Monthly Archives: January 2013

Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere

Interesting thoughts on visible and invisible networks in the early modern blogosphere and the bewildering profusion of potential sources: “The difficulties facing a scholar trying to analyse early modern blogs are not unlike those facing their counterpart trying to analyse early modern texts. Much of the writing, production and sale of early modern texts must have happened in ways that have not survived in the sources, in particular through spoken conversations. Many texts simply haven’t been preserved for us to read. And the anonymity of some writers, many printers and booksellers, and nearly all of those otherwise involved in the production and reception of texts, brings a similar challenge.”

Mercurius Politicus

It has been far too long since I posted anything here: the last few months have been exceptionally busy, and once you get out of the rhythm of blogging it’s hard to get back into it. But I thought I should break my silence to link to Newton Key’s draft article on the early modern blogosphere, which you can find an open source peer review version of here.

Newton has been blogging himself over at Early Modern England since 2007, so is well-placed to offer a critical analysis of how early modern blogging has developed over the last decade or so. His argument, which I have a lot of sympathy with, is that blogs about early modern history have lots in common with the ways in which people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conceived of, produced, shared and engaged with knowledge and information. Whether it’s sharing the ideas…

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Choral Vespers, St Anselm & St Caecelia, Lincoln’s Inn Fields


One of the choirs I sing with is Schola Assumptionis, which comes together to sing polyphonic music at masses and evensongs wherever we can get gigs. It’s mostly centred  on St Anselm & St Caecelia’s, just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but we’ve also sung at St. Mary’s, Stoke Newington and other C of E churches around London, so it’s nicely balanced in terms of the confessional divide. Singing at both RC and Anglican services means we can do a variety of music; at evensong it’s inevitably Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons and so on and at vespers we take our pick from the vast repertoire of Continental polyphony.

Last Saturday we were at choral vespers at SS Anselm and Caecelia. For anyone not familiar with the vespers service (and as I am not a Catholic I count myself among that number), it’s structured as chant, hymn  – not a hymn as in Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer but more chant interspersed with a choir setting – Latin psalms, reading and the Magnificat as a motet. Then yet more chant, a choir motet, benediction and the whole thing is over in three-quarters of an hour. Anyone familiar with evensong will see the structural similarity, but at vespers the whole thing is in Latin, and there’s a lot of incense.

Getting to grips with chant is hard. The notation is crazy.  Look at the example I’ve uploaded; it’s nowhere near as easy to read as normal music. Modern chant notation is simplified, but they’re pretty hardcore down at SS Anselm & Caecelia and this older style is used.

It’s the polyphony I turn up for, though; we sang Tomas Luis da Victoria’s A Patre Unigenite, a Lassus Magnificat and ended up with a Hassler motet, Cantate Domino. If you’re a novice to this sort of music you’ll probably be told to go away and listen to Tallis’s Spem In Alium or anything by Palestrina, but I don’t have it within me to love the glacial spikiness of Tallis and I find Palestrina just too pretty-pretty. The best introduction to Renaissance polyphony is the glorious, terrifying Victoria Officium Defunctorum (or requiem) of 1605 and the Byrd mass for four voices, thought to be written in the early 1590s.

And there’s a back story to them both that illuminates the music – Byrd, as is well known, was a recusant Catholic in Elizabethan England, which explains the plangent, yearning quality to his music. As a singer I particularly like Byrd because he gives the altos a lot of good lines – we totally take the lead on the mass in four parts. There’s nowhere to hide:

By contrast, I like to think you can really hear the fervour of the Inquisition in Victoria’s work; his Tenebrae Responsiores narrates the Passion and is sung in Holy Week. Turn the light down low, turn the volume up and listen to O Vos Omnes, and see if you don’t shiver.

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Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, Courtauld Gallery (1)

The Lely exhibition at the Courtauld got me thinking in a number of directions – so many, in fact, I’ll have to do separate posts on them.


First, a bit of biography. Lely’s arrival in London from Haarlem coincided with the beginning of the English Civil War. He would become dominant in the 1640s and 1650s following William Dobson’s retreat to Royalist Oxford, attracting patrons such as the Earl of Northumberland (I’ll post on this later). Lely is best known as a society portraitist of the 1660s, a kind of Mario Testino of the Restoration  – although in his 1650s picture of Cromwell he famously kept the Lord Protector’s warts in, as apocryphally requested. However, this is not the focus of the Courtauld show; the ‘lyrical vision’ in the title of the exhibition refers to the pastoral, musical and allegorical paintings of his pre-Restoration, narrative period.

The most prominent pictures are musical (I’ll also be blogging about those later). The narrative paintings are Biblical (The Finding of Moses, Reuben presenting Mandrakes to Leah) or mythological (The Rape of Europa, The Infant Bacchus). The only representative of secular literary tradition is Boccaccio, which appears in the Lely exhibition in Cimon and Efigenia, or Cymon and Iphigenia in the Decameron. Inevitably, this sent me off to read Boccaccio’s tale.

Cymon, the boorish, semi-imbecilic son of a great nobleman in Cyprus is the despair of his family, but is suddenly transfigured on beholding the sleeping, half-naked Iphigenia. Whether or not the text explicitly parodies a conversion narrative, it’s clear that erotic contemplation is here a transformative act, both in aesthetic terms (“he changed of a sudden from a husbandman into a judge of beauty”) and moral. In fact, sexual awakening becomes a short cut to an otherwise laboriously acquired humanist education: “He not only modulated his gruff and boorish voice to a degree of smoothness suitable to urbane life, but made himself accomplished in singing nd music; in riding also and in all matters belonging to war, as well by sea as by land, he waxed most expert and hardy”.  Take that, Castiglione.

What I’m puzzling over is the Courtauld’s insistence on Lely’s being part of a pastoral tradition, at least as would have been articulated in England in the seventeenth century. The catalogue references Sidney’s Arcadia, but I’m having difficulty finding anything in the early modern artistic tradition that relates to Sidneian pastoral at all; if anyone can point me in the right direction I’d be grateful.

You can barely move for renderings of Ovidian subjects in seventeenth century art – Lely’s Rape of Europa is just one example. One of my essays for my Renaissance Studies MA tackled the changing cultural representations of Danae in the 1590s, if you’re interested

So when I saw the Boccaccio-derived painting I thought there might be a minor tradition of depicting more contemporary texts, but there doesn’t seem to be any, and certainly not English texts. It’s one-way traffic; Sidney’s romance is absolutely stuffed with episodes where art carries the erotic charge.  I can think of three just off the top of my head. There’s Pyrocles falling in love with Philoclea’s portrait, an extended moment that also functions as a convenient narrative spur which takes the two princes to Arcadia. There’s also Helen’s melancholy attachment to the picture of Amphialus. And the one that is uppermost in my mind is the episode in the Iberian jousts when Phalantus challenges all-comers “The conditions of his chalenge were, that the defendant should bring his mistresse picture, which being set by the image of Artesia (so was the mistresse of Phalantus named) who in six courses should haue better of the other, in the iudgement of Basilius, with him both the honors and the pictures should remaine.” .(Book 1, chapter 15)

The reason that this episode is uppermost in my mind is because Roger Boyle lifts this wholesale for an early episode of Parthenissa (1651) where his hero Artabanes jousts with the challenger Ambixules. I have an abundance of theories why, but I digress.

Anyway, what the Courtauld describes as pastoral consists of landscapes and sleepy nymphs. I always thought that water nymphs were part of Diana’s chaste train, but Google Images throws up a pretty lascivious painting by Cranach, and Lely’s sated, fleshy beings (Nymphs by a Fountain) are suspiciously heavy with slumber– and have very dirty feet. Check out the picture above..

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Don’t expect much full-bodied writing; this blog is for musings, fragments and rants on early modern culture plus forays into current theatre, dance and choral music. 

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