Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song

Mary Channen Caldwell

In song, the refrain—a portion of text and music repeated between stanzas—gives singers and listeners an opportunity to join together on the most memorable and predictable part of a song. As any singer can attest, refrains are retained in the memory even as the rest of the words and melodies of a song slip away. For composers and writers, refrains rarely require writing out in full after their first appearance since a single word or melodic gesture can serve as a reminder. Refrains are many things at once—a memory of song past, a moment of coming together, an earworm, a predictable break in the stanzaic flow of song.

In Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song, I explore the nature of refrains and what they do in medieval song, concentrating on the musical practices of religious communities attached to churches, abbeys, and schools. The first book to grapple with refrains outside of vernacular contexts in medieval Europe, Devotional Refrains brings together over 400 Latin refrain songs and examines this substantial yet understudied repertoire from new methodological and analytical perspectives. By means of interpretive frameworks focused on time and temporality, performance (including dance), memory, inscription, and language, each chapter offers an original perspective on how and why Latin refrains and refrain songs were created, transmitted, and performed.

I show how the Latin refrain and refrain song were tools of devotional sociability for medieval communities, closely aligned with the ritual sociability generated by the liturgy and its calendar. Latin refrains at times emerged from within religious communities as part of a shared culture of devotional singing, but they were equally part of disciplinary agendas in which communities of singers were defined by rank and age, their voices controlled by means of prescribed song. The refrain also served as an instrument of community formation and maintenance, whether by mediating the experience of time, reinforcing a sense of unity and togetherness, or circumscribing the linguistic parameters of communities. By virtue of its repeatability and memorability, the refrain above all belonged to the collective memories of religious communities, becoming not only an “ear worm” but a site of intertextual and linguistic play through composition, inscription, and performance.

Thanks to the transmission of Latin song throughout Europe, my book navigates tensions between local practices and transregional transmission, unique styles and conventional forms, named and unnamed agents. Since Devotional Refrains relies upon material witnesses to Latin song and refrain, I return repeatedly to the manuscript page to locate traces of how scribes, and by association their wider communities, understood the performance and meaning of refrains and refrain song. Each chapter offers insights from scribal practices, including compilation, rubrication, and paratexts. Yet the interplay of orality and inscription also emerges throughout the book; by contrast to their inherent repeatability, refrains were rarely fixed, nor did “original” versions exist; material residue of change, adaptation, and variation signals the fluidity of refrains within and among medieval communities and their devotional musical practices.

Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song By Mary Channen Caldwell
Devotional Refrains in Medieval Latin Song By Mary Channen Caldwell

About The Author

Mary Channen Caldwell

Mary Channen Caldwell’s research focusing on medieval song, liturgy, pedagogy, and intertextuality has been published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, the Jo...

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