Bayeux Tapestry is the perfect illustration of shifting medieval rhythm
Cultural rhythm is that peculiar beat, which orders our life at a given time. And as with any “music” the cultural rhythm changes over time. Hence the interest in studying the medieval rhythms of manuscripts, sculptures, glass windows as well as the rhythm in chronicles, biographies, monastic customs, calendars of agricultural work etc. For a long time this has been the major interest of the famous historical anthropologist cum medievalist, Jean-Claude Schmitt.
For years his tentative reflections have been made available on the academic circuit of guest lectures. Now, however, the first small installment has been published in “The Medieval History Journal” (2012 – 15,1: 1-24). In this article we are promised a book not only concerning the different ideas of rhythms in diverse art-forms, but also in the daily lives of medieval people, when they were travelling on journeys, pilgrimages or making processions through the landscape. Further the book is promised to be full of reflections upon the rhythm in histories and autobiographies, as well as all the ways in which rhythms were changed or broken.
All this is sketched in the article and readers will have to check it out for themselves. What is really interesting here is that we, as way of an example, are presented with a microanalysis of the shifting rhythms in the Bayeux Tapestry. In this analysis we learn about the different cadences in the borders, the shifting modes of the horses moving leisurely forward or attacking wildly, the shifts in the verbal times in the embroidered inscriptions etc.
The point here is that rhythm understood as both “movement, repetition, regularity, continuity, variation, periodicity, alternation, variable intensity, accentuation and tonality” permeates the tapestry, while metrum as its opposite -mechanical, scientific measurement – is totally absent. While rhythm is always involved with unsteadiness, the metrum, which governs our modern lives, works in quite another fashion: unremittingly unforgiving in the order, it proscribes.
It is a banality to claim that medieval life was cyclically organized. Foremost, it was according to Jean-Claude Scmitt impregnated with a fluctuating rhythmus, which had as its most important character a certain fluidity, which we seem to have lost the ability to sense.
Aficionados of his earlier work can hardly wait to lay their hands on the promised book! Waiting though it may therefore be opportune to while the time away, listening to “Secret Voices”. Chant and Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex ca. 1300. Anonymous 4, Harmonia Mundi 2011.