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Professor explores the marginalized music of medieval France in newly published book

January 31, 2013
Dr. Gretchen Peters

EAU CLAIRE — Dr. Gretchen Peters, professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, delves deeply into the subject of music and politics in medieval France in her new book, "The Musical Sounds of Medieval French Cities: Players, Patrons, and Politics," published by Cambridge University Press in September 2012.

"My research for the book focused on the music of everyday life in French cities from the late 14th to early 15th centuries," Peters said. "Previous studies for France during this time period have only focused on music found in churches and courts. I addressed the part of culture that is normally ignored."

Peters traveled to more than 20 cities throughout France and searched through hundreds of archival records to piece together the connection between politics and music through a comparative study of the cities' histories.

"The political situation of a city dictated the characteristics of music and how it was used by the people," Peters said. "Cities that were more powerful and independent from the king tended to support more musicians, whereas cities central to French domain had far fewer or no musicians. You could tell how powerful a city was by how many musicians it had and what type of instruments they played. For example, a powerful city would have a trumpeter who played a silver trumpet, and in less powerful cities, trumpeters were limited to animal horns, which was degrading for the city."

Cities in southern France tended to have the most political autonomy and the greatest number of musicians, while cities in central France were more regulated and had fewer musicians, Peters said.

"Montpellier in southern France had 10 musicians on the city payroll," Peters said. "It was also the most politically autonomous city in France at that time."

Peters said the most challenging part of her research was locating and translating information about musicians in historical books, such as tax and business records, in order to recreate their lives in each city. The texts contained numerous abbreviations, different paleographic styles and changing dialects, Peters said.

"These books tended to contain mundane daily records, nothing special like a music manuscript, so over the years they were not always kept in the best conditions," Peters said. "Some had worm holes riddling the edges. As I turned the pages, the paper would crumble."

Although challenging, Peters said going through the archives was also the most fun for her.

"In one of the archives I visited, the librarian was unable to find the records I was looking for, so he let me look for myself," Peters said. "There I was, going through the stacks in a medieval tower in France."

Other subjects covered in the book include documentation of musicians not financially connected to cities and how they formed professional relationships among themselves to sustain their livelihoods, as well as the investigation into musicians' socioeconomic statuses and their evolution from roaming outsiders to representations of power.

For more information about "The Musical Sounds of Medieval French Cities: Players, Patrons, and Politics," contact Dr. Gretchen Peters at or 715-836-4102.



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