Hitting the Ground Running – Importance of First Impressions by Uri Smilansky

First days are always stressful, especially when your new colleagues seem to know everyone already, and are willing and ready to fulfil any request made of them. Such days are even more intimidating if one arrives four years into a project to be presented with a smooth-running operation which has established its own protocols and habits. But enough about me. This is not about the new team members at MALMECC: we have been warmly welcomed by both the existing team and the wider scholarly community during the project’s conference and got stuck straight in with the work. No, I am thinking of men such as Raoul de Vienne, lord of Louppy, who on Thursday, October 9th, 1354 made his first contact with the court of the relatively new regime of King John ‘the Good’ II of France (1319-64, reigned from 1350 to his death). Raoul was by then an experienced courtier, having already served the previous monarch, Philip VI, yet, during the intervening years his services and personal life has been interwoven with the cause of Charles II ‘the Bad’ of Navarre (1332-87, reigned from 1349) during this turbulent period in French political history. Still, upon such first contact, Raoul—as would any aspiring courtier—would have needed to quickly assess the cultural environment of the court. A lack of proficiency in this could easily end up in missed opportunities if not actual trouble for anyone whose career relies at least in part on grace and favour. Tastes and fashions change, and keeping up both with patrons and competitor-courtiers was essential, then as now, in a corporate environment. A celebrated career as, among other responsibilities, governor of the Dauphiné in the 1360s and 70s suggests Raoul’s success in this regard.

It is safe to assume that new arrivals at court did not go through an official induction process. Still, most courtiers would have already been trained, acculturated and active within broadly similar courtly environments. The specific need for assimilation upon arrival, therefore, would not have related to the underlying, systemic elements on which this culture was constructed, but on the subtleties differentiating this court, at this point of time, from any other. We all know how theory and practice differ in social situations, and how thin is the line between standing out and putting your foot in it. In both forming such cultural assessments and projecting their own identities, courtiers such as Raoul would have relied on fleeting, partial, and indeed, accidental exposure to a court’s culture. By the placing of luxury artefacts at the foreground of the courts’ operation, they would have suggested themselves as a primary port of call when making their judgements. In this process, immediately recognizable visual tropes communicating value and identity more efficiently than subtleties of details and their potential interpretations.


As part of my project, I am interested in this kind of exposure: in how we can understand its processes or analyse the effect objects had within this setting. Identifiers of courtly status and uniqueness could be very subtle and wide-ranging. They did not apply only to a court’s visual currency, and within that currency, not only to the kind of objects and visualities I intend to explore. My emphasis on books—and in particular, the sub-set of luxury books containing secular music—is due to their multiple ontologies. Their place in cultural discourse stretches over a wide range of interactions. At different times and contexts, they can be examined for their external material worth, size and craftsmanship; their internal artisanship and presentation; they can be contemplated for their contents on both the single piece and collection level, their technique and their emotional effect; within their content, they often act as commentators on their own cultural context; they can act as a focal point for performance, and as the starting point for debate beyond it. The concentration on music and secularity removes any vestiges of practical need, making their functionality and performativity purely cultural; through the peculiarities of musical notation and the demands of its performance, this also strengthens the performative element of books’ essence, weakening the claim of the private readers; finally, they engage with a further level of professional mediation, both copyists and performers. I hope to get to performance, audibility and close interpretation later on in the project. For now, I limit myself to exploring the effects of presentation, layout, font, and notational technique on the visual impact of such artefacts and the meanings such impact conveyed from the courtier point of view.

Raoul’s example is interesting also in this regard, as not only did he share political interests and a network of patronage with Guillaume and Jean de Machaut, but his name appears as one of very few people to be named within Guillaume’s poetry. As it is often difficult to find evidence of cultural activities even for well documented figures, this link is really intriguing. Machaut’s multiple manuscript-collections of text and music are prime surviving examples of the kind of object I am pursuing. In looking at them, I ask not what they say about Machaut, but about their owners; I do not compare the quality of readings, but the effect of their general presentation. This releases my inquiry from the notion of ‘oeuvre’ or ‘urtext’, making sources usually dismissed as peripheral or partial just as relevant as those associated with the author himself.

Results to be reported in due course!


Further reading:

Raymond Cazelles, Société politique: noblesse et couronne sous Jean le Bon et Charles V (Librairie Droz, 1982).

Lawrence Earp, Guillaume de Machaut: A Guide to Research (New York: Garland, 1995).

Malcolm Vale, The Princely Court: Medieval Courts and Culture in North-West Europe, 1270-1380 (Oxford, 2001).

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