Does meaning atrophy or accumulate? A virtual étrenne by Uri Smilanski


Boy, what a year!

You know you’re in trouble once Machaut’s description of the Black Death, in the prologue to his Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, starts doing the rounds on social media. Cancelled research trips; delayed conferences; trying to find a quiet corner in which to do some work within a locked-down household while maintaining sanity in isolation; and then there is the rest of life… At least we didn’t have to bury our cheese. Terrible segues aside—and yes, that was a link between the current pandemic, that which raged across Europe from 1346 to 1353, and Samuel Pepys’ famous set of priorities when faced with the encroaching flames of the Great Fire of London in 1666—I hope you will join me in raising a glass, whatever time it is when you read this (there must be some advantages to working from home!): To better times ahead, to the survival of the higher education sector, to humanities departments and research funding, as well as to collective and personal health, safety and wellbeing.

And so, back to Machaut and Pepys. I have long been fascinated by the presence of the former’s Remède de Fortune in the latter’s book collection, a fact that in itself raises both ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. I won’t be discussing the original creation of the manuscript Cambridge, Magdalene College MS 1594 (Machaut manuscript Pe), or the route through which it found its way into Pepys’ hands (although I may be able to offer some new information concerning both aspects soon). Rather, I bring up this example as an illustration of the vicissitudes and fluctuations of meaning and value. It is clear that the Remède did not mean the same thing at its original presentation as it did for Pepys when he purchased his manuscript centuries later. Scholarship traditionally associates the origins of the Remède and its earliest and most luxurious copy (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fonds français 1586) with the needs and interests of royalty, be they those of Machaut’s direct employer at the time (John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia) or those of the dit’s supposed dedicatee (John’s daughter, Bonne, then queen of France in waiting). Such resonances, however, seem entirely absent from Pepys’ evaluation of his copy of the Remède. It seems that many of his medieval acquisitions had at their core a visual rather than a textual fascination. Beyond the appeal of decorative or illuminated manuscripts (here, his medieval sketchbook, MS 1916, stands out), Pepys was deeply invested in calligraphy. In 1700, for example, he created his first of three scrapbook albums (MSS 2891-3) under the descriptive title: “My Calligraphical Collection, vol. I: Comprehending as well Original Proofs of the Hand-writings of the Ancients in Several Ages within the last 1000 Years; and the Competition for Mastery between Librarians and Printers, upon the first breaking-out of the Latter as the Performances of all the Celebrated Masters of the Penn (now Extant and Recoverable) whether Domestick or Forreign, by Hand or Burin, within the last and praesent Age.” It seems likely that the appeal of what became Cambridge, Magdalene College MS 1594 was related to this interest, it being a pleasing example of an antiquated script, with the added bonus of an illumination on fol. 12v. This view suggests that the dit itself held no artistic or content-related value to Pepys at the point of purchase. In trying to draw a line between an initial highpoint of social prestige assigned both to the dit and the book that contained it, and this late seventeenth-century nadir of appreciation, it is possible to point at a more or less gradual loss of musical and visual impact and a declining interest in the subject matter as indicators of an inexorable process of atrophy. Before succumbing to this metaphor, however, we should note that this process was neither linear, one-directional, nor continuous. Indeed, this very blog—along with new editions and translations, dedicated scholarship and repeated performances and recordings—testifies to the Remède’s phoenix-like re-ascendance as an object of interest – and to some, indeed, as an object of admiration. This process relies on a re-accumulation of knowledge and, resulting from it, of interest, and on the referencing of new readings to older ones within a (modern) tradition of interpretation. Putting it perhaps a little more flippantly, and with no stronger claim to linearity or continuity than with the atrophy metaphor, one might say that the resurgence of the Remède’s cultural and artistic value over the 340 or so years since the moment when Pepys bought his copy was as dramatic as its decline over its first 340 years of existence. Actually, we are not certain that the Remède was composed in 1340, nor that Pepys’ purchase took place in 1680 … but both are as good a guess as any other. And, in all honesty, I simply could not resist the round numbers and numerical symmetry built into this chronology while writing this, still in 2020.

I’ll be saying more on the matter soon, but for now, I hand you, my dear readers, over to 2021. Merry Mid-winter, however you choose to celebrate (or ignore) it, and a happy new year, assuming you at least pay lip-service, if not adhere to the Gregorian Calendar.

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