The Sweet Song of Satan: Music and Resistance in the Vercelli Book

The Sweet Song of Satan: Music and Resistance in the Vercelli Book

Heckman, Christina M.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 15 (1998)


In the poetry and prose homilies of the Vercelli Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon texts dating from the second half of the tenth century, music exercises a constitutive as well as metaphorical force. Music not only symbolizes the harmony of communal consensus but also provides a means through which the Christian Church can identify itself with the divine order of the universe and position itself against evil forces. By using music to construct and intensify the fundamental conflict between God and Satan, the Vercelli texts function to restrict and control the Church’s internal struggles. But even as music contributes to the reinforcement of ecclesiastical power, it works against that consolidation. Whether music comes from heaven or from hell, the operation of music in human experience always provides space for resistance. That resistance, both in texts and in communal practices, can only be minimized by disciplining music into orderly patterns and restraining it to structured environments such as those of liturgical practice.

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