred on Jerusalem how does that change your unconscious perception of your place on the planet? How does it make you feel if the centre of your universe is held by people who you view as your enemies?

In the C21st most of the world is in a constant state of flux and change. Most of us are taught to question everything and to look into ourselves in an endless journey of self-discovery. We are free to debate with other people from around the world; have access to instant knowledge and information but are also constantly distracted by multi-media formats and a tidal-wave of trivia.

By contrast, we imagine that in the medieval world that time was slower, certainties held more deeply and altered less often. This may be a mis-conception but it still has a profound effect on what many of us perceive to be the pace of their lives, the speed of their thoughts and their openness to new ideas or radical thought processes yet we know that people were willing to die hideously painful deaths for their beliefs, that heresy and principled questioning of the established belief structure continued to be a factor in societies and that war and violent upheavals were regular events across the world. Trading links often extended much further than most people are aware of and some travelled great distances and experiences very different cultural and social practices and brought ideas and thoughts back with them which influenced life in their native communities.

Medieval thought processes were also shaped by the classical cultures of Greece and Rome and the writings of the ancients were held in great regard and used as models of instruction for many aspects of life from medical knowledge to siege warfare techniques. The esteem for classical knowledge may have lead to medieval minds being unduly influenced by the writings of some ancient thinkers to the detriment of their own enquiries and again form a nuanced layer when it comes to interpreting their drives.

So many complex and inter-connected processes and ways of interpreting the evidence which has been left to us and so many different possible alternative views of what motivated these people to act as they did or fail to act as this is as essential to their story as their actions. There can be no hard and fast answers to the question of what motivated medieval minds but the journey of discovery is a fascinating one and perhaps reveals as much about our own drives and motivations as is does about the people we seek to understand and evaluate?